Installations, videos and projects in public space


by Oliver Ressler

Approaches to Future Alternative Societies

Interview by Zanny Begg

Zanny Begg: I notice that a theme, which you consistently return to in your work, is globalization and its discontents – both the deterritorialisation of capitalism and the rise in the mid ‘90s of the anti-capitalist movement. I was wondering how you felt this tension between Empire and Multitude was played out through your work?

Oliver Ressler: I have done a variety of works with different viewpoints on globalization, some of them focused more on transnational corporations and the existing systems of power as I attempted to analyze and understand them, whereas other projects have gone more in the direction of resistance to capitalism. A big project I started a couple of years ago was Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies. Through this work I wanted to find different approaches to future alternative societies.

To be honest in the last years it has been harder to be positive about the development of resistance, as there are only very few examples of resistance and existing forms of alternative societies. I try to focus on some of these possibilities and one important example is Venezuela. Venezuela does not, in my opinion, present an alternative society or economy so much as it outlines a process, which might lead us to such a society. This process, however, may also be interrupted perhaps by foreign forces such as the United States, or maybe even from the rich opposition in Venezuela, so it is a process where it is not so clear where it will end up.

Z.B.: There has been a lot of emphasis on “political exhibitions” in Europe over the last five years or so. Do you feel the anti-capitalist movement has opened up this possibility?

O.R.: In my opinion the existence of the anti-capitalist movement and how it is organized as a movement represents a form of alternative in itself. It is, in general at least, anti-hierarchical. There are some individuals who get a lot of public attention, but there is no real leader or a dominating party. In general it’s an egalitarian movement and such a movement can be seen as an alternative to the dominating political players.

I think the anti-capitalist movement is of big importance as it actually represents the only real visible international connected form of resistance in our rich western societies in the last few decades and therefore I think it is the kind of movement that we, as artists, should support and engage with. My experience is that the movement is pretty open, so it is possible to get involved in different activities.

Z.B.: You often use activist forms in your work such as the documentary and the publication and so forth – why do you put these into a gallery context?

O.R.: I produce different products, and my videos are the products, which are the most closely related to the anti-capitalist movement. They are open to a variety of presentation contexts, the art presentation context being just one of these – they are also shown at film and video festivals, presentations from activists groups, NGOs, parties, alternative TV and open channels and so forth. I have realized a couple of videos in the last few years, which have easily crossed between presentation contexts. To many activists my work does not appear like art, more like a good piece of documentation. So usually there is not a big debate over its status as art, they just use it as a document because it is useful for their campaigns and mobilizations.

It is a little more complicated with a large installation such as the Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies piece which can only be presented in a huge space which has equipment such as monitors and DVD players and production budgets for floor lettering, which almost always pushes this work towards the art scene, as there are not that many other places where these conditions would exist. It would be possible to present the piece in a university or a space from a progressive union, and I would be interested to produce it for such a space, but in comparison with the amount of spaces that exist in the art context there are not many possibilities… From the 21 exhibitions I have realized in the framework of this ongoing project all have been within the art context. Even when I was invited to present the piece by people who came more from a NGO or activist background, the space where the piece was eventually realized was an art institution.

Z.B.: Do you see your projects therefore as inventing a new audience for art? An audience, which comes not just from an art background but also an activist one?

O.R.: Ideally I hope to create a new audience, and this does happen sometimes, but at least in the case of exhibitions often the majority of the audience comes from an art background. Sometimes you get an offer to produce an exhibition in a determined space in a city in which I have never in my life been before, and then you work over months with the people who invited you to make the exhibition possible. But often I don’t have personal connections to other people in this city, so you depend on the people who invite you and organize the show, and then it can happen that the audience stays within the art scene, even when the piece would have been of an interest for a much broader audience. But for example one of the first presentations of Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies took place in Geneva during the “World Summit on the Information Society” (2003). There was also a counter-summit against this mainstream UN-meeting and many Indymedia activists came along to the exhibition and used the space for their own purposes. They held meetings there, sitting on the floor and had discussions, but also took advantage of the exhibition through watching the videos and discussing them. You can’t plan things like this in advance but sometimes very interesting and positive things just happen.

Z.B.: So you see yourself as providing resources to the activist community and not just an art experience?

O.R.: Sure, I am interested to present my work in different presentation contexts, and when working in the art scene I want to open up the space for people in NGOs, students, activists – of course without excluding the usual visitors of the art gallery. But my experience is that very often average art consumers are rejected by the kind of art I am doing, by the amount of information which is in it, but also because it does not look so “arty”, and sometimes they see its content as too ideological.

