Barnaby Drabble in conversation with Oliver Ressler
Barnaby Drabble: Hello, Oliver, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I want to start by asking you about the series of films entitled Everything’s Coming Together While Everything’s Falling Apart which you’re making at the moment about environmental activism.
Oliver Ressler: The material for the first film, Everything’s Coming Together While Everything’s Falling Apart: COP21, was gathered in Paris in December 2015. The COP is the name given to the annual climate change conference under the umbrella of the United Nations and in Paris it was already in the twenty-first year and it’s considered, even in hindsight, to have been one of the most important ones. This was because the majority of the states present managed to reach an agreement to limit the increase of the average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius in relation to pre-industrial levels.
The problem with this agreement they came up with is that it was non-binding while, on the contrary, agreements like those set up to establish free trade, for example, are all binding agreements. This already shows how much importance the states who come to such meetings really put on global warming, because of course the agreements that were made in the framework of the World Trade Organization effectively contradict the steps necessary to limit or reduce global warming.
BD: Talk to me about why you decided to go to COP21 – what was your intention in making this short film?
OR: It was already quite clear at the beginning of my research that the COP21 would be accompanied by an important mobilisation. Many of my works are related to demonstrations and to mobilisations. I’m not a big believer in governmental processes and I am concerned by the failure of the negotiations under the umbrella of the United Nations in relation to global warming. I think change will happen when the pressure from the people on the streets from social movements increases and I had the impression that Paris would be important from this aspect.
BD: You wanted to focus on the protesters who gathered in large numbers, outside the convention.
OR: Yes, but shortly before the meeting a terror attack took place in Paris and the state removed the right to demonstrate in Paris, choosing to restrict civil liberties in the name of security. So, for the protesters who gathered, everything became a bit different to what was originally planned. But 10,000 demonstrators showed up and ignored this ban on demonstrations and the imposition of a state of exception.
I recorded some of the protests themselves and I recorded some of the meetings and public events organised to prepare for the demonstrations. I use some of this material in the film. In a departure from my earlier films, in this new series of films I use a strong voice-over, which more or less leads the viewer through the films and builds the narrative. The original texts I wrote myself in collaboration with the writer Matthew Hyland.
BD: Can you talk more about your collaboration with Matthew Hyland?
OR: When I started to work like this a couple of years ago, I was interested in finding someone who would improve the quality of my English. But when I started to collaborate with Matthew Hyland I think it pushed me a bit further, because here was a person who was really interested in the content and was able to work with me to make beautiful, almost poetic texts to accompany the film material. I was very happy to have someone who really took this so seriously.
Usually I start with something like a draft version and then there’s a longer process of discussion and a back and forth of emails until we come up with a version which is suitable for the voice-over.
BD: In both of these recent films, COP21 and Ende Gelände, which we will talk about in a moment, you used the same narrator, a female voice with an African American accent. Why did you choose this particular voice for these films?
OR: I have to tell you that even though the material for these first two films was recorded half a year apart I worked on the editing of the two films more or less at the same time. When I worked on the second film, Ende Gelände, I had the feeling that I needed a voice that had a particular tone. At first I was hoping for an old voice with a lot of depth, I was looking for a person who had a very rough voice and probably a smoker. Going down into an open-pit coal mine immediately affects your voice, your breath, as the coal dust is very aggressive to humans. I wanted this to be reflected in the narrator’s voice.
I tested a couple of speakers for the production and Renée Gadsden was the closest to this tone, of those English speakers based in Vienna I was able to access. Renée is a wonderful political writer and an activist. I liked her voice a lot, also because it is not a typical voice for film narration, so I invited her to lend her voice to this film.
BD: The second question was again about this poetics. In earlier films the texts, either in the form of subtitle or in the form of voice-over, were factual and descriptive. Beginning with Leave It in the Ground in 2013, the first considerable film you made addressing questions of climate change and extractivism, the device changes and you start to explore a much more fictionalised account and a more poetic range of vocabulary. Why are you interested in having a more poetic voice in these recent films?
