CONSTRUCTION AND DESTRUCTION IN CINEMATIC SPACES
Exhibition Catalogue Essay, Foreclosed. Between Crisis and Possibility
The Kitchen, New York City
Images 1 and 2: Kamal Aljafari, stills from Port of Memory, 2009. Images 3, 4 and 5: Harun Farocki, stills from In Comparison, 2009.
Image 6: Harun Farocki, installation view of In Comparison, 2009.
CONSTRUCTION AND DESTRUCTION IN CINEMATIC SPACES
Harun Farocki’s film In Comparison (2009) and Kamal Aljafari’s film Port of Memory (2009) explore opposite registers of two analogous conditions— construction and destruction— at the intersection of cinematic representation and the production of space. In Comparison studies brick production and construction in different societies and geographic sites around the world—this macro-narrative challenges the linear technological teleology that understands modernity as a movement from pre- to post-industrial societies (code: traditional to modern). Port of Memory explores destruction by reflecting on the historical and psychic representation of Palestinian subjectivity within Israel. This micro-narrative draws a connection between the expropriation of Palestinian property in Jaffa and exclusion of Palestinians from cinematic representations of the Israeli city. Construction and destruction are understood here dialectically, as two opposed but mutually informed positions. While In Comparison studies the social production of space through the “time of the brick,”[i] its attention to building material and built environment presages the inevitable destruction that follows the cyclical geographic movement of flows of capital.[ii] Port of Memory explores the social construction of space, entangled in time and memory, resisting destruction by constructing new cinematic subjectivities. Cinematic space is a site of subversion for both filmmakers, who produce counter-narratives challenging dominant histories—Farocki reconstrues modernity as multilple,[iii] forcing a reconsideration of linear notions of progress tied to specific geographies, while Aljafari reinscribes the narratives of foreclosed subjects in built space as well as in Jaffa’s cinematic archive.
CONSTRUCTION / DESTRUCTION
A whole history remains to be written of spaces—which would at the same time be the history of powers . . . from the grand strategies of geopolitics to the little tactics of the habitat.
—Michele Foucault, 1967[iv]
In Comparison extends Farocki’s methodical deconstruction of vision and representation in filmic and media images to modes of brick production in six geographic sites around the world. The film’s macro-narrative focuses on the way that brick, a basic building material in many societies, is defined by the time and scale of its production, simultaneously demonstrating the imbrication of building materials in changing societal conditions of labor and in the production of space. The film moves from Burkina Faso to sites in India, France, and Germany, then back to a different site in India, and another in Germany, then on to Austria and a second location in Burkina Faso, before finally ending in Switzerland. The linear movement from pre- to postindustrial society, paralleled by the film’s movement from the Southern to the Northern hemisphere (from Africa and India to France and Germany), is ruptured as the film progresses and begins to connect disparate geographies through images and ideas that complicate such essentialist narratives. Footage from each location is paired with a diagram emblematizing the brick technology of the respective site, sometimes also accompanied by text. Measuring Farocki’s project against Henri Lefebvre’s injunction, In Comparison engages in a “successful unmasking of things in order to reveal (social) [and spatial] relationships.”[v]
In Comparison begins with a white orthographic diagram that depicts a single, solid, rectangular brick against a black background. Text overlaid onto the next frame tells the viewer that the location is Gando, Burkina Faso. A woman carries a plastic container filled with water on her head along with a child on her back. She passes the jug to a man who pours the water into a pit where it is mixed with soil, then shaped with a wooden mold into bricks, one by one, that are left to bake in the sun for hours. The community in Gando is building a clinic and, in two days, men, women, and children have helped erect the clinic’s tall, load-bearing adobe brick walls.
The next location of brick production is Hinjewadi, India, where the same brick-mold technology is used but at a larger scale of production. A woman’s smooth, efficient gestures are framed, as she primes the metal mold with water, packs it with adobe, and skims the top to level it. A man transports the mold and releases the wet, quivering bricks, laying them side-by-side to dry in the sun. These motions are repeated. In the last frame of this sequence, the camera pulls back to reveal the production site—rows of women and men are molding bricks, which are carried and stacked high, making an open grid that extends in all directions. The scale of brick production has multiplied, but the manufacturing technique has remained the same. Unlike Gando, this location is now only a site of production, and the bricks are transported to Powai, a suburb of Mumbai, for assembly. There, poured concrete frames of multistory buildings populate the background of the site, skeletons waiting to be infilled with bricks and later filled with people. This focus on construction presages the inevitable destruction that follows the cyclical geographic movement of the flow of capital as it territorializes, re-territorializes, and de-territorializes.[vi] Both women and men are present at this construction site, and their labor is gendered—women carry building materials and sometimes care for children while men hoist materials and lay brick walls.
