Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

Performative Alternative Economics

Marina Grzinic

Oliver Ressler presents in his project “Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies” eleven ways of rethinking, conceptualizing and visualizing what is possible to be termed eleven models of alternative economics that also open a way of rethinking culture as a radical dispositive. Ressler’s project is an important contribution in fleshing out a history of alternative economics that has also been suppressed and ignored, similarly to the models of alternative economics themselves. In fleshing out a possible history, indeed, as the work consists of eleven distinctive individuals who in “flesh and blood” narrate and conceptualize these alternative economics’ practices, we face a political gesture within the field of representation to reclaim these “movements” and their historical potentials and to re-launch them into a possible new future.

Alternative Economics are about the labor movement, although they provide cultural elements for a productive counter-cultural platform. The project by Ressler situates alternative economics within a broader social and political arena that is not only embedded with class struggle and labor policy, but also has the capacity to transform multiple areas of life.

Why is this important? What is going on today in the process of global capitalist production is that life in itself is the primary source of global capitalism. Life is the most powerful labor force today. The mode of our submission to the capitalist machine is through precariousness, marginality, and the constant fear for our living standards and the contemporary (im)possibility to create and preserve fixed forms of labor. The precariousness of labor is connected with the precariousness of life, and is the central topic not only of contemporary biopolitics, but also of contemporary representational politics. Contemporary post-Fordian production processes are not “just” giving meaning to life, but so to speak, create and consume life itself.

It is clear that alternative economics were built upon alternative political convictions. Therefore it is not surprising that Ressler invokes the concept of alternative societies as a part of alternative economics; every demand to fight the past and the present of capitalist methods of production and its contemporary precarious form of labor and life is a political act.

There are important reasons for artists to display and constitute a possible, though fragmentary, history of alternative economics.

One reason is clearly political. We need to consider the possibility of forming alternative societies and this is possible around alternative economics in order to fight global capitalism. We need to be able to identify alternative economic systems among countless small utopias and ideas that also strive to build economic solidarity and democratic forces. Ressler focuses his project on comparative studies, and tries to document the history of the movement of alternative economics, but also Ressler fights that this “movement” regains back its potential.

The question is also how “Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies,” affects contemporary art. Why this sudden interest for economics in contemporary art and culture, and also what is to be done in the field of contemporary art in relation to economics?

Today art productions fit the levels of production and consumption within the liberal global capitalist society perfectly; it is because of its highly developed consumerist tendencies that transform global capitalist societies into “supermarket communities.” Art objects and works are seen simply as the next generation of goods in the capitalist supermarket economy. Nothing escapes capital: capital produces goods and also subjectivities. To say this means that is necessary to perceive a change in the relation between contemporary art and economics. Global capitalism entered openly, in a visible and disgusting way, into the field of contemporary art. The art market is the most important regulator of esthetics and trends in the art field. It also chooses and redirects taste, trends, controls the circulation of curators to be selected for organizing of big art events and works tightly as well with the global multinational capitalist companies investing in and sponsoring art and other cultural projects. The final result is a special linkage of money, institutions and critical-theoretical writings that today present themselves even more than ever as a “civilizational kinship.” This kinship (which comes from the vocabulary of biotechnology) presents itself in the “world” as the most natural and internal process of art and culture in the capitalist First World, and moreover this “civilizational kinship” is today overcoming cultural borders in order to become the password of the day in political affairs (us against them; the war to preserve civilization, etc.). If we keep in mind the idea of this effective capital investment (theory-money-art market) in a single work of art, we have to acknowledge the importance of the art-critique-theory “machine” in its background, which obsessively works on providing genealogical and historical power to a unique artwork style and aesthetics.

The alternatives are clear, though in the end they always work together. I can present them as follows: should we adopt the Zapatista ski mask as our emblem in order to fight the (art) market, tightly embedded with the capitalist economy, or should we instead try to display a politics of representation that presents utopian, maybe outmoded, but powerful ways of building different forms of economic platforms in the world. Ressler decided at the present moment for the second way, for establishing a fragmented, but powerful history of alternative economics.

The other reason is representational. It is necessary to develop a vision of a worldwide movement of alternative economics that takes into account the very different conditions of very different models of economics. Just lets think for a moment of ex-Yugoslavia’s self-management third way into socialism that found its logic in the 1960s movement of the non-aligned countries and that precisely in these days are trying to make a comeback on the international stage of global politics. It is necessary to understand how these conditions affect the form and content of activities for building alternative economics. Clearly ex-Yugoslavia’s self-management and Western world models of alternative economics will have different characteristics. Certainly a good way to begin exploring these questions is by looking at specific experiences of alternative economics and visualizing them.

