Art: Barricading the Ice Sheets

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12 Min Read

June 29, 2023

Governments worldwide ignored repeated warnings from climate scientists and some of the biggest street protests in history. Not a semblance of action to decarbonize and regulate economies, to scale back trade, aviation, meat consumption, and private car ownership, nor to reclaim enormous amounts of “invisible” money for investment in public transport, the insulation of millions of homes, and the replacement of fossil fuels with renewables. Hardly surprising then, that all over the world we see non-hierarchