Concatenations between Art and Activism
Interview with Oliver Ressler
How do you articulate the relationship between art, activism and political intervention in your work?
I’m someone with an art background, I studied at the Art Academy, but I’m also involved in a lot of activist practices and in my work I somehow try to bring this together. But this does not really happen having a big concept in advance, so it just go through my personal interests, that I just try to express certain things and contribute in certain struggles through the means of an artistic piece, such as film and installation. And I tried out different ways of how to connect myself to different movements and struggles. And I found it very efficient to produce films because the film has the advantage that I can also give it to the activists, to the members of movements, who are very often interviewed in my work. So there is a direct relationship of exchange. Because I ask a lot from the people, to tell me their experiences, to talk about their practices, forms of resistance, trying to contextualize their practices, and then if I work with film I can give it back, which I think is a fair thing.
What importance does collaboration network with other artists, theoreticians, activist,… have in your work?
I have quite broad interests and it’s not really possible to have all the personal contacts, all the knowledge of this things I’m actually interested in and so it’s quite a natural thing to collaborate with other people who have maybe a deeper understanding through their personal background, that they share more things together with such groups like, Tute Bianche or Disobbedienti, or this movements which take place in Venezuela. So this decision to collaborate with other people is sometimes also influenced by the idea to work together with people who are closer part of this existing movements. In other cases it’s more that I’m interested in the person, the collaborator, the artist, the political analyst or whoever and that we have discussions and talk about things and then at some point, finally, I see that there are certain lines of interest and that we could connect this lines of interest in a production to get something produced together, so it can also happen for the other side.
What is the potential of documentary film practice within broader political struggle against global capitalism?
I think that independent documentary practice can play an important role within the struggle against existing system of global capitalism. I think it is very good mean to combine different means and perspectives, to distribute it to the wider audience which is often not so clear who it will be when you start working on a project. Somehow, I wish to do films in a way that they are kind of open in general for wider audience. But very often my experience is that certain groups of people do not really or cannot access the content in an adequate way just because they are missing certain discourses or information which would maybe be necessary in order to really follow the content and discuss the issues. But in general, I try to keep the films open for a variety of different groups which, on the one hand, would be the audience that goes from art exhibitions or is interested to go to film festivals, but on the other hand, people who are involved with activism or who are involved just in political issues or are interested to learn more about different political questions. And there is a connection sometimes to a certain theoretical discourses, so the audience is also shaped through the exact focus on the individual projects.
Forms of protest on film/Film as a form protest
I’m not sure if film can be regarded as a form of protest I mean at least can be regarded as a means to transform or report or tell us something about certain forms of protest. I mean I would not go so far to say that a film is for me a form of protest. But it’s something that mediates protest and maybe helps to make it more accessible as a form of practice to people who are maybe not yet so much involved in forms of protest, I would say. And it can also help people who are already involved in to protest forms to reflect their own strategies and to think about other different strategies which are being used and carried out. So I think that primarily it is a mean of reflection and maybe also information I think.
What influence does the historic legacy of independent documentaries, militant films, video activism have on your work?
Of course the practice like mine is somehow influenced by the historical positions of filmmaking. These are usually practices by filmmakers with a political approach, like Godard, Chris Marker or Dziga Vertov Group. There are several films that I’m interested in and I’m sure they somehow shaped my own idea of how to create a film. But I think when I started to work on these films about the “movement of movements”, of the conuter-globalization movement then, an even major influence was just a film production which existed within the movements. These were usually just the short clips of demonstrations that were put on Indymedia or similar networks. I liked a lot to watch this films and I was very impressed by this, but at the same time I had a feeling that it is so hard to watch this material, that certain things were just missing for myself. Because most of the time it is just the material footage from the demonstrations and then you have an introduction which is very often written text and this gives some explanation about it, but what was missing very often to me was that you really hear voices directly from the participants. And I think that most of my work was to try to combine this two elements, these recordings and the voices of the people who directly participated in demonstrations or blockades and then afterwards produce the film about it, which goes beyond a direct representation of the events that happened. But trying to produce something which is something independent and can also work for the people if they have not been there or maybe came from another continent. So this is what I have been trying in the last couple of years and I tried it with different focuses. I did not repeat one scheme I developed.
What is the relation between theory and production of images in your work?
There are certain theories which are of importance for the work but these are very often theories which are directly involved with the issues I’m focusing on. So in the case of the so called counter-globalization movement I read texts by Negri &Hardt, John Holloway, Naomi Klein and so on. So this writers, which are of a big importance for the movement itself and through reading this texts, this was also one possibility in order to really understand how this things are functioning, how they are connected to each other, how they can be contextualized within a wider range of political struggles. I’m not sure so far that this texts directly relate with what I produced but they probably have some influence and in some films it can also happen that those people which more theoreticize this movement also appear as speakers, but it not necessarily have to be the case.
