Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

Occupied Factories, An Occupied Present

Chris Gilbert

First, when talking about factory takeovers, we must talk about social justice: about the operations of neoliberal capitalism and re-emergent processes of primitive accumulation that are in play, for example, in the expropriation of the reproductive capacities of seeds, the commodification of water access, and the theft by corporations of common spaces in city and country.(1) Also to consider is the casting of entire populations as irrelevant and valueless in a world system based on shifting markets, as happened in Chiapas following the creation of NAFTA. Finally, within our view should be the inevitable counter-movements that capitalist aggression produces, whether in Katrina-wasted Louisiana or the barrios of South America, or covertly in almost any other sector of the globe. Once all this has been reviewed, we may talk about culture and the dependent yet important role that aligned cultural production may have in contributing to the work of counter- movements that are at their core economic and political.

The popular struggles in Venezuela that coincide roughly with the period since the Caracazo uprising and Hugo Chávez’s first bid for power shortly thereafter are not new.(2) There is a history, albeit buried and discontinuous, in which analogous features have surfaced in Russia of the 1910s, Italy of the early 1920s, Republican Spain of the 1930s, and exist today in such places as Argentina and Korea. An almost uncanny isomorphism emerges from the haze of bourgeois history, with salient characteristics such as squatting and the reappropriation of common property, the centrality of women in the struggles, and most to the point, occupation of the means of production through factory and farm takeovers. What keeps these past moments from being mere history is that their legacy hangs over the present like a specter, a standing possibility. For this reason, such “pasts” can never be understood only as pasts. They become “understood” when, in the course of a transformative moment, a group passes from reflection into action. In such situations, temporality is itself transformed, and time ceases to be a mere passage or sequence. It is no longer a time of but a time for: a now-time.(3)

The taking of power by people at all levels of Venezuelan society, including the recent factory occupations that are documented in Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler’s new video project, calls for description under the sign of such a temporal suspension. It suggests a double movement of connection and disconnection in which direct linkages between discontinuous moments of becoming break with the even sameness of the lineages favored by the historical accounts of empowered groups. For in such circumstances, when faced with seemingly insurmountable opposition, workers have seized and fought for the means of production; in such circumstances, a deeply and meaningfully creative process, long held to be the special province of artists, enters the world. Reality itself then becomes a field of activity for the imagination—not the imagination of a single person, as in prevalent notions of artistic production, but a distributed imagination that, like the mass intellectuality that tends to accompany such developments, gives the lie to thought’s interiority and individuation, and especially to truth’s ownership by an individual or class.

Azzellini and Ressler’s filmic record of this process, with interviews distributed on six screens, provides ample evidence of workers’ agency and its world-transformative power. (The video, which will ultimately be compiled into a single-channel DVD, proposes to not just record but also contribute to the struggle through its dissemination in Venezuela as a kind of feedback and sharing of knowledge among dispersed worker groups.) For example, a key structuring principle of the work is the logic of self-presentation— workers speak for themselves in the video, just as in the factories they resist delegating their leadership roles to managers, which connects with the themes of social participation and social protagonism that operate on many levels in the Bolivarian revolution.(4) The video also points to how a widespread common ground of words and ideas, making up a discursive space that is held in common, has come to exist alongside the collectively held property and means of production.

Listening to and participating in this discursive space, made immersive and enjoyable when the projections are life-size, as they are in the current installation, one realizes that no concept is left untransformed. Theoretical points are argued about, refined, discussed, and contested. The “derechos” that the workers put forth are thus far from the reified human rights that dominate liberal discourse. By contrast, what is at stake are “rights” that are tentative and in transformation inasmuch as they are embedded in social processes and are continuous with forms of social solidarity and communal life. And, as with the concept of rights in Venezuela, so with the concepts of leadership, nation, party, and power. In particular, leadership in this context becomes very evidently a matter of focus and a channel for an emergent multitude.(5)