Z.B.: Have you been surprised by your success in the art world given that your work is so ideological? So you see this as a conjectural phenomenon related to the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement?

O.R.: I started the kind of artistic practice which is similar to what I am doing now in 1994, which is a while ago now, and in the first six or seven years I usually didn’t get invitations and the projects I realized were all self-organized. Like many artists at the beginning of their career I had to put a lot of effort into making them happen, which is not even to talk about the complicated issue of getting production grants. I think I could gain some interest in my work at this time, which was only realized in Austria, usually was very site-specific and dealing with particular local political issues, which made it almost impossible to present them on other locations outside of Austria. At some point after some years I started to work also on projects, which can be presented internationally and this fact, in combination with an increasing interest of some sectors of the art field in political issues, lead to a slowly growing international interest in my artistic production. I think that both the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement and the politization of parts of the art scene are symptoms for the growing dissatisfaction of different groups with the formation and development of the neoliberal capitalist societies. So of course in my work and the work of other people these two phenomena overlapped. If I had had bad luck this political interest from the art field would maybe have taken place ten years later and if I would have been forced to continue as I did at the beginning of my career its not sure if I would have had the energy to continue… Self-organizing really needs such a lot of energy and it is of course much easier if you get invitations and don’t have to find a space every time you want to show.

Z.B.: I notice in your work you use a lot of interviews. Are you trying to convey the voice of the people? Or is it more that in the political context we are in there is no one voice but a multiplicity of voices which could express somehow the opinions and ideas of the multitude?

O.R.: You already answer this through the question itself. It is both. Of course I am very interested in different voices… For example when I was in the demonstration against the World Economic Forum in Salzburg (2001), which was encircled by the police, I decided for my video to work with interviews of the participants. I could have done it in a way where I just wrote a text and read it while showing the footage I recorded. It would have been possible to do a video like this, but I think it would not have adequately fitted to the situation I was filming. This was a counter-globalization demonstration with thousands of participants and I as a singular individual should not be the only one to analyze and criticize what happened there in the chosen format of a video. So I raised the questions about what happened there to 6 different people who I interviewed for this work. I chose people from different backgrounds and groups, three men and three women between the ages of 20 and 50. Through the choice of these people I tried to reflect the different backgrounds of the movement, I think it gives a wider, and therefore much more interesting focus for the audience who watches the video. I wanted to give my interviewees the possibility to talk about their experiences and their theoretical viewpoints – to provide a kind of open space through my work, which respected their positions, which would probably not have been the case if they were asked for an interview from corporate media. Of course in the editing process I had to choose from the video material I recorded but at least I don’t cut within a sentence and I try to respect the general viewpoints of the people I interview, and therefore they feel better represented through my work than they do in the mainstream media.

But it is not always the case that I use interviews in my film work. The last film I finished titled The Fittest Survive (2006) is about a training course conducted in Wales, Great Britain, for surviving in hostile regions. The participants are business managers, mainstream media worker or governmental workers and in this film I didn’t carry out interviews. The concept was not giving these participants a chance to express their opinion or to talk about their reasons for being in such a course, but I recorded material during the survival course as a kind of backdrop to say something about the aggressive formation of capitalism. The film outlines connections between the military and the economic sphere and how far competing individuals seem to be ready to go to meet the needs of corporations and capitalism. In comparison to the other films the structure is very different, because the reality it documents is already a constructed one, and the critique appears through the combination of the recorded material in the editing process and some text inserts. It is maybe more arty than my other works, and people also consider the film funnier… My film work is very often reduced to being based on interviews, so The Fittest Survive can also be seen as the attempt to defy these people’s expectations who already know earlier work from me.

Z.B.: For the newspaper for this exhibition we have an article by Hito Steyerl called Articulation of Protest where she draws on Godard’s films to criticize the idea of the “voice of the people.” I feel there is an interesting dialogue between her article being in the newspaper and your work being in the show because there is an element to which your work could be an attempt to articulate a “voice of the people.” I was interested in your thoughts on this.

O.R.: I am not sure if my work really represents the “voice of the people” in the way Hito presents it in her article… So far as I remember her arguments in this article she focuses on the film Showdown in Seattle. This film is also a piece about a counter-globalization summit but I think it uses a completely different visual and artistic concept than I. I am of course interested in the film because of its content, but I could not imagine doing a film in such a way. In my opinion it follows the format of mainstream news reports and fills it with alternative content, and I don’t think this is enough. I believe that a film has to go a little further than just exchanging content. I also don’t think that the way how it is edited, how it cuts the spoken word of people within arguments just to make the film shorter and faster and maybe more interesting for the spectator, and how it fills the parts between the interviews with music, as we are used to it through TV, is a way I could imagine doing a film. I think there should be more restfulness and time be given to interviewees so that they have a chance to make their arguments and the audience can get a deeper understanding about what is going on.

