Bright Lights Film Journal

Isolating Isolationism: Recent INDEX Releases from the Austrian Avant-Garde

As the covert bottom-line interests of capitalist film distribution circumscribe our viewing options as much as overt censorship ever could, we should earnestly applaud the arrival of the new “INDEX” label, an Austrian DVD distributor launched as a collaborative venture of Medienwerkstatt Wien1 and Sixpackfilm,2 specializing in the heretofore marginal, seldom spied, and transnationally uncharted corners of the Austrian and international avant-garde. INDEX’s maiden launch proffers fifteen DVDs, each spotlighting the films (or videos) of prominent Austrian multimedia artists; while Austria’s current generation of avant-garde filmmakers is disproportionately represented here, the whole collection traverses forty years of (mostly short) experimental films, ranging from the Actionist outrages of Kurt Kren and Otto Mühl and the feminist Actionism of VALIE EXPORT, to a younger generation caught between the past’s expressionistic sublimities and its perceived need for new, practical methods of disarming hegemonic global capitalism. Despite their technical, stylistic, and philosophical disparities, these artists inescapably are bonded by the overarching avant-garde project of sabotaging commercial notions of production value, instigating antibourgeois and anti-reactionary political dialogue, and reorganizing the boundaries among public exhibition, spectatorship, and aesthetic consumption. While there is quite possibly something here for everyone, throughout this DVD anthology revelatory successes go hand-in-glove with experimental failures, calling to mind an obscure but lamentably accurate observation that my failing memory can only paraphrase: “We call a work experimental because the experiment failed.” Wryness alone will get us nowhere, however.

The persistent dilemmas of ascertaining or even approximating avant-garde meaning are as easy to mock as they are impossible to solve, even if Warhol’s pessimistic legacy fooled some into believing that contemptuously travestying the means of artistic production was the avant-garde’s blasé salvation and forlorn solution. The fringe artists spotlighted by INDEX are not wallowing Warholian Decadents, however, but Western European socialists, neo-Marxists, and combative utopianists whose art – for it to remain authentic – forever militates against the commercial enterprise, inexorable homogenizations, and postmodernist assimilations beloved of American pop culture. Yet along with the sanguine aspirations of the “pure” avant-garde come mystified, exclusive systems of signification: the very phrase “avant-garde” instills the fear that the admitted optimism, righteous indignation, and futurity inherent in the production of avant-garde art will become inseparable from the concomitant pessimism, disenchantment, and surrender of an audience unable to interpret works existing beyond genre, rule, and a consensual visual grammar. How should elitists respond? – for even when they preach democracy, these are elite films. When the transgressive art that elitists crave regularly confuses technique with critical dynamics, an error emerges reductively suggesting that self-reflective style and extrovert ideology are not merely intertwined but quite the same thing. Presentation becomes perceived as the critique rather than as an autonomous gesture, one merely aimed at vilifying bourgeois presentation. If the technique is antibourgeois, the argument is automatically deduced to be equally antibourgeois, as form and content merge into a single, reactive aesthetic assumption. How then do we isolate the critical dynamic of an avant-garde film, even against the film’s own aesthetic wishes? Do the self-imposed solipsism and socially-imposed insularity of the avant-garde produce sets of meaning as radically circumscribed in their illegibility as mainstream art is radically circumscribed in its legibility? Can experimental technique actually liberate, mobilize, purge, and transform, or can it only reflect and reinforce the sociopolitical marginality that birthed it? Even the ivory-towered cultural elitist nauseous from mainstream fare must ask reluctantly, “What exactly is the viewer lacking a generic safety net or a complete aesthetic vocabulary supposed to do?

Indeed, many INDEX programs aren’t intended to flatter the bourgeois cultural elite, and mainly will be of interest to multimedia theorists, belligerent counterculturalists, and students of the politics of spectatorship. Transnational audiences unfamiliar with the allegorical, material, and culturally Austro-German reference points engaged by these largely nonnarrative films will be thankful for INDEX’s bilingual liner notes,3 which situate the filmmakers’ projects historically, and at least superficially attend to their aesthetic problems. While a deeper foreknowledge of certain filmmakers is probably necessary (or at least recommended) to fully appreciate their intersections of rarefied aesthetics and populist politics, their leftist critical assumptions fall largely, if not uniformly, in line with agitprop, neo-Marxism, Actionism, and other revolutionary movements familiar to the casual intelligent viewer. In the case of certain filmmakers, incomprehensibility results less from aesthetic technique or political motive than from being recontextualized to home video. For instance, many of the films of sculptor-filmmaker Gertrude Moser-Wagner originally accompanied larger museum installations, the plastic assumptions of whose well-lit, self-aware material spaces are diametrically opposed to the aesthetics of dimmed unconsciousness and mesmeric mass response conjured by and in movie theaters.

