Imagination against climate death: An interview with Oliver Ressler

The Austrian visual artist Oliver Ressler deals with contemporary social issues, most recently with the climate crisis. In his current project “Barricading the Ice Sheets” which will be exhibited at Camera Austria in Graz, he focuses on the climate movement and its strategies. Through Ressler’s videos, viewers get to the epicenter of protests or direct actions in coal mines, that take place in various European countries. In the interview, we talk about the connection between art and activism and we discuss possible solutions and ways out of the environmental destruction. 


You have been dealing with political topics in your artistic work since the mid-1990s. How did your interest start? 

As a teenager, I used to read a lot, and I soon got interested in politics and ecological issues. Later as an art student, I was looking for ways to address political themes through artistic means. I assume now that most of my efforts at that time completely failed. In the mid-1990s, I started presenting works to a wider public. In 1995, I did lightboxes on genetic engineering, shown in display windows. Together with the artist Martin Krenn, I also produced a series of billboards against new right ideology that same year, followed in 1997 by a highly controversial billboard cube in front of the Viennese State Opera. This project, placed at one of the city’s main tourist attractions, presented the detention centers recently established for asylum seekers as a manifestation of institutional racism. Those two projects can also be situated in a context of growing far-right influence in Austria, culminating in the inclusion of the right-wing extremist FPÖ in the federal government coalition of 2000. 

In 1996, you created the environmentally-focused exhibition “100 Years of the Greenhouse Effect”, which criticized false solutions proposed for climate problems based on technological improvement within a market economy. In your recent video “Carbon and Captivity”, you focus on a techno-optimistic carbon capture solution. How would you describe the shift in public debate on this question over recent decades? Do you think that there will ever be a political consensus on the need to change the capitalist system? 

In 1996, there was still public debate on whether the burning of fossil fuels raises global temperatures. Naomi Klein showed in a US context how fossil fuel corporations funded climate denialism for decades, and I don’t think the situation was very different in Europe. Since then, most people – even conservative politicians – seem to have come to recognize the climate crisis. Unfortunately though, the recognition of scientific fact doesn’t automatically translate into the necessary action. Petroleum corporations adjusted their argument in keeping with the changed situation. They now accept the existence of what is often called “global warming” but would be better described as “climate breakdown”. The same climate criminals largely responsible for the crisis now want to present themselves as suppliers of technical solutions they pretend will save us. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) would even lead to the continuation of the extraction of oil, but with public funding as climate technology! The fact that such reckless and criminal technofixes are even seriously considered reflects the impossibility of resisting the climate crisis within a system based on growth and competition, when what is needed is degrowth and collaboration across multiple sectors. Within the capitalist system, we can expect to see militaries fortifying borders to keep climate refugees out, instead of using the incredibly short amount of time remaining to avert the worst and begin substantial, systemic transformation. 

In your work, you have focused on various activist movements addressing globalization, migration, and environmental issues. You exhibit in gallery spaces but also in public space. Who are the spectators addressed by your work? 

To be honest, I do not think much about who the audience of my work is. I follow a certain impetus based on what I consider important to address, whose voices should be amplified, which aspects of a topic should be emphasized. I try to point out possibilities for resistance and a different, more democratic way of organizing society. So critically minded people interested in learning something about social movements are a central audience for my films. But especially in larger art institutions, you usually have a very wide audience, from school kids to pensioners, from tourists to art professionals. For some of these groups, this is the first time they learn about mass civil disobedience and horizontally organized social movements, as there is almost no mention of these in the news. When movements use my work to train a younger generation of activists or mobilize for upcoming direct action, the role of the work changes again. I am aware that not all aspects of the work will be understood by all audiences, but I really love creating work that is potentially open to many groups. It is also important for me to produce art that can be understood by an audience that has no idea about what art is. 

Oliver Ressler, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart: Code Rood”, 14 min., 2018

Your videos are not purely documentary, they also contain poetic components: sometimes they include drawings, other times personal references or an unusual sound. How do you understand the difference between documentary and art practice in your movies, is there any border between them?

My films never document in the sense that some people call “neutral”. What is presented, is always an expression of my political interest. The context of the specific situation has a huge impact on the kinds of film I make. I will give you an example. Over a period of years, I filmed conversations and assemblies at production sites under workers’ control. The four films I worked on with Dario Azzellini consist of the material recorded at the assemblies, along with the production process. Many people seeing the films describe them as documentaries because they show what is happening at those workplaces. 

In September 2019 I managed to film an assembly comparable in terms of numbers of participants, but in a very different context. It was a preparatory meeting of delegates from various groups in Madrid for a mass civil disobedience action. As a precaution to avoid criminalization, all participants’ faces had to be covered in the editing process. The necessity of pixelation was also discussed by assembly participants and became part of the film “Not Sinking, Swarming”. Watching this film, we see a huge pixelation over the entire screen, creating a very abstract image. In the second part of the film, there is a more complex intervention, with the bodies of the assembly participants replaced through the disobedient bodies in the direct action that followed. The intersection of these two image types creates a very complex kind of imagery, it looks very artistic. Not many people would describe this film as a “documentary”. But the motivation for filming the respective assemblies was not so different. So I would regard the distinction between these categories “documentary” and “art” as meaningless. 

Dario Azzellini & Oliver Ressler, “Occupy, Resist, Produce – Officine Zero”, 33 min., 2015

Dario Azzellini & Oliver Ressler, “Occupy, Resist, Produce – RiMaflow”, 34 min., 2014 

Much of your work consists of short films and videos. Do you consider film language to be the most effective artistic communication tool? 