OR: When I started to work on Leave It in the Ground I was originally planning to produce a film based on the activists in Lofoten in Norway who are trying to protect the region from oil drilling. My aim was to construct a film based on the interviews I was planning to collect. But as I started to record interviews with a couple of people I realised that I expected a more radical approach in their resistance. I was disappointed with the material and I finally decided not to use the interviews directly in the film. But the situation remained very interesting so I used some of the information I obtained through these interviews and decided, for the first time in my life, to write a narration text. As I progressed I became really excited about it and the film I produced was very different to what I did before. By writing myself I made a film that presents something very specific.
I continued producing films based on interviews or based on recorded assemblies or different situations where four, or five, or six people meet together and discuss with each other. Now it appears that there are two or maybe even three different methods I use, they coexist at the same time and leave me with broader possibilities of how to get to a film.
BD: We can only come back to the COP21, where you lend a part of the film to the activists themselves describing what they plan, responding to the changes which took place on us on account of the terrorist attacks. It seems also that you’re interested in other speakers in these films. Talk a little bit about how you decided on the subject matter in the editing process for the COP21 film.
OR: Yes, this new series of films is actually the first one where I combined the narration I co-wrote and the material I recorded from activists. In this case I was lucky to attend one of the large events where activists were preparing for a demonstration called Red Lines, and the artists John Jordan and Isabelle Frémeaux were present. I recorded all kinds of different materials while in Paris, including the eventual protests, and I realised when I was editing the material that the shots from the preparation meetings nicely contextualised later material on the streets. In the end, the things that were a bit more abstract I wrote about, and the ones that were closer to the activities visible in the images I accompanied with footage from the activists.
BD: This relatively unplanned approach, where you film first and then find out what you have in the editing process, is that something which was also the case for other films?
OR: Yes, this is something important, an unplanned presence with a camera that I have been using for many years in my artistic work. Even though the work might look quite structured and organised, very often the base of it is material I collect, where I never really know where I will end. In one of these cases, for example, I ended up being ‘kettled’ by the police for hours during a demonstration and my accidental involvement in this occurrence became the source material for the film This is What Democracy Looks Like!
BD: Can you describe a little bit the second film Ende Gelände, which you filmed in a lignite mine in Germany?
OR: Generally, Germany is considered one of the countries most committed to an ecological transition and reducing carbon emissions. But if we look at the details of how the electricity is being produced then we see that there’s still a very high percentage of lignite or coal being burned and it’s almost 40% of the electricity produced in Germany.
Ende Gelände focuses on a mass mobilisation of a couple of thousand activists and follows them as they plan and carry out an act of civil disobedience in which they occupy one of Germany’s largest lignite mines in the Lausitz (near Berlin). They chose to temporarily close down the coal pits connected to a power plant that is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the entire European Union.
I had heard of a similar action previously and decided to record this direct action for a film. Back home, I wrote a narration text and collaborated again with Matthew Hyland. The final voice-over provides some of the basic information about the action and the site, while also trying to link it to some more far-reaching information related to global warming.
BD: You described these two films as two of a series. Have you got plans to make further films that deal with acts of civil disobedience or campaigns addressing climate crimes?
OR: Yes, I will definitely continue with this series but did not yet make the decision what I will focus on. In any case, it will focus on different kinds of mobilisation or activities of civil disobedience against fossil infrastructure. Very often you get very late notice of something interesting taking place, maybe only two weeks from now. I am always hoping that my schedule allows me to be spontaneous enough to participate in these actions, when the opportunity arises. Currently, for this series I am looking for visually different material to describe different categories of civil disobedience.
I would also be interested, for example, to commit one of these films to divestment, but so far I have not found an angle on how to do such a thing visually. I definitely do not want to end up with a film where two or three people solely explain how divestment works. So increasingly this series is led by the question of how to explore these activities visually.