When delivered from their supporting roles as museum-monitor videos and centered nakedly as stand-alone aesthetic works, as they are here, such films can seem risible and undernourished, sorely needing the protective cultural mystique furnished by a reputable museum environ. While releasing a work such as Moser-Wagner’s Lingual (1992) on DVD grants it a newfound physical accessibility, it simultaneously renders it intellectually inaccessible by pushing it helpless into a contextual vacuum. You must flip through the clarifying notes to discover that complex symbolic networks are underpinning a tedious audiovisual routine, that, for example, Lingual – eight minutes of a human hand being sucked by a calf – was originally displayed on video monitors, presumably in continuous loop, to accompany an ecologically conscious museum installation.4 The calf’s nourishment, as it slurps salt from the omnipotent yet generous hand, was contrasted in the original exhibit against a working physical landscape envisioning salt erosion and decomposition by the trickles of naturally flowing water. Spectators were encouraged to revisit the exhibit to experience “the active change wrought by the water” on the indigenous Austrian red mineral salt piled adjacent to the video monitors. The notes disclose to us that “the ‘linguality’ of the installation is also a “recovery” of a life-sustaining process that at the same time illustrates a theorem of physics: “the unrelenting increase of entropy in the universe.” But whatever metaphors Moser-Wagner had tried to claim through sensual, tactile comparison between the recycled manipulations of man-made, hand-held power (in two-dimensional video) and the entropic consequences of natural force (in three-dimensional reconstructions) are entirely lost in the personalized spaces of home video consumption. Lacking a mechanical installation of corroding Austrian salts positioned alongside our television sets, the comparison from which Moser-Wagner’s already murky ideas originate becomes impossible; we are left with the raw sensibility of a lonely image, and are forced to experience the avant-garde not as pointed symbolism but as some cruelly inscrutable tautegory.

Rather than produce a catalogue of bland, perhaps monotonous synopses of each film in the INDEX collection, we’ll critically investigate some of the more politically compelling and aesthetically influential works in the series, many of which are rare birds even amongst American aficionados jaw-deep in abstruse, grainy bootlegs. In this first installment, we’ll examine two contemporary plastic artists whose avant-gardisms broach the spectrum of experimental filmmaking: the above-mentioned Moser-Wagner, who represents the more obscurantist tendencies of the avant-garde, and video provocateur Oliver Ressler, who rejects the individualism of abstract expressionism in favor of quasi-Bolshevist representations of direct political action and massed agitation. Moser-Wagner and Ressler are among the most contemporary filmmakers included in the INDEX collection; in future installments of this series, we’ll appraise DVDs featuring artists such as VALIE EXPORT (aka Waltraud Lehner) and Kurt Kren, whose formal experimentations laid the groundwork for the generation of radicals who followed.

Like Moser-Wagner, the thirty-five-year-old plasticist and video producer Oliver Ressler specializes in incorporating (and often featuring) still and moving images within his public exhibitions and museum installations, and since 2000 has produced the two ambitious, stand-alone videos represented in the INDEX collection. Ressler’s unapologetically ideological documentaries typically engage the tribulations of globalization, question the possible futures of democratic socialism, and investigate groups advancing alternative socio-economic models to a monolithic transnational capitalism. Ressler has developed this latter theme in his exhibits, “Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies” (1999), which asks spectators to non-sequentially, non-hierarchically visit video stations projecting short documentary agitprops, and “Sustainable Propaganda” (Nachhaltige Propoganda, 2000), which scrutinizes the bankrupt ideological rhetoric of environmental and resource management that was the central theme of the 2000 European Expo in Hanover, Germany: “Human Nature Technology.”5 Ressler’s central critique – that the Expo’s presentation of sustainability politics effaces and sanitizes globalist domination strategies – is integral to his larger assault on corporate globalization and its enabling political superstructure.

The two Ressler films INDEX has released, This Is What Democracy Looks Like! (2002) and Disobbedienti (2002) explore how effectively democratically-organized anti-globalization movements can shape public discourse, and whether these organizations can truly promote practical alternatives to global capitalism. The former film is the more successful, and has enjoyed repeated showings at festivals and cultural centers throughout Austria, Germany, and much of Europe, winning the ZKM6 International Media Art Award first prize. What seems to be at stake for Ressler is the alleged meaning of democratic participation itself: can even an internationalized anti-globalization movement actually influence the architects of global capital in a unified way? Moreover, how can change come about in the current European context, with a manifest tension between the EU’s quasi-protectionist tendencies and its ambitions to be a global economic superpower? The recent “no” votes for a European constitution in France and the Netherlands are yet further signs of mounting European resistance to the imposition of political unity ex cathedra by hidebound eurocrats unresponsive to democratically expressed fears of political homogenization. Ressler – like many leftists who believe a politically decentralized democracy is the only assurance of legitimate dissent (apart from general strikes or nonviolent boycotts) – is surely responding to the political phenomenon forebodingly summed up in recent cover article of the German magazine Der Spiegel: “Die Diktatur der Bürokraten.”7 As global competitors lure jobs from Europe, and as Western European voters become disillusioned with indirectly elected politicians who insist that the slumbering masses require a paternalistic European superstate, Ressler’s work not only takes the political forces advancing globalization to predictable task but explores the limitations of public protest in the face of overwhelming odds.

