Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

How Do the Fittest Survive?

Interview by Elena Sorokina

Elena Sorokina: I would like to focus our conversation on your last film, The Fittest Survive. This video is based on footage taken during the five-day course ‘Surviving Hostile Regions’, which was carried out in January 2006 in Wales, Great Britain by the AKE Group. The course instructors are British ex-special force soldiers. As for the participants, they are businessmen who are preparing to work in Iraq and other similarly dangerous regions, government officials and mainstream journalists who, in the name of the establishment of democracy and human rights, help legitimise and secure the expansion of the market economy. How did you find out about this course?

Oliver Ressler: I had been working on economy and labour issues in a couple of projects, when, several years ago, I read an article about these survival courses and got interested in the subject. In 2005 I got an invitation to produce a new piece for a museum exhibition committed to labour and so I proposed to make a video about one of these courses. I started intensive research and contacted private security companies and private military companies, which were mainly located in the United States and Great Britain. As you can imagine, it was very difficult to get shooting permission – the companies usually did not reply and if they did, they said that due to confidentiality agreements they could not allow filming during their courses. After six months writing numerous emails and phoning companies, the British AKE Group finally agreed to let me film one of their courses. AKE offers different kinds of training programmes, some of which are carried out according to the specifications set by corporations. I had the chance to shoot a standard survival course in which people from different backgrounds participated.

ES: This course is supposed to teach people strategies for profit making under conditions of military conflict, which is a rather delirious idea. In contrast, the language of AKE’s advertising campaign sounds perfectly reasonable, although it warns against an increase in costs and death as possible risks. It reads: ‘In today’s expanding global marketplace, businesses and professionals may be vulnerable to significant security and political risk. Such risk – whether to personnel, operations or facilities – needs to be properly addressed; or the result could be project failure, reduced efficiency, increased costs and insurance premiums, injury, illness and even death. But surprisingly, some organisations assume these risks must simply be accepted’. (1) What was your position when making this film? Do you see this work as a documentary?

OR: For anyone interested in corporate statements about how military forces and the capitalist economy are linked to each other, the AKE webpage is a really rich source. I never planned to make an objective documentary. I don’t believe in objectivity at all, I think it is a myth and an ideological construct. Working as an artist and filmmaker for me always means working from a political perspective. Trying to find something like a neutral perspective would bore me. The film The Fittest Survive is very different from all the films I have made to date, which usually show the protagonists of various social movements talking directly to the camera. The Fittest Survive is my first film that is not based on interviews. I have tried to affirm my position through the selection and the montage of the material, through a few text inserts and the footage of the course manual being burnt on the training grounds, which is the only staged element. My cameraman Volkmar Geiblinger and I recorded the rest of the material, as we followed the participants during the training course.

ES: Could you elaborate on the structure of the film and the process of its making?

OR: My idea was to produce a film based on the material collected during the five days of the training course, but one that doesn’t necessarily show everything that took place during these days. For example, there were many hours of first aid training which I decided not to use too much of during the editing process, concentrating instead on what are called ‘training scenarios’ that present a clearer image of the militarisation of the economy. The film flirts with the fact that the eight participants are obviously aware that the training scenarios represent simulated realities. However, they take them very seriously and try to behave as if it was reality. There are a few sections in the film which show the different scenarios the participants went through: unexpected shell bombardments, kidnapping by a paramilitary unit, a car accident and crossing a minefield. The course was structured in such a way that the participants never knew exactly what to expect in the next hour. They were just told to walk in a particular direction and to meet a person there, and then something would happen and they had to react to it. Volkmar and I did not have any more information than the participants, so the cameraman had to react very fast and spontaneously to whatever happened, staying as close as possible to the participants, which influenced the visual appearance of the film a lot. An interesting aspect of it is that there are two or three moments in the film where the participants or instructors directly communicate with the camera: actors in a staged reality communicating with a camera that is documenting them, the material from which will be used for a film, which – as with all films – can be seen as a staging and transformation of reality itself.

ES: From a formal point of view, the work shows the simulated reality of a military training camp. Yet for us, regular Western viewers, it is the reality of the Other that this camp is trying to simulate in order to eventually control it; and this, both in military and economic ways. Because the conflicts take place elsewhere, our access to them is conditioned by the Western ideological imagery, such as mainstream action movies or the production of infotainment channels like CNN. Unavoidable references to video games start appearing too. For instance, the camp’s architecture looks like it has come directly from PlayStation’s Fuel of War game.