For sure through my work I give people a voice. I try to bring together different viewpoints within a movement in a film so that it does not just consist of one perspective but on different arguments, which may also contradict each other. It is very interesting for me to learn in discussions about some of my films that sometimes people don’t realize the contradictory positions of the protagonists within my films. For example in the recent film I made with Dario Azzellini, 5 Factories – Worker Control in Venezuela, there appear a couple of arguments which are quite contradictory, but probably because all the interviewees are so strong and supportive about the Bolivarian process and they are also such great speakers – these disagreements remain hidden for some viewers.

I like Hito’s work a lot, but like myself she is not just a neutral observer of political film, but a very active participant as well. I think she wrote in this or another text about the two main different concepts of political film: One goes in the direction of addressing viewpoints through interviews, and the second is more based on a deeper analysis from one person, the artist or film maker. The second format is usually more critical and self-reflective of the format of film, and Hito is definitely one of the most inspiring film-workers within this category. I consider both concepts as important. You could also easily criticize the second concept because it is so much centered on the opinion and reflections of the filmmaker. And many of these films could be criticized, because of their often highly complex visual language, which may exclude a potential audience, who might share the political viewpoints but may find the film unreadable and inaccessible.

Z.B.: So your argument is that your method of film is more democratic or accessible?

O.R.: I think it is more accessible for people who are maybe not academics or professional participants in the art field. If you take for example Godard’s and Gorin’s film Letter to Jane I recently saw in a film festival, I think it’s a fantastic piece, and I really love how it combines this single news image with the spoken text, but even if you present it in an art cinema half of the audience tends to leave the presentation soon because they cannot stand the reduced format and continuous repetition.

Z.B.: It is interesting that you bring up Godard as our discussion reminds me of an interview with him at the end of Tout Va Bien where he discusses the relative merits of political film techniques. He is critical of those who claim to stand outside their subject matter to allow a “voice of the people” to be expressed as if all they provide is the camera and film technology, when these forms are relatively democratic in any case…

O.R.: I think it really depends on the context and the accessibility of these forms of technology. When we talked about Chiapas yesterday in the evening I mentioned the Kinoki project. I think in such an area where there is no technical equipment such as video cameras available, because most people are extremely poor and have not even got electricity, it can be very interesting for people to talk about their lives and expectations and political struggles and share them with other neighboring communities. I think it can still be a valid concept to provide people with the capacity to speak to a larger public, but it will probably only have some broader meaning if the people whom you supply with the technical equipment have something to say. If you do it in an average community in our western society, where people have been forced into jobs from nine to five and they never participated in political struggles, then it would maybe not be very interesting… But I think the people in Chiapas, even if they haven’t got electricity and a lack of formal education, gained far more knowledge and experience in political struggles than the worker or farmer in Western Europe has.

Z.B.: You have spoken about democracy in art, what then would you say about the idea of the avant-garde? I am interested in your response to Adorno’s idea that art need not be necessarily accessible or particularly democratic to still be important; that art needs to be radical not only in its rebellion against society, but also in its rebellion against the traditions of art itself.

O.R.: Well, I did not really speak about democracy in art, more about accessibility… The avant-garde made very important steps in the last century, but I think somehow we have come to an end of the avant-garde now, because it seems almost impossible to create something new formally. But I don’t see a problem with this. Today there exist a big variety of different forms of visual strategies, which are all available. Every student in an art academy can just get a hold of the information in the library. The avant-garde provides us with a resource that we can use nowadays for the production of art. Even when almost every expression or format has already been used in the art context, the existing formats can be used and connected with important contemporary political themes.

Z.B.: So you don’t think there is something new you can do with the medium, just the message?

O.R.: Yes. And even if there are new things to be investigated I am not an artist who would be particularly interested to find them out and drag them into the art context, because I really see positive aspects in using existing formats from different contexts and fill them with new content. I also think we have to get rid of the term of avant-garde, and not only because of its origin in the military. I think the Adorno quote lost its meaning at least to some extent over the decades, since in my opinion art should be mainly seen as a way of communicating, and for that you need a language which is being understood at least by some people. But I think it is still true that art should be a rebellion against the tradition of art itself, against the art markets and the use of art for representational purposes of the rich classes.