For those who’ve tried to imagine how it must feel to chant in the defiant fore phalanx of an anti-globalization protest in a major western city, This Is What Democracy Looks Like! offers more than mere voyeurism and verisimilitude. The camera-toting Ressler joined the defiant at the July 1, 2001 World Economic Forum in Salzburg, becoming one of 919 demonstrators whose purported democratic rights were bloodily trampled by overeager public safety officers and a battalion-sized deployment of riot police cowering beneath molded body armor and plastic shields. However, the film’s opening narration arguably overstates the impact of these protests and the longevity of their public memory. In fact, had the government taken a less aggressive tack to contend with this relatively modest pocket of activists, the Salzburg protests might have been remembered as little more than a griping, demonstration manqué. It was thus to Ressler’s advantage that the Salzburg police’s dense, neo-fascistic tactics proved his neo-Marxist thesis better than he ever could; since angry expostulations of hard-line neo-Marxism are precisely what globalists relish and encourage (for radical leftism can be summarily ridiculed and vilified among the post-communist era European demos), Ressler’s more subdued approach, while almost entirely one-sided, has a restrained dignity and democratic appeal that refuses simplistic red-scare propagandizing.

In a sense, Ressler’s films, their political agenda notwithstanding, stand apart from the rarefied aesthetic assumptions of the mainstream avant-garde (if I may be permitted the only apparent oxymoron), rejecting its notion that style and substance are inextricable. Ressler’s work embraces rather than contradicts documentary traditions of narrative hyperrealism, and the technical toolbox of This Is What Democracy Looks Like! is limited to a few transitional dissolves, blackouts and slow fades which allow Ressler to compress the chronology of a single day’s turmoil, beginning with the protesters’ arrival at the train station (like the Lumières’ workers, no less?!) and their immediate and arbitrary harassment at the leathered paws of militant police. Thankfully, Ressler eschews interviews with chattering academics preening before bookshelves of neatly-ordered Schmuckkassetten, instead allowing six participants, three men and three women, to narrate the event themselves in voiceover. Though their commentaries are ideologically uniform, their overall sober, understated tone provides a stately, exaggeratedly calm contrast to the violences they recount. Arguing for basic rights of peaceful democratic dissent, proclaiming illegitimate the tactics of the police and their globalist masters, and recounting the emotional and physical anxieties they experienced as the police tactically encircled and penned them into a small cordon sanitaire for nearly seven hours without food or sanitation, the participants’ personal narratives plainly detail what social theory renders sterile and literary.

What becomes most explicit in Ressler’s juggling of protest footage and reflective analysis is the blatant media construction of “violent radicals” out of peaceful protestors – indeed, one comes away largely convinced of mainstream, corporatist media outlets’ dire need for self-legitimation, as they routinely recast any and all public dissent as televised anarchist spectacle poised to unseat the security and comfort only they, the mass-media, can incessantly, blissfully fabricate. Mass media outlets would be thoroughly incompetent, and unable to retain and broker power, if they could not – and did not – manipulate perception in precisely this way, shrewdly turning the decentralization of direct democracy into the decentralization of lowest-grade anarchy. Ressler himself is acutely aware of his enemies’ strategies, as he (in the liner notes) critiques their obvious need to divide and conquer by means of neatly distinguishing and presenting two forms of radicals: vicious, unruly demonstrators who require immediate subjugation by the state, and peaceful, unwashed hippies whose quaint ideas and recycled slogans are incapable of overturning the opinion of a society eager to elect neo-fascist governors. If the more ideologically threatening protestors require some “assistance” in their conversion from wheat-germ peaceniks into lawless brutes, the baton-twirling powers-that-be are more than willing to oblige.

Ressler’s account is particularly instructive for Americans, as it demonstrates precisely how conservative the so-called liberal elements of the mainstream media have become in marginalizing antiglobalists, shrinking their organized presences to images of fugitive, random violence and their arguments to the futility of isolated sound bytes.8 In one delightful moment of muted rancor, a male protester pacing in front of police barricades graphically dramatizes his political repression: gagged to constriction with a bandana, he parades with his arms bound from behind, flaunting a sarcastic text thickly painted across his bare chest: “Bin ich jetzt friedlich?”9 But after the film’s thirty-eight minutes have elapsed, we’re left clinging to a discomfiting sense of loss as we must grapple with the ironies proposed by the title, “This is What Democracy Looks Like!” Does democracy take the form of peaceful, rational dissenters truncheoned by jackboots, or is it a failed and impotent political enterprise, now gagged, bound, and tattooed, prone to the mercies of corporatists who stage democracy as a videographic conflict between rallying deviants and valiant, uniformed defenders of the people?

For all their trenchancy, a little of Ressler’s diatribes go a long way, and his Disobbedienti (2002), made in partnership with Dario Azzellini, reveals how facile unrestrained Marxist ranting can become – particularly the ranting of the contemporary Italian Marxists whom Ressler features here. Disobbedienti profiles the history and ideology of the “Tute Bianche” (“White Overalls”), a post-Marxist Italian worker’s movement publicly committed to the ideas of conflict and consensus, or what are apparently a thinly-veiled set of older Marxist agitation strategies formulated to engage the globalist mainstream. When the movement both suffered its greatest material losses and won its greatest publicity after hundreds of protesting members were injured and jailed at the 2001 G-8 Summit in Geneva, the group switched its name to “Disobbedienti,” revised its vocabulary to replace “revolution” with “civil disobedience,” and assumed a newborn national prominence. A revamped public relations model, however, hasn’t altered their antiglobalist objectives or an overriding ideology of “autonomist Marxism.”10 Allied with larger anti-globalist movements, The Disobbedienti seek new economic models based upon cooperatives, localized economies, self-management of resources, and a vibrant reward system for those committed to hard work. A far cry from the grandfatherly Marxism of collective management and agrarian reform, the Disobbedienti’s voices nevertheless have had limited resonance wherever and whenever the globalist media can craftily paint them as grubby hooligans deluded by a pretext of unredeemed utopianism. Though they realize terroristic acts will reinforce negative media stereotyping, the Disobbedienti insist that violence is a legitimate instrument of consciousness-raising, most notably as group members bombarded the Ministry of Defense in Rome with rocket fire during George Bush’s 2004 Italian tour.

