Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

Every Revolution Is A Throw Of Dice…

Elvira Vannini

Elvira Vannini: The chaotic strategies responding to the economic neo-liberalism logic aim to capitalise not only the space, but also the social relationships reappraising urban space. If it is true that all cultural activities reflect the dominant economic system, would you say that now is time for an alternative? What do you think of democracy, and how does art intersect it?

Marko Stamenkovic: In his most recent project entitled ‘La Buena Vida’ (The Good Life), a New York-based artist Carlos Motta (born 1978 in Colombia) developed a set of interviews that he filmed in the last few years across Latin America. In an attempt to investigate and construct the public opinion on the idea of freedom across the continent of his own origin, Motta travelled to twelve cities all over Latin America during the three-year period (2005-2008): the result of such a nomadic approach is the variety of perceptions on democratic ways of government, as expressed by the citizens – being different by their various professional backgrounds and social statuses. All of them are united at least at one point of concern, that has been fundamental for Motta’s project: they are the subjects belonging to a common territory (of Latin America), whose experience of life has been shaped under the constant interventionist pressures by the United States. In that regard, and instead of giving any direct answer to your question, please let me draw your attention to a statement as formulated in one of the interviews in the project, so I quote it here in the following way: “For Democracy there must be Love”.
Once I heard this sentence, it brought me immediately back to Derrida’s way of thinking: in one of his seminal works about the concept of democracy (The Politics of Friendship), Jacques Derrida approaches the issue of friendship in its analogy with politics. Being aware of the difference between the (apparently marginal) status of friendship in the hierarchy of fundamental political concepts (such as government, sovereignty, or citizenship), Derrida draws back to Montaigne and Aristotle in order to introduce – in a proper way – the figure of the friend onto the contemporary intellectual stage: for him, friendship plays ‘an organising role in the definition of justice, of the political experience, of democracy even.’ This is why, in his addressing of political questions, the concept of friendship has been granted a privilege. And this is also why I want to believe that in the current constellation of powers, the social relations (being always dependent upon many different sources of influence, including the neoliberal economic logic, as you have properly noticed) need to maintain the power of resistance. And this power comes only as a result of hospitality, where the concept of solidarity and mutual accommodation of each others’ viewpoints, long-term trust and sharing of common beliefs and ideals, participate in the processes of silent, but never-ending (either physical or virtual) construction of powers.

Marco Baravalle: Setting a value to social relationships is one of the distinctive characteristics of current capitalism: to it we associate giving value to knowledge, languages, feelings and creativity. Contemporary art is based upon these elements, and one of its priorities could be that of reflecting on the theme of the greediness of capital towards social relationships. It is not a matter of democracy (a term that seems to be getting emptier and emptier in the current crisis panorama, and in need to be refilled with meaning), but it’s about the possibility for art to subvert its production relationships when – as I gather from your question – it shares its own instruments with what we generally address to as cognitive work. The interlocking between contemporary art and cognitive work seems to be not only a viable alternative, but a full of potential one.

Elvira Vannini: I recall two quotes from Godard’s films. The first from ‘Made in U.S.A.’, where Anna Karina says “I have no words to say how much I hate the police”, and the second one from ‘British Sound’, where “more strike, more strike” is often repeated. Is it possible to live in a world of non-parallelisms to gain freedom, despite knowing that democracy is based on parallelisms?

Marco Scotini: Our democracies are rather bizarre objects. Their most ordinary forms are the militarization of the police, the gated communities, the bulletproof cars, the autovelox placed at every second kilometer, the surveillance cameras every square meter, the more and more technologically improved biometric devices of control. As Hobsbawm recently stated, it is a world where the economy, instead of being a provider of mutual services, it is more and more a system of reciprocal inspections. Perhaps only a Martian could see this society as “democratic”.
Let me recall a recent example. Not by chance, it is an example taken from the art system. Hans Ulrich Obrist – for Frieze Art Fair – called upon a series of great artists and intellectuals for a two days Manifesto Marathon, and invited them to rethink the tradition of the modernist manifesto. I mean that tradition which includes even Marx and Engels in its founders. All of this opposite the Serpentine Gallery, under a glass and wooden temporary pavilion, open on all sides – as designed by Frank Gehry – and surrounded by large numbers of bodyguards. The event was far from being a picket of artists and theorists. Rather, it was just another example of security device, of the art’s rule, staged by the new alliance between culture and market!! I believe that only today we can carry on naming ‘democracy’ this progressive convergence of modern democracies and totalitarian states, not by chance, from the biopolitical grounds of contemporary sovereignty, and the fact that the capitalist production sphere has by now extended from the ‘working time’ to the ‘living time’: there is no imaginable outside, no possible exterior. Once Lazzarato affirmed that until 1968 the work was the form of exploitation and surveillance; communication and language assume the same form for today’s capitalism. Thus, the production and circulation of images play a big role in all of this. I would like to add that this role could eventually transform into a freeing function, producing subjectivity. We must agree on what this role can be, though.