In the counter-globalization protest from Seattle, Prague, Genoa to Heiligendamm, many different activist groups came together; media activists, clown army, pink block, naked block, black block, anarchists, socialists, trotskyists, members of ATTAC, human rights activists, feminists, migrants, indigenous people, artists, …Many activists switch between these identities or differ in their political positions as well as in tactics of protest they use. How do you problematize these differences visually in order to address the question of who are “we”? How do you articulate this protest in film?
I assume that I’m somehow part of the movement, because I participated in several of the major demonstrations and some blockades in counter-summits and I produced these 3 films, but I also produced some posters and billboards and other material which made some sense in certain situations. I mean, I never really had an intention to talk about this movement, so my approach always was to collect voices and to collect visual material and to give the voice to the people who have to say something about this issues and who are very often much deeper involved then myself, to give them the possibility to explain their ideas and strategies and concepts. And afterwards in the editing process you develop something which sometimes also goes a little away of this original idea and I think this is something normal in artistic production process.
So I’m not really interested in representing the movement or so and I don’t even know if this is possible at all, for me is fine to give some ideas of what people who participated in this events were thinking and then I hope I can produce something new on the basis of this materials I recorded. Something new, and this is very important for me, which can also be used by other activists for their own purposes. Like for example mobilizations for the future events. My films are being very often used by different groups mainly in Europe but also in North America, sometimes in Latin America in the mobilization for coming of blockades or demonstrations. And this shows me that this kind of production also have some sense and that it has meaning also beyond presenting it in the field of art.
“This is What Democracy Looks Like!”, “Disobbedienti” and “What it Would Mean to Win?” present three different modes of conceptualizing the interview. What can you comment in this respect?
I’m not a kind of artist who develops one strategy of how to do interviews, for example, and then continues with this for a couple of years and tries to put it on different issues and tries to use it in different issues. So I’m somehow trying to find an individual way of carrying out interviews, for example, that somehow fit in the context in my opinion. So the first film I did in connection to this “movement of movements” is this film, “This is What Democracy Looks Like!”, and in this film we have a very special situation of something that happened, which was not planned or could not be planned by anyone of the participating activists before. So I also did not know that it will happen, that almost 1000 demonstrators will be locked by the police for a duration of 7 hours and this incident was more or less the core material which was used as a basis for this film “This is What Democracy Looks Like!”. And what I did in this case is that I carried out a series of interviews solely with participants, people who were locked by the police with me for seven hours, in Salzburg, in Austria. The interviews were recorded several weeks afterwards, with a certain temporal distance from the event, so then people also had the idea to reflect about it, to read the newspapers or see the TV reports on this issue and with this delay of three or four weeks, I managed to carry out some interviews which are somehow more reflected then if I would have recorded it just while I was there and people probably would have been more nervous, because you didn’t know what would happen in the next few hours, would they be a teargased, would they be imprisoned, so I decided for this kind of interview.
The second film, which was launched very shortly afterwards and on which I started to work very soon after “This is What Democracy Looks Like!”, is the film Disobbedienti. And in Disobbedienti I made a decision to focus on probably the strongest group, in my opinion, that existed at that time, which means in the midst of 2001, so almost ten years ago. And this was this Italian group which practiced this updated form of civil disobedience. They called it social disobedience and the idea was to bring together a group of core participants and ask them about the history, political intentions, the activist practice and the hopes and ideas of connecting with other movements and for the future. So while in the first film the connection was more one event, in the second, it was more a certain practice and a certain identity.
And the third film I did in collaboration with the Australian artists Zanny Begg, it is entitled “What Would it Mean to Win?”. We produced a film or we thought we would produce a film which would be on the current state of the movement. That was a time when there were many voices saying that the movement was going through a tough time and that it got weaker or so and this are some things that can be shared. There is probably some truth in it but we decided quite clearly for the event, when we at least connected the wish to it that would show the movement somehow in a stronger appearance. This was this G8 Summit in 2007 in Heiligendamm in Germany, where it was already clear, half a year ago, that there will be more mobilization than in comparison to similar event in other regions.
