In what way do you consider yourself a political actor;
do you call yourself an activist and your actions
All of my projects are political to some extent. They
are realized in public spaces, as theme-specific installations
in exhibitions, or as videos. Considering these different
formats, it is clear that the projects function in different
ways, are being realized for different viewers, and
cause different reactions. Some of my works are closely
related to activism, for example the video This
is what democracy looks like! (38 min, 2002), which
I created as a participant in a counter-globalization
demonstration, or the video Disobbedienti (54 min, 2002) featuring the Italian activist movement.
But there are other projects which have no relation
to activism. I call myself an artist rather than an
activist, because I see myself more as an artist who
realizes some of his work in relation to activism than
an activist with a background as an artist.
have you chosen to focus on economic power structures?
does the project "Alternative Economics, Alternative
Societies" relate to your earlier work?
first project I worked on in relation to economy was
a series of exhibitions called "The global 500,"
which started in 1999. It was based on research on the
protagonists of economic globalization, the 500 largest
transnational corporations. This work could be described
as a kind of analysis and criticism of hegemonic economics
in the context of an exhibition. Later, I focused more
on the resistance against capitalism and made the two
videos mentioned. From this point on, it became the
next logical step in my artistic practice to focus on
concepts and models for alternatives that share a rejection
of the capitalist system of rule. This topic is characterized
through its absence in so many theoretical descriptions
about the capitalist economy, which made it even more
interesting for me to initiate my own research – which
is being presented as the ongoing exhibition project
"Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies."
I think it is absolutely crucial to concentrate on alternatives
at a time when the neoliberal slogan "there is
no alternative" still dominates.
are your own ideas about democracy and alternative economies
and societies? How do you view social change and societies’
development into hierarchical power structures?
me, there are some basic principles that have to be
fulfilled in an ideal future society: It has to be a
real, direct democracy, and not this fake democracy
we are forced to live in today. Basic needs of every
person have to be satisfied, for example through a living
wage. Enterprises should be organized through self-management
by the people working in them. The power structures
of state and private capital, etc., have to be dismantled.
I am not sure how a society based on such principles
could be best achieved and organized... I am very attached
to the Zapatist concept of "asking we walk"
("preguntando caminamos"). With "asking
we walk" one’s own practice is analyzed while one
carves out a new path that has not been determined from
the outset. This principle is also mirrored in the conceptual
framework of "Alternative Economics, Alternative
Societies," as this project involves ongoing research
for an ongoing project, and I do not know where it will
lead to in upcoming years.
are your goals and intentions with the project? How
could it expand?
you believe in utopia today?
intention of the project is simply to provide people
with ideas, on which a society better than the existing
one might be based. Such a society should not be achieved
through a kind of master-plan that some small elite
has in mind. It should be a large process based on broad
dialogue, involving as many people as possible. It has
to be a kind of open, transparent, bottom-up policy
development process. In one of the videos I realized
for "Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies,"
the German writer Christoph Spehr points out that utopian
thinking today does not have to be prescriptive in the
sense that it dictates what to do. I am very much in
favor of developing a society along such non-prescriptive
lines. You still might call such a society utopian,
but it would be very different from the kind of utopias
we have experienced in the past.
the framework of "Alternative Economics, Alternative
Societies," theoretical concepts of alternative
economics and societies, historical models which might
be worth considering, and some more utopian or literary
concepts are presented as 20- to 37-minute long videos.
For the future I would be interested in expanding this
pool of videos through some currently existing examples
of alternative models, which can, for example, be found
in regions in South America. Some of the project’s videos
also discuss strategies and ideas for transition, how
to get from here to there.
do you want to position your viewer?
the exhibition "Alternative Economics, Alternative
Societies," the viewer normally starts to walk
around in the exhibition space reading the adhesive
film lettering stuck to the floor. These texts are quotes
from the videos, which are being presented on separate
monitors in different parts of the exhibition space.
The videos are presented non-hierarchically in the exhibition,
and the several-meter-long floor texts lead the visitor
directly towards the video from where the quote is taken.
