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Harun Farocki: Consider Labour

Cooper Gallery, 2023

Alison Scott

Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) is the first film encountered in Consider Labour. Overt in its authorial voice, it studies in essayistic style the invisibility of work through cinema history, employing clips from both Hollywood and radical cinema. Expanding on a sequence from the first cinema-film ever shown in public, depicting workers rushing out of factory gates, this work sets up a key question for the exhibition: how can labour be represented on camera? 

Films made under the collective title Labour in a single shot fill the main upstairs gallery space. These strictly two-minute, single-shot films focus on manual labours, forefronting craftspeople and factory workers, alongside medical practitioners, pool cleaners and so on. Scaffolding towers supporting the ten screens feel thematically appropriate, showing glimpses of work around the world. The combined sounds of each film build into a cacophonic, interconnected vista of labour. Cooper Gallery DJCAD has often been a place of work for me, and so provides an interesting location from which to consider Farocki’s questions around the politics of labour, his invitation to reflect on the work we undertake, and the conditions we work within. What does it mean to watch other people working? 

There’s more depth of engagement in the work being done than typical ‘how it’s made’ or ‘inside the factory’ style videos. Greg Wallace in a plastic hat at a baked bean factory. Viral clips of fusilli being extruded. Here, we’re focussed on labour rather than product. Many of the films show how work exists outwith the factory itself – in the home, on the phone, resigned to the museum, on the side of the road, in the leisure centre. The fixed format of the films gives notice and an equivalence in dignity to workers, bringing often undervalued livelihoods to light. This feels especially significant within the context of the ever-growing service economy and the continued outsourcing of heavy/dirty industry to the ‘global south’. 

How is the image of a place built not only by the products of its industry, but by its workers? The question of the exhibition’s local context – what labour happens in Dundee – is brought to the fore in the opening event discussion. Dundee’s moniker as the ‘she-town’ is invoked (so-called due to the majority-female workforce of the 19th century mills) as is the jute industry’s impact on the city’s spoken and body languages. The city’s old trades of jute, jam and journalism’ remain, though mostly as part of its cultural heritage offer, which grapples more openly with the embedded colonial histories that enabled these industries to flourish. Migrant-labour dependent berry-picking and industrial scale farming still happen on the outskirts. The oily underbelly, the energy sector, is nestled in the less glitzy end of the waterfront redevelopment, and while the Michelin, Timex and Valentines factories may be closed, they live on as part of a proud history of strikes and fights for worker’s rights. Within Cooper Gallery’s accompanying event series, a workshop with artist-organiser Stella Rooney further locates the exhibition within the context of UK-wide strikes by postal workers, teachers, nurses, ambulance staff, railway workers, and those by UCU and Unite members, directly affecting the gallery in its position within the University of Dundee. How can we be in solidarity despite an uneven footing? 

In the exhibition’s ‘study area’, Farocki himself is revealed in a more discursive mode, in contrast to the formal tone of Workers Leaving the Factory. In Catch Phrases – Catch Images (1985) we watch him sit at a cafe table with Vilém Flusser, dissecting the function of image and text in the front page of a newspaper. Displayed on a domestic scale TV monitor, the film shows Flusser speaking to the interplay between the reception and production of critical thinking: ‘We should now appeal to the viewers of the television and say “use this critical ability, of which we speak, against ourselves!”’. It is in this spirit that Farocki urges us to pay attention to the reproduction of social and material conditions and to actively question the mediated visual world we receive. At the core of Farocki’s approach is an invitation: a call to reciprocate, to critique, and to document.

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