Economic contradictions are central for today’s world. The constantly changing importance of economics is highly dependent upon ideas of the possible constitution of history of such alternative economics, making sure that the emancipatory historical experiences of such alternatives are not forgotten and presenting them as a source of an open community project. Ressler’s proposal is that we are to go beyond seeing the economic only and solely as a signifier of exploitation and racism, it is possible to rethink alternative economics also as activist’s platforms within contemporary societies. Therefore to undertake such an effort, as it is in the case of the project by Oliver Ressler, means to give a form to a history of alternative economics, or, to place alternative economics within the history of capitalism and its history of alternative societies.

Alternative economics as presented by Ressler capture the creation of labor unions, the formation of working class militancy, and also as it is possible to see in some of the specific presented models that they indeed ameliorate working class conditions. Alternative economics have to do a lot with the distribution of wealth that means to raise the question as to who owns the control over the internet, transportation, public education, legal system, the human genome, etc., owns the structures of exercising power in different societies as well. Taking advantage of public goods – like roads, transportation, markets – and public investments that belong to all, is presented in most of the cases as a personal initiative, hiding therefore the structural bases of capitalist hegemony and expropriation. Making such relations of private ownerships of public goods that are internal to capitalist economics visible, open up questions of direct power relations: as who controls economics has the power over society in his or her hands. One sixth of the world’s population that is based in the former Western Europe and West America controls almost 80 percent of all world resources. This opens up horrifying relations of a small percentage of people having control over huge resources of wealth within the global capitalist machine, transposing therefore the question from individual power to a kind of structural inequality that is indeed the basic form of capitalist private ownership of natural resources and goods.

Ressler presents alternative economics as a mixture of different positions.

On one side the alternatives are presented through the work of people with an academic background who elaborated a scientific concept or model, and on the other hand ideas are coming from an activist background. Ressler through his chosen speakers asserts that alternative economics were vital platforms in the last century’s social and political history, proposing alternatives to the capitalist system. He displays in his project through the eleven positions a movement engaged against the status quo toward rethinking possibilities that oppose global capitalism and struggle to democratize social life, from the economic to the cultural spheres, from private to public politics.

Alternative economics as a paradigm shows the potential to organize the labor movement and to run societies without only and solely complete expropriation from the capitalist system. In some aspects alternative economics allow citizens to become conscious of their power as workers, defending their immediate interests, and giving contexts to revolutionize society as a whole. It is also true that until now not many projects of such a type as this one by Ressler reflected and connected the significance of alternative economics. The project charts the emergence of comparative politics of representations on the topic.

The project can be seen as developing three distinctive ways for developing models of thinking and acting within the economic field. It is dealing with ideas within the democratic, Marxist and anarchist tradition. Marxist models are working within and beyond the totalitarian regimes, the democratic ideas are based on all sorts of free-market policies and the anarchists’ positions, also in collaboration with feminism, imagine a society independent from capitalism.

Alternative economics also presents the articulation of the communitarian elements in capitalism, as well as the utopian perspectives that emerged around the period of the New Left. Recuperating democratic visions against capitalism that are the result of class contradictions within the capitalist system itself constitutes a special path in this process of articulation. The project works in-between working class interests and utopian visions that seek to reconstruct society along radically democratic and communitarian lines.

In the project “Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies” another obsession of contemporary representational politics also shows up clearly: performative politics. The obsession with communication, speech and language is at the core of most art projects today. Communication is at the base of production processes as well. The process of work is established in a process of verbal exchange; communication is of crucial importance within production processes. This involves, according to Toni Negri, something completely different from “Habermas’s reconciliation of communication.” Negri argues that it is contemporary communication that clearly demonstrates the failed dialectics between permanently unstable labor and the lives of the precariat and fixed capital.

This is why the eleven positions in Ressler’s project that rearticulates eleven alternative economies speak incessantly. Speech is not only a mode of transmitting commands and instructions within labor processes, but also a process of signification. Language is, as Paolo Virno says, not only an artifact of real life that mediates our relationship with nature, but also part of our biological matrix, co-substantial and specific to our human nature. Language is the biological organ that is in-between the space of thought and political action.

Oliver Ressler’s ongoing project is a challenging project of a direct politicization of the field of art with displaying topics crucial for contemporary art today, but left out by the capitalist institutions of art in order to more fully exploit creativity and imagination in art.


Art-e-fact, no 3., on line magazine on Technomitologies, Zagreb, Croatia, 2004, edited by Marina Grzinic

Marina Grzinic, Situated Contemporary Art Practice. Art, Theory and Activism from (the East of) Europe, Ljubljana: ZRC SAZU and Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2004.

Marina Grzinic holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and works as a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the ZRC SAZU (Scientific and Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Art) in Ljubljana. She is Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna/The Post-Conceptual Art Practices Class. She also works as a freelance media theorist, art critic, and curator. In collaboration with Aina Smid, Grzinic has been involved in video art since 1982. She publishes extensively (

from: Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies, (ed.), Revolver – Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, 2005