Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

With or Without Me

Interview by Miklos Erhardt

Miklos Erhardt: You hear a lot of things about collaboration these days, and many people work collaboratively, but I feel that there is not an objective or concrete discourse about what collaboration really is and what kinds of things it implies. So I thought that it would be interesting to get to know some more realistic approaches through a series of interviews with people who have concrete experience. What lead you towards collaboration? What was the motivation at the beginning?

Oliver Ressler: I have practiced a variety of different modes of collaboration. The first important one formed when I started to collaborate with another artist, Martin Krenn. This was in a very early stage of my artistic practice, when I still was at the art university in Vienna. Collaborating had many advantages, compared to the work I did on my own, because you question everything you are working on when collaborating with another person. Later on I was involved in different forms of collaboration, like collaborating with students when I was in a teaching position, collaborating with different activists and activist groups, migrant organizations on the publication of magazines, etcetera.

M.E.: It seems it grew out of a kind of student situation, which is quite natural – when you are a student you are together with other people, and somehow you are working on the same kind of topics. Could you elaborate on the advantages you mentioned – just to be more explicit about it?

O.R.: On the one hand you question and discuss every step within the development and production of an art piece, but then it also has the advantage of combining certain strengths of the different people involved in the collaboration. One person has, for example, better computer skills, or video editing skills, or theoretical knowledge, another one has excellent ideas but they may not be so good in transferring them to an art project…

M.E.: That implies already a certain hierarchy in the distribution of different tasks. That means that in doing concrete tasks a specific person is the most competent, and perhaps you don’t have discussions in those fields where the other person is otherwise qualified.

O.R.: Of course to a certain extent there are hierarchies in collaborations, because it is impossible not to have any hierarchies. For example when I worked together with Dario Azzellini and we did a film in Italy – I am not able to speak Italian, but he speaks it fluently – so there was a hierarchy because actually he did the interviews for the film, and I only had the chance to discuss the main issues of the interviews with him in advance. But this does not necessarily mean that there is a hierarchy within all the stages of the collaboration, just that it might exist in certain parts of the production process.

M.E.: What about those kinds of collaborations where there isn’t any distinction between your abilities? Let’s say, when you are collaborating with Martin Krenn. Both of you are Austrian artists with the same kind of know-how, as you are both visual artists. What is the situation then?

O.R.: This is a situation which implies maybe less hierarchy, but even in such a great collaboration that I have with Martin, which is the longest collaboration I have been involved with so far, there are times when we discuss certain aspects and strategies we want to have in a project, and perhaps one of us has more ideas or is more energetic and has maybe more knowledge and the other one only reacts to what the first one proposes, and then, maybe two or three weeks later on, it is the other way round. It is not really always possible to discuss everything on exactly the same level.

M.E.: Is there some kind of standard process that has formed during the years? Do you have some kind of routine about how to make decisions?

O.R.: Mainly, I prefer to have decisions on a consensual level, and usually, if it is a collaboration between two people, decisions are always made on the basis of consensus.

M.E.: In those cases when the collaboration is composed of more people, in my experience, there is always a kind of a boss figure…

O.R.: Yes, it is getting more complicated if there are more than two people involved. Ten years ago I was one of three people who wrote texts together. We were only three people, but it was already much more complicated to come up with a decision about which statement to write and which one not to write. The more people are involved in a collaboration, the more complicated it becomes, I would say.

M.E.: Anyway, writing can be a very complicated thing to do in collaboration. It needs a kind of linearity, which is okay, if you have one subject, but with more subjects involved it always becomes very difficult… Have you ever been the boss in a collaboration?

O.R.: Well, I would not…

M.E.: Because you are polite…

O.R.: …call myself a boss.

M.E.: It is okay, this is kind of a deep interview, so just call yourself whatever you think you would be…

O.R.: It depends what exactly you define as collaboration…

M.E.: Ok, let’s define it.

