Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

An Interview with Oliver Ressler about his Project Fly Democracy

Alex. Cistelecan and Attila Tordai-S.

Fly Democracy, Studio Protokoll, Cluj, 23 October – 14 November, 2007

Alex. Cistelecan: “State-less direct democracy”, “self-management”, “libertarian municipalism”, “anarchist consensual democracy”, etc.: it is difficult to imagine what exactly lies behind these fundamental expressions that we find in the ten leaflets of your project. The one example that you mention – Ancient Greece – doesn’t make things easier; let’s not forget that the Greek model of participative democracy was just the sunny side of a more unethical political system based, in the main, on slavery. Could you give us some other possible examples of such direct democracy, either from the past, from the present or – why not? – from a not so distant future?

Oliver Ressler: It is clear that the Ancient Greek model only functioned as a democratic model with direct involvement in decision-making processes for the privileged white man – I also refer to this aspect in the project description of Fly Democracy. It is interesting to learn about its structure, but of course it cannot be used as a blueprint for the creation of a modern democratic society. Indeed, I think there are some examples of direct democracy in history, ranging from the Paris Commune in 1871 to the workers’ collectives during the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately these models existed for a very short time, could only be developed to a certain extent due to a lot of pressure from political enemies, and were militarily defeated very quickly. If we think of direct democracy today, I think the juntas of the good government, the direct-democratic self-governing networks of the Zapatistas in Mexico, have to be mentioned. And the consejos comunales in Venezuela, the communal councils, which are neighborhood networks currently formed to give people greater control over the running of their communities, are the most recent development which will hopefully succeed in involving the population of Venezuela more in democratic participation processes. I think that none of these models is perfect, all of them have their problems, but they all present interesting examples for direct democracy which have to be taken into consideration.

AC: Let’s try to shift the problem a little bit with a dichotomy. On the one hand, you mentioned the Paris Commune and the worker’s collective during the Spanish Civil War. But you also agree that these movements were only short ones, quickly crushed by their enemies. Don’t you think that this is a structural problem of such revolutionary movements – namely that their revolutionary engagement is a finite one, that they are not capable of holding power and, to put it bluntly, that they are, as such, very specific for the left, something that the French call “le romantisme de la Chose perdue”? On the other hand – and this could already be the answer to the question above – you mentioned the Zapatistas and the communal councils in Venezuela; here, it is true, the revolutionary moment proved to be a lasting one, but only if it was supported by a strong and charismatic leader. Do you think this is a compromise to be made by the revolutionary movement or is it its only chance? Or, to put the question in terms of politics of representation and representation of politics: how can one put his faith in such forms of direct democracy, and relate at the same time to the messages that the media diffuses, namely that the Zapatistas organization didn’t bring any economic progress and that Hugo Chávez is becoming more and more the usual dictatorial leader of the Communist countries?

OR: It is clear that nowadays all approaches towards direct democracy can only take place against the powerful resistance of neo-liberal capitalism. That means there are many limitations and obstacles. I assume it wouldn’t be a big problem for the Mexican army to smash the structures and institutions of the Zapatistas within a couple of weeks through military means, but the price of doing so would be a very big one, as the Zapatistas are very present in the media and are supported by many people on a national and international level. A military defeat of the Zapatistas would severely damage the modern image the Mexican government wants to be associated with, the image of a functioning (formal) democracy with certain freedoms for their citizens, and it would provoke a wave of revolt in the whole country. But I am sure the Zapatista uprising would continue even if Subcomandante Marcos would resign or die. The title “Subcomandante” from the outset questions typical hierarchical structures of the army or society in general, because, as also clearly pointed out in their public announcements, the people in Zapatista communities give the orders and the Good Government Junta and the military sector listen. Delegates of peasants work in the Good Government Junta as rotating volunteers to try to solve problems between individuals and communities. Subcomandante Marcos is the very visible person who communicates with the media, but he has no accumulated power comparable to that of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela where we have a completely different situation. Chávez’ accumulation of power is, of course, an indissoluble contradiction in the effort to install a system that involves people in direct-democratic decision-making processes. But without his strong leadership, the political experiment there would have ended a long time ago. It is interesting to observe that the successful transformations in Venezuela and Bolivia are based on years of struggles and strikes by the majority of the impoverished people, and I think especially the fact that these movements finally gained power through winning elections within the existing system of representational democracy contributes very much to the visibility and attention enjoyed by a single charismatic person. The reductionist discourse of big media then somehow claims that these leaders mislead and seduce the masses, because they are populists and their voters are gullible. It is a strange distortion of the facts…

AC: In pursuing further the politics of representation / representation of politics and the role of the media, one could say that there is a small paradox in what you’ve just said: on the one hand, the Zapatista movement is somehow protected by its image; if they didn’t have all their notoriety in the media, the Zapatistas would be easily smashed by the Mexican government. On the other hand, in the case of Venezuela, the media plays the opposite role and, through its deliberate distortion of facts, endangers the political experiment led by Chávez. Is this paradox a structural one for the media in general? Is this the inevitable dual nature of media, to be at the same time a medium for the politics of emancipation and the immediate weapon of repression? Can one overcome this contradiction and bet on the existence of the independent media – or would this present the risk of losing too much visibility and sinking into pure localism?