While Ressler sympathizes with the fundamental goals and practices of the Disobbedienti, he is not himself a freewheeling utopian thinker. In a recent interview with Anna Liv Ahlstrand for the Swedish journal Hjärnstorm,11 Ressler confesses he is uncertain what shape a preferable future economy might take, and he is even less committal as to how to achieve it. Declining to impose a corrective model from above, Ressler instead adopts the Zapatist ethos of “preguntando caminamos” (“asking as we walk”) as a possible pathway to the “self-management” of enterprise.12 This process-oriented approach admits that reform is a work in progress without a predetermined method, theory, or system, a self-correcting dialogue whose general aim is the fulfilling of Maslovian needs. Unfortunately, the witless rhetoric espoused in Disobbedienti overcomes Ressler’s intellectual circumspection, which was more capably deployed in This Is What Democracy Looks Like! As someone committed to the collectivized voice, the miscalculating (if well-intentioned) Ressler allows his activist interviewees to become his proxies, yielding his own antiglobalist concerns to the unbending rhetoric of characterless mouthpieces who seem to be parroting paragraphs memorized from airdropped leaflets, rather than expressing themselves as the authentic, autonomous agents their leftist politics purports them to be. The Disobbedienti‘s pronouncements sound less like the inspiration of a newly-emerging, locally-driven, cooperative multitude than they do the echo of the old Italian Communist Party freshened with the leafy utopianism of the radical Greens.

In the style of Ressler’s exhibitions and This Is What Democracy Looks Like! the video is disinterested in any aesthetic that might contradict his aspirations of actuality and subdued facticity. However, Disobbedienti‘s agenda is so ill-defined and intellectually illegible that it can’t rightly be called a successfully de-aestheticized work of propaganda. Allowing his seven interviewees to speak for him becomes Ressler’s fatal undoing: “We are a contradiction that dissolves into precariousness,” reads one of the more ungainly subtitle translations. Spewing torrents of studious logorrhea and Italian Marxist doublespeak, each interviewee is instantly interchangeable with the others; after pulling apart the rhetoric, we only learn that the Disobbedienti strive to propagandize some alternative economic mechanisms, and hope to make civil disobedience into global disobedience. As Ressler’s presentation offers no direct promptings (at least on camera), his chosen spokespeople are licensed to blather with increasingly risible incomprehensibility: “Within this dynamic I believe that it could be an important perspective to reactivate and strengthen with labor issues the experiences of the invisible ones in terms of the global space of movements.” Even forgiving defective or unidiomatic subtitles (reproduced here verbatim), it is only seventeen minutes into the film that someone even scratches the surface of the Disobbedienti’s economic goals: “The idea of a European general strike seems obvious. Various factors come into play here. The crisis of European social democracy, the end of moderate neo-liberalism and the necessity of a break with the…” Aha! – there is no need to continue. We finally understand. Let’s have a strike.

The trap Ressler sets for himself is the oldest one for all Marxist propagandists: How do I present my ideas compellingly without reproducing and falling victim to bourgeois aesthetics, hackneyed modes of stylization, and retrograde pathos? This Is What Democracy Looks Like! cannot easily eschew its compelling psycho-social dimension, and that is partially why it succeeds as a film, even if psychologizing is (arguably) inherently tantamount to bourgeois humanism and individualism. Disobbedienti‘s stubborn, textbook refusal to glimpse any recognizable humanity, however, makes one realize how even an intellectually noble piece of propaganda can be made frail and futile. Even if we accept the video’s anti-aesthetics as an intentionally defiant political act, it’s difficult to imagine unconverted moderates being swayed by young students announcing cumbersome Marxist lingo in convoluted fragments. The interviewees’ discourses are so bereft of nuance, personality, and internal disagreement that Ressler might just as well have interviewed one person; perhaps this conformity speaks to the movement’s ideological unity, but then we wouldn’t need a film, just a transcript of their manifesto. Ressler’s presentation ironically embodies and validates capitalists’ greatest fear: that communistic ideology converts and corrupts one into a self-parodying automaton spouting homogenized newspeak.

It’s disingenuous – or at least unfruitful – to suggest that there exist no internal disagreements among Disobbedienti members about short-term tactics, long-term strategies, or holistic philosophy; all competent social researchers know that the most valuable lessons are learned by studying how and why activists who share common goals dissent on practical issues of implementation. As they reiterate ideologies as humorless, moribund, and robotic as those of their consuming, self-destructive capitalist oppressors, the Disobbedienti must ask themselves how they can succeed in an age when all public displays of anti-State violence are categorized by the Security State with the vocabulary of dehumanized terrorism.