O.R.: For example, when I was teaching together with Martin Krenn at a university in Lüneburg in 2001, we both were in a teacher’s position, but we wanted to collaborate with the students. Our aim was not to have the typical hierarchy between teachers and students within this collaboration, but to have a flat hierarchy, in which you can discuss and decide on an egalitarian level. We tried working like this for an exhibition, and we did it for about one year, but if I am to be very honest and think about it afterwards, I think that a kind of hierarchy still existed. If Martin or I said something in the discussions we were probably taken more seriously than one of the students would have been making the same argument – and this already implies a hierarchy.

M.E.: Let’s speak a bit about your negative experiences with collaborations. Were there any?

O.R.: I actually have had very positive experiences with collaborations, which is maybe also a reason why I continue collaborating with other people. But when it is not possible to do the things I am interested in within the structure of collaborations, then I do it on my own, so that I am the only person responsible for the project.

M.E.: What kind of projects do you prefer to do alone?

O.R.: For example, I participated in a demonstration in Salzburg against the 2001 World Economic Forum. I was there with a camcorder and afterwards I decided to produce a video which would reflect and document some of the events which took place at the demonstration. So I produced a video under my name, and did not involve myself with other artists. But even in this work I collaborated with other people, activists who participated in the demonstration, but on another level, by asking them for interviews. This is also a form of collaboration, but it does not necessarily involve these people in the editing of the video or in decision-making processes concerning the concept.

M.E.: I think in those cases you were a kind of an employer, even though you did not pay for those things, but maybe you were somewhere at a higher level of hierarchy.

O.R.: I don’t think I was in the position of an employer, but more somebody who creates and defines a space and gives people the possibility to express their opinion within this space. I do not believe that the six people whom I interviewed would see me as their employer and themselves as the employees. They gave me something of their experience and knowledge, but I also gave something back to them – I made their voices and opinions about the events, which took place in the demonstration, accessible to a larger audience.

M.E.: Do you remember the concrete reason for choosing to work alone on this video?

O.R.: The reason was that there was no one along with me at this demonstration with whom I had worked before or whom I knew well enough to think that any collaboration might be interesting. It is a difficult decision to make, that is, to start a collaboration with a new person, because I am usually working on long-term projects and it can cause a lot of stress and difficulties if that other person is not really ready for this collaboration.

M.E.: Do you have any experience with a person who was not ready for the collaboration? Just to speak about the negative aspects of collaboration…

O.R.: No, not so far… But some people approached me to collaborate with them, or I contacted people and discussed about a possible future collaboration, but these did not come about.

M.E.: Because of your decision?

O.R.: No, it usually starts with some meetings and general discussions. You try to define the areas of interest in which you want to work, the framework of the collaboration and the directions in which you want to go, and only after such preliminary discussions are satisfying for everyone do you actually start the collaborative process. The three larger collaborations with artists and writers I have worked in so far were very positive, those problems did not happen, which maybe might have happened in other collaborations.

M.E.: What is the third collaboration?

O.R.: It is with an artist from the United States, David Thorne. We started the collaboration in 2001, and it is mainly about one project called “Boom!”. It is a project about global capitalism, as it often is in my art practice, and in a very specific format. The special, practical thing about this collaboration is that we usually do not meet, but produce our work through email exchanges. We have had different kinds of presentations so far, on the one hand exhibitions, on the other hand producing banners for demonstrations, pieces for public inner-city spaces, contributions for magazines and books. We first met in 1998 at the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada, so we got to know each other there, and we met each other every day for ten weeks – but since then we have only met two or three times. On such occasions we would usually just hang out together and discuss certain things, but would not actually work on our projects, because we are so used to doing it through email communication, and it works pretty well that way.

M.E.: Do you think that your main theme, criticism of global capitalism, already implies this collaborative form of work? That it is more likely that someone interested in this topic would be more willing or eager to collaborate with other people than in other, more traditional spheres of visual arts?

O.R.: I think conceptual art practice in general implies it, where one is maybe more likely to opt for collaboration than, for example, if you are a painter.