Z.B.: How significant then would you describe Holloway’s critique of vanguards and power in you work? Are you interested in his perspectives on power in an ideological sense or are you more interested in him as a current of opinion within the anti-capitalist movement?

O.R.: That is a complicated question. Holloway is primarily interesting for me because of his permanent orientation towards the thinking of the Zapatistas, which are very influential for my body of work. Not only because they are an interesting movement but also because of different strategies they use like “asking we walk.” This means we don’t need to know all the necessary answers in advance, that revolution has to be seen as a question rather than an answer, and that the course of political struggles will lead us towards different forms of organizing of our societies. You cannot reach a new society or economy at once but it needs to be an ongoing continuing process over years or decades. One of the main authors who really uses these ideas of the Zapatistas and has tried to theorize them and bring their ideas to a wider western academic audience who may not have thought about them otherwise, is Holloway. So that is why Holloway is very inspiring for me and has some influence in my work.

If you relate his ideas of changing the world without taking power to the Zapatistas in Chiapas, you can see what he says is true to a certain extent. But I am not so sure that you can generalize his argument when we have larger political struggles in mind than just those in a limited region in Mexico. I think it is true for struggles, that they should be anti-hierarchical and that power structures within our movements should be limited, but at some point you have to think about state power, because whether we like it or not the state exists as the dominating rule of power. I hope that there are possibilities to find a way to organize a society without such a structure, I am not sure if it is possible, but I think in the meantime you also have to focus on state power to understand how we could possibly wind back its power, if the movement should ever be in a position to do so.

Z.B.: I spent a long time in a Marxist organization which had one vision of how you change society and I think this vision entered a crisis mode after both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement, the idea that there is a vanguard or that there is one correct line is no longer particularly attractive and for many good reasons. In a work such as Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies you have many conflicting views about the visions for a future society, it’s incredibly polymorphous and many of these visions are contradictory or even incompatible with each other. I am wondering; are you just putting them all out there as alternative models without trying to prescribe a particular one, or do you think it is no longer possible to have a “correct line”?

O.R.: The idea of the Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies project is to create a space where a lot of concepts are presented to give people who visit the exhibition the chance to find out about these concepts and to strengthen their own imagination how an alternative society could look like. I think nowadays capitalism is so overwhelmingly strong that the main thing we can do at this point in history is to initiate discussions. We have to start thinking about possible alternatives and this should go hand in hand with struggles for these alternatives. Maybe the Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies exhibitions can be seen as a proposal for such a space, which could initiate discussions about the future of our societies. There are many concepts and models in the exhibition, because in my opinion it cannot be the case that you just have one concept and try to carry out everything exactly how it was written by a person or a group of people. There should be a variety of possibilities, and people should be brought into the position to be able to make responsible decisions to choose the way of organizing and structuring the society and economy. Maybe the Zapatistas idea of “asking we walk” could provide the practical framework of how such a democratization of decision-making processes and processes of self-determination could happen on a regional level.

I don’t think that we should aim our fights towards an immediate complete breakdown of capitalism, because this would primarily cause terror and huge no-go areas where there is no law at all, which maybe sounds good from an anarchist point of view but in reality would probably mean rape, racist violence and murder. I think there has to be some organization of the revolutionary processes, otherwise this might lead to catastrophe.

Z.B.: Do mean a party? Would this organize the revolution?

O.R.: I am really not interested in parties at all. In my opinion the counter-globalization movement actually shows that it could be a combination of different groups where no one has a leading position – where many discussions and then also decisions are being made, with many necessary compromises. But the counter-globalization movement hasn’t got the power to effect political changes on a larger scale. It can shut down a G8 summit at best, but even shutting down a summit doesn’t mean that the political agenda of the G8 will change, it might more work on a symbolic level as the destruction of an image of power.

Z.B.: I am interested in how you balance between your interest in the Zapatistas and the polymorphous voices of the Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies with another important aspect of your work, which is obviously Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. In some ways you could say that although the Venezuelan revolution is incredibly geopolitically important and represents a key break against US hegemony, it also represents an older model of social change, one which comes from the Cuban revolutionary event which is somewhat at odds with the visions of the new left springing from the event of Seattle.

O.R.: I would reject the opinion that the Venezuelan revolution goes in the direction of the Cuban model. I think it is something completely different. When the whole thing started in 1998 after Hugo Chávez won the elections there did not exist a socialist concept of how exactly the society should be changed and organized. There were certain initiating ideas, like introducing a new constitution, a constitution, which was discussed by the grass roots and democratically drafted, but there was no blueprint for the future society. I think this is a big and important difference with the Cuban experience.