Marko Stamenkovic: A Flemish friend of mine told me once (while we were discussing the very same subject somewhere in Antwerp earlier this year): “Don’t be so naïve – resistance is only a word, a phrase on a T-shirt”. I got mad, of course… although I must admit I understand his point of view. But still, let me answer to you: it IS possible to live in such a world – otherwise you could have never posed such a question, and I would have never been able to give you this answer, I guess. The powers I mentioned before are those that belong to the multiplicity of subjects involved in the common efforts (sometimes even without knowing each other, they are capable of recognizing each other); they are the powers taking place at the multiplicity of geopolitical points around the globe, simultaneously and with the same fervor NOT to accept the given, NOT to subscribe to the dominant order (without having a voice to put it explicitly into question), NOT to pretend and NOT to forget. And, of course, NOT to allow oneself to be easily appropriated, ‘adjusted’ and consumed. For me, it is the question of constant nomadism (here understood as a way of being critically engaged with the multiplicity of subjects, places and contexts around the world, as opposed to the ways of being a mere “cosmopolite” urban dweller and traveller, or even worse – a cultural tourist) and also the question of multiplicity (and multi-layered, polyvalent, hyper-engagement on a daily basis), that produce the possibilities for change, within our own fields of interest and our own ways of being – either secluded or extremely open, from time to time, but always persistently present (as even the absence of presence – the shadows, so to say -reveals the power of Potentiality, in Agamben’s terms, for example).

Elvira Vannini: As part of your artist’s practice you organise ‘theme-specific’ exhibitions, with interventions in the public space. You work across a variety of media (video, documentary, inquiries) criticizing capitalist systems and neo-liberal economies, while creating platforms for resistance and offering social alternatives, together with the anti-globalisation movements. If the cultural activities reflect the dominant economic system, is this the right time for an alternative? What’s your point of view on democracy, and how does your art practice intersect it?

Oliver Ressler: Nowadays it is not very special or radical anymore to say that the system of parliamentary democracy does not work in a way that it guarantees a fair involvement in democratic decision-making processes for the masses. It is rather working in favour of the political and economic elites and guarantees that the existing power-relationships and the unfair distribution of wealth are not being questioned. In my opinion, it is essential for progressive political movements not only to criticize the existing capitalist system, but to concentrate on visions for alternatives as well. Even when unfortunately in Europe the progressive social movements are far away from being strong enough to achieve a systemic change, I think at this point it is still very important to discuss different possibilities of how a non-capitalist economy and a more democratic society could be organized. In my project Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies I try to create a kind of archive installation, in which a variety of interesting models and theories for a radical systemic change can be listened to. As the people in their struggles will at some point in the future have to decide through which institutions and structures they would like to replace the capitalist order, it is important for me to present a variety of different concepts and models in my non-hierarchical archive. In the exhibition people get the possibility to choose among several different concepts according to their interests, combine them and make something new on the basis of this new knowledge, and are not being lead to one particular concept, which I chose for them.

Elvira Vannini: The relationship between art practices, resistance movements and activism entails, at a radical level, the production of dissent as a new form of political representation. How can an artist (or a curator) play an active role in the society and in the cultural debate, how can he produce new forms of subjectivity, new leaderships, instances of resistance, and activism? Do you think the definition of a possible space for dissent, and for the initiative of those movements criticizing the economic globalisation, could be achievable? Which is the relationship between artistic practices and social transformation processes? Could you tell me, please, about your experiences?