M.E.: There are some attempts to collaborate in painting … but they are not really interesting.

O.R.: Like when Martin Kippenberger painted together with other painters and they just did it while drinking a lot… But they remain two individuals, well-known painters who work together maybe for fun or because they think the work might become more successful through the collaboration, because it becomes something special due to the collaboration. But approaching the process of painting from a conceptual point of view would not imply a necessity to collaborate. In my own practice, it would not be possible to produce parts of my projects without these collaborations. It is also not the case that I wouldn’t produce this kind of art without collaborations, but maybe fifty per cent of my work would not exist the way it exists nowadays.

M.E.: It sounds very practical. I also think that the fact people are collaborating, as opposed to the traditional individualistic art, would also be a kind of a political statement.

O.R.: In a way it is a political statement. Collective art praxis versus individualism of course makes some sense, but for me it is not the main reason why I collaborate. I do not want to limit myself only to collective art practices – I also want to publish works under my own name. I like keeping a variety of different options open…

M.E.: How do you organize the questions of copyright? What is the future of a project that you made together with someone? Is it always published under both of your names, and if someone buys it then do you have the same share of the prize? How does it work?

O.R.: Usually it is published under both of the authors names and both own the copyright. But this has never been a big issue in my collaborations – it was always clear from the very beginning that it would be published under both names and that the collaborator would always be involved when it comes to a presentation or a publication. And it is also clear that the other person would have his share if somebody would be interested in buying it – which usually does not happen so often with this kind of political art…

M.E.: Global capitalism is not interested in buying its own criticism…

O.R.: If you work with video like I do, people buy it for a small amount, and usually your distributor deals with it. At the end of the year you divide what you’ve earned with the video between yourself and the co-author, which is not a big deal. It is not a question to share income with your collaborator.

M.E.: Let’s imagine that we have a completed art project or an art piece in front of us. Do you think there is any difference that is detectable – a way to tell that this project is the result of a collaboration or had been a one-person project?

O.R.: It is often very visible. But I do not think I am good enough to realize if it would be from a collaboration or not…

M.E.: No, it is not about betting on it… I’m just trying to understand the differences from that point of view. When you started you were speaking about a slower process, because every step in the decision-making and in the actual work has to be discussed and justified. So you not only have an idea and then realize it, but that idea goes through a longer and slower process. That is why I thought that even if you cannot be one hundred per cent sure that this was this and that was that, but still, something has to remain in it – this kind of longer or slower process has to have its traces in the final piece.

O.R.: Also, in collaboration you surely involve unexpected ideas from another person, ideas you would never have alone. You react to these ideas and probably add your own, and after some back and forth you might come up with something which you would not have come up with if you worked on your own. So it involves certain new ideas, but also certain risks, maybe. But I have to add that even if I work on projects on my own and publish them under my name, from time to time I show it to people before it is published, and so have similar discussions and critiques, but from people who have more distance. I like to invite people to have discussions on unfinished work, it is inspiring and helps a lot.

M.E.: I also thought that the topics you are working with, political and economical criticism, are quite risky fields, so it might also be good to have other eyes helping yours look at the projects, as you are walking in a kind of a minefield. It is safer to go together, because that makes the risk that you would make some kind of incorrect or dangerous statement a bit lower.

O.R.: I totally agree with you, I do not know what to add.

M.E.: You should maybe repeat it…

O.R.: (laughing) Maybe that’s not how I would prefer to collaborate…

M.E.: Yes, it would be a bit mechanic. So, what do you think, is collaboration safer on a certain level, or is individual work safer?

O.R.: It is not like sex, you know, like safe sex is better for your life…

M.E.: I did not mean that parallel… Just wanted to relate to what you have mentioned, that sometimes people can have unexpected ideas. In my experience, at least, I am a bit more courageous when I am in a collaboration. I am more willing to throw in ideas, while when I am working alone I am a bit more scared and have more control…

O.R.: Sometimes it is the case that you are invited to participate in an exhibition, and you really have no idea what to do there…

M.E.: Yes, I know this situation…

O.R.: … in such a situation it is maybe also helpful to involve people who have some ideas and that can form an interesting situation of exchange where you also contribute with your experiences and your knowledge and certain things just happen through discussions and exchanges of knowledge.

