Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

Now-Time Venezuela, Part 1: Worker-Controlled Factories

Interview by Ted Purves

Ted Purves: Your MATRIX exhibition [the multichannel piece 5 Factories—Worker Control in Venezuela, with Dario Azzellini] opened in March 2006. How long was the res5 faearch and production period for the piece?

Oliver Ressler: The time between Chris Gilbert’s invitation to produce a new piece on Venezuela and the exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum was actually quite short. It was only slightly more than half a year. This is actually one of the shortest periods I’ve had to produce a new piece in the recent years. But this was also an exception, as the invitation came along with a quite generous production budget and the invitation for a solo show.

TP: How were the five factories selected? Did you visit a range of factories before you decided which five to work with?

OR: Dario and I were interested in focusing on those factories that had already introduced models of workers’ self-management or co-management (“cogestion”). So the film presents a selection of factories that had functioning structures of workers’ democracy at the time when we recorded the film [fall 2005]. One of the factories we already knew from our previous film Venezuela from Below; the paper factory Invepal, located in Morón, appears in both films.

Dario, who at this time had already been living for several months a year in Venezuela, found further interesting examples of forms of co- or self-management. When we arrived in Caracas for the production of 5 Factories—Worker Control in Venezuela, we participated in a congress on occupied factories in Latin America where we made important contacts with workers in occupied factories in Venezuela and got some hints about specific factories in which interesting experiments were going on. So we chose “our” factories quite carefully in advance, as we had limitations in shooting time and budget. We filmed only six factories, and in the editing process we decided finally to use the material of five factories for the video installation.

TP: As a matter of curiosity, what materials or goods were produced at the sixth factory that was not included in the final production?

OR: It produced diapers. The factory had an owner, who was also the director, and it was run in a kind of co-management together with the workers. After carrying out the interviews, our impression was that the director had decided on a form of co-management because it gave him access to cheap public credit he wouldn’t have got otherwise. But the workers did not seem to be involved a lot in the major decision-making processes. The factory did not inspire us, and this is why, even when we were still traveling around in Venezuela, we decided not to include the factory in the final project.

TP: Has the piece been exhibited as an installation since it was shown at the Berkeley Art Museum?

OR: No, the six-channel video installation 5 Factories—Worker Control in Venezuela has not been presented since its launch in Berkeley. But some months after the opening of the exhibition, Dario and I finished an eighty-one-minute, single-channel version and produced a DVD with three language versions (English, Spanish, and German). This film was shown a lot and is still being shown in art institutions, cinemas, film festivals, and local TV channels, as well as in hundreds of screenings organized by the Bolivarian circles all over the world. Several unions and workers’ organizations use the film for educational purposes, and through California Newsreel the film is now also widely distributed in the U.S. In the meantime Korean and Turkish versions of 5 Factories—Worker Control in Venezuela have been issued. It is one of the most successful and well-known pieces I ever did.

TP: In his introductory remarks to the MATRIX booklet that accompanied your exhibition, curator Chris Gilbert wrote, “The Projects in the yearlong MATRIX cycle Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process will operate in solidarity with this process. They are not only or even primarily representations of or reflections on this process, but, as our title indicates, along the path itself.” How did the curatorial lens of the exhibition (the idea to create works in solidarity with a social process) affect your creation of it?

OR: Not at all. I assume Chris Gilbert chose Dario and me for the show because we already did one film in solidarity with the Bolivarian Process in 2004. Venezuela from Below focuses on different grassroots efforts in Venezuela that have in common support for the Bolivarian Process and defense of it against its enemies. This first film already thematizes (besides many other aspects) occupied factories, and in 5 Factories—Worker Control in Venezuela we concentrate on this aspect and observe the changes, which developed two years later. When Chris Gilbert contacted us, Dario and I were already discussing a second collaborative film on Venezuela, and Chris’s invitation meant for us that this second project got developed and produced much faster than it would have otherwise.

The invitation to do the first exhibition of the MATRIX cycle Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process led in any case to the development of the format of the six-channel video installation, where all five factories were presented on individual projections with benches and headphones in front of them, and the management meeting of the aluminum plant Alcasa was presented on the sixth projection at the end of the installation.

TP: One of the facets of the work that struck me was how it drew on histories of democratic processes being introduced into media production, blending ideas of the “Cinema of the People” with pedagogical concepts drawn from the ideas of Paolo Freire. Can you speak about the models that you were drawing on in the creation of this piece?

OR: I had already done a couple of films focusing on protagonists of social movements. In the case of the self-managed factories it was very important for Dario and me to present the protagonists directly in their work environment. The speaking workers are in the center. As the workers manage to run the production on their own, they are being recorded directly in their workplace, which increasingly seems to be for them a place of self-determination and less a place of exploitation. It is important for the concept of the film not to interview only the press spokesmen or engineers in the factories but average workers who are usually not interviewed. Very often our audience overlooks the fact that most people we interviewed spoke for the first time in front of a camera. The workers are capable of speaking in such an eloquent manner about modes of organization because they are used to discussion with their colleagues in the workers’ assemblies. It would be almost impossible to carry out similar thoughtful interviews with average workers in the U.S. or Europe.