Marco Scotini: I believe the ‘artist’ has its own radical responsibility. It is amusing to think of a cynical artist, who, for self-defence, follows the commercialization creed despite being aware of its ideological nature. I think this type of artist – a now widespread product of the Eighties – is fundamentally pathetic, as much as those who shield artists from the market, even knowing that the market’s capitalistic economy is extended to all fields, none excluded. It is manifest how both positions intend to protect an archaic version of the artist that no longer can be valid: it would be only a capitalistic mystification of character. I am convinced that nowadays we should no longer talk about the ‘artist’, but think of a collective ‘artistic function’, well familiar to those working on the boundary between art and contemporary activism. Refusing the role of expert, the artist becomes a sort of catalyst, not offering technical solutions, but pointing out the possible way to find them. This constant call to self-organisation, to individual activities, to auto-representation, should now be read in this sense. A sense meeting – in the Foucaultian acception – the production of subjectivities in an era of biopowers, as ours is. It is no longer a matter of creating alternative realities – as Adorno could have thought, when an ‘outside’ was still possible – but production processes alternative per se. A large number of these artists or activists aim to transform the spectators in producers, and to break the existing barrier between the expert creating culture and its passive consumer. At this point, we could observe that Agamben refers also to this, when talking about the ‘desecration of devices’. So, it is not entirely erroneous to think of the ordinary man – of the new subjectivity – as a ‘potential terrorist’ for sovereignty.

Marco Baravalle: There is a multitude of possible answers to this question. My experience is, especially now, strongly connected to the Venetian space S.a.l.e.-Docks: a space entirely dedicated to contemporary art, but started by a group of people with experience in community centres. An experience that we haven’t dismissed: S.a.l.e. is, in fact, part of a network of social spaces, extremely varied in their nature. This offers us a complexity degree still missing in all those spaces that, despite being extremely lively, concentrate their activities only in the artistic or cultural field. This allows to interlock – it is not by chance I am using this word again – our specificity of artistic space at work with the battles and discourses of subjects different from us, but propelled by the same need to create free and communal spaces within the metropolis.

Elvira Vannini: In 2001 you participated in a rally against the World Economic Forum in Salzburg. In the video “This is what democracy looks like!” (2002), you show how this demonstration was stopped by the police, the demonstrators cordoned off, held captive and how the whole event was being manipulated not only by the media, but also by the police and politicians. A critique to globalised capitalism and false democracies, a lucid insight into human right’s violations, collective action and participative phenomena, spontaneously grown out and self-arranged on an international level. A similar critique applies also to your last film, “What Would It Mean To Win?” (2008, with Zanny Begg) on the protests against the G8 summit in Heiligendamm (and earlier “Disobbedienti” with Dario Azzellini in 2002). Marco Scotini talks of a “grey area” between art and politics, moving within which means exposure and activism. In such cases, which are the relationships between art and activism in a perspective of political militancy? Are they interchangeable? How does an artist express himself, and how can he play an active role in the debate about society and in the critical discourse?

Oliver Ressler: I believe it makes a lot sense as an artist to focus on diverse activist practices, for the field of activism and for the field of art. Artist’s videos dealing with activist matters might add some interesting levels of reflection, could be used to address people who are not part of the inner circle of activism, and can inspire and mobilize people in other regions. Activists all over the world frequently present my videos for these or other reasons. The videos also make sense for the field of art, because they politicise it and expand it towards the borders of activisms. My hope is that the reason for the inclusion of political art works in major exhibitions has less to do with the continuous wish of the art system to absorb new things in order to renew itself and legitimize itself through this tendency, than that the majority of those curators who invite political art projects really see the potential to use the space of art as a space for a political debate and action. Therefore I am not so much interested in defining the distinctions between art and activism, but in making a small contribution to dissolve these borders.

Elvira Vannini: Deconstructing histories, politics, institutional historic and artistic narrations: which is the regime of visibility for a so-called ‘political’ exhibition, for example what does Disobedience tell us about how art shows itself nowadays?

Marco Scotini: I believe to think of an art exhibition today with such assumptions means to create platforms for a kaleidoscope of interventions, not recognisable even within the modern genealogy of art. While conjuring a multitude of possible formats, I am convinced contingency, and a precarious arrangement of an archive, could represent one of these platforms. From this point of view we can also understand the deconstruction of the neutrality of the exhibition space, and the narrations accompanying it, as well as the discursive spaces that founded it. Now we have to think of the image as ‘constituent image’, an heterogeneity of images slotting in the corporate media, cropping out from all the fields power penetrates into, beyond any juridical model of known sovereignty. There is a continuous and growing proliferation of this type of images that do not want to be counter-information, do not intend to deconstruct the mainstream imagery, but operate on a different level, intervening directly in the process of auto-production and auto-circulation of the images. The current exhibition should give voice to this pluralism of practices. ‘Disobedience’ is an attempt in this direction.