The Venezuelan experience can be called a “process” – “process” is one of the significant terms, which is being used to describe the development in Venezuela by the people themselves. This so-called Bolivarian Process means on the one hand big levels of self-organization by the Venezuelan people and on the other hand, which is the contradiction in the whole process which probably lead you to ask this question, there is still a state with a strong leader, Hugo Chávez, who might appear to some people as autocratic and who has in any case a lot of power in his hands. I think that this contradiction should be criticized and I also would criticize it, but we have to recognize that the historical situation in Venezuela with this strong opposition against the Bolivarian Process from the US and the former, rich ruling classes in Venezuela would probably not be possible without such a strong, but unifying leader.

Parties don’t play such a big role in Venezuela today. Chávez is related to a party but I think if he decided to get rid of the party and there were elections a few weeks later he still would win, as the Venezuelan people trust him as a person. There is a discussion now about the creation of a new socialist party, which should push the Bolivarian Process a few steps further. Chávez proposed this party should not be founded by him or his ministers but from below and, committed to the aim of developing and creating the socialism of the 21st century. I think this also outlines differences to Cuba, where, as far as I know, the Cuban communist party was founded by people around Fidel Castro who carried out the revolution, and it was the only permitted party in the state.

Z.B.: Well, the guerilla movement in Cuba was a grass roots movement and survived on popular support…

O.R.: As far as I know the guerilla movement in Cuba was still elitist in some way, they tried to bring the political ideals and concepts they thought would be the right ones into practice.

Z.B.: So you are not concerned by moves by Chávez to strengthen and consolidate his own personal power? Is this not a countervailing factor against the role of grass-roots democracy?

O.R.: Chávez ruled on decrees some years ago and it is maybe necessary to some extent to continue with the Bolivarian Process like this… The problem is that the state, the bureaucracy itself, is of course not a revolutionary institution, so it’s very hard to transform certain aspects of the state, which devolve power towards popular movements. It is very hard for bureaucracies to accept that they will have less power and I think this is one reason that Chávez fought for some changes in his personal capacity to push forward changes, which would not have been possible through the bureaucracy. This can be criticized of course, but it worked before, so I hope that it will work again and does not go in the direction the media outline, namely dictatorship.

Z.B.: Do you think that the anti-capitalist movement has become much more defensive since 9/11? Has this knocked the wind out of its sails, or can it regain the initiative?

O.R.: Its true that the so called “war on terrorism” has had a big impact on the movement, those in power took advantage of 9/11 to describe the anti-capitalist movement as a kind of terrorist force. The movement changed, but I think it also changed in a positive direction. The most obvious change is that through the social forum movement discussions and meetings seem to be a higher on the agenda right now than demonstrations, and I think this is OK, its important to discuss ideas. But demonstrations did also continue and have been successful to some extant. The demonstrations in Gleneagles (2005) were a great example of collective intelligence and indeed very successful, particularly the strategy employed by the network Dissent! of blockading the rural streets around Gleneagles. I read several articles which argued that the blockades would have shut down the whole meeting if the bombs in London had not taken place, because Gleneagles is a small town and many of the staff for the G8 meeting such as translators, catering employees, secretaries, security people and so forth, who make a summit happen, stood in neighboring cities overnight and were not able to get to the summit venue in time, which disrupted the whole schedule of the meeting until it almost collapsed. It was a big help for Tony Blair and his administration that they had the excuse of the bombing in London to leave Gleneagles without having to admit in the public that they had been forced to leave as it was not possible to continue with the G8 summit.

I think the struggles of anti-capitalist movement will continue, but media do of course not always focus on the positive successes of our struggles. I still have faith in the multitude, and expect interesting things taking place in Heiligendamm in 2007, otherwise it would be very depressing.

Z.B.: How did you feel the “If You See Something, Say Something” exhibition here went?

O.R.: I think it is really fantastic that you managed to bring all these projects together in the exhibitions and presentations in Sydney, which might be known to a well-informed public in the art field in Europe, but have never been presented in Australia before. I think it was also a very important decision to combine these projects by international artists like Hito Steyerl, Dmitry Vilensky or Etcetera with projects of local Australian political artists, which I did not know before. I was very surprised, how positive our film 5 Factories – Worker Control in Venezuela was received by the audience in Sydney and Melbourne. Many people living in this reactionary political climate in Australia really seemed to enjoy learning more about how the political struggles looks like in other areas of the globe.

The interview with Oliver Ressler was carried out by Zanny Begg on January 29, 2007 in Sydney.