Interview by Gabry Menendez
Images by Lucy Henshall
Art was always there. We see it through history and anthropology. We feel it through creativity, awareness and spirituality. We experience it through tales and handprints.
In light and darkness. Always there. Through times of caves and rituals. Through scarcity and revolution. Through fear and laughter.
Art is humanity. Always at the forefront of change. Building social awareness, knowledge and mobilisation.
It really feels like we need, now more than ever, an imagination rebellion.
And it’s coming. Can’t you feel it?
Last February, we had the opportunity to sit down with Oliver Ressler at the opening of his exhibition ‘Barricading The Ice Sheets’ at LABoral Centro de Arte in Gijón.
Surrounded by massive screens projecting powerful imagery of protests, mobilisations and arrests, we chat about artivism, the role of the artist in today’s political reality and the beginnings of his career.
G: We wanted to start by acknowledging the fact that you’ve been documenting this type of environmental work and these stories for so long. What triggered you to start focusing your art on these stories in the first place?
O: “I started to be interested in these political issues very early, when I was still in high school, 16 years old. I was already interested in political issues, I was reading popular books also on climate breakdown, so everything was quite accesible. So often we hear “no one knew” or whatever. I mean, even for kids it was available the material. I started working in the art academy as a student when I was 19 and from the very beginning I started to use the art in order to express these ecological and political consciousness. It took me really long, several years, to find a language that I felt relates somehow to the complexity of what we are dealing with. I think since I’m 24 or so I only work with political issues. Over the years I very soon started to move towards working with video, just because it really gives me this possibility to bring in different voices. At the beginning I started to focus more on issues in an analytic manner. But as soon as I brought in forms of resistance then I started to connect this analytical approach with resistance and later on I also made a huge challenge to bring in alternatives. Alternatives to the existing system, this mixture between capitalism and representative democracy, thank kind of merge. So yeah, I work with different media, photography, sculpture, I edit books, I organise conferences, I do photographic works and my work is more linked together through certain themes and perspectives that I’m interested in.”
"...filming can function kind of like a protection shield against police violence"
G: How do you deal with such long-term working processes? For example in this exhibition you’re showing work that’s been documented during 10 years. Specially in today’s world where everything is digital and very fast.
O: Yeah I mean, actually to get some of this works done you also have to be very fast, because some of this acts of mass civil disobedience are not being announced weeks in advance. So, sometimes you also have to be quick, book the train ticket, just go to this site and try to connect with the people there. And yeah, filming these events of mass civil disobedience really has also an important function for the people there right? It’s not just that I’m doing a film that finds a new audience and maybe gives a platform to the people in these actions. But also literally while filming it can function kind of like a protection shield against the police violence, at least in many actions it has this function, not always as we know, but very often.
G: Obviously the body of work in this exhibition is just huge and I guess it’s really hard to pick some moments. But I wanted to ask what have been some of the top 1-2 moments that you filmed that really impacted you. Moments that really shocked you to your core.
O: I’m impressed by really many things. Some of the works can be very empowering. To participate in huge demonstrations or in these actions, even when you maybe did not sleep enough in 3 days, you get the energy just from this empowering moment of seeing people getting things done that maybe some of us thought they were impossible, right? To enter the second-largest coal mine and then you spend an entire day there, and people are dancing, singing and enjoying the moment. If they’re committed people, if it’s a group large enough and if you’re able to communicate the necessity to do what you’re doing, then it’s possible to get done really inspiring and important things. But still, while I think that what we see here in this exhibition are some of the most important moments of organising that took place in recent years, I have the feeling that we have to go much further, right? Because nowadays it appears that probably the German corporation RWE, the coal corporation, they already included this in their calculation. They already know that at least 2 or 3 days per year they have to shut down their operations just because there’s a protest. Still, I know they’re highly profitable, just because burning coal is one of the best businesses in the world. You generate a lot of money through literally nothing…or the death of plants and life on earth. So there are a lot of things where I take a lot of inspiration out of it. My trip to the artic was really a central trip. I had been within the artic circle, but never before in the high artic. This is something where you really get a lot out of it and you learn a lot. I was there with a scientific expedition. There were 19 scientist, most of them from, or, based on The Netherlands, it was a Dutch state funded expedition. I could not imagine a better way to learn and to participate, it’s much more efficient than reading books or seeing films, because you’re there and follow the research of the scientist, so you have all the possibilities to engage in communication with them. I feel so happy to be in the position to get these moments and I really take a lot out of it.