Elvira Vannini: In the discourse on production systems connected to post-fordist capitalism, Lazzarato locates the potentiality of some artistic practices for the deconstruction of the art system: the means of declaration and distribution of specific roles (the artist, the work, the curator, the viewer) and of the infrastructure of governance (museums, festivals, biennials) that reimpose the concept of property in art (borrowed from processes of capitalistic development). Which is the action field to undermine these power dynamics? In a perspective of political militancy, how can art and activism interweave?

Marco Baravalle: Maurizio Lazzarato highlights a peculiarity in the artistic field. In art, he states, the distribution of specific roles and the governance infrastructure (intended as the molar dimension, according to a definition he borrows from Deleuze and Guattari) are useful elements towards the capitalistic development processes of art itself. This molar dimension should oppose to the molecular one, or the capability of a piece of work, an artist, a critical discourse, to generate new subjectivity, to change the way the spectator looks at himself and at the world. A revolutionary power. You will note that, to clarify the concept of molecular dimension, I have decided to apply molar categories; this because – and here is the important intuition by Lazzarato – when talking about art, the molar dimension and the molecular one cannot be put in a dialectic relationship, as the first is not antithetic to the second, and viceversa. This means that the molecular level, despite remaining effective and maintaining, in the best cases, a truly revolutionary potential, could never mutate the production relationships in the artistic realm. Despite the readymade, the avant-garde, the conceptual, et cetera, art remains a field strongly linked to the concepts of propriety, collecting, luxury, status quo celebration. Which way out can we foresee on the basis of these considerations? It is hard to tell: certainly we are very far from roles disappearance and traditional devices. As I already mentioned before, I believe nowadays it is becoming more and more necessary to highlight similarities between the artist and the cognitive worker as a worker of the contemporary. In the past there has never been a parallel situation, with such a similarity in technologies and (social) instruments between the fields. The effort should be organising and producing political subjectivity out of this similarity. Without nostalgia or a return to the past.

Elvira Vannini: I would like to talk about the section “A World Where Many Worlds Fit” you curated for the Taipei Biennial 2008, which is dedicated to the movements against globalisation. The biennial curated by Vasif Kortun and Manray Hsu was centred on a thematic constellation in response to “the chaotic state of things in the age of globalisation”, examining the very concepts of resistance, neo-liberalism, frontiers and borders, divided countries, war situations, and so on. Thus, “A World Where Many Worlds Fit” is a political exhibition: in this case, what is the format of display? Could you talk about the project for Taipei?

Oliver Ressler: At the beginning of 2008 Vasif and Manray invited me to present some of my videos on the counter-globalization movement in the biennial exhibition, which give some insight into certain aspects of the movement. After a couple of Skype conversations Vasif and Manray expanded the original invitation and asked me to curate a section within the biennial, in which I could invite further artists dealing with the movement of the movements. I liked the idea from the very beginning on, developed a concept and finally chose twelve artists. As it is a global movement, which is in particular visible when the demonstrations or blockades at the summits of the G8, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or the WTO take place, I decided to focus on these events. The decisions made at these summits affect the lives of all people in the world, but still take place behind fences and thousands of police, that became a symbol for the undemocratic and illegitimate formation of global capitalism. The artists I invited focus on these events from an inner-perspective of the counter-globalization movement. The artists are usually activists themselves and consider themselves as part of the movement.
Through the art works the exhibition ‘A World Where Many Worlds Fit’ makes visible how the strategies of the global movement changed after 911 and the intense level of repression at the G8 summit in Genoa – both incidents took place in 2001 and affected a lot the appearance of the movement in the coming years. Till 2001 a quite masculine, militant concept of direct confrontation with the police seemed to predominate. The crowed tried to gain access into the red zones directly through the police lines. The tactics of resistance somehow became smarter and elaborated over the years. Pink blocks and clowns question these forms of male-dominated direct confrontation with the police, and as the activities against the G8 summits in Heiligendamm and (with less success) Gleneagles proofed, with elaborated, smart concepts such as the ‘five finger tactic’ it is still possible to achieve the same goal – namely to block a summit and create a symbol for the illegitimacy through it.

From: Around Photography 14, 2008