Oliver Ressler: On the Visible and the Invisible

Artist and filmmaker Oliver Ressler talks to Mike Watson on the possibility of positively changing the world through activist art

By Mike Watson

Oliver Ressler, The Visible and the Invisible, 2014 (film still). Courtesy the artist Oliver Ressler,The Fittest Survive, 2006 (film still). Courtesy the artist

Oliver Ressler is an Austrian artist and filmmaker, based in Vienna, who produces installations, projects in the public realm and films on subjects including economics, democracy, global warming, forms of resistance and social alternatives.

Mike Watson is an art theorist, critic and curator based in Italy who is principally focused on the relation between art and politics, and is a regular contributor to ArtReview

Mike Watson: So we met a few years ago when I was doing some research on occupied art spaces in Milan. Since then we’ve been in continual dialogue about the social potential of art. Over that time I have tended to be more critical about the possibility of positively changing the world through activist art. You, Oliver, have tended to be a bit more positive and, I would argue, utopian. We take these different approaches maybe because I am a critic and it’s my job to be critical! In any case, I’d like to take this opportunity to assess between us the current state of political art by considering your own output in the context of the wider realm of political and social art.

I am going to start by talking about your approach to the people you work with, by that I mean the people in your films, your anthropological approach, and how you build relationships. Basically, how do you choose people to approach and then how do you build up a dialogue so that you get certain messages back? Do you deliberately aim for certain messages? I think that what is very interesting in your 2006 short film The Fittest Survive, for example, is this negative portrayal where you have an ex-army soldier training managerial people to go into situations in war zones, a kind of corporate vacation where employees experience staged war scenarios. It looked kind of slightly absurd the whole thing. And then somewhere towards the end of the film there is a section where the ex-army guy starts talking alone and then one starts to get a feeling of sympathy for him after realising he has been through a war situation. There is kind of a big contrast, I don't know if that was the plan. I wanted to start with how you choose people and how you ensure impartial representation with these people?

Oliver Ressler: There is a different answer for every film. Very often I work with activists of social movements. Sometimes I know these people already. Other times I use contacts I have to get into contact with others. Or sometimes I shoot in cities where I just ask some friends who I know to help put me in touch or to share some critical things and so I get my interviews mainly through personal contacts I have already established through my work. In the case of The Fittest Survive, that was probably the most complicated film I have ever done when it comes to permissions. If I remember rightly I needed more than half a year to find a private security company that permitted me to film. My attempts to obtain permissions failed quite frequently and also changed how I approached them. At some point I managed to get permission, however it was a mixture between high risk and quite a lot of luck I would say. But finally I got access. I actually never felt sympathy for any of the people in the film, neither the corporate employees or their ex-military trainers. I found the latter super-cynical and very aggressive towards victims and war.

MW: Did your presence change the way people were behaving? Or how do you account for the fact you were there with a camera? Do you feel, more specifically, the kind of obligations a documentary maker should feel? Because there is this idea that documentary filmmakers should be impartial. Certainly what you were saying was that you had no idea of being impartial, that you felt the situation was absurd and you wanted to portray it in that way. So is this something you are allowed to do because you are an artist or do you have a specific approach for other reasons?

OR: I think if you put a camera into a certain situation you always change the situation. I always get into situations in which I work with clear ideas of why I am doing something. In the case of The Fittest Survive and the environment of training corporate employees for working in war scenarios I had absolutely no sympathy for the subjects. I also do not believe in this concept of neutrality, I believe there is no neutral position from which a film can be produced. This is a bourgeois myth.

MW: Then your approach is ideological? You go into a situation saying ‘I want to portray this as a political issue’, with a particular left wing focus, irrespective of what the subject/s of the film think or feel?

OR: I am always taking an ideological approach. For example, when I work with activists where I share the goals or the political ideas then the films I produce become a kind of platform for their ideas and political practice. In The Fittest Survive, I could have easily made the film based on interviews with these guys. Quite clearly, for conceptual reasons, I did not. I have no intention to create platforms for corporate employees.

MW: I think that we can establish that your approach is ideological and you don’t go into a situation trying to understand it on neutral terms. You go into a situation trying to say something political?

OR: … and I don’t think everyone deserves understanding.

MW: I don’t disagree, I think it depends on trying to establish the terms for which you choose people and how you interact with them. Though moving on, you have a strong aesthetic sense. How does this fit with your political sense? Because they are two quite different things. I guess the aesthetic device is what you use to get across a political position? For example, in The Visible and the Invisible, 2014, there is this blank grey screen for several minutes which slowly starts to open up onto an industrial landscape. The effect is at first confusing to the viewer, as if maybe the video is broken, but is then revealed as a rhetorical device...

