Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

Convincing Pictures

Justin Hoffmann

1. Expo

At its core, the Expo 2000 is an exposition, an exhibition. What differentiates it from an exhibition project such as Oliver Ressler’s “Sustainable Propaganda“? In the first place, naturally, that which is exhibited. The Expo 2000 aims at no less than reproducing our entire world which is certainly a reason why this spectacle appears so comprehensive and heterogeneous. As many countries as possible are meant to participate as well as various organizations, and among them even a few which do not necessarily seem to work in the interests of business and technology. In Western liberal thought, diversity is not only put up with but also desired. The Expo presents a bedazzling potpourri, which reaches from Austria to Australia, from Verona Feldbusch to Peter Ustinov. Elected as the site for this demonstration of Western power was Hannover, not exactly an attractive metropolis, but nonetheless Germany’s number one city for industrial fairs. And the Expo is the fair of fairs. In this sense, it creates a single monstrous show case, a show room which not only accumulates top products, the most senseless souvenirs, technological novelties and every type of tourist paraphernalia possible, but also puts on display the goals of the global power structures in business, technology and politics. In and of themselves, they are not new or surprising. But they appear concentrated in one site here and packaged as a cultural event. The format Exhibition/Exposition is meant to boost the value of technology and business. The Expo provides perfect proof for the thesis of the increasing culturalization of the economy, though this is not based mainly on its explicit cultural offerings (Kasper König’s exhibition, numerous music and dance performances, etc.). In the reader published by Marion von Osten and me, “Das Phantom sucht seinen Mörder” we attempt to illuminate this tendency towards culturalization in more detail. We show that the economic principles of capitalism currently stretch not only to the social realms, but that the innermost realms of the post-Fordist economy are changing and in many ways approaching the realm of culture. The increasing significance of cultural processes and images for a deregulated economy have led to a new debate about the relationship of economy and culture. In the transformation phase from production to speculation the border between these two areas loses its clear contours. By the process of abstraction through finance capital, capitalism disavows its material basis – the production of goods – and the symbolic levels of images and ritual processes increase in social significance. In his latest book, Slavoj Zizek also highlights this development: “With the change over to a tertiary economy (services, cultural goods) culture is increasingly less of a specific segment apart from the market or merely just a segment of the same, and more so its central component (from the software-entertainment industry to other media products).”

Which phantasms will this Expo evoke or substantiate? In the first place, the vision of a world with numerous problems that technology alone is able to solve, even though for the most part it itself is the cause. These problems are described as “natural” or “caused by humans” and in that, overpopulation or incorrect sexual behavior is given as a central factor. The prescription to counter this is called genetic engineering and, still, atomic power. This vision of humanity’s dependence on technical progress for its development, which is labeled technical determinism by its critics, serves mainly to distract from political practices and their possible activities. Technical media, in addition, form the basis of the Expo 2000. With the help of these media, imagined worlds are produced which are meant to stay in the minds of the visitors. People should be amazed by the technical novelties and tricks. Here, technology and business have transformed into a magical variety show.

The Expo is the pure culture of the “society of spectacle”. A burning man falls out of the sky every night from 65 meters high, the building blocks of human life are there to play with and amusement can be found in the smallest disco in the world (as though that were something great). Decades ago, Guy Debord was already aware that “behind spectacular poles hides a uniformity of misery. When various forms of the same alienation fight each other behind a mask of complete selection, then it is because they are all built from the repressed, actual contradictions.” “The origin of the spectacle is the loss of uniformity of the world and the gigantic spread of the modern spectacle expresses the completeness of this loss.”

To disseminate these ideas to allow this successful transformation of technology and economy into culture, a lavish public relations machinery provided mainly by television and the press is necessary. An army of press speakers bombard the mass media each day with pseudo-news which is to be broadcast, or printed: truly “sustainable propaganda”. Although the Austrian artist Oliver Ressler names his project “Sustainable Propaganda” its effects cannot be measured in a comparable quantity and distribution but rather in the persuasive quality of his arguments and the convincing power of his images. At the Expo, public relations work is actually advertising for products and companies. Oliver Ressler is concerned, as the title “Sustainable Propaganda” already leads us to suspect, with the spread of political content.

2. Exposition

An exhibition which also aims at political propaganda, a critical analysis of the Expo 2000, must concisely combine linguistic and visual means. The collage principle is clear in Ressler’s works in a series of nine prints whose pictorial base is formed by colorful computer generated views of the Expo before its opening which were offered on the official press website. They provide model-like glossed over insights into the scenarios of the theme park. Yet this wonderful convention world is covered over by commentaries opposed to the Expo in the form of error notifications from the computer. Five or six dialogue windows can be seen on each of these color pictures which in the classical sense, bring forth counter-theses to the articulated goals of the Expo. The deeper meaning of Ressler’s slogan “sustainable propaganda is not an Expo-project!” lies in this negation although his project is about the Expo. The matter-of-fact, style of his theses in the tradition of ideology critique is broken only by words such as “system error” and through pictograms on the user surface. The artistic manipulation appears as an intervention or disturbance on the Expo website as though it could have been done by hackers. The inserted texts are primarily directed against the content of the theme park. They point out how causes and problems are incorrectly named and which questions have been left out. The artist especially questions the Expo-concepts “sustainable economies” and “sustainable development”. In his commentaries he describes them as a strengthened capitalization of all social realms at a global level, as an economy which aims for stricter organization in order to work more perfectly and efficiently. Even his ideal is contained in the dialogue windows, namely the cheerful announcement: “An irreparable system error has appeared – The Expo 2000 is closed and cannot be reopened.”