BD: The title of this series of films, Everything’s Coming Together While Everything’s Falling Apart, suggests not only the growth in manifestation and mobilisation of resistance but also perhaps a more depressing aspect of recognising the speed at which things are falling apart. The narrative voice often picks up on this paradoxical situation. What do you want to communicate through this?
OR: Well, it’s now 2017 and in a recent publication from the Copernicus Climate Change Service, an EU-funded institute looking into the increase of the temperature due to global warming, researchers show us that we are very close to going over the 1.5 degree rise above pre-industrial level. Keeping emissions below this figure was the published aim of the majority of nations meeting at COP21 in Paris.
Within just one year and two months, the temperature has increased considerably. The speed at which the temperature is increasing has of course to do with what scientists have been explaining to us for the last thirty or forty years: that if certain tipping points are reached then the speed of the warming will increase dramatically. The Copernicus Climate Change Service report suggests that we’re already in the middle of this. News of this kind appears very depressing.
Yet I still have the impression that never in the history of humanity has there been so much mobilisation and so much awareness in relation to the climate crisis. So I tend to be optimistic that there is a chance to manage this, and here I do not mean manage it in the way the managers of today’s global economy and the so-called ‘leaders’ of our world try to manage it, through just leaving it to corporations.
This problem has to be managed in a way that also includes a redistribution of wealth and that recognises the climate debts the Global North has to the Global South. I still have a feeling that it is not too late. If we can pull together the energy of millions of people globally and mobilise this, we can still avoid the most damaging results of catastrophic warming. But we really need to hurry up!
BD: Given this urgency to mobilise, I wanted to talk with you about the question of the audience for your work and the way your works are distributed. How do you distribute your work and who do you hope sees it?
OR: I hope to produce work that is able to talk to different people, so I produce the work not only for exhibitions but also make them available for presentations in cinemas or in film festivals. Importantly I also make them available to activists, political organisations and groups. Now, this cycle of films is very new and I’m submitting them to a couple of different film festivals at present. This hinders me from making them available for free on the Internet, but films that are already a bit older are mostly accessible for free on Vimeo and on my website.
BD: You mentioned making them available to activist groups. Do activist groups regularly request using the film? Availability is one thing – what about demand? Is there a demand for these films?
OR: In general, I have the experience that in the films where the activists are very central there’s a lot of demand. These films are inspiring but also tactical so they are often presented in the meetings or events organised by activists. For example, the films I did about Venezuela were presented hundreds of times in events organised by activists.
In this new series, the films are a bit more complicated because there’s also this narrative voice and the use of poetic text, which is not so accessible to those looking for more classic activist video. This changes the distribution pattern and demand. Interestingly, these two films were also worked on in a period of time when I was invited to present on conferences dealing with visualisations of global warming, resistance, decarbonisation and degrowth strategies. I’m still in touch with people who participated in these conferences and many of the activists in these conferences are also researchers from different backgrounds. I was usually the only artist in these conferences and I know that some of these participants are interested in showing the films in their communities and networks.
As an artist and as a filmmaker I depend on the visibility that film festivals, museums and other institutions bring my work, I cannot simply avoid these things and still expect people to take an interest in the films on my website. The money I earn with these films comes indirectly through invitations to talk, exhibit or teach somewhere, while the presentation of a film in a festival or in a museum may have a small fee but is more important for raising awareness that the film is there.
So, for a general public it takes usually two years before I make the films available for everyone online. If activists approach me and ask to screen the work, I usually make them accessible for free.
BD: You’ve worked with video now really for twenty years or more but I know that you are trained as an artist and never received a filmmaker’s education. Why do you work with film and video? What is it that you feel is possible with this medium in relation to the kind of political and social questions you are dealing with?
