This is what democracy looks like!

by Marina Grzinic

This is what democracy looks like!, video by Oliver Ressler, 2002

Boygirl, video by Aurora Reinhard, 2002

Hostage: The Bachar Tapes, video by Walid Ra’ad, 2001

This is what democracy looks like! records the first Austrian anti-global demonstrations on the occasion of the World Economic Forum on July 1, 2001 in Salzburg. The anti-capitalist demonstrators against the World Economic Forum (a private lobbying organization of major capital) in Salzburg were ferociously handled by the Austrian police: 900 demonstrators were encircled and held captive by the police in the open space of the City of Salzburg for more than seven hours. The video consists of visual material from the demonstration, edited and spliced with additional reflections on the events in Salzburg given by six demonstrators. The video is a precise re-articulation of the event that also shows how mass media and the general public are caught up in a process of falsification, misinterpretation of facts, relations and positions. The importance of the video work is multi-leveled.

First, the video is an accurate analysis and a representation of the anti-global and anti-capitalist demonstrations in the heart of what is considered as the Western liberal democracy. The analysis of the media, state forces of repression, i.e. the police, the public expression of calls for civil rights to be fulfilled and the whole structure of the clash between the state repressive apparatus and the civil rights demonstrators is recorded here, edited and spoken from the center(s) of the capitalist Empire and not from somewhere else, where basic democratic rights are under heavy attack anyway. In short, it is possible to discern from the way the video is structured some of the key elements of contemporary capitalism, state repressive forces and how these conspire to cause what are supposed to be Western liberal democratic rights are disintegrating – and simultaneously reconstituted, if always in a different manner. When processes of the inalienable right to demonstrate, to criticize and to perform publicly ostensibly threaten the fabric of the capitalist machine, they are transformed immediately (in other words without delay), especially in a state of emergency, at the place of intervention. There, liberal democratic rights are simply reduced to paper tigers with no teeth at all. The video therefore presents / encodes democracy in contemporary capitalistic states as a point of standstill between two blocks. And what waits to be put to work? This is precisely the “state of exception.” Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher stated in the mid-90s that the juridical norm of 20th century capitalist democracy is precisely the law of exception / emergency, and what we witness in the video is likewise the complete and terminal fusion of the biological body, but without the polls. Indeed, the encircled demonstrators, retained for several hours in an open space, actually visualize the paradigm of the (concentration) camp rather than that of the open public space of the City of Salzburg. This is again something that Agamben formulated, saying that today the bio-political paradigm in Western civilization is the (concentration) camp and not the City.

Power is not simply in the hands of the sovereign, nor in the hands of a single class or group, and cannot therefore be articulated only at the level of a consciousness, as a case of distorted consciousness. The materialistic paradigm is not enough here. This is why for Ressler video power is not the “obscure camera of ideology”, but through the analysis of movements, density of moods, body approaches in the contexts of the demonstration, Ressler produces a lucidity that almost can blind us, the viewers. For here power can be identified at the level of investment in the body. According to Foucault nothing is more material than the exercise of power; Ressler takes precisely this path toward visualization, to again quote Foucault, showing “the architecture, anatomy, economy and mechanism of how the body is disciplined.” (1) This can be clearly seen in the structure of the video, which shows us the architecture of the body-body relationship (the en-circled process of pressure); the economy of deprivation (the hours of immobility) and the mechanism of fear and anxiety. And what is more important, here we see the structure of power in the field of vision – the power of the surveillance and the eye of the power, the video codes in the most actual way. There is a certain backdrop of visuality, a sorting of bodies, scales, lights and gazes, in the mass media, especially in corporate television. And it is trying to convince us by means of its purported general objectivity of the balance of forces in the field of active demarcation. What is hidden in such (TV) programs is the space between the eye and the gaze or image of vision. The image of vision, as is consistently illustrated by Ressler’s video, is something other than the eye, it comes from the outside, emanates from the field of the Other. The gaze is always something precarious, contingent, dependent, unstable. In general we can say that looking is something contingent. The excess, the surplus of the gaze that surpasses the naked eye is something that is structured around a “manque”, a lack, a disfiguration. An objective camera eye simply does not exist, this is why the camera angle in Ressler’s video blends with the perspective of the demonstrators. As viewers we are in direct relation with the events by seeing them through the demonstrators’ viewpoint. The place of the image of vision and its reversal are crucial. And as regards the image of vision it is more important to include the third element between the body and that image, namely power. The way the visual materials (visual documentation, as it were) and the statements / interviews by the six demonstrators are spliced is not that of illustration. The images do not illustrate the statements or vice versa. The interviews in Ressler’s video are specifically designed to encode what is at stake in the visual field of power.