As the film progresses, Farocki alters the logic of its organization, grouping footageaccording to shared patterns of brick production, rather than by location, thus collapsing distant geographies. In other words, the viewer is shown that the same organization of discrete production and assembly sites characteristic of some of the Indian construction practices is also found in Germany. What distinguishes the German sites from their Indian counterparts is the larger scale of production, the increased automation of labor, and the ungendered, further specialization of tasks. Earth is now transported, sifted, and mixed exclusively by machines in a factory; people sparsely populate this veritable maze of conveyer belts and assembly lines. A solitary worker in overalls and a brimmed cap, seated on a dais in front of a motherboard, operates the entire automated system by pushing buttons. He moves within this nucleus to better oversee the operations, and, at other times, sits on his chair with his arms folded, appearing listless, an iconic illustration of the alienation of workers and reification of labor in industrial societies.
The last sequences of the film take place at two sites in Switzerland, again a site of production and then assembly. In Zürich, a machine’s robotic arm—twice the height of a human—swivels back and forth between a concrete dispenser and a wall of irregularly stacked bricks that the machine is assembling. The standardization of mass production in Germany is now replaced with mass customization in Switzerland. Except for their part in the programming of these systems, humans are even scarcer, as fabrication processes have become fully automated. An architect—inferred but invisible—has designed an architectural façade by projecting spheres onto a plane, in which one brick represents one pixel. CAD/CAM (Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing) technology allows the translation of this two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional material pattern. Here the film demonstrates “the gradual automation not only of labor . . . but of seeing and imaging, too.”[vii] The customized brick façade is first constructed by a robotic arm in the Zürich laboratory and then transported to Fläsch. The images of the concrete frame of the building in Fläsch bears an uncanny resemblance to the mass produced skeletal structures in India, except that the brick infill in Switzerland is solely decorative, so the bricks are not covered as they would be in India but left exposed. The stylized brick façade alters one’s visual perception, transforming the hard bricks into something soft. From afar, the façade looks like a textile frozen in time after having been blown in various directions by the wind.
In Comparison illustrates how in industrialized societies the increased automation of labor reflects a kind of ossification of a system of production into a very precise but rigid, unalterable form. If such a system, manned by a limited number of human operators, were to partially or totally malfunction, it would produce failures proportionate to its scale of production. In German factories, bricks are produced as homogeneous objects— calculated parts of a highly precise system of construction. In India, by comparison, a group of laborers in Toutipakkam create an innovative new system where unbaked bricks, stacked inside an unbaked, brick building are fired together with the building. The sale of these bricks can help to finance the continued construction of the building, according to the film’s captions. Failure within this system also has results proportionate to its scale of production, but the system of production is flexible and workers’ roles are more dynamic. What distinguishes this site most significantly from the industrial one is that workers can feed information back into their system to alter and improve it, as necessary. Efficiency is suddenly rendered relative: it can refer to the precision with which German factories manufacture identical bricks or to the innovation of workers in India who combine two operations into one. These juxtapositions imply that a malfunction in the German system would result in catastrophic failures because of the inflexibility of its particular mode of production, whereas the Indian example illustrates a supple, alterable system of production.
As scale of production increases and labor becomes more automated, regulation and identity seem to cohere more strongly within the workplace. Construction boots and hard hats replace sandals and sun hats, although the physicality of labor is decreasing. Industrial societies require a highly specialized and routinized labor force; for example, a worker in a German factory strikes bricks that run past him on a conveyer belt, listening to the sounds they emit in order to locate any flaws in the bricks.[viii] At a construction site in another part of Germany, workers use hand signals to communicate with their colleagues, who are operating machinery as they assemble prefabricated components on-site; the sound of machinery creates a backdrop for their motions. In comparison, men, women and children all participate in the construction of a clinic in Gando, Burkina Faso, each fulfilling particular roles. Men are shown laying the building’s brick walls, which women then plaster over. The sound of the workers’ conversations peppers the footage, culminating in the women singing in unison as they pack the earthen floor of the clinic. Women are minimally present in factories in France and Germany, and children are wholly removed from construction sites. What is striking is the differentiation of labor, gender, temporality, and social relations across these societies. Through the non-hierarchical film sequences that begin to link disparate sites, concepts, and images as the film progresses, Farocki disrupts a linear narrative movement from “traditional” to “modern” societies, both reconstruing modernity as multiple[ix] and challenging technological teleology.
DESTRUCTION / CONSTRUCTION
In the state of siege, time becomes place
Fossilized in its eternity
In the state of siege, place becomes time
Lagging behind its yesterday and its tomorrow
—Mahmoud Darwish, 2002 [x]