OR: Yes, sure, this is a piece of art and I have a clear agenda with every piece of work I am doing. I know what direction I want to go before I start a work, even when you work with people this is a demanding process. Sometimes there are certain aesthetic decisions that are already being made before I start to film. But then there are also certain decisions that I just make during the editing process. In the case of The Visible and the Invisible originally I was planning a completely different film for which unfortunately I could never raise the budget. Often the budget influences aesthetic decisions and the format. And in this case I was working in a city, in Geneva, where I spent time frequently over a period of three years. I was an artist in residence at Utopiana, a nonprofit organisation who invited me to work there and helped a lot with the film.

I very soon realised that the city where I was researching was more or less the hub for commodity markets but that they were completely invisible. You couldn’t see anything of the headquarters of these corporations, which are very different to the headquarters of corporations such as Microsoft, Google or General Motors, for example. Upon visiting all these commodity traders, I also realised that the way in which they are hidden has really a lot to do with their desire to hide their complicity with the dangerous and exploitative industry of mineral extraction. I got this idea that I somehow have to work with these hidden layers, with this visibility and invisibility. Then this idea popped up, you analysed it in your question, to use this fog, which at the same time can also be seen as emissions or as some kind of veil or curtain that covers some of the visual material, very slowly opening up to reveal something, before concealing it again.

MW: I think it is an interesting approach because you’re dealing with something that is very political, ideological even, and then you have this other element which involves aesthetics and even beauty at some points. So you combine what are often considered to be two conflicting approaches. Political art is often very activist, so the aesthetic aspect is not so important, except where it mimics real activist aesthetics, whereas an aesthetic approach tries to make a better world, but by making it more beautiful. So there are these two very contrasting ways of somehow making art useful, and it is not often we see them work in tandem.

OR: Would you consider this second artistic approach as political art? I don’t know that I would.

MW: Well, this debate really goes back to the beginnings of modernist aesthetics and Kant’s Third Critique, where he argues that the existence of a common sense of beauty implies that it might be possible to conceive of a common ethical sense. So it is interesting you combine these two things.

OR: Well, I deal with political issues which I try to give precise form to and I am also interested in finding a new form for each work, because each work is different and always when you work with people you get different responses that make the recorded material unique. 

MW: Moving on, to apply our critique to the artworld itself, is it possible for a global art world to somehow react to the wrongdoings of a global capitalist system? Or, put otherwise, is political art viable within a world in which capitalism transcends national boundaries and ignores human rights? To what extent can a globalised political art form be used to supplement the left, on a global level?

it can be an important function of political art to make things that are being kept invisible visible

OR: I think we can observe that there have been more and more exhibitions in recent years focusing on social and political wrongdoings. The question is how effective this is and I think we have to bear in mind that there are so many different approaches. You used this term, ‘political art’, but there are so many different approaches within this umbrella.

MW: It’s a growing field with many different facets, but I think the important thing is that we don't formulate a global political art field that starts making excuses for the bad political systems we have. I mean, if global political art, or political art on a global level is not actually doing anything directly political, and is only representing politics, it can be used by corporations to whitewash what they are up to. So either something really has teeth and can really critique and really do something, or it is something worse than just aesthetic art, it is worse than just painting flowers. There is a certain responsibility in saying one is a political artist or curator. You cannot just wear the badge of being a political artist, something more has to happen.

OR: I think there is always the risk that it becomes an empty gesture. All activities included in the field of art, including political art can somehow be potentially commodified and absorbed by the art market. Take biennials, for example. I think I heard there is something like 600 biennials in the world nowadays. At least there are many, I think that in relation to this number that there are only a small minority that really appeal to political art. I think that every biennial is somehow political or can be considered as political because a big majority of all biennials are initiated and funded for city branding, which is of course a very political act, but probably not one we would agree with, in the sense that there is a corporate element.

MW: I think the main thing is that when one says that they are doing something that’s what they ought to be doing. When a policemen does not act in an ethical way, this creates a big disappointment with respect to the role of the police. We are supposed to expect policemen to do the right thing and when they don't, they don't just ruin the image of each other, they ruin the image of ethics; of the possibility of doing the right thing. So when an artist claims to be acting politically and doesn't, they don't just ruin the image of political art, they ruin the vision that maybe we could have a good politics full stop. We always need to push to find ways to be more effective. Political art must be literally political, not just playing around themes of politics. Though this is a very tricky thing because it’s quite rare to have a political arts situation where you can really say: 'that is acting on some concrete level politically and it’s literally changing something'. I can’t think of really many examples. You have done a lot of work with activist spaces abroad, can you think of any examples that were genuinely concretely political?