What is clearly presented here is that the relationship between the visual and the discursive is not one of correspondence. There is no common territory, as it were, in which image and word happily meet; instead, they meet each other in a “non-space” with relation to power, as Foucault would say. This is exactly Ressler’s video (medium) of power.

This is an appropriate moment to include the video work boygirl by Aurora Reinhard (also awarded in the 2002 competition) in my analysis. What is the idea of femininity, or better to say, what is the story of identity? For women and men, the masquerade is crucially important. Both identities are in relation to manque, castration and loss, although these identities are not, under no circumstances, symmetrical. There is no one-dimensional female identity, for her the function of veiling, of the macula, of the appearance and semblance (or symbolically being a phallus) is crucial. Boygirl is about the function of velling, of the macula, of the appearance and semblance and about the primal scene of fetishism. In the video boygirl we hear about the life of the person(s) on the screen, look at their face(s); while we expect from the visual introduction that these are men, the shock is produced by the fact that they are all women. Instead of the penis, there is – nothing. The same shock is detected among the general public as regards these girls. They are shocked, in fact some freak out (as it is said in the video, by one of the interviewed woman), when they realize, looking at them, for example in the swimming pool, that where they expect to see something on the girls’ bodies there is – nothing. This video work is therefore again about the already mentioned cut between the gaze and the eye.

And, to keep rigorously with the analysis lets see what is about the video work Hostage: The Bachar Tapes, by Walid Ra’ad (another awarded tape in the 2002 competition). In Walid Ra’ad’s video we have the reversal of the boygirl’s described primal scene of fetishism. In Hostage: The Bachar Tapes initially we get the feeling that this is “nothing” – a kind of a (simple), though dramatic documentary, but suddenly, and here the shock is even doubled, we get something – a fatal fiction. We were expecting “too little” from this supposedly stereotypical documentary narration, but we got in the end “too much”: a story based on codes of complete arbitrariness. The story about the documentary that turns into a fiction or fake (and vice versa) is carefully constructed in the video from the first moment on, but we cannot simply grasp it from the beginning. This video clearly shows that the image of vision (as opposed to the eye) is based on the outside, emanates from the field of the other.

Both videos, boygirl and This is what democracy looks like! pertain to a tragic dimension of a masquerade; to the very last, both are forced stories about appearance. Boygirl is the masquerade of femininity: under the mask of femininity there is – nothing. Oliver Ressler’s video is a masquerade about democracy. Under the mask of democracy in capitalistic democratic systems today we encounter the (Scmittian / Agamben) – “law of exception”. The video by Walid Ra’ad, on the contrary, can be seen in such a context as a purely radical travesty (if we think of the boygirl video, for example, as having a homosexual narrative), and as a work of complete arbitrariness. Transvestitism can be seen in such a context, as the famous Freud concept of “the uncanny”, the frightening feeling of the familiar, which constantly includes a weird strangeness. In Ra’ad’s work we are confronted with the “mise en scene” of “appearance” in the mass media. There, documentaries, descriptions and editing seem to be a pure semblance. Yet precisely this is what constitutes the power of the mass media, and this is likewise the power of the video work by Ra’ad. Ra’ad’s work is therefore a kind of reversed symmetry of the hysterical view. With its travesty we can also imagine its plot as a farce, while boygirl and This is what democracy looks like! are inscribed in the realm of tragedy.

Looking at these three videos through the only perspectives possible (namely non-essentialism and strict anti-documentary positioning of reality), in the end we witness three stories of the power of discrepancy between the gaze and the eye.

Last but not least, it is necessary to read the apparatus of repression in Ressler’s video as a mere semblance of justice. Yet Oliver Ressler’s video is also an act of power; it shows the internal power of the demonstrators, as they are capable of articulating precisely what their own position is, rethinking their moves, contemplating their present position and their possible future defeats. With its proper exhibitionism the anti-global movement claims back for itself a position of power. Because power is grounded in the spectacle. The video is therefore also a process of rendering the body of the anti-global movement spectacular (but without commercialization!). To put it in a nutshell: it is much better to exhibit power than to be the instrument of power, such as is the police – the apparatus of repression – in the final instance. Through the video analysis, the anti-global movement completes a short circuit: it exhibits power embedded in its spectacular function. It is a re-articulation of a proper position as an emancipatory act.


  • Giorgio Agamben, “Forma-di-vita,” in Mezzi senza fine. Note sulla politica, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 1996, pp. 13-19.
  • Michel Foucault, “Body/Power,” in C. Gordon, ed., Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge, The Harvester Press, Brighton 1980, p. 57.

(1) Michel Foucault: “Body/Power”, in C. Gordon (Hg.), Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge, Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1980, p. 57

from: Könches/Weibel: Bildercodes – internationaler medienkunstpreis 2002