Some on the political left in Venezuela—and internationally—have chosen to mark their distance from or simply ignore the Bolivarian revolution. There are a variety of possible explanations for this, including the displacement of traditional intellectuals by mass intellectuality, and the deceptive operations of the mainstream media. But a key factor is certainly a measure of bad faith on the left, evidenced in a tendency to point a finger at the perils of leadership, party, and state, when what is really meant is a refusal or fear of taking power.(6) In place of an interest in real politics and the formation of power blocs it entails, the basically anarchic values of horizontal organization and workers’ autonomy are held out as (often aestheticized) ideals, while state power and class leadership are cast as bogeys. But it is clear from recent events—the struggling worker occupations in Argentina, much like the betrayed factory takeovers in Turin of the early 1920s (and leaving aside the self-limiting activities of many activist groups in the United States and Europe)—that self-organization and worker autonomy have their limits. An unwavering reading of our historical moment tells us that small group organization is a necessary and important beginning, but without displacing and reconstituting real power, even state power, and without class leadership, it inevitably becomes subject to operations of capture by the extant forms of power and class structure.

Here the Venezuelan situation, with its commitment to micropolitical issues such as gay and women’s rights and local self-determination, combined with a constant focus on the macropolitical concerns of state power under which the former can actually thrive, becomes exemplary. The approach to legislation is itself quite creative, as is a novel practice of cogestión (comanagement) that underpins the occupations and marks a clear distinction from the Argentinean and Italian examples. At the core of cogestión are principles of social solidarity among workers and between the factory and society at large.(7) There are many possible realizations of these principles, but one common arrangement has workers owning 49 percent of the factory, sharing profits, and making decisions on the basis of assemblies, while 51 percent of the factory is owned by the state, which provides means and initial investment that is projected to be gradually bought out by the workers. This marriage of state power and protection with workers’ initiative—a pattern that holds in cogestión as in other features of the Bolivarian process—has resulted in enormous gains.(8) Suddenly self-organization becomes real, writ large on a social plane, a socially realizable program rather than a merely symbolic or projective activity.

It is hard to overrate the exciting sense that such a situation conveys of a world become not indifferent to and against people, and the lightness of step that it produces for those involved and for fellow travelers. The video, despite its measured character, transmits or really participates in this in many ways. Here it may be useful to ask to what degree the video inherits a realist documentarian or even socialist-realist tradition. In keeping with what we have said above, socialist realism clearly comes to take on a different, more dynamic character when reality itself becomes imbued with imagination, whereas creativity has suffocated through isolation in the “arts.” In these conditions, the more vibrant artistic product will be that which, not operating in the studio and even less in the artist’s internal imagination, turns its focus to the world. Call this a “new socialist realism,” if you will, with one key exception: the gesture of turning to the world is in part an act of documentation but it also contributes—as a form of mediating and making—to the very processes with which it works.(9)

Arguably, it is as collective mediators and co-makers that today’s art workers should operate. Eschewing the hubris and vacuity of most so-called creation, they will align themselves with an emergent multitude. For clearly there is a war taking place, a war against the poor (the Fourth World War, to use the Zapatistas’ description). In such circumstances, it becomes incumbent upon all to choose sides between being agents of the dominant class’s power—for which culture provides a mask or smokescreen for its property grabs and a celebration of its values (such as I would argue on some level almost the whole of contemporary art has been reduced to)—or by contrast aligning with processes of social transformation and counter-movement that take shape under the names of anti-globalization, fight against capitalism, or in this case Bolivarian Venezuela. As one would expect for a process that is at base materialist, there are already signs of such options in the cultural sphere, in both the figure of modestly “interventionist” art practices and a basically anthropological interest in the multitude’s creativity.(10) Today, the stakes in a war for hegemony are now bald and clear between the figures of destruction or the powers of making and remaking. It is as agents of securing power for the latter—the persuasive and informative human torso to the horse’s body of real power (to use Gramsci’s famous figure of hegemony as a centaur)—that cultural workers may now locate themselves.


Published in the brochure of the exhibition “5 Factories—Worker Control in Venezuela“ at the Berkeley Art Museum, 2006