Installations, videos and projects in public space


by Oliver Ressler

Is art suitable for political argumentation?

Interview by Julia Lazarus

Julia Lazarus: Your work quite often is very documentary and also referring to a political context. In how far is art suitable for political argumentation? And why have you decided to work in that way?

Oliver Ressler: Since 1994 I have been working on a political art practice and use the artistic field to transfer political content into other public media spaces. My projects are never “only” an exhibition, but have different levels and distribution forms and also address very different publics. If my work can be described as documentary? Well, I am not sure. In any case some works deliberately use formal methods, which are also utilized by documentary filmmakers. But they are still “artistic works”, as they are realized in the form of installations in an artistic context. Also the documentary level is consistently broken by other elements that at least in traditional documentary films are not used.

Julia Lazarus: How has it happened that you include political content in your artistic work? Ingo Günther for example has defined the role of an artist as that of an informant.

Oliver Ressler: I have no background as a journalist, but received a traditional education as artist at the University for Applied Arts in Vienna. I rather arrived at another artistic practice because of the education and situation at art colleges. The connection to a journalistic practice is that before the realization of a project a certain amount of time for research is required. Thereby I use diverse tools and sources that a journalist with a similar intention would probably also utilize. Moreover there is a content-related overlap with critical, left-wing journalism. Yet my work differs very clearly from the dominant journalism that always runs after the daily news. The issues, with which I have dealt in the last years, stay newsworthy over years or even decades.

Julia Lazarus: How do you find those topics?

Oliver Ressler: In the last three years I have in principle worked on three big themes. On one hand economy, for example the globalization project “The Global 500“. Furthermore the issue of genetic engineering was important as a starting point for projects, whereby in the end also a video like “Rote Zora” can emerge. The group presented in the film has attacked genetic engineering corporations and research institutes, yet the video is more about resistance practices and their criminalization than about genetic engineering. The third topic is racism, where I have done four projects with Martin Krenn since 1995. I have been interested in those issues for a long time and already occupied myself with them before I started to pick them out as central themes in my artistic practice.

Julia Lazarus: But you transfer those issues into an art context. Is there any specific reason why you have chosen exactly this field?

Oliver Ressler: There are different reasons, depending on the work in question. In 1997 I did a project on institutional racism with Martin Krenn. Taking the issue of remand pending deportation as an example, we pointed at this form of racism in a billboard object placed in front of the Vienna State Opera House. This project could not have happened in this form at this place without the connection to art. It would not have been possible to get the required permissions, because an object of this size in the public space must be authorized by municipal authorities and the police. It was an advantage that we as artists could submit the poster object as artistic work. Here the artistic field represented a major precondition for the realization of the project. In other cases the artistic field is used to launch topics, which sometimes get adopted and discussed by the media and this at places, at which they would otherwise hardly be an issue. For example a radical critique of globalization processes that includes an explicit critique of capitalist accumulation processes. Something like that would hardly be featured in the business section of “Der Standard” (Austrian daily, ann.), but within the review of a critical art project this would at least be within the realms of possibility.

Julia Lazarus: Then the art space is also a space in which issues can be dealt with that are excluded from the dominant economic or political discourse?

Oliver Ressler: I see the art space as a means to make issues public. And this form of display can and shall also represent the starting point for further publication. For me working with the press is in the same manner part of my artistic practice as for example the production of photographs. To convey content this is just as important as the decision for a certain artistic method in the realization process of a work.

Julia Lazarus: Has it already happened that you could see such a connection when you realized a project? That the business section of “Der Standard” for instance took up an issue of one of your works?

Oliver Ressler: It is very often the case that media that have nothing to do with art pick up such issues, or that newspapers report about such things apart from the culture section. Especially with “Der Standard” it is easily possible that one’s projects are covered in the local or society pages, while in the culture section there seems to be only little space for things like that. On the occasion of the exhibition “The Global 500” in Canada the project got a slating review by the conservative weekly journal “The Calgary Straight” because of its anti-capitalistic orientation. But at least the text conveyed approaches, which for a town like Calgary that became extremely rich trough oil trade and in which capitalistic accumulation principles are hardly questioned is also quite good a result.

Julia Lazarus: The “globalization” project is also about nation-states losing part of the sovereignty. How do you see that, especially in relation to you project “The Global 500”?

Oliver Ressler: On the one hand the representatives of the nation-states are in the international trade organizations, such as the IMF, the World Bank or the WTO. Yet these often advocate policies that weaken the nation-states in favor of transnational corporations. For example, there have been negotiations on a MAI treaty (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) that fortunately could be prevented in the last moment. This agreement would have established a right of action for corporations against nation-states if they saw their economic interests impeded through national legislation. In the case of strict labor protection laws or environmental requirements a corporation would have had the possibility to claim for the repeal of these laws. Although the MAI agreement could not be carried through it seems that under the disguise of international trade organizations there are further negotiations in this direction.

Julia Lazarus: But that is not necessarily in the interest of particular states?

Oliver Ressler: There is a certain disengagement from democratic control. In order to assert their interests, corporations have established financially strong lobbying groups, whose sole purpose is to induce governments and their representatives to enforce basic economic conditions solely in their interest and according to their ideas.

Julia Lazarus: It is frequently argued that if the economy is prospering then the people are fine.

Oliver Ressler: That is of course a very narrow and naïve view. During the last ten years the United States under Clinton had the longest period of continuous economic growth in history, but in the same period also the gap between rich and poor grew. Today there are – after the economic boom – more homeless, more people with low wages and always less and less people that can afford a health insurance. So even for the wealthiest states of the world this argument does not work. There is a very clear dissociation of economic growth and increasing living standard for a great many classes of population. And this now also becomes clearly apparent in the states of the EU.

Julia Lazarus: To make things worse, people seem to be losing their democratic possibilities of control and participation, as for example in the European Union.

Oliver Ressler: Yes of course. The EU Commission for instance is not democratically elected, but appointed. And is the more important decision-making authority than the European Parliament, whose representatives are at least elected, even if nobody goes to the elections.

Julia Lazarus: Do you want to stimulate activism in the field of globalization with your work?

Oliver Ressler: With the work “The Global 500” I wanted to bring together interesting people, who, in a video, discuss complex questions of the issue of transnational corporations. All of these people come from a left-wing political spectrum, for example in the case of the trade unionist of the “Teamster Union”, who was active as campaign manager in the UPS strike. In so far activism also plays an important role. The other positions that were supported are only marginally represented in the hegemonic, media dominated discourse. For me it was a central concern to use my work to publish opinions and viewpoints of areas to which I as an artist have access. It is of course not that these people have no platform and I only offer a supplementary, alternative platform that makes visible the different approaches of the interviewed people in a very compressed way. The project itself works as a traveling exhibition that has already been realized in six states and therefore has also experienced a broad reception directly through the exhibition or via the media.

The Interview was carried out in December 2000 in the framework of World-Information.Org