OR: One of the motivations to produce this film was to present a kind of reality which is not usually accessible to a broader public. Corporations are not very interested in making their activities and strategies visible to everyone, a lot of things take place hidden from the publics’ gaze. But it is true that you get all these flash-backs to other ‘realities’ like the ones you have just described. In particular, the exercises the eight participants in this course go through do not represent something new. We all know them from movies and video games. What is special about the ‘Surviving Hostile Regions’ course is that the participants are civilians, and not soldiers, and this tells us something about the formation of our economy and society in general.

ES: The video brings attention to the current militarisation of businesses, and, less directly, to the increasing involvement of private business in warfare. On a metaphorical level, this work might be seen as alluding to the changing origins of the enemy. If the Cold War’s ‘red threat’ formulated a stable and defined image of the enemy – communism versus capitalism – the currently predominant image – that of the terrorist – is related to specific religious doctrins or worldviews, rather than to states with well demarcated borders. And multinationals, like terrorists, are organised in borderless networks. Following some dystopian scenario, we could even imagine that they will begin confronting each other directly, without delegating military tasks to the states.

OR: My idea was to work on a film which points to the aggressive formation of the contemporary economy, which unfortunately is internalised by so many people. Today it is broadly accepted that economy has its own rules, which are based on inevitable toughness and recklessness. The militarised view of economy and the formation of the contemporary economy are linked to each other and belong together. Sometimes it becomes directly visible: when, for example, those in power decide to go to war and to fight for the formation of the economy and for the ‘defence’ of the raw materials this capitalist economy is based on, or for geo-strategic reasons. In this regard, we can describe the current form of economy as militarised neoliberalism. The most obvious example of militarised neoliberalism is the military intervention in Iraq, where private security companies and private military companies have their largest playground for activities. In the meantime, it is a well-known fact that private military companies contribute the second largest number of employees to the coalition forces in Iraq – it is less than the US army, but much more than the British army.

ES: The example of Private Military Contractors (PMC’s) is very interesting. Through PMC’s, the dominant hypercapitalist states create legal exceptions for the warfare and try to escape public control. PMC’s are less accountable to the public because they are private, some of their contracts do not need approval by the Congress in the US, although costs for military intervention do – here the mere juxtaposition of ‘ethics’ and ‘economics’ is jarring. The self-consciously non-ethical character of modern economics has been discussed in high theory, notably by Amartya Sen who observed that the founding father of modern economics, Adam Smith, was a professor of moral philosophy. With regard to PMC’s, it sounds somewhat tragicomic. The new developments in today’s post-Fordist risk society show no concern for such issues and impose risks which could and should be avoided. From the very beginning of your film, one almost unwillingly registers the normality – not to say the banality – of the participants, middle aged men and women, who are supposed to ‘simply accept risks’ in order to take care of their businesses ‘in today’s expanding global marketplace’. They look rather lost and pathetic as they try to perform some kind of Superman task that they obviously want to master – to run under the enemy’s fire, evacuate the injured; on top of that, your camera is not helping them to look good at all. All this generates a strong sense of absurdity and one begins to wonder what motivates these people.

OR: I think that a minority of the participants really enjoyed this training course. They liked the different kinds of activities they did there, which are in contrast with the boredom of their office jobs in the deadening urbanity. There is also the possibility of experiencing their own self, and seeing how far they are able to control themselves or lead other people into unexpected situations. Some of them had very positive experiences and gained additional self-confidence. But I think the majority of this small group had some pressure from their employer to participate in this course and did not like it so much. But still they accepted it in order to increase their chances of making a career within their field of work. So the title The Fittest Survive also refers to the pressure employees in corporations suffer from in general, as there are not many stable work contracts anymore and a social-Darwinist pecking order seems to dominate more and more fields in today’s economy.

ES: I have one last question about where you have presented this film so far? Usually, your films are not only shown in the context of art, but are often screened for activist groups, parties, NGO’s and so on.

OR: The film was commissioned by the Museum Arbeitswelt in Steyr in Austria, where it has been part of the permanent exhibition ‘’ since June 2006. It is true that my two films on the political processes in Venezuela and the two films I made on the counter-globalisation movement have been presented much more often by solidarity groups or participants of the movement than in the art or film context. This is slightly different with The Fittest Survive, as this is a very special theme… Still, the film gets its own audience, it has been presented in a couple of exhibitions and I have been invited to present it at film festivals. Among others it was screened at ‘Impakt Festival’ in Utrecht, ‘LA Freewaves’ in Los Angeles, ‘Transmediale.07’ in Berlin, ‘Diagonale’ in Graz, ‘Image Forum Festival’ in Tokyo and the ‘12th International Media Art Biennale WRO 07’ in Wroclaw in Poland.


From: Untitled, no. 43, 2007