The concept of this film changed a lot during the production, more than in other two films, because I got in contact with John Holloway quite early, a month or two months before this Summit and blockades happened, and I asked him if he would be available to talk about the current state of the movement in front of the camera. And I knew John from another project so I interviewed him for the previous project which he liked a lot, called “Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies”. So he immediately told me that he agrees and that I could do the interview whenever I wanted and gave me his cell phone number and things like that. And so we did this interview more or less before things really started. I mean, there were things like this big demonstration in Rostock, but the main blockade of the G8 Summit and even the Counter-Summit did not started at that time when we interviewed John Holloway. So we had time from when we did the interview to analyze it and we liked it really a lot and also thought that it is a fantastic interview, but at the same time we thought that our original idea to ask as well, very often, young people at the blockades about their intentions and hopes and experiences with this kind of practice, that this would probably not work so well with this wise old man at the same time in the combination. Then we adjusted our original concept slightly and try to get some of the main arguments out of this John Holloway’s interview and directly ask certain activists in relation to this arguments by John Holloway, connected through this. And I think that was working quite well, and at the same time we decided also to try to get more people who as well work on a very analytical level with this things. And then we decided also for this use of animations and tried to find a clear division between three different chapters which somehow developed out of the production. They were not clear from the beginning when we worked on it. I mean, they were maybe clear somehow through our questions but they became even clearer through this, that we decided on this as chapters.
performance, performativity, protest
What role do performative tactics play and how they disrupt the framework within which the protests are controlled by the state powers?
I think it is interesting if you watch these three films nowadays because they also show, not only different approaches by an artists or a group of artists towards different incidents that happened, but it also shows the changes this summits went through. So while at the beginning or so, in 2001 /2002, I think that the dominant concept which is highlighted through the film of “Disobeddienti” or “Tute Bianche” was still a male dominated concept of using their own body, protecting it with the foam rubber and hand made shields and try to enter the red zone. Sometimes symbolically and when there was enough men power, not woman power usually, then also really physically, they entered the red zone.
And this concept I think was mainly defeated in Genoa in 2001, and I think the concept died afterwards, it does not exist anymore in this context of counter-globalization movement. It exists maybe in other smaller movements where it can have the advantage to be a little bit unexpected but in this large movements that are usually being prepared for a year or even longer before, it does not work anymore. And I think that the strategy that is more dominating nowadays is this that individuals perform with different identities, like clowns for example, like clown army, the naked block or pink block or that they just wear different uniforms which has much more carnivalesque aspect and they challenge also the expectations I think, of the police or representations of the State through their events. And I think there is also much more humor embedded in it now, and this are also practices which can also be carried out from people who maybe don’t have broad shoulders and so, and the interesting thing is that this concept at least can be seen to be as effective than the previous concept, maybe it can be seen as more effective. Because something like a blockade in Heiligendamm or in other places has really an effect on how the whole Summit of the G8 in this two cases takes places. If the blockades disrupt all the streets to the Summit and if the people who make the Summit happen,- which is of course not only eight politicians, but there are security guys, cooks, translators, teams, the whole teams of translators between this different languages and different other stuff. If this all people are blocked from this location where the Summit takes place, than this has really an impact, I think, and the strategy is quite effective.
Volx Theater Karawane
The performances of Volx Theater Karawane, I think, this is very interesting thing that is also shown in this film that I did in 2001. They became famous because they got imprisoned for several weeks at the G8 Summit in Genoa which was just two or three weeks after this event in Salzburg I recorded in my film “This is What Democracy Looks Like!”. And I think their practice can be seen, not only, but as a kind of predecessor of this nowadays dominated performative practices of how do you move and appear in the framework of such a Summit. Unfortunately they don’t work together anymore nowadays, but at least here for Austria I think they had quite an impact. I mean, everyone knows them nowadays and not only people connected to art and activism but they also became kind of media stars, almost, you could say, because they have been in all the public media and because the Foreign Minister at that time also denounced them publically and denounced them as criminals and there was a big wave of solidarity, which as well was a much wider range of solidarity then just art and political scene.
The Five Finger Tactics
The five finger tactics is something quite simple which got developed something like 10 or 20 years ago in the course of blockades of train tracks, when castor – trains were transporting in Germany, at least in the German speaking context. This is where it was practiced over a longer time, maybe it was developed somewhere else. So Heiligendamm is not even a village, there are some houses and one of them is a luxury hotel. So this is really a countryside and the next city Rostock is, I think, 10 km away. And there was this Red Zone. They just built the fence, 10 or 15km long fence, just for this meeting. So can you imagine this waste of raw material? And they even build a second round of fence where you were also not allowed to enter. So the activists who went there and wanted to blockade, demonstrate, were actually standing in the field. And the police also wanted to hind the people from demonstrating there in the fields. And the tactics that was developed or used by the activists was this so called five finger tactics. That means not one or two or three groups go from different directions to the fence but many hundreds of very, very small groups of 10 to 12 or 15 maximum 20 people go and this are the fingers, right?. So, different fingers go from different directions and somehow try to grab this Red Zone or at least come as close as possible and just through the incredible amount of number of fingers, so people going in small groups were able to go around police, and they did not necessarily seek the confrontation with the police, this showed to be a really successful way of how to get to this red zones and demonstrate and blockade the street there. And for me as an artist it was also interesting because it did not only proof to be a highly successful tactic but it also created a really beautiful and wonderful images. So this activists very often, one with a flag, wondering in lines like a snake in order not to meet any police through this fields, it is also a really perfect image that it creates.