So a visitor normally starts to watch a video that he
or she thinks might be interesting after having read
the quote. Some people spend over two hours in the exhibition
and watch all the videos, others watch maybe ten minutes
of one video and a few minutes of another and pick out
those ideas they feel are worth considering, think about
them, maybe talk to other people in the exhibition,
combine them with one another or with ideas they already
had in mind.
can art be effective? Do you think political art has
the potential to really change social debate and the
discussion about social and economic alternatives is
marginalized not only by the dominant media, but by
left oppositions in parliaments, by the majority of
NGOs, by most theorists and philosophers, and even by
large segments of the counter-globalization movement.
Nowadays, almost everybody knows the disastrous effects
capitalism has and that it means death to millions of
people in the South each year, but we are all still
struggling to survive within this system, to gain small
advantages. Through our activities we keep this system
alive – because perspectives for alternatives are not
really known and considered. Through this work, I am
attempting to take a few small steps. I do some research
into models of economic and social alternatives, and
make this research available through the videos I create,
which are being added to this pool of information in
the ongoing exhibition series. I am using the space
of art to make this research and information accessible
to some people, because I have the feeling that art
is one of the areas in which it is still possible to
address critical issues. Very often art itself is considered
a form of utopian thinking. But not many artists commit
their work to political, social, and economic utopian
thinking, which seems to me to be of major importance
nowadays. I am simply taking a few steps, and hope a
couple of people will be inspired by my work.
you think it is possible to change economic reality?
to change economic reality can already be seen today.
After the breakdown of the neoliberal economy in Argentina,
wide segments of the Argentinean population tried to
change existing political conditions. They organized
in neighborhood assemblies, practiced mass "proletarian
shopping," occupied factories and enterprises,
which were collectivized and run by the workers on their
own. Currently, we have an interesting situation in
Venezuela, where the left-wing government in office
supports a process of democratization of the economy
and the whole society. Of course such tendencies are
confronted with many difficulties. There are boycotts
and the U.S. even supported a coup by the right-wing
opposition in Venezuela against the democratically elected
government. But at least we see that alternatives to
neoliberal capitalism are possible, and at the same
time we also see that they are being oppressed by global
capital, by European states, and the U.S. So this is
why it is extremely important that the radical political
opposition in the centers of capital gains power against
the political elites. If over the period of several
years such a process of resistance is successful, a
change in economic realities could at least become imaginable.
you think art can work as an intermediary and creative
power to change society and people?
sometimes it can work. Art can be a very successful
means in specific situations. Remember, for example,
the poster campaigns artists and artistic collectives
realized within the Act-up movement in the 1980s in
the U.S., which raised public awareness for the Aids
epidemic and urged the conservative U.S. administration
to change their politics of ignoring the Aids crisis.
But Act-up is also an example which shows that art can
succeed in gaining larger influence only in collaboration
with other social groups. In many of these socially
motivated collaborations the necessity to define the
activities as "art" is not so strong. People
from different backgrounds simply spend some time together
and get something done.
there be a risk of losing power by acting as art?
our society a kind of art dominates, which, in its more
interesting cases through its structure and hidden references,
is difficult to understand, and in the worst cases tries
to fulfill needs of beauty, entertainment, or simply
to function as a symbol of representation of those in
power. It is quite clear that these functions have a
huge influence on the predominate image of "art."
the term "art" is also used for a much smaller
percentage of art practices, which deal with and intervene
in the political and social realm and have little to
do with being a status symbol for a rich, self-proclaimed
elite. In such a situation, it can be very important
for strategic reasons to emphasize the fact that politically
engaged art is also art, in order that the definitional
power of what art is, is not left exclusively to commercial
galleries and the art market. The last two Documentas
were very important also because they presented political
art as "art" that is important to a large
strategies I develop in my work differ from project
to project, because each work normally provides a different
strategy. I am interested in transferring issues from
the real political space to the symbol-political space,
and maybe back again. Working on theme-specific projects
like this, I think it is extremely important to realize
the projects in a way that they can be read and understood
not only by experts of contemporary art, but also by
a broader public, to counter the isolationist tendencies
of the art field. But it depends on the context: Whereas
in one context it might be important for me to emphasize
the fact that my work is art, in another context, for
example when working in public inner-city spaces, it
might be necessary to realize work which also functions
under the condition that people are not aware of the
fact that what they see is art.
interview was carried out by Anna Liv Ahlstrand for
the Swedish magazine Hjärnstorm.
on Oliver Ressler’s projects can be found at www.ressler.at