Other elements also belong to the exhibition such as the economic terms with which the artist structures walls. He found them in a book published by the “World Business Council for Sustainable Development”. The actual economic goals are meant to be veiled by euphemisms such as “deep ecology”, “environmental rating” and “green capitalists”. The words are set in green brush strokes. These symbolize the green camouflage which capitalism is able to hide behind.

The third element of the exhibition is a 44 minute video that Oliver Ressler finished shortly before the opening of the Expo in June 2000. In the meantime, it has been broadcast by five alternative channels in Northern Germany. Various people from the anti-Expo movement speak in the film: authors of critical publications, members of the group “mamba – working group of feminist Expo-critique” and Christoph Spehr, who presents an alternative development concept which became known under the label “Winding down the North!”. But also the statements of official Expo-representatives such as the head of the theme park, Markus Diekow, are contained in the video. In-between are clips of the construction sites at the Expo grounds which are to be understood as a metaphor for the re-construction of capitalism.

Counter information as an artistic strategy can look back on a tradition of nearly twenty years. In their volume “Copyshop” from 1993, BüroBert examine the relationship of art and counter-publicity in detail and compile artistic activities in this area. The American collective “Group Material” are meant to have had a great influence on the form and content of issues in subsequent developments. Similar to Oliver Ressler, in their project “Aids and Democracy” (1988/89) they expounded on the connections between state politics, technology and economic interests. But also other US artists such as Martha Rosler, Dan Graham, Paper Tiger TV and Grand Fury created points of orientation for the politicized art of the 1990s in the German-speaking areas. Among these, particular connections to Ressler’s “Sustainable Propaganda” can be recognized in the exhibition project “natureTM” in the Shedhalle 1995 as well as to his own earlier projects such as “Letters to Nature” (1994/1995), “geGen-Welten” (1998) and “The global 500” (1999/2000). The participants in “natureTM” also began with pictorial material published by the bio-tech industry and developed counter positions through artistic means. They analyzed advertising strategies and ideological patterns, formulated critique of economic intentions and called for active protest. The advertising information from industry was appropriated, but de- and revalued. Oliver Ressler uses existing material in a similar strategy in his project “Sustainable Propaganda”: Expo-images, quotations from those responsible for the Expo and the key words of the economic discourse on “Sustainable Development”. After laying out what is available, however, he follows with analysis and alternative perspectives.

3. No Exposition

Counter information needs publicity. Statements can only become propaganda when they find wide distribution. Consistent with this conception of propaganda, Oliver Ressler’s interests are in presenting his project at as many locations as possible and therefore reaching as many people as possible. It has already been shown in Nuremberg, Berlin, Frankfurt and Vienna. The possibility of counter information is naturally removed when his exhibition is dismantled two days after being hung such as occurred at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Museum for Applied Arts) in Frankfurt am Main. Parts of the project “100 Jahre Treibhauseffekt” (Salzburger Kunstverein 1996), were shown in which Oliver Ressler first takes up the theme of “sustainable development”. The presentation was meant as a supplement to “Sustainable Propaganda” which was being shown in the exhibition space of Konstantin Adamopoulos.

An exhibition which is closed down after a short time for no reason is naturally a scandalous event. Why this happened in the case of Oliver Ressler’s display is not completely clear. The museum avoided bringing in political reasons. But what else could cause such a drastic intervention? But also the arrogance of not providing a more detailed reason for the dismantling is remarkable in this case and reminiscent of dictatorial conditions. In the past few years, similar acts of censure in art have usually occurred due to pornography, blasphemy or defamation. But that political statements are prohibited from exhibition in a German museum and here what is dealt with is largely a critical confrontation with the “50 points for an intact world” quoted from the book published by the S. Fischer Verlag “Wir Klimamacher – Auswege aus dem globalen Treibhaus” (We, the climate makers – ways out of the global greenhouse), and the publication “Zukunftsfähiges Deutschland” (Future-Viable Germany) from the Wuppertal Instituts für Klima, Umwelt, Energie (Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy), goes one step further. In addition, neither the artist nor the curator Asim Chughtai, were informed of the premature dismantling. Informing the public of this act of censorship and thereby supporting Ressler’s “sustainable propaganda” is therefore a task of this text.

from: Oliver Ressler (ed.), “Sustainable Propaganda”, Edition Selene, 2000