Installations, videos and projects in public space


by Oliver Ressler

What is Democracy?

Ele Carpenter

Ele Carpenter, discusses Oliver Ressler’s film What is Democracy? in the context of J.W. Turner’s Italian Odessy paintings in Tate Britain.

This paper is based on Ele Carpenter’s discussion of Oliver Ressler’s work at Late at the Tate, 7th May 2010, on the eve of the UK General Election, and just 17 days after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig explosion. The talk was part of the Transeuropa Festival and was organized in partnership with ‘This Is Not A Gateway’ for Late at the Tate.

Ele Carpenter is an artist, curator and writer, she is teaches on the MFA Curating at Goldsmiths College London, and is HUMlab Research Fellow at BildMuseet, Umeå University, Sweden.

The question “What is democracy?” both touches on our frustrations with current parliamentary representative democracies and encourages us to consider different approaches to what a more democratic system might look like.

Oliver Ressler is an artist who makes films and installations about political questions. His practice is perhaps unusual as an art-activist because he does not use art as an illustrative model, but as form of research based enquiry with sensitivity to the mode of representation. Rather than using the conventions of ‘Spectacle’ to compete with the mainstream to attract mass audiences, Ressler uses a more considered, often subtle, play on concepts of representation. In the film ‘What is Democracy? (Ressler, 2009) these range from presence and absence of the speaker, poetic use of everyday signage and symbolism in the built environment, and collaboration with artist Zanny Begg to explore some of the metaphorical ideas expressed in the interviews. Chapter 3 on secrecy and transparency uses a distinctive approach to representing a forbidden landscape, with an awareness of surveillance technologies and screen based culture.

In this project Ressler asked the question “What is democracy?” to numerous activists and political analysts in 15 cities around the world: Amsterdam, Berkeley, Berlin, Bern, Budapest, Copenhagen, Moscow, New York, Rostock, San Francisco, Sydney, Taipei, Tel Aviv, Thessaloniki and Warsaw. This list reads like a flight departures board, and throughout the film we are continually reminded of global transport infrastructure, from rail freight to the continuous hum of airplanes in the sky.

The interviewees were asked the same question, revealing a multiplicity of different perspectives from people living in countries that are usually labeled as ‘democracies’. The interviews form the basis of the film in eight parts, which represents personal perspectives about the deep political crisis of the Western democratic model. In the opening interview Kuan-Hsing Chen ponders on the question:

“I guess the problem is really the problem of history, when representative democracy was invented, and then imposed on earth. … Right now, nobody is happy with political party politics, which is not real representative democracy. … It was invented in a particular historical moment, but through… history of expansion or imperialism and so on, it’s been spread around the world. At that moment there is/was no other alternative… by now everyone is asking themselves, what is the alternative to representative democracy?”

(Kuan-Hsing Chen, Taipai Art Park, Chapter 1, What is Democracy? A Film by Oliver Ressler, 2009)

As Ressler explains on his website – the film explores the contested notion of “democracy”, which is misused for the maintenance of order by those in power, while at the same time “democracy” still represents an ideal that hundreds of millions people in the South desperately want to achieve. Today it seems almost impossible to be against the idea of “democracy”, even though the word seems to be redundant. But Ressler’s interviewees offer a potential strategy to reclaim and give new meaning to the term “democracy”. He writes “In this sense, the film presents a multi-layered discourse on democracy, which expresses a broad field of opinions that go beyond the borders of nation-states.”

The interviews combine to give an overview of the historical, ethical, and practical approaches to rethinking and experimenting with different kinds of democracy, as Ressler highlights: Adam Ostolski (Warsaw) explains that originally “the modern idea of democracy was connected to the notion of progress” and parliamentary states “had some tendency to become more and more democratic by including new types of political actors, such as workers and women. […] But since the 1980s, since the neoliberal trend in politics and economy, we have a regression of democracy.” Nikos Panagos (Thessaloniki) argues that “representation and democracy are incompatible terms. Therefore, under no circumstances could the present system be called a democracy. It is just a sophisticated form of oligarchy.” While some subjects in the videos elaborate their ideas of direct democracy or decision-making processes of indigenous communities, David McNeill (Sydney) raises the issue of whether it makes sense to continue fighting to reclaim the term, or whether “it has been so corrupted and polluted by the conservatives” that it should be surrendered.

What is remarkable about watching the films is the similarity between the experience of non-democratic governments (such as Russia and Taiwan) and our own experience of representative democracy in the UK. This seems to occur because any system, democratic or otherwise, is used to uphold the values of the state over individuals. And in some instances this seems to be a good thing (such as the law against capital punishment in the UK). In other situations it breaches human rights and democratic values.

Again, the constant hum of airplanes is ever-present, reminding us of the shrinking distances between people, as countries become destinations, and culture is recast as tourism. This is especially pertinent as we watch these films in the Tate in London.

This paper discusses a selection of chapters from ‘What Is Democracy?’ which relate to the context of the Late at Tate event, addressing the culture and identity of the East End of London, situated in the (BP sponsored) exhibition of Turner’s paintings, as the British government works out how to be, or not to be, a hung parliament. We will soon find out if the Labour party will form a coalition with the Liberal democrats, perhaps the last phase of the ‘left’ morphing into centralist neoliberalism. Or if the conservatives will collaborate with the Liberal Democrats to form a clearly centre-right government, at least enabling the Labour party to review it’s socialist history.