Perhaps worst of all, Ressler’s interviewees, hardly a melting pot, utterly fail to demonstrate the sociocultural diversity the Disobbedienti claim is their greatest strength and resource. Though the interviewees’ class backgrounds are unclear, the Disobbedienti spokespeople are unerringly young, university-educated, and Caucasian, and one sees within the group few, if any, of the brown-skinned immigrants on whose alleged behalf whitish group leaders march and dissent (to be fair, this may be the bias, unconscious or not, of Ressler’s camera). One wonders in vain if the Disobbedienti work to recruit into their ranks the illegal Turkish refugee who flunked a map quiz on Zapatista territorial incursions, or the elderly, illiterate street-sweeper who became flabbergasted when cross-examined about the dignities of autonomist Marxism.

The sad, disillusioning fact is that, lacking the “rightist” necessary evils of style and probing psychology, Disobbedienti’s convictions fall flat, and become subservient to the naiveté of ardent rhetoric. Rather than offering a didactic account of why they personally became active and organized, Disobbedienti interviewees trust that short dramatic pauses will sufficiently psychologize overheated speeches that insist: “…white surfaces…directly related to the white overalls of the Tute Bianche… inspire viewers to find…open visual lacunas with their own ideas. In other words, they represent the attempt to find an open visual correspondence for a development that is to progress questioningly and without prefabricated models in keeping with the concept of the Disobbedienti.”

The willful emptiness of this documentary technique – of relying on spontaneous passions accidentally evident in unedited monologues – is ironically similar to the effects produced within the reflective spaces of pretentious museum installations. For the audience, these experiences are not functional dialectic procedures, but mere ideological gestures that depend heavily on a reflective audience’s willingness to inject its own psychological baggage into the socio-aesthetic framework the artist has manufactured.

Ressler’s fundamental questions in Disobbedienti echo urgently from the blood-spattered Salzburg protests: Can we develop a radical democracy beyond classically narrow mechanisms or paradigms of political representation? How can democracy function if and when its activists are categorized not as agents of legitimate public dialogue and dissent but as annihilators of the State itself? But the Disobbedienti’s goals shouldn’t be whitewashed with a coat of friendly pacifism. Unlike the German Greens of the late 80s, the Disobbedienti seem unlikely to relinquish radicalism with the onset of legitimate parliamentary representation. Unlike the anti-G8 protesters chronicled in This Is What Democracy Looks Like!, they aren’t placard-waving victims but proud rebels who view the State – not just its policies – as one of two primary villains (globalized capitalism being the inseparable other) deserving swift execution. Given their uncompromising agenda, Ressler’s film shouldn’t back away from glorifying the violent logic of Disobbedienti radicalism. Unfortunately, rather than critiquing wholesale a State that paradoxically claims to honor a rule of law that supports the criminal syndicate of global capitalism (while maintaining our fearful reliance on that law for liberty, welfare and protection against the syndicate), we come away with sheepish jargon about immigration reform and securing a living wage. The styleless Marxist camera has unwittingly tamed its self-styled radicals.

While Ressler’s collective politics refuse the arrogant solipsism that typifies common perceptions of avant-gardism, the work of sculptress-videomaker Gertrude Moser-Wagner repositions a stubborn experimental individualism within the context of ecologically-tinged crises that practical politics have been unable to remedy. Operating through her self-discovered formula of “concept and coincidence” (also the title of her INDEX DVD), she seeks to “take sculpture beyond gravity…to find a visual form of transportation for this process.” This notion is ideally represented in her Ouroboros (2000), wherein a three-minute image shot through a microscope lens in the laboratories of the University of Göttingen is transformed into a transparent, untainted political statement, a “sculpted” allegory of the dangers of genetic manipulation. Ouroboros, a genetically altered nematode named after the mythical snake which bites its own tail,13 is a favorite of genetic vivisectionists because of a membranous transparency that makes its nervous system easy to study. The liner notes tell us that the removal of a simple gene dooms the poor creature – “ROL6,” as scientists dub it – to snake around in tail-chasing circles for the remainder of its existence (sometimes clockwise, sometimes counterclockwise), a trenchant metaphor portending the inevitable self-destructions of genetic tampering and misapplied notions of (tail-biting) relativism. Andreas Weixler’s ambient soundtrack employs an “interactive acoustic modulation” to electronically distend a hypnotic vocalization of the word “ouroboros,” lending a surprising, otherworldly pathos to the confused destiny of this universalizable petri dish victim. At first, the aestheticizing of the worm’s rhythms via the droning voice seem amateurish, even bourgeois, and Ouroboros threatens to broach the unintended, tittering campiness that single-minded obscuritantism too-often provokes. But potential camp soon gestates into alarmingly sterile eeriness, and ROL6’s relentless gyre, as perceived through the microscope lens, becomes a kind of biotic sculpture, an organic infinitum that achieves Moser-Wagner’s desire to transport forms “beyond gravity.” It is an image endowed with tremendous paradox and foreboding, not so much a film as an a posteriori exhibition of the perverse ignobility of all biological exploitations. By the brief film’s end, Weixler’s magnetic repetitions of “ouroboros” breathe into the worm paradoxical life, suggesting that without a human resonance the sadistic byproducts of our heedless research go largely undocumented.

