Navigating/Activating: Working with Harun Farocki’s Artistic Estate

by Volker Pantenburg

What to Do?

Following Harun Farocki’s death in the summer of 2014 a group of colleagues and friends began to think about how to deal with the sudden loss. Along with Antje Ehmann and Farocki’s daughters Anna and Lara we came upon the idea to establish a structure that on the one hand is certainly closely related to Farocki’s work, and on the other encourages contemporary affiliations with that work. A chance finding, Farocki’s short call to action Was getan werden soll (eng. What Ought to Be Done) from 1975 encouraged us to organize “a coalition of working people,” as he wrote at the time, “not from an abstract understanding but from the contact points of their work.” (Farocki 2017a, 5) Accompanied by a small A4 poster of the graffiti “ETWAS WIRD SICHTBAR,”[1] which the filmmaker had spray painted on a wall near the old Arsenal Cinema in Welser Strasse, Farocki’s call created the impetus for a series of by now fifteen booklets—fifteen attempts to move from or toward the archive, to activate it or to encircle it.


The founding of silent green Kulturquartier and the move of the Arsenal archive to its premises was an unexpected stroke of luck for the emerging Harun Farocki Institut. The Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art has also proven to be our most important partner overall. Part of Farocki’s artistic estate has been lying in one of their archive spaces since November 2015: some more than three hundred pieces of various media, above all 16mm and 35mm material, but also video cassettes in all conceivable formats, from U-matic to MiniDV, audio cassettes, and a couple of folders containing written documents. If this is an archive, then it is one of production and research, an “accidental archive,” constituted by Farocki’s decision to stash things away into a storage space in cartons, boxes, and plastic bags. These are working versions, raw material, leftovers, or material from the research on Farocki’s films, some realized and others not, television broadcasts, and video installations, as well as para-materials on the numerous productions. “[M]aterial to investigate the present, the future past.” (Farocki 2017a, 3)—Preserved by someone whose work navigates through archives in surprising ways and who was interested very early in the link between cybernetics and pedagogy. As Sven Spieker has written in a different context: “The authority of an archivist can be measured … in part by his capacity for skillful navigation. Archivists are navigation specialists (cyberneticists), who also view the things stored in the archive in relation to the place where they are found” (2004, 9; translated from German). On one of the numerous moving boxes that landed in the HaFI archive we can read, in Farocki’s handwriting, “Miscellaneous (Needs to be sorted)”: archival work in a nutshell, including the option to reformulate or reject the imperative to “sort.” [Fig. 1]

[Fig. 1] Close-up of a moving box labeled “Diverses (Muss sortiert werden)” (eng. “Miscellaneous (Needs to be sorted)”) (Source: Harun Farocki Institut)

[Fig. 1] Close-up of a moving box labeled “Diverses (Muss sortiert werden)” (eng. “Miscellaneous (Needs to be sorted)”) (Source: Harun Farocki Institut)


No one at the Harun Farocki Institut is a trained or professional archivist. Where expertise is lacking, but indispensable, we get support from the Arsenal, the German Cinematheque, or other partners. “Active relations” (2018, 3), as Jussi Parikka has called the relationship to the things left behind, the “remains,” characterize the archive in its innermost core, but they also point outwards from there. Farocki’s work consists of countless suggestions and indications about where further thinking, filming, or researching could go. When Peter Weiss would have turned 100 in 2016, we took the occasion to examine more closely the materials surrounding Farocki’s portrait of the writer and filmmaker (Zur Ansicht: Peter Weiss, 1979). This initiated the digitization of film material, provoked a look into the production files (published as HaFI 003),[2] and led to an inspection of a site in Wedding, one of the most important locations of Weiss’s Aesthetics of Resistance, in the immediate vicinity of silent green and the Harun Farocki Institut.

Poetic Force

Suely Rolnik suggests distinguishing the various politics of the archive (and their ethical approaches) “on the basis of the poetic force that an archiving device can transmit rather than on that of its technical or methodological choices” (Rolnik 2012, 4). What could this “force” be? Perhaps it is the energy with which bonds, connections, and alignments with the present can be generated from the latency of the materials found in this part of what Harun Farocki left behind. This energy can be called “poetic” because it tends to emerge more from changes, discoveries, and encounters than from systematic research. Along with the physical archive, which exists due to auspicious opportunities and strokes of luck, but also to the frustrations and interruptions of collecting, researching, writing, and filming, this means a theoretical understanding of the archive as a realm of possibilities and “metabolism” along with its “micropolitical potency” of refusing disciplinary constraints (Mende 2018). This metabolism of the archive also involves it growing: all Farocki’s friends, colleagues, and coworkers are invited to contribute to the archive; the “remains” from Farocki’s work are joined by the materials, which reflects the division of labor and collaborative character of the productions.

Highways and Byways

Navigating in the archive also means: recognizing, alongside the obvious routes, the side trails and secret paths. Obvious routes from recent years: a retrospective, as complete as possible, of Farocki’s films, TV programs, and installations in collaboration with the Arsenal and the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) in autumn 2017/2018, as well as publication of Farocki’s texts in so far six volumes (2017 to 2022); side trails that do not revolve around Farocki, but start from him or lead to him: the project on Skip Norman—like Farocki a student in the first year of the dffb (the German Film and Television Academy Berlin)—and his work as filmmaker, cameraman, photographer, and visual anthropologist, which resulted in both an edition of the online journal Rosa Mercedes that fans out in various directions and in digitizations of his films; the interest for the cultural technology of “navigation,” or the retrospective of films by Ingemo Engström and Gerhard Theuring im June 2022. Little of this can be planned, there simply isn’t enough time or resources; we have to count on chance as our accomplice. One example: after a screening during the retrospective in autumn 2017 an interested spectator asked whether material still existed that Farocki had shot on the occasion of an early renovation of an old building in Spandau (it was her first large-scale project as an architect). In a film canister with the label “Haus” (eng. house) we found a film from 1982/83, practically in a finished cut, which observes and documents the careful renovation; an indication of the close connection, about which little has yet been examined, between Farocki and architecture. A second example: the tip to the broadcast (which ultimately did not occur) of the film Hard Selling in the final phase of GDR television in 1991 brings our attention to a carton with the label “Adidas.” Farocki accompanies a sports shoe salesman shortly after the fall of the Wall on his sales tour in the “new states.” Farocki: “I also don’t know the five new federal states and, if I want to film there, I have to have a leading figure. It is the profiteer, development aid worker and missionary all in one. He breaks into the accession area from the West in army strength” (2021, 3). Such findings can lead to larger projects or invitations (such as that to Elske Rosenfeld to work with the material from Hard Selling); booklets or digitizations; events in the cinema or in public space; residencies and encounters. The archive deals with the future as much as it does with the past and the present. Accidents will happen.

Thanks to Tom Holert, Doreen Mende, Clio Nicastro, and Elsa de Seynes for the shared work at the HaFI as well as Antje Ehmann, Anna and Lara Faroqhi for their great trust in our “facility.” We would also like to warmly thank Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, Markus Ruff, and the entire team at the Arsenal as well as Bettina Ellerkamp and Jörg Heitmann for their support on a wide variety of levels.


Farocki, Harun. 2017a. What Ought to be Done: Document, Commentary, Material (HaFI 002). Translated by Colin Shepherd. Berlin: Harun Farocki Institut/Motto Books.

Farocki, Harun. 2017b. On Display: Peter Weiss, A Production Dossier (HaFI 003). Translated by Ted Fendt. Berlin: Harun Farocki Institut/Motto Books

Farocki, Harun. 2021. Hard Selling: Reframed by Elske Rosenfeld (HaFI 014). Berlin: Harun Farocki Institut/Motto Books.

Mende, Doreen. 2018. “The Undutiful Daughter’s Concept of Archival Metabolism.” e-flux 93 (September).

Parikka, Jussi. 2018. “Remain(s) Scattered.” In Remain, edited by Ioana B. Jucan, Jussi Parikka, and Rebecca Schneider, 1–47. Lüneburg: meson press.

Rolnik, Suely. 2012. Archive Mania/Archivmanie. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Spieker, Sven. 2004. “Einleitung: Die Ver-Ortung des Archivs.” In Bürokratische Leidenschaften: Kultur- und Mediengeschichte im Archiv, edited by Sven Spieker, 7–25. Berlin: Kadmos.


[1] Editors’ note: the literal English translation is “something will become visible.” “Etwas Wird Sichtbar” is also the German title of Farocki’s film Before Your Eyes Vietnam (1982).

[2] Editors’ note: published in English as On Display: Peter Weiss, A Production Dossier (2017b).