Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

Interview on demonstrations

Interview by Amiel Grumberg

Amiel Grumberg: Some of your recent works are based on demonstrations and on activist groups. When and how did this interest grow in your artistic work? Is it only motivated by your interests in politics?

Oliver Ressler: In 1999 I realized my first project related closely to the issue of economy, “The global 500”, which is an installation on economic globalization and transnational corporations. While this project can be seen as a form of analysis and criticism of the existing capitalist system, in further projects that followed I concentrated more on forms of resistance against this hegemonic economic model. So I became involved in the counter-globalization movement in Austria, and started research on groups in other European regions which interested me. I have to say that my interests lay not so much in demonstrations, but in the political movements, which had of course their most visible appearance through the demonstrations.

Amiel Grumberg: What is the history of street demonstrations in Austria? Is there, like in France, a tradition of politics changes that have occurred thanks to massive collective intervention in the streets of the capital? What is now the position of Austrian people towards it?

Oliver Ressler: In Austria there is almost no tradition of street demonstrations, as there is also almost no tradition to go on strikes. After the Second World War conflicts in Austria did more or less not take place openly because of a social model called “Sozialpartnerschaft”. The situation changed slightly in February 2000 when hundred of thousands of people went on the streets demonstrating against the involvement of an extreme-rightwing party in the Austrian government, and countering the political changes which followed due to this social-political development. The “Donnerstagsdemonstrationen”, demonstrations on each Thursday evening in Vienna, were established as a reaction against this government, and took place for more than two years. But it is clear that the participation of the people continuously decreased after some months. Another kind of demonstration culture later developed in Salzburg in Austria, where the World Economic Forum gathered once a year. These demonstrations are related to this wider transnational context of the counter-globalization movement. The events around a demonstration on July 1, 2001 against the WEF formed the starting point of my video “This is what democracy looks like!”.

Amiel Grumberg: The altermondialist movement seems to use the street territory as a very important platform. It gives to international activists a same free platform to evolve and an ideal position to focus the attention of the media. As you have been working with some of these organizations, how would you define their strategy towards street demonstrations?

Oliver Ressler: Maybe the most elaborate form of how to deal with the media and the street has been invented and practiced by the Italian activists of Tute Bianche, who call themselves Disobbedienti since the G8-summit in Genoa in 2001. The Tute Bianche modified the Zapatist concept of gaining more visibility in the public through hiding their faces; they wear these ski masks. The Italian activists decided to wear white overalls during the street demonstrations and other public interventions, in order to create visibility and public attention for their actions and arguments. They protect their bodies through foam rubber, tires, helmets, gas masks, and homemade shields to carry out their actions of civil disobedience, and create an appearance through that, which perfectly fulfills the wish of the dominant media for spectacle. But at the same time the Tute Bianche don’t go for compromises. They are radical; they developed for example actions in order to dismantle detention camps for asylum seekers and force the Italian state to close some of these repressive and racist institutions.

Amiel Grumberg: How do you position yourself when you realize these films. How to stay in a neutral position while being in front and interviewing the main participants?

Oliver Ressler: I’ve never been interested in staying neutral when working on a video, and I also don’t believe in this concept of neutrality or objectivity. It is an ideological construction used and pushed forward by the hegemonic media in order to make us believe that their viewpoints can be seen as neutral somehow. The two videos “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Disobbedienti” are part of a larger series of videos I am working on, which focuses on various forms of resistance against capitalism. I am only realizing videos about and in collaboration with groups I am somehow sympathetic with, so that it is possibly for me to identify with the issues they raise. This personal identification with the groups and practices is somehow necessary as I am trying to avoid off-commentaries or any other voices but those of the activists.

Amiel Grumberg: In “This is what democracy looks like!”, you have been directly part of the demonstration, filming it from the inside. How could you define this feeling of being together? How does a group of thousand people become one unique strength while walking through Salzburg? Like at the end of the film, we can hear hundreds of people screaming together as one voice.

Oliver Ressler: I participated in some demonstrations having my camera with me, but the demonstration in Salzburg was the only demonstration after which I decided that the material I recorded would be interesting enough to realize a video about what took place that day. I think the reason can be seen in the whole situation in Salzburg: the demonstration ban, which was a restriction of democratic rights, while at the same time the undemocratic institution World Economic Forum and its participants was protected by the police, so that the politicians and representatives of corporations assembled in the WEF could further their processes of deregulating the economy. Then there was this special situation in which several hundred demonstrators were encircled by the police for seven hours, without any reason, without water supply or even a chance to go to a restroom. Later on these events have been described completely wrong in all the large Austrian media, so I really saw the need to realize this video which included the different viewpoints on the events in Salzburg by the demonstrators only. These more emotional feelings of strength and power you describe where not of a big importance for me. If you are interested in such feelings, demonstrations in Italy or Spain are also much larger and powerful than in Austria.

Amiel Grumberg: The street demonstrations always bring a lot of attention from the media. In this regard, all that concerns street demonstrations is always manipulated: the number of participants, or you witness the “fake injury” of a policeman and an obvious manipulation of the information about the launch of brick-throwing of demonstrators.

Oliver Ressler: The Austrian police banned the demonstration with the argument that the demonstrators would be violent-prone, and the media hysteria after the events in Gothenburg and before Genoa was helpful for the police in order to get the demonstration ban. But in the demonstration on July 1, the only thing that really happened was that the demonstrators insisted on their democratic right to march through the city. But besides some smaller provocations, there was no violent behavior from the majority of the demonstrators. At some point it seemed the police felt the urgency to prove that these people in the demonstration would be violent. So the police took advantage of the situation that one policeman collapsed, probably because it was a hot summer day and he had to wear this robocop uniform, and launched this story that the policeman has been injured through an attack from a demonstrator. All the media including the Austrian state TV reported this fictive story of a brutal act against a policeman, and even half a year later the police repeated the story, knowing it was a lie, but it was helpful for the police in their ongoing strategy of criminalizing some of the participants of this demonstration. The video “This is what democracy looks like!” contains footage proving that the policeman had not been attacked by a demonstrator, and it also shows images of policemen collecting bricks – maybe the same bricks the head of the police presented to the Austrian media the next day in order to declare this demonstration as violent.

This interview was carried out in June 2004.

from: Version Magazine 05, April 2005