In the 1990s, I was primarily working on large thematic installations and in public space. I worked in public space because I was interested in reaching beyond the confines of the art system. I also made my first film in 2000 in order to reach a wider audience. Some films are very successful in this respect, some less so. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “most effective artistic communication tool”. I mean, it primarily depends on how you define effectiveness. For me, it is hard to imagine doing something in keeping with my political agenda without using text or language. Film is a brilliant medium which allows me to structure different elements around a narration. It allows me to be flexible and to combine text, audio, documentary images, but also sometimes animation or conversations. I don’t have a blueprint of how I make a film. Working on a film is quite an open-ended process of research, recording, editing, writing texts, cutting things out, inviting musicians or animators to collaborate. For me it is exciting to work like this. 

Oliver Ressler, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart: The ZAD”, 36 min., 2017

Your current project “Barricading the Ice Sheets” focuses on mapping the climate justice movement. The project includes a series of videos along with presentations, a conference, and a publication. In your works you show public events and also the internal dynamics of activist groups. What attracts you in these movements and why do you find it important to capture them? 

The failure of states in responding to the climate crises points to the need to look to actors beyond the state. The climate justice movements are these central actors. I am interested in the mass civil disobedience actions, in how disobedient bodies merge in collective action, how the movement organizes horizontally. These movements really need to grow further, to increase the pressure to enforce decarbonization, climate justice and global redistribution. Without these, life on earth will simply become impossible within the next few decades for hundreds of millions of people. This is why I think it is important to highlight that social movements are not only necessary but humanity’s only chance of survival. 

Oliver Ressler, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart: Ende Gelände”, 12 min., 2016

For more than a year now, the world has been plagued by a coronavirus pandemic that has done great damage. At first, it seemed that temporary decrease in production and mobility could reduce CO2 emissions, but this has not been confirmed. Do you see any potential benefit of a pandemic for rethinking people’s relationship with nature? Will scientific knowledge (not just about the pandemic, but also about the environmental crisis) serve as a basis for future decisions? 

Very often politicians’ response to the climate crisis has been to demand consumer responsibility: take the train, fly less, consume local products, put a solar panel on your roof. The pandemic has proven what has been clear for decades: even though overconsumption exists and has to be addressed, changing consumption patterns (e.g. less travel during the pandemic) won’t bring carbon emissions down to the necessary level. Systemic structures force us into lives that destroy the world, and these also continue during a global health crisis. Therefore, the only chance to avert climate breakdown is to direct energy towards collective action with the aim of dismantling capitalism step by step. The way energy is produced has to change, along with intercontinental trade and just-in-time production, food production methods and the imposition of labor. These parameters are beyond the influence of individual consumers, yet they are the cause of excessive individual carbon footprints. 

I have no great expectations that the good or right arguments will win just because they are good and right. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where political decisions follow from consideration of scientific fact: the decisions follow the logic of power and money. That’s why during the pandemic the extraction industry, car manufacturers, and airlines have been bailed out again and again, instead of using the crisis as opportunity to downscale and divest from these climate wrecking industries. So once again, the only chance is intensified political struggle. 

Oliver Ressler, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart: COP21”, 17 min., 2016

What role do you think art can play in improving information about problems and also solutions in the social and environmental crisis? 

The need as I see, it is not just to inform but also to point out actors already there, such as social movements. I think there are plenty of opportunities for artists to become active in movements, to support them by applying the knowledge acquired through their studies and artistic practice. Our social movements have to become broader, they need to become more intersectional. Our movements need to diversify their tactics to increase the pressure on legislators. Who is better equipped to invent or adjust subversive tactics than people whose job description actually is to be creative and to think outside the box? 

Do you see a need to reform the so-called “art world”? 

Of course, the art world must be transformed like every other social sector, especially the commercial art world, which relies on shipping goods all over the world and flying from art fair to art fair. For the arts, I think, the climate crisis should be considered an opportunity. The need to travel less can become an opportunity to stay longer in specific places, to develop deeper and longer-lasting relationships at these fewer places you travel to as an artist or cultural producer. Art institutions producing sustainable and politically important work are already around us. They need more visibility within the wider art field: they need to expand, while the sector closer to the art market deserves a heavy dose of degrowth. 

Do you see technologies as something that can be used to gradually dismantle the current unsustainable capitalist system, or are they necessarily so ingrained in it that their use against it cannot be effective?

I think the technologies around us look exactly how they look because they were shaped within the framework of a capitalist system. It’s not by chance the mobile phone can be used – and is used – to surveil its user permanently. It’s an intrinsic component of the tool that would not exist in this form in an egalitarian society based on democratic decision-making processes. Huge powerful telecommunication corporations could have never come to exist in a democratic environment. Still, no one will deny mobile phones can be used and are used by disobedient bodies to organize rebellion and fight for a better life. I think we need to use the technologies available in the here and there, but as soon as we manage to dissolve this deadening dominance of capital we’ll see new technologies getting developed that are based on necessity and needs, and not technologies increasing yields.


Oliver Ressler produces installations, projects in public space, and films on economics, democracy, racism, climate breakdown, forms of resistance, and social alternatives. He has completed thirty-five films that have been screened in thousands of events of social movements, art institutions and film festivals. Ressler had comprehensive solo exhibitions at CAAC, Seville; MNAC – National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest; SALT Galata, Istanbul and participated in the biennials in Taipei (2008), Lyon (2009), Gyumri (2012), Venice (2013), Athens (2013, 2015), Quebec (2014), Jeju (2017), Kyiv (2017), Gothenburg (2019), and at Documenta 14, Kassel, 2017. Ressler’s films can be checked out in his YouTube channel.

PIC archive of Oliver Ressler