I want to tell you one anecdote connected to it. There was a kind of exhibition dealing with the G8 demonstrations at Rostock at the same time when there was the G8 Summit and the Counter-Summit and the director of it, who is a curator based in Berlin, who is maybe a good curator but not someone who is connected to the movement obviously. She said at the day on TV, -when all this imagery of the five finger tactics and all this people wondering around,- that the main thing of the exhibition is to do something visually new, because in demonstrations there is always the same level of images and this is so boring, and so the function of art is to create a new visibility and to challenge images and things like that ..She made this announcement at the same time when already the new image, the Image for this kind of practice was there. This was a quite nice metaphor for the disconnection which very often exist between art and activism.
“This is What Democracy Looks Like!” deconstructs the mass media representations of the protest in Salzburg; the gesture consists of exhibiting a mediality, of making a means visible as such.
If you participate in demonstrations it is a quite frequent feeling I experienced, but I know that also many other people experienced that the media representations is something completely different than what you experience personally. I mean, I’ve been in several demonstrations where you just had a good time and you ‘ve been walking around and shouting some slogans and talking to people and reading texts on banners and enjoying yourself and the day afterwards in the news coverage you see all the focus on violence. In this demonstrations on which I focused in this film “This is What Democracy Looks Like!”, this was quite obvious thing. Because, yes, there was a lot of violence, but there was no violence from demonstrators which would have been almost insane you could say. Because it was after all, a pretty small demonstration, and I think there was almost as much police as demonstrators in it. So there would not have been any chance to just through thinking logically of achieving anything with violence, but on the other hand there was just this violence by the State, right? This violence of forcing people for 7 hours in quite limited space without giving water, food or the possibility to go on a rest room. There were cases of violence from single policemen, when they beat up some demonstrators.
So there were different levels of violence but probably the biggest violence is this violence which tries to shift this violence from the side of the State to claim violence of the demonstrators. And the media really plays a central role in it and they love it, to focus it towards violence. There is this image in the film from the front page of the daily newspapers and there were three daily newspapers. One of them was also “Der Standard” which is usually seen as the most liberal daily newspaper, and all of them used the same image of the demonstrators trying to hit the policemen who had this robocop uniform, so they would not have been severely hurt if they would have been hit. I mean, this happened for sure, I also recorded it but in the duration of 8 or 9 or 10 hours, which this demonstration took, this was somehow an isolated event of two or three people and nothing which would really show something about the type of what really happened there. And at the same time there was almost no coverage of this fact that almost 1000 people have been detained in this police encirclement, which is of course a restriction of your democratic rights to demonstrate there, and there is also not really a legal framework for this kind of detainment.
What can you tell us about the image of cobble stones? Who filmed it and how this material was used as a counter-argument to the police accusations on the news report?
In this case, in the whole film something like one third, maybe a little more, I shoot myself. There were a couple of people with camcorders, with cameras on the demonstrations and I could get the material from some of them. The interesting story of this material with cobble stones is that this was recorded by a kind of alternative TV group connected to the University in Salzburg. They recorded it and thought it was a fantastic material and they wanted to sell it first to the Austrian TV station and when they realized they were not interested in purchasing it then they tried to donate it to the Austrian TV station because they wanted it to be broadcast. They thought this is really something special The policemen collecting cobble stones? Of course you can never proof that these were the same cobble stones that were presented the next day on TV. They claimed all the time that the cobble stones were being thrown on them, but no one at the demonstrations saw any activists throwing cobble stones, and I talked to many people there. I wouldn’t also have such a big problem if there would have been activists throwing cobble stones, but it was simply not the case. And Austrian TV station was simply not interested, so they were quite happy that I used this material. Of course in the film which was published half a year later because, you know, as an artist you need more time and you are not working so fast as these TV stations. And another story is that I really tried quite hard in this case to bring this film also on TV, as it works kind of as a counter-story to this public TV report. As well to have a chance to bring it to a similar audience, even if it’s half a year later.