Firstly we shall consider Tone Nielsen’s support for Chantal Mouffe’s call for agonistic politics, and what this might mean for the extremist groups such as the BNP (British National Party) who have been campaigning throughout the country, but especially in the East End of London.

Nielsen explains Mouffe’s argument that – once parties abandon their political project and accept globalization they abandon the responsibility of the social left. As a result voters loose confidence in the political system, and move to the opposite ends of the political spectrum. They are then outside democratic discourse and systems which leaves room for fundamentalisms. Mouffe (2000, 2005) argues that if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear, and that the democratic process should provide an arena where differences can be confronted. Here Mouffe argues for a return to adversarial politics, where politics can be fully discussed rather than trying to support the status quo.

This discussion takes place within the exhibition of JMW Turner’s paintings of Italy. This room, full of amazing landscapes each with their utopian vision and critique of empire, seems a perfect setting for considering the relationship between democracy and landscape, rights and maps.

Turner’s oil painting ‘Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, exhibited 1839’ depicts a significant moment in the decline of the Roman Empire (1). The magnificent architecture of the city of Rome floats like a vision on the canvas, an image of the past built upon the knowledge of the ruins in the present. A fading image of an Empire which explored aspects of democracy such as the forum (depicted in another of Turner’s paintings).

These themes are also explored in Ressler’s films. In Chapter 3 ‘Secrecy instead of democratic transparency’ Trevor Paglen talks about the military nuclear test sites in the Nevada desert, as a betrayal of the enlightenment promise of democracy. Here secrecy creates absences, black sites, blindspots on maps and holes in financial and legal systems, where global corporations create their own legitimacy. Not dissimilar from the legal infrastructure around oil pipelines which protect the rights of the company over and above the rights of the local population (Marriott & Muttitt, 2002). This is not a blind spot, but a blind line, which is projected across the paintings in this very room, by the oil company logo on the introductory panel.

Ressler, like Turner, struggles with how to represent the unrepresentable or unimaginable. Although Ressler’s challenge is the legal structures forbidding the filming of a particular landscape, Turner is faced with representing the past. In both images the architecture of empire glows in the distance, fading in and out of light. The architecture combines with landscape to create a sense of the sublime, where human nature is truly awesome and awful. This ‘technological sublime’ is described by Jones as part of the conventional mode of the sublime:

“… a sense of transcendence in the face of scenes of natural and manmade grandeur, gigantic bridges and seemingly infinite railways which competed with the divine in provoking terror and awe …” (Jones, 2006, p202)

Jones continues to describe the digital sublime:

“…quietly terrifying in its indeterminate ubiquity, awesome in its invasive as well as its pervasive power, the dynamo is always humming behind the virginal landscape.” (Jones, 2006, p203)

Ressler carefully combines aspects of the digital and technological sublime in filmic construction of the work. He uses an inserted window, like a webcam window, to depict the intervention of the speakers’ commentary on the landscape. This framing device cleverly both collapses and creates distance within the film. The window presents the speaker as both distanced observer, perhaps in another location, and as an intervening commentator, positioning him in proximity to the site he is unable to record or capture from his own position. We are reminded of the opening sequences of the film depict public notices prohibiting filming and photography of the site.

This remote-viewer commentary is familiar in the world of politics, where both politicians and activists behave like actors rehearsing roles on separate stages. These performances are particularly bizarre when one realizes that the locus of power is actually elsewhere. It seems that many political decisions are made by or for global corporations moving capital, in the form of data and material resources, around the planet.

In chapter 5 Lize Mogel (speaking from the financial district in New York) notes that the market is part of democracy, and when you talk about representative democracy today you are not necessarily talking about individuals being represented, but about capital being represented. These observations raise the question of why we are voting for politicians at all, when we might more appropriately vote directly for Capital as an act of economic and political transparency. These questions remind me of Mark Fisher’s reiteration of the provocation ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ (Fisher, 2009) perhaps inciting an acceleration of capitalism to fulfill it’s own endgame, as if we could anticipate history in this way.

The ‘identity correction’ of performance activism such as the Yes Men could be seen as a contribution to speeding up the transparency of capitalism on its own terms (2). But at the same time socially engaged artists and activists are seeking alternative ways of horizontal self-organization by helping to facilitate localized frameworks for social change. The discussion of Direct Democracy in chapter 6 by Macha Kurzina in Moscow, and Joanna Erbel in Warsaw, raises the complexity of open citizenship, and highlights the importance of time required for participation. These questions of democratic participation are a central feature of socially engaged artists, but instantly marginalized by art institutions, where the glass ceiling of participation frequently prevents ‘participants’ from becoming active collaborators.

In the penultimate chapter, Jenny Munroe, in Sydney, urges people to look to indigenous forms of consensus decision making as an older and more effective form of organization. She eloquently describes the way in which WASPish Australia has marginalized and ignored the wisdom of aboriginal culture. Her articulate call to understand older forms of organization and problem solving, rather than mimicking corporate power, might just enable us to move into a future form of democracy that we want to live in. Jenny Munroe’s ideas return us to the opening speech by Kuan-Hsing Chen, who suggests that “democracy doesn’t operate at the level of the state, but at the level of the social” and calls for local self-organised solutions. Whether people believe that local direct democracy is possible on a global scale or not, the investigation and experimentation with the old models of decision making is part of the political process of finding out what democracy is and can be.