Not all of Moser-Wagner’s videos overcome the pretentious pitfalls of experimentalism, however. To understand her pseudo-deconstructionist short Kiosk (1993) – whose title is not a tribute to Tabak or Weisswurst vendors but an anagram of the film’s location, Skoki, Poland – one must (as with the abovementioned Lingual) turn to the notes to discover specificities which the camera’s nonconsensual significations cannot “lingually” convey. Elliptically peering through a narrow slit of concrete into a park, Kiosk‘s camera is stationed in an embrasure on a villa’s balcony, but the plain images it records gradually disintegrate into single photographic frames which swirl serially into opacity and finally into obscurity. The musical rows of Josef Reiter’s soundtrack are tonally jostled with the film’s fading, spinning colors, his minimalist soundscape existing “independent of the image.” Even here, the notes aggravate rather than dispel avant-garde confusions: while stating that “post-production is a kind of principle for mathematical arrangement in rows both visually and musically,” it’s unclear how Reiter’s audial interjections can function “independently” of Moser-Wagner’s spinning image and simultaneously respond to it, even if asynchronically.

While the visual repetitions of Ouroboros were empirically situated and culturally informed, those of Kiosk are purely arbitrary in their presentations of a particular space. When a stationary camera dispassionately studied the pitifully twirling ROL6, the image instilled unexpected pathos, even despair; when the stationarily produced image of Kiosk is vertiginously twirled in post-production, we are left with only a banal headache reminding us how frequently avant-garde expressions of spatiality are stripped of human interest or consequence. As is typical with many experimental films, the intentional humor and playfulness of Kiosk‘s clever title don’t translate – or are entirely irrelevant – to its actual imagistic presentation. To borrow from the vocabulary of traditional representational art, the film seems more like a preliminary sketch for a future work, or a study in technique.

Luftloch14 (1997), too, betrays all the generic markers of the experimental-film-as-failed-experiment, its images a scramble of distortions and juxtapositions, supported by a soundtrack that grinds out industrial rattle interspersed with importantly pregnant silences. Whereas Kiosk seeks to transform a single image through post-production Spiel, Luftloch presents us with multiple images, strangely interposed to produce surrealistic incongruities. Among the “concept and coincidence” videos of Moser-Wagner presented here, Luftloch best appreciates the sculptural quality of oddly “anti-gravitational” physical artifacts, and their relation to one another in a manner that makes the fortuitous seem less arbitrary (if not less gratuitous). Of course, the objects she visually scrambles together aren’t coincidental, but a carefully choreographed nonsense of colors, shapes, and surfaces: images such as a television sitting precariously atop a railing allow us to re-objectify aesthetic forms apart from notions of originality, intentionality, and functionality. That the image of the television itself projects a video of a man who looks suspiciously like Jesus, slowly stuffing whole fish, scales and all, into his mouth, like a snake devouring prey whole, unfortunately returns the experience to parody and cliché.

At other times, Moser-Wagner is interested in accentuating often subliminal experiences and erasing the liminal ones, as when sounds of clinking forks on plates take precedence over the chatter in a large al fresco dining scene filmed objectively from overhead. In one particularly effective piece of camerawork, two men work mechanically at a forge (a la Metropolis) pulling what look like hot metal scythe blades from a furnace into a cooling vat and stringing them on a rack. The audience vicariously assumes the motions of the fixed camera’s sudden twists, which move at precisely the right moment to make the spectator suddenly dizzy, focusing at once on one furnace man and then just as quickly on the other, repeating the inexorable process five or six times. Luftloch‘s hyper-formalist scheme of deracinating viewers, stranding them amidst alien, anti-functional object-arrangements, and mechanizing their gaze is among the hoariest of surrealist devices, however, and at best becomes a clinical, abstracted demonstration of the post-Buñuelian-Bretonian principles of incongruity we’ve already acknowledged for the past seventy or eighty years.

Vice-Versa/Kraków-Krakau (1998) is the most ambitious and complex work in this collection. Made in collaboration with Beverly Piersol, the film – and its title – explore a less-than coincidental relationship between the place-names of Kraków, Poland and the village of Krakaudorf in Austria’s Styrian region. Utilizing a combination of split-screen and superimposition techniques, images of the Austrian alpine landscape are marked upon the Polish urban cityscape as the working lives and journeys of two female artists are juxtaposed, overlaid, and presented simultaneously in a quasi-psychological narrative of physical and social spaces. Though the film’s German-speaking sequences are not subtitled (also the case with Luftloch), titles in German and English offer summary translation.15

A stylized visual palimpsest overlays alpine scenery upon a variety of contrasting images, including a powerful montage of bucolic landscapes superimposed over faint shadows of pedestrians in the streets of Kraków. This imagery of political subjugation precedes the introduction of an old Bürgermeister from Krakaudorf, who quaintly describes the history of the town’s name while holding up an old tourist brochure. Moser-Wagner presents him with documentary charm and even respectful nostalgia. While the mayor’s unsubtitled interview is only partially unscripted (as well as drawn out, albeit in an ingratiating way that only a loveable country Bürgermeister can elicit), we do get a momentary English summary in title overlay. By contrast, the etymology of Kraków is read from a prepared English script with English titles superimposed over glamour shots of the city.