In comparison to many other films on Venezuela, we did not focus on Hugo Chávez but tried to highlight the interesting processes that became possible through the political changes, which in the dominating media discourse are usually hidden behind the charismatic president. In the film only workers speak and there are no commentaries. The idea is to develop arguments and provide information about the factories through the protagonists only, and not to talk about them.

TP: Can you describe the “preparation” for your filming in each of the factories? Did you meet with the workers as an assembly to outline the project, or were the interviews the first time that you engaged with them? Were the individual workers self-selected?

OR: With one exception we were in contact with one worker at each factory who knew that we would come filming. When we arrived we usually discussed with a small group of delegates, outlined our concept, and told them about the variety of different workers we wanted to film. We asked these people for advice about which of the workers had something interesting to say. We tried to make sure that employees from different departments would participate, that there was a kind of a gender balance, and that we represented people who have been working in the factory for many years and those who just started.

In the case of the ketchup factory we did not find a phone number. So we just drove to the city and convinced the janitor to allow us to get in touch with some workers. Half an hour later we were in their office talking to five or six delegates of the workers about the concept of our film, which they obviously seemed to like. They allowed us to talk to anyone we liked, to stay as long as we wanted, and they invited us for lunch in the factory canteen. They were very proud having a film team from Europe in their factory. By the way, self-management seems to make the procedure of getting in touch with workers and filming much less complicated than it would be in hierarchically structured factories.

TP: While we have focused our discussion on the project and the political ethics that you brought to its production, it is also significant that events around the exhibition project caused a storm of controversy within the art world, coinciding with the resignation of MATRIX curator Chris Gilbert during the exhibition. Can you comment upon those events and perhaps contextualize the place of your work within them?

OR: Chris Gilbert got the job as the MATRIX curator with his proposal to initiate a year of MATRIX exhibitions in 2006 dealing with the political situation in Venezuela. The first in this cycle of exhibitions titled Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process was our project. Chris’ concept was to produce the exhibitions “in solidarity with Venezuela,” and also to use this phrase. But the former director of the Berkeley Art Museum and some people from the staff and the Board of Trustees wanted a more neutral political positioning of this cycle, and tried to change Chris’s curatorial texts several times. When they saw our installation with revolutionary workers talking about how to take over businesses, I think they still had a hope that maybe the next exhibition would be a little less radical and less direct. This hope of the administration immediately vanished when they read his curatorial text for the second exhibition in the cycle, a wonderful commissioned piece from the alternative TV station Catia TVe in Caracas, which was presented in Berkeley while our exhibition was still on display in the museum. The conflict and mobbing became tougher, and as it is not very effective trying to work in a museum against the museum, Chris decided to resign. His success was that he produced two exhibitions how he wanted them to be, without any compromises. The prize for his thoroughgoingness was that he had to give up his job as MATRIX curator, which he had started only months before; unfortunately, his position within the museum was too weak for him to continue working on the remaining exhibitions of the cycle. His public resignation letter got a lot of attention in the art world internationally. It raised inspiring and controversial questions within progressive art circles about the meaning and potential of formulating a radical critique from the inside of art institutions, which are not politically radical at all.

TP: Now that there is distance of several years on the exhibition itself, I am most interested in understanding the internal political ethics of the work, and the way that work has continuously negotiated its “movement” within the globalized art world, rather than the immediate politics of its debut. You produced the film very much from a position of co-creation and solidarity with its “subjects.” As a final question, I am curious to know if there has been an opportunity to “return” this work to its original site of creation in Venezuela? Has there been any chance for the film’s protagonists, those whose voices it channels, to comment on its conclusion?

OR: Yes, there have been numerous presentations in Venezuela. Even though the two films had been produced primarily for a European or North American audience, there has also been a lot of interest in Venezuela in presenting the films. As Dario is living around half of the year in Caracas, he has also had the chance to organize several screenings. In summer 2006, a big screening was organized of 5 Factories—Worker Control in Venezuela at the Teatro Teresa Carreño in Caracas, and the interviewees from all around Venezuela were invited. A great discussion with the workers took place after the film, which was transcribed in excerpts by Michael Fox for and can be read on my Web page, Usually the film is very well received by the workers. Some people even distribute bootleg DVDs of the films in the black market in Caracas, which obviously means there is a continued interest in watching them.

Ted Purves, Now-Time Venezuela, Part 1: Worker-Controlled Factories, in: Elizabeth Thomas (ed.), Matrix/Berkeley: A Changing Exhibition of Contemporary Art, 2009