OR: Well, there are different kinds of media. I read a couple of texts in liberal media by writers who seemed to be fascinated by the Zapatistas, who are often described as the first postmodern guerillas because they exchanged weapons through the weapon of the spoken word. You don’t have to be a radical leftist to acknowledge that the rebellion of the Mexico’s indigenous people is justified, because they live under terrible conditions of extreme poverty and their rights have been ignored by all Mexican governments. The superior beauty and poetry of their declarations and of their distinct appearance in the pasamontaña, the ski mask, which hides the individuals while making the Zapatistas as a collective power better visible, fascinates many people, and obviously journalists as well. Chávez is in a completely different situation that seems to make him less attractive for Western media. The fact that he has won all elections since 1998 is often ignored and he is depicted as an anti-democratic, populist dictator. His military background and his involvement in an attempted coup d’état in the early 1990’s make him an easy target for the conservative media who reject his politics. The privately owned right-wing media in Venezuela are the strongest part of the opposition against the Bolivarian Process, and they were directly involved in the coup d’état against Chávez in April 2002. The completely erroneous and one-sided statements of these media are very frequently repeated by Western media unverified. Through its oil wealth, Venezuela has a lot of power in Latin America and Chávez uses this power on many levels: among other things, he founded the South American counter-CNN media network Telesur and the Banco del Sur, the Bank of the South, which reduces the dependence of Latin American states on the World Bank and IMF. With the Bolivarian Process a role model has been established for other states seeking alternative development possibilities, like Bolivia and Ecuador. Venezuela represents a real threat to the neo-liberal model, at least in Latin America, and stands in contradiction to the interests of private media, which consider Venezuela an enemy. The situation is more complex for sure, but these are some relevant aspects.

Attila Tordai-S.: It is quit obvious that the political and economical elite recognize the power of mass media as a tool for propaganda, so much attention has been given to its control. In Romania, the mass media are extremely powerful; the political changes in 1989 officially began with the protection given by the international media to a Timisoara-based reformed pastor, and continued as a “televised revolution”. Perhaps this is why Romanian society remains such a highly TV-addicted nation. But compared to the importance of mass media, the practice of contemporary art is considered simply a luxury with absolutely no impact on society. What role do you think contemporary art can play in this context defined by strong institutional structures, by the hegemony of the free market, and by the neo-liberal neutralisation of the political?

OR: Well, my hope is that from time to time art still has the capacity to intervene directly in political debates. I think sometimes it is possible… I usually position myself on one side of conflicting parties, and don’t take in the convenient position of the neutral observer. My role shifts a little from project to project, because I am interested in trying out different strategies within my artistic practice. So, for example, a kind of staged scenario has been created for Fly Democracy that can be seen as wishful thinking about potential future possibilities for political action, by presenting the staged release of leaflets about direct democracy in the US. There is some irony in this allusion to the drop of leaflets from US military aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan at the beginning of these recent wars, which contained propaganda for representational democracy. Fly Democracy combines very direct and straightforward textual material from different discourses on direct and participatory democracy, quotes by leftist political analysts, with video material and a very esthetical sound produced for the piece, which – in comparison to other projects I have done – can be more easily received by people on an emotional level.

AT: No doubt, hundreds of leaflets calling for direct democracy raining down on US soil has a strong effect and, at very least, reveals the global military and political reality in which such an action is unthinkable. I mean, the idea that American citizens might be encouraged by an unknown entity to free themselves. So Fly Democracy is in this way intervening in a political issue. On the other hand, the territory usually occupied by a work of art in real life is so narrow that I sometimes wonder what the possible outcomes of such a political work can be. Now I am speaking against myself, as I don’t consider myself a neutral observer either. When I went to the printing house to collect the invitation cards for your exhibition at Protokoll Studio, they were not yet ready so I had to wait there for a while. I was looking around and noticed that in the same room, besides the 350 invitations for your project, there were thousands – in fact, 30,000 – posters and promotional items announcing the upcoming European Parliamentary elections. The paradox of the situation was well-captured by a worker who said, pointing to these huge piles of promotional prints, “Look, this is where our money comes from.” Don’t you think that this unique situation is, in fact, the normal paradigm for contemporary art? And doesn’t it neutralize the political potential of so called critical and subversive art? Or is there another possible strategy for art, one that could avoid this paradox?

OR: Sure, it is very difficult to work against the overwhelming financial and ideological power of the dominant political system. If you present your work in art institutions it is very often only seen within a narrow frame. This is one reason why I realize a lot of my work outside of art institutions. On the one hand, I produce posters, billboards, billboard-objects, or magazines that intervene directly in public inner-city spaces and address political issues through different methods. For example recently I realized a poster as part of a campaign against the G8-summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, in which 50,000 posters were printed and distributed to mobilize the demonstrations and blockades. It was absolutely amazing to see how the posters and their ideas were used by the activists and appeared in so many of their own publications, which were all produced for particular publicity events. On the other hand, I also work a lot on films, which are presented not only in the field of art, but are also presented in cinemas, festivals, and community centers, in screenings organized by leftist political organizations, and the films are also sometimes presented on TV. For example the film Venezuela from Below, which I did with the political analyst Dario Azzellini in 2004, was broadcast on Telesur and the Venezuelan television stations Vive TV and VTV. Though the film originally came from the art world with its limited production resources, it had the capacity to reach a very broad audience. But at the same time, I am also interested to show my work in exhibition spaces, as I consider them as valuable spaces in which forms of dissent can be articulated in an experimental way. Art doesn’t always get neutralized through the exhibition format, as can be seen in the example of the exhibition cycle Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process at the Berkeley Art Museum in 2006, for which Dario and I realized the 6-channel video installation 5 Factories–Worker Control in Venezuela. After a lot of pressure on the exhibition curator Chris Gilbert by the museum, the continuation of the cycle was canceled because of its political intention, and because it was impossible to continue working: Chris resigned and is now living in Caracas. I will continue working in all these different fields – I am interested in shifting from one presentation space to another, from one field of reception to another.

From: IDEA, arts + society, #28, 2007