M.E.: Could you somehow give a more detailed description of what the production process is normally like, in one concrete case?

O.R.: The three major collaborations I have been involved in so far are very different from each other, and also when I publish works under my own name, they involve collaborations, primarily when I interview people…

M.E.: But I would just for now exclude those kinds of collaborations and ask you about the proper ones. What is the process like? Some people start by brainstorming and then develop ideas on their own, then come together again and tell each other…

O.R.: It really depends. For example four years ago I was invited, together with Martin Krenn, to produce a project in a district of Graz, for the European Cultural Capital 2003. We were invited just to produce something which would take place in this district and should somehow be related to this district. We traveled there and spent some days in the area and we had a lot of discussions and then we decided for a topic – the prison, which is located in this district. We used the largest street of this district, Annenstraße, as a site for the work, which links or relates to the prison on the outskirts of the city. So we first had to do the research on the site and then we had meetings, long phone calls, and then we needed months to come up with a project concept. After we developed the concept together, we produced the project and produced an interview for it, and worked together with a graphic designer, the architect Hubert Marz. This involved another kind of collaboration, and in this case you could say that this person was employed, and did not have the same rights in the decision making process. There was a small hierarchy, but it was okay for this person, because he still had a lot of freedom to get his work done within the framework of the project, which was called “European Corrections Corporation”.

M.E.: So, as I understand you so far, collaboration is very practical for a lot of reasons, first from many conceptual points of view, but also from the point of view that more people can produce more together, mostly in cases when they are provided with different skills and this added value will be a constitutive part of the project. Have you ever participated in a looser, less project-based collaboration, when somehow you are close to someone else on a regular daily basis and then you just work together – I mean, as a natural thing, as an artist normally works.

O.R.: Before the collaboration with Martin started we were having ongoing discussions on art and political issues, and it was quite a normal step that at some point we focused this communication, gave it a direction, so that at the end of a long process of communication a project was being produced. You said that I would involve myself in collaboration because it has practical advantages – collaborating means communicating, which is of course very important, but it is not always a communication which is directly related to the production of new projects. For example, David Thorne and I have certainly exchanged more than one hundred emails in the last few years as part of our collaboration. A certain amount of this communication is about more general things, art projects we’ve seen or visual or activist strategies we are interested in, so it is an exchange on a general level, which is very important of course, but doesn’t necessarily lead to a new project…

M.E.: Yes, this was what I thought.

O.R.: … even when these discussions are sometimes the first steps which lead towards a new project.

M.E.: Have you ever thought of founding an artist group, or of joining one?

O.R.: Not really.

M.E.: And what is the reason? I am just asking because there is a tendency towards this, mostly in the field where you and I are active, and many other people as well. They somehow tend to have a less individual body, which can be provided by the anonymity of an artist group. So you don’t have such leanings?

O.R.: I prefer to have a collaboration between two, or at most three people. That makes things much easier. But I have not found people so far with whom at one point I’ll decide to work with exclusively. I am interested in different forms of collaboration with different people with certain skills and backgrounds, and also to have a variety of different projects related to different issues with people who work in different areas all over the world. This is more interesting for me, but maybe it would also be fantastic to have a collaboration only with one person or always the same people. But I have not had this experience.

M.E.: Isn’t it that you are a bit afraid of losing your freedom?

O.R.: I think it is simply difficult to find such people, because if it is an exclusive collaboration with certain people, then you would necessarily have to share a lot with them and I think it would be a big advantage if these people lived in Vienna, or at least in Austria – to have regular contact for work. But it is hard to imagine abandoning all my collaborations just for one.

M.E.: Okay, that is a clear enough statement.

The interview was carried out through Skype on January 20, 2006.

The transcription was edited by Nick Santos-Pedro.