Oliver Ressler’s Art of Climate Politics

Everything’s Coming Together While Everything’s Falling Apart

T.J. Demos
November 2017

In May 2017, Vienna-based artist Oliver Ressler visited UC Santa Cruz and the Center for Creative Ecologies, where he spoke about Everything’s Coming Together While Everything’s Falling Apart, his recent series of films from 2016-17. The three short pieces, each between 12 and 36 minutes, address international climate governance, its challenges and failures, and showcase select artist-activist grassroots movements seeking to transform the ways we live and how we organize society on the most fundamental of levels. Another world is indeed possible. Ressler’s extensive body of moving-image-based work—established over more than two decades of practice at the intersection of experimental art and radical politics—is exemplary for its seeking out viable and collectively organized political-cultural forms of life, which might be termed the arts of living otherwise, that represent radical alternatives to the disastrous course of petrocapitalism. That bankrupt regime is based on corrupt political governance, growing economic inequality, and violent social injustice founded upon the destructive exploitation and transformation of Earth’s natural systems. For Ressler, “The story of this ongoing film project may turn out to be a story of the beginning of the climate revolution, the moment when popular resistance began to reconfigure the world.” Let us hope for just that.

The first of the three films is set during the context of COP 21, the UN Climate Change Conference that met in Paris in 2015 under France’s state of emergency following the recent terror attacks in the city. The film portrays how projects such as Climate Games and related mass protest actions taking place on the streets of the capital were extensively planned and sought to both organize resistance to the fossil-fuel corporate-funded deliberations and assert a series of “red lines”—between politics and finance, between governance and private interests, between climate conferences and trade shows—that should not be crossed in supporting climate justice. “Like the twenty failed annual climate conferences before it, COP21 in Paris in 2015 proved the incapacity of governments to commit themselves to any binding agreement that would curtail global warming through a definite strategy for the end of fossil fuel use,” Ressler writes. “The resulting Climate Agreement avoids anything that would harm the economic interests of corporations.” All that separates a treaty from a bad joke is its enforcement, as the film’s narrator wryly observes. Ressler’s piercing analysis focuses on activist opposition that insists on locating the origins of the climate crisis in capitalism, and equally on thinking and acting creatively outside its growth-obsessed box to find real solutions. What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!

The second film examines Ende Gelände (the end of the road), the massive civil disobedience direct action that took place in 2016 at the Lusatia lignite coal fields near Berlin, where 4,000 activists invaded the open-cast mine. Using a “multiple fingers” strategy of dispersed movements of advancement difficult to crowd control, many participants successfully made their way past German riot police to block the loading station and rail connections to the coal-fired plant, forcing the Swedish proprietor Vattenfall to temporarily shut down the station. Activism outwits extractivism. Building on the movement’s energy and amplifying it outward in further media visibility, Ressler’s documentary focuses on the climate camp where activists prepared for the nonviolent collective action and its realization that constituted the placing of bodies in the machinery of destruction to halt its operations, an action that simultaneously created a mediagenic event capable of wide-scale news distribution and politicizing the climate debate beyond the false market-mechanisms of conventional governance. “Degrowth is coming anyway,” the film intones, “the question is what kind?” “Instead of disruption by disaster, transfiguration by design.” Ende Gelënde shows us how.

The third and final film explores the Zad (zone à défendre), Europe’s largest autonomous territory occupying thousands of hectares of wetlands, fields and forests near Nantes in western France, an area that has been defended in recent years by as many as 40,000 people. Emerging over decades of resistance to the state’s plans for a major new airport in the vicinity, a motley organization of farmers, pensioners, artists, activists, environmentalists, anarchists, and feminists—and many a mix thereof—have stopped police from entering the zone on several occasions. Opposing the state, they have instead created the terms of experimental modes of living together outside the boundaries of extractive capitalism. Throughout Ressler’s documentary, we hear from artist-activists John Jordan and Isa Frémeaux, of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, based on the Zad, who discuss the hopes and dreams of rejecting the airport and its world. Although there have been incursions of militarized cops using chemical weapons and tractors violently destroying sustainable campsites and tree-houses, which Ressler’s film also shows, they have been followed by multitudes joining together to rebuild new structures in their place. Through a diverse network of self-sustaining collectives, regular meetings and conflict-resolution gatherings, Zadists have collaborated on building and maintaining bakeries, a brewery, extensive medicinal herb and vegetable gardens, a music studio, a library, a weekly newspaper, and knowledge-sharing workshops with such guiding lights as neo-pagan climate justice activist and sci-fi writer Starhawk and philosopher of cosmopolitics Isabelle Stengers. In other words, the Zad presents a large-scale creative mobilization of the arts of living at the time of catastrophic environmental transformation—indeed, a place where everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart.

At UC Santa Cruz, we screened the first two of Ressler’s films, followed by extensive discussion with students, and are delighted to make all three films available on the website of the Center for Creative Ecologies thanks to the artist’s generosity. We discovered how Ressler’s recent work shows that we have all the technology at our disposal to transcend the age of fossil fuels—the obstacles to successful climate solutions are fundamentally political and economic. Even as the climate movement is growing and becoming ever stronger, however, we’re very aware that we’re living at a time of massive backlash (most evident in the Trump administration and its ilk worldwide) that is reviving projects long thought buried, including the Keystone XL pipeline, Arctic drilling, the expansion of fracking, and coal-fired power plants. Supported by massive short-term corporate interests that place profits over people, and situated within a framework of climate governance where leadership pretends that non-binding agreements and market-based approaches can represent an effective form of mitigation, what emerges is the central, patently absurd imperative of petrocapitalism that is placing all lives at risk: the insistence that any solution to climate change is not incompatible with endless economic development.

Ressler’s films are a dramatic riposte to this regulatory fiction, visualizing the beautiful trouble and rebellious joy of creative artistic activism that is passionately dedicated to opposition and building alternatives today.