OR: I would say that if you produce works that are being used by social movements and that are being used to inform a younger generation and to mobilise for demonstrations, this can be described as a political art work. There are works that function like this. Then we also overcome the narrow boundaries of the art scene and not only through presenting works also in film festivals.

MW: I guess it depends on what is one’s definition of a viable political artwork. Is it something that changes a few people’s minds? Or is it something that really changes something more at a societal level? This is a difficult issue…

OR: I think you cannot expect to cause a revolution with political art…

MW: No, not with one work, people have to be realistic. You talk a lot about the visible and the invisible faces of capitalism. This is major theme throughout your work. For example, we have visible forms of profit, we have numbers and commodities, these are the presentable faces of capital, this is what capital does, which accumulates and creates wealth. And we have the invisible side, which is the brutal underside of capital. And you talked about this in terms of commodities in Switzerland, in the prison and the vast prison complex (in European Corrections Corporation), which has been privatised and rolled out across the West. You talked about the majority of the prison population being working class, this being something in Britain that is shocking, but in America, if you look at the American prison system it is even worse because it is also not just working class people but the majority of them are coloured people and they have a much bigger prison population.

Thinking about this, there is the very topical issue of invisible military activity which we see (or we sense) in Syria now, with different nations fighting a proxy war relating to mineral resources that are also largely invisible to us. We don't really know what’s happening in Syria. We can’t understand who is fighting whom and for what motives apart from the obvious financial ones.

When Baudrillard wrote his book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991), he was writing about the Gulf War, when America, Britain and various allies liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, which whilst being very real for those who fought it, was effectively staged to convey a sense of US supremacy. George Bush wanted this world order to establish America as the policeman of the world, it wasn't minor if you were killed in it, but there was a fairly quick and small scale conflict made into something Hollywood-like on TV. Now you have these kind of wars in Ukraine, and again now in Syria, where the idea isn't to try and portray a Hollywood style conflict, but just to completely hide everything. This is a significant change in approach. So firstly, what do you think about that? And what do you think is the potential for art making visible these kinds of otherwise invisible non doings?

OR: Well, maybe the US or NATO realised that there was a lot of critique of the imagery that was used in the first Gulf War, right? I mean there were animations from completely different contexts or that were staged just in order to provide materials for the media; there were imbedded journalists that were just brought into certain situations which had nothing to do with the war. There was a real war of images but I think there was some discussion afterwards about that, so the military just changed strategy and they try now to keep things invisible. In my opinion, it can be an important function of political art to make things that are being kept invisible visible but, at the same time, I am also not sure if this is enough, right? I think it is super important to analyse and to provide information and to give a platform but at the same time I think this enlightenment model cannot be the end. I think my work is also reflecting this a lot, that you need to connect this informative level to forms of resistance for example, or even maybe to include ideas for alternative organising, to look beyond the existing structures of domination.

MW: Yes, I agree. I think that making things visible is very important but then we can also use art spaces to rethink strategies politically, so we understand what’s really happening. Art spaces can then be used as think tanks so that we can then propose other ways of doing things.

So finally, you have been working for nearly two decades, what is your next project?

OR: I am currently working on a cycle of factories under workers’ control in Europe. So factories where the workers decided at some point to occupy their workplaces and then these workers struggles radicalised, they kicked out the bosses and decided to continue with the production on their own or establish a new form of production, usually a more ecological one. All of the decisions are being carried out in workers’ assemblies. These are factories in Europe that are being run democratically. I am planning to do a cycle of films about these worker-controlled factories in collaboration with the sociologist and filmmaker Dario Azzellini. We have already finished three of these 30-minute-long films on factories in Milan, Rome and Thessaloniki. The plan, which depends on budgets, is to add more factories in the future.

MW: I think this is a point worth making because I am constantly working around these themes: I think one of the really crucial things is that there is a kind of work ethic, not in the Protestant work ethic sense, but in that the artists who speak as political artists need to be able to demonstrate a work ethic in line with a full time revolutionary. One cannot say ‘we want to change the world through art’ then only do it ‘part time’ because it requires a constant level of work that people can see and that can be exemplary for people. I think that one very positive thing about your practice is that one can see a sustained level of artwork around this theme.

This interview is adapted from a live dialogue which took place at Medienwerkstatt, Vienna on 10th October 2015.

Oliver Ressler's exhibition Last Gasp Of Things As They Are, is showing at GPL Contemporary, Wien, Austria through 16 July 2016.

For further information on Oliver Ressler’s work see www.ressler.at.

Online exclusive published 28 June 2016.