"I have the feeling that we have to go much further, right?"
G: Mental health and climate anxiety.
O: I’ve observed that many of the people in my wider network have experience burnout. I think there’s a huge danger that when you solely focus on these things and also experience that not enough you can affect through participating in these actions, the burning of fossil fuels still continues and people can get really sick through this and maybe they need to go off for 1 or 2 years of rest and do something different. I mean, I’m kind of in a privileged situation because I’m one of the few people who can connect this being part of a movement and working with and on movements also generating at least some money so that I can subsidise my own living, pay the rent of my apartment and things like that. That’s something many activists don’t have, because they have to have a day-job. Of course when you have certain space and time for yourself, that really helps with continuing organising and it really helps on a personal level I think. We should all fight to get these spaces for all of us also through fighting for a global basic income, I think that will supply such a space.
"...there’s also really a need, a necessity, for artists and filmmakers to shoot at demonstrations, blockades, different mobilisations, occupations etc. to help making these activists more visible."
G: Can we talk about ARTIVISM as a concept, its importance in today’s world and what’s your vision of it?
O: I mean, that’s a really big question. So let me start somewhere and let’s see where it leads us. I’ve been invested for a really long time into merging art and activism and I see certain meaning on it. On the one hand to bring the knowledge, capacities and skills of artists just in order to creating forms and formats, performative environments in activism, where we as artists can just bring this to another level. And therefore create the visibility of it and maybe also the efficiency in blocking operations. And I think, even though there are more and more artists involved in social movements, we all know it could still be much more, right? I mean, even though it’s an increasing number, it’s still quite a marginal number of artists really involved in the movements. I don’t mean just showing up in demonstrations from time to time, I’m talking about something different now right? I’m talking about the involvement in movements, in the function of really forming and formatting movements. To really become a central protagonist, bringing actions further to new stages. And beyond this more visual thing, I think we experienced several things in the last few years where artists created certain tools for action, things that can be used during demonstrations. Maybe one of the most well known, which appears in my films from time to time, are these silver, inflatable cubes by ‘Tools For Action’. On the one hand, they have the meaning to create some visual surplus and it’s something that journalist like to shoot and it’s being published very often in newspapers, but on the other hand if there’s a confrontation with the police, these inflatables can also be used to protect your body. A physical barrier between the attacking police and the activists. I think this is really one of the best examples of what is possible to build as an artist that our movements can use.
And this is published under creative commons license, the manual for how to build it it’s online and you can just download it and build your own, or build your own version. But it should be much more known, right? There’s a multiplicity of artists who build coalitions between the art world with activists. […] And there’s also really a need, a necessity, for artists and filmmakers to shoot at demonstrations, blockades, different mobilisations, occupations etc. to help making these activists more visible. I think there are many possibilities of how you do it. It’s also so interesting to follow how different artists relate themselves to their movements. That’s also an important question, which is also not so clear the answer for myself and I think it’s also depending on where you record, in which mobilisation you work? If you’re more like a person who is working from a position of solidarity? Or if you can be seen as someone who is part of the movement, right? So that’s a changing position I think all of us have depending on what movements we work.
"I think we should all choose life."
G: What would be your piece of advice for young emerging artists who are looking to explore the activism space in their work? Specially knowing that it can be quite hard to make a living out of it.
O: I really recommend to not just establish a pure estudio practice, but to find a possibility to connect your artistic practice with the political environment in which we are living. It will not change any time soon and it will rather become more radical the level of destruction of our democracies and our ecologies. So therefore I think there’s really the necessity that we relate to it with our artistic work. Artistic work, to some extent, is always a specific reflection of the space in which we are living. I don’t believe that we will get any change through those people who govern us. They will continue to meet in the COP meetings. I mean, COP28, the upcoming one, will even be led by a CEO of an oil corporation. That says already enough. So, I think to some extent our movements could maybe give up even mobilising against the COP just because, I mean…that it’s not working, it’s clear. We have to find our own spaces and our own sights where to meet and for which to mobilise. There are so many different possibilities for artists to connect. My work here shows some examples, which I personally think that are necessary. But I could tell you that I would have at least 10 or 20 further ideas that I would really like to do, but I can’t do it usually for lack of time. So yeah, there’s a necessity for younger generation to connect to our social movements because I think that social movements are these actors that are the most likely to bring us towards something in the direction of life, while the governmental process of COP brings us in the direction of death.
And I think we should all choose life.