And I have to say that I was actually quite successful with that because I got the place to broadcast it on TV, not at prime time, but around noon I got this half an hour to present it there. And just, I think, five days before it was being broadcast, or maybe it was a week, they called me and told me “we are very sorry, but we cannot show it”, and the director for the Department of Culture in that TV station who is usually not involved in what the small program departments decide for in this case she heard about this film from the legal department and said it was not possible to show it. So they cancelled it and it was just before the contract was signed. Finally it was not shown on the Austrian TV, which was already quite bad thing. It was not really produced for that but that would have been a major platform, of course, to present it. But there is also this level of violence because, yes, there is a TV that says of course that they have to show things with a certain neutrality, but this so called neutrality which I would say is kind of myth excludes certain things which maybe have a certain ideology which TV station does not see as what they consider to be neutral.
Before how to resist we should ask how to think. How do you understand the term resistance in relation to your art projects?
Resistance is one of the central subjects I have been focusing on. So I have somehow an interest that I have been reflecting on in my work, on resistance. There is an interest in analysis and critique of the existing system and there is an interest in the alternatives to the existing. And this three main focuses continuously combine and connect within my artistic practice over the last ten years or so, I could say, in relation to different movements, in relation to different countries, in relation to different activist groups and for me it is not very important question if my artistic practice is a form of resistance itself, probably it is for some artists, but I don’t create my identity out of this fact and I would also not argue that my work is a form of resistance. But I somehow connect to resistance movements and I connect to struggles which are created or which locate themselves in resistance against and/or to cure a capitalist system, so, there is a close connection to resistance as well. And after I did this film, “This is What Democracy Looks Like!”, this was probably the film which opened my work to international presentations. So until that point I think that majority of presentations I had, exhibitions, also screenings were simply self organized. And with this film I also got invitations to present it in a places where I didn’t have personal connections to people. And if you just look at my biography from that point on I think there is a certain percentage of group shows or screening programs where my work have been presented, which just uses the notion of resistance in the title. And my work is very often been introduced or presented as project connected to resistance. I somehow see that this is where my work is being presented but at the same time I also don’t want to limit my work to such an aspect. I also did a couple of different projects where resistance does not play the role at all so I also see it from this perspective. I as well want to avoid the limit to this aspect.
How did you produce these three documentaries and in which way do you relate the forms of presentation to the context in which you present your work?
All these three films I did on the “movement of movements” are somehow self organized and self decided projects. In the recent years it also happened that I got invitations to work on different issues but this was not the case with this projects so I really wanted to do them and had the urge and also wanted to raise the funding from the very beginning. In general I’m working with different kind of fundings and this was not really different in this case. I was writing applications and working with public funding. If I’m invited to exhibitions I try to use production funds also from this side, and sometimes I also try to get film funding and in certain projects it is also possible to just get funding from political foundations who are not connected to art at all. And the funding of these three films was also the mixture of this different sources.
In some of my films I decided for formats that go beyond the sober one channel presentations. In case of “This is What Democracy Looks Like!” I did this one channel video, which can be presented on TV, it was later on presented on TV or it can be presented in cinemas, festivals and it was presented in some festivals and also in one day events in art institutions. But for exhibitions I preferred to present two channel video installation, where there are two channels with video projection which are being put together in the corner. The sound of the project is divided to two sources so there is the original sound of the demonstrations and there is a sound of the people who make commentaries afterwards, which in the installation is in the backside of the space. And people have just the possibility to walk in this space and through the positioning in the space they can also decide if they really want to be in this intense and very often overwhelming feeling of different sound and noises in the demonstration or if they move more to the back, then it’s more the analytical approach or the experience of the people who participated in it. So this installation somehow work with this, and you could also mix the sources of what was your position in the space which is not possible in one channel installation, of course.
And for the third film, “What Would it Mean to Win?”, most of the time it was just being presented as a film, but we also did the installation that was presented I think two or three times, where we tried to combine all three films we did on the counter-globalization movement, and we (me and Zanny Begg) tried to create a framework that was presented with other materials. So we had a quite nice exhibition in Copenhagen for example, where we had one huge space, aporx. 75 m2 and for this space Zanny did a huge wall drawing which is kind of a timeline, that starts somehow in 1994 when the Zapatistas emerged over 1999 in Seattle and 2001 Genoa and 2007 Heiligendamm to the G8 Summit in Japan, which I think it was the last one at that time, when we did the exhibition. But it also showed certain influences, certain theories, certain practices, connected certain forms of criminalization, so it really gave somehow a timeline of central lines and in between there were the monitors with the films, but also further material and in this framework it makes also a lot of sense to present it, just to provide a richer context than just the films.