OR: I actually started as a painter and already while I was studying I was trying to work politically, although from my point of view nowadays, I obviously failed. The first works I made that I can take seriously today were installations made for exhibitions and works on billboards and posters in public space. These are two formats I’m still working with today. Around 1995 I started with installations that combined printed materials, photographic works and text works with videos. This started something and I began to think about how great it would be to produce a film that would not depend on additional material and could exist outside of the exhibition context in cinemas, film festivals or film screenings. I made my first film in the year 2000, and I think you were the first to screen Rote Zora in London at that time or a year later.
BD: I remember the film very well.
OR: That was at a time when the Internet existed but not as a platform for presenting videos because connection speeds were much too slow. Nowadays, of course, the Internet is also a central channel for access to my films.
BD: A lot has changed since 2000. We screened Rote Zora in the Lux cinema in Hoxton Square. The technological changes are clear but of course the reception of film by your average person has also changed massively. There’s so much more film in our lives, video is omnipresent, both in private and public space. How does this change the way you are thinking about your work?
OR: If you went to a demonstration twenty years ago and you took a video camera, you would be one of the few people who were filming there. Nowadays if you go to a demonstration sometimes you have the impression that maybe every second person is filming, at least with a mobile phone. Twenty years ago you had to ask people for consent to use their image in a film, while from my more recent experience of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York, people would now consider the request strange, because it’s become normal that everyone is filming.
BD: The police are filming as well.
OR: Yes, and they use this material against the movements. At one moment this production of film was very important, so that we could present material from a demonstration in order to show a different perspective than the one that was presented on the news. However, my work has moved on. I think this aspect is being done by so many people nowadays that it would be a bit meaningless to still do this as an artist.
BD: You talked in a very heartfelt way about how you feel that now is the time to mobilise massively. Is there an aspect of your films that is recruitment for the movements?
OR: I love when my works are being used by activists or political organisations to recruit other activists, a younger generation of activists, to participate in blockades, in mobilisations, in demonstrations. But it’s always hard to know, when you work on a film, if it has the capacity to be used for something like this or not. I know for sure that some of the films I made in the past have been used to recruit and to mobilise people to become more active and participate in social movements.
BD: The poetic aspect of the film seems to also create not only a wish to connect through, let’s say, factual or descriptive terms but also to connect emotionally to your audience. What are you trying to do with this?
OR: I think that this theme of global warming is of such importance that there’s a need to address people on a very personal level because it really affects everyone. All of us, and certainly our children and future generations, will be hugely affected by these decisions we make now or which we don’t make now. I use this poetic voice, which has a certain tone, which shows involvement, which shows feelings, which shows emotions, as an attempt to see if it’s possible to address people on another level, beyond just informing them of the facts. It’s also a test for me. I cannot say if it is really working. But it is interesting for me to try out different ways of producing film, with different approaches to the audience and different voices.
BD: I read repeatedly that environmentally engaged artistic practices are guided by a wish to raise awareness. Is awareness raising really what this work is about or should we explore other claims for these artistic practices?
OR: Yes. I think with awareness alone, it will not be possible to achieve this much-needed change of our political and economic system. I think what is also required is perspectives on which direction we should head in. I think my works contain arguments for activities beyond simple awareness of the problem.
Practically, there are lots of things to be done. Firstly, we need to create a situation where there is political will to genuinely address the climate crisis. Once we create this political will, I think it can just be done step by step. There are things that are so easily done that it’s painful to observe the politicians’ inactivity. For example, in Europe there are billions of euros every year spent to support extraction, subventions for fossil fuel projects given directly by the state. To abandon these and move the funds towards establishing an alternative renewable energy system would not require any investment, it would only require political will.
Just as it would to put really high taxes on flights, on petroleum and especially on those corporations that produce the petroleum and become incredibly rich in the process. It is a question of social justice, really, that this money should not be allowed to stay in the pockets of these destructive companies. There is an argument that not only their current income but also past income from their activities should be expropriated in order to subsidise this much-needed transition. This wouldn’t hurt anyone besides a few CEOs and shareholders, and we could even leave them one mansion and then they can go to hell in it. The rest of it is needed for the transition.