While shrouded in folk myth and conjectural philology, the etymologies presented here indicate a clear identification with crows. The brief summaries tell us that Krakow (Poland) had a legendary founder, Krak, but further, that “kruk” means crow.16 Slavic immigrants to Austria c. 600 named the region Krakova, which means “crow region”;17 later, the three townships of Krakaudorf agreed to use the crow as an emblem in their coat of arms. While the linguistic commonality of the names implies a shared history within a naturally bounded space (“where the crows live”), the sentimentalizing of the alpine village mayor and his rustic alpine milieu calls forth implicit fascist associations of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and, perhaps, the historical domination of Poland by a host of foreign (German-speaking) powers. Superimposing these images over the Polish city of marvelous architectural beauty and capitalistic (touristic) self-promotion reminds us that two of the most nefarious and depraved localities on the planet – Auschwitz and Birkenau – lie only a few kilometers away. The fascist aesthetic summoned by this technique is finally remembered in one of Moser-Wagner’s voiceovers as the screen’s dualities dissipate into a pure white haze. What does it mean that both cities may share a common mythographic point of reference in the course of developing distinct cultural-linguistic histories that have been marked by struggles for political domination and imposed sociographic boundaries?

The answers do not come easily, if at all. Accompanying the dialectical impressionism of parallel images, the viewer is privy to selected readings of letters, faxes and diary entries staged dialogically (in voice-over) from one woman to the other (alternating in unsubtitled German and English). Moser-Wagner’s voice-over journal is sober and probing, looking for associative meanings, but mostly rings empty and ponderous, while Piersol’s vapid commentary prattles impressionistically, even digressing to personal musings about her children’s wishes to frolic in the snow. Perhaps this contrast is intentional, for it effectively alienates the viewer from the more profound introspections that the film’s visual techniques ask her to make. Piersol’s most profound statement, “Do you think this holding onto traditions comes from a need to lean onto something concrete, to have a structure and things to look up to? Why else this love of kings, queens, castles, celebrities?” almost has to be read as calculatedly simpleminded. Seen from this perspective, one can admire the way the film completely undermines the bourgeois assumptions of what an avant-garde film must be. It presents, non-ironically, a thoroughly sub-bourgeois collection of prosaic observations and banal reflections, the kind of touristic interests and assumptions that the liner notes identify (but do not clarify) as a prevailing theme.

While the film reveals through these journals, faxes and epistles a kind of mundane humanistic honesty, this stream of ineffectual, dialogic refuse is ultimately at odds with the dualistic visual tableau of the film, disrupting, rather than constructing, a dual interplay between the imagistic and verbal dialectical movements. The effect of this rift is to privilege the dialectic play of continuously contrasted images and to incapacitate the process by which the film attempts to make sense of itself (and its subject) through honest, Socratic dialogue. The staged conversations between two visual artists ultimately prove empty and unproductive, their project carried out far more provocatively through images rather than verbal reflection. The fact that neither artist provides anything close to verbal answers to their questions reinforces this assumption. The spectator is invited to explore with his or her own imagination the more subtle and intimate relationships between the two locales that stand in nominal as well as historical proximity, often presented at surprising imaginative distances in which the film allows us to participate. The concluding minutes of this nineteen-minute film juxtapose video and photographic sequences taken from parish and city churches and ethnographic museums, re-establishing the characteristic aesthetic, mystical and cultural similarities between the two cities, thereby drawing a larger, ineffable cultural link between them. The coda image, a left-right panning shot of a folk-art style map of the Polish borderland, narrates a visual geography of the region during World War II, containing images of planes, displaced people, combat, and city buildings, moving year by year through the conflict – a final, unifying image of time and space across the border.

This powerful and clever image of the historical map reminds us of the project of this film, to move the viewer simultaneously through time and space by creating concurrent times and spaces through the split screen collision montage, and by occasionally superimposing two foreign spaces into a single, temporal framework. The answers may lie in insinuation, but the overall effect is a thought-provoking synthesis of technique and critical design that makes this one of the more successful avant-garde films to be released in recent years, and deserving of multiple viewings. Even the viewer less experienced with avant-garde productions will understand that the careful stylization cannot be dismissed as a supererogatory or sophistic exercise in elitist obfuscation, and that the lackluster verbiage engages the viewer to seek deeper answers for himself.

This powerful and clever image of the historical map reminds us of the project of this film, to move the viewer simultaneously through time and space by creating concurrent times and spaces through the split screen collision montage, and by occasionally superimposing two foreign spaces into a single, temporal framework. The answers may lie in insinuation, but the overall effect is a thought-provoking synthesis of technique and critical design that makes this one of the more successful avant-garde films to be released in recent years, and deserving of multiple viewings. Even the viewer less experienced with avant-garde productions will understand that the careful stylization cannot be dismissed as a supererogatory or sophistic exercise in elitist obfuscation, and that the lackluster verbiage engages the viewer to seek deeper answers for himself.

Gertrude Moser-Wagner’s films succeed most where they push the boundaries of the avant-garde beyond institutionalized and even ritualized techniques of bourgeois antagonism and self-marginalizing illegibility, liberating the critical dynamic from the constraints of stylistic opacity, and allowing the style, or technique, to emerge as a force that drives the film’s imaginative boundaries into relevant and recognizable geo-political and socio-political contexts. In Kraków-Krakau, and also Ouroboros, Moser-Wagner avoids the problems of spectatorial isolation and produces two very different and powerful visual works that engage the viewer’s attention as well as the critical imagination. While Ressler’s This Is What Democracy Looks Like! achieves this largely through an intentional absence of style, and a direct, less mediated filmmaking technique, the documentary is clearly not an avant-garde film but a pragmatic and successful political statement that deserves our attention. However, if Ressler’s admitted design is to “realize [political-artistic] projects in a way that they can be read and understood not only by experts of contemporary art, but also by a broader public, to counter the isolationist tendencies in the art field,”18 one wonders how Disobbedienti achieves these aims. Here Ressler is speaking of politically engaged art as opposed to elite museum compositions or high-bourgeois entertainment. The documentary film provides precisely the “context” that Ressler needs, but apart from introducing a wider public to a new political phenomenon, the political arguments presented in the film are deficient, alienating, and largely otiose. Despite his intention to contradict isolationist tendencies among cultural elites in the art world, he reproduces a different kind of isolation by producing a film “project” largely devoid of aesthetic concerns. While there is a need to avoid neo-fascist, Riefenstahlian aesthetic pandering (or perhaps simply the fear that any pathos moves us dangerously in this direction), a film that is supposed to awaken our collective, public sympathies to social injustice requires more liberating formal mechanisms than the old-fashioned Lehrstück. The larger question is how to avoid both kinds of isolation, how to produce works that are both politically suggestive and formally engaging in a way that enhances the imaginative potential for the viewer to construct social alternatives, and use alternative forms to communicate those possibilities while revealing the ideological assumptions that make change unachievable – or at least unimagined.

  1. An independent video group aimed at building “an infrastructure for independent video projects.” View their extensive website. []
  2. A nonprofit organization “founded in 1990 to promote an interest in Austrian film and art, both at home and abroad.” Their clean, minimalist website, helpfully bilingual, is here. Click on the small “D” or “E” in the upper-right corner for Deutsch or English. []
  3. While the liner notes are bilingual, and most of the films are subtitled in English where necessary, throughout the DVDs are a few stray scenes in unsubtitled German. []
  4. Originally “Linguale Bildhauerei. Eine Rückführung.” (“Lingual Sculpture: A Recovery.”) Installed at Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Aachen (Germany), 1992. []
  5. For a summary review of substance, see here. []
  6. The Zentrum Für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe is a premier center for media and art development, research, and exhibition. []
  7. “The Dictatorship of the Bureaucrats.” June 6, 2005 issue. []
  8. The next time a local news report focuses on anti-globalization protestors at a G-8 Summit meeting, see if the journalists ever bother to explain what the protestors are protesting about. They cannot – the spectacle of riot police eclipses the legitimacy of all argument. []
  9. Now am I being peaceful? []
  10. Italian philosopher Antonio Negri is an authoritative source on this position and his work seems to define, to a certain degree, the ideological agenda of the Disobbedienti. His book Empire, co-authored with Michael Hardt (Harvard UP, 2001), has become widely discussed, along with Multitude and The Politics of Subversion. The Disobbedienti represent and embody the idea of the “multitude” rather than a single group or paramilitary force. []
  11. Interview can be read in English here. []
  12. The Tute Bianche actually sent delegations to the Chiapas region and accompanied the Zapatistas during their march to the capital. []
  13. Ouroboros, from the Greek for “tail-devourer.” The name was thought to be passed down from ancient Egypt (1600 b.c.e.) through Phoenicia to Greece, but appears across every continent in numerous cultures: as the serpent Jormungand in Norse mythology; as the dragon of Hindu mythology; in various Judeo-Christian symbolic schemes; in Chinese and Taoist emblems; in various Native American icons, inscriptions and jewelry; in alchemical and mystical treatises; as a Jungian archetype; as an associative symbol in Hermetic, Neo-Platonic and Gnostic philosophy; in Celtic rope designs and many other aesthetic, religious and mystical contexts. Most websites covering the Ouroboros are repetitive. See spirasolaris, dragon.org, and the always handy Wikipedia. []
  14. Meaning “airhole,” “breathing hole” or possibly “vent.” []
  15. One wonders why INDEX agreed to release this work without subtitles when its stated aim is to stimulate an internationalized interest in Austrian art and artists. The other film in the collection featuring scripted and semi-scripted dialogue, Luftloch, suffers from the same problem. At one point in that film we get a complex explanation of scientific phenomena for several minutes in cognate-friendly academic German, but perhaps Moser-Wagner did not want her films to be subtitled at all? Language is clearly important in Kraków-Krakau, and one might only speculate that the polyglot design exists to suggest a separation between national/regional identity and its construction by language, or associate English with Kraków’s allegiance to urban capitalism. This question of translation seems a subtle clue to unpacking the film’s deeper meanings. []
  16. “Krähe” is the modern German for crow. []
  17. The film attributes this reading to Dr. Walter Brunner. []
  18. Ressler speaking to Ahlstrand, last paragraph of the cited interview (see footnote 11). []