Today, representative democracy represents the needs of capital and not of the people. This has to be changed as a first step, to cut the links between members of parliaments and corporations in general. Political will in democracy means that people are allowed to make decisions on the things that affect them the most, and politicians then make decisions that represent these concerns. Examples of such decisions might be whether or not your nation should go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or yes, if there should be a law against fossil fuel corporations being subsidised with billions of euros every year.
BD: We talked a little bit about where you finance your work from – the necessity to compromise or to recognise there’s no such thing as clean money – but let’s talk about the production itself and the question of how much of our own carbon footprints and things like that. Do you consider your production to be as sustainable as it could be?
OR: The way I move around in the world and work together with different people and different social movements and present my work is far from being sustainable. My carbon emissions are, of course, much beyond what should be considered a healthy level of living on this planet. I’m very aware of it. I’m very unhappy with it.
There are activist-artists like John Jordan who are very radical in this aspect, that they make a decision not to enter a plane anymore. I thought about this, and I decided against it because I think that the work I’m doing has some positive effects in the world.
We, as mankind, if this doesn’t sound too pathetic, will only overcome this ecological crisis through overcoming the capitalist system.
I think that this cannot happen without the human bodies that will move, and that will blockade, and that will demonstrate, and that will occupy. It is these bodies that will push through this much-needed transition towards a new system. I don’t think that we can achieve social change through clicking on Facebook, through ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. It is not that easy, unfortunately.
It will require us being physically there and forcing people to pay attention that thousands, tens of thousands, and millions of people are against extractive industries, are against racist and xenophobic politicians, are against a system of representative democracy that does not take care of the people who go and vote.
I think it is time to bring our bodies towards the front lines where decisions are being made: decisions about our future life. This also means the sites where the extraction takes place. As this happens, my artistic practice will continue to focus on these forms of resistance.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
 This interview forms part of the publication: Along Ecological Lines, Contemporary Art and Climate Crisis, Barnaby Drabble (ed.), Gaia Project, 2019. ISBN 9780993219252
OLIVER RESSLER (b. 1970 in Knittelfeld, Austria) lives and works in Vienna. He creates installations, projects in public space and films on issues such as economics, democracy, migration, global warming, forms of resistance and social alternatives. He has completed thirty-two films that have been screened in thousands of events of social movements, art institutions and film festivals. Solo exhibitions include: Berkeley Art Museum, USA; Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, Egypt; Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdansk; Lentos Kunstmuseum, Linz; Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo CAAC, Seville; MNAC National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest; SALT Galata, Istanbul. Ressler has participated in more than 350 group exhibitions, including Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid; Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Biennials in Seville (2006), Moscow (2007), Taipei (2008), Lyon (2009), Venice (2013), Quebec (2014), Jeju (2017), Kyiv (2017) and at Documenta 14, Kassel, 2017 (exhibition organized by EMST). Ressler was the recipient of the Prix Thun for Art and Ethics Award in 2016.
DR. BARNABY DRABBLE is a writer, curator and researcher whose work focuses on contemporary art in relation to issues of public-space, exhibition practice and histories, ecology and environmentalism, and artistic research. He is a senior lecturer and researcher at the École de design et haute école d’art du Valais (édhéa) in Sierre, where he conducts his research and leads a seminar on Social Practice on the MAPS (Master of Arts in Public Spheres) program. He has curated numerous independent & institutional projects including exhibitions, screenings, discursive events and events in the public space. He has co-edited two influential publications on curatorial issues, co-authored two books on artistic research and he regularly contributes to journals and publications. He is a managing editor of the Journal for Artistic Research and a member of its editorial board since 2010. His research project Along Ecological Lines (2016-2019), relates both to his long-term focus on social and political relevance of artistic practices and to his engagement in the environmental and social innovation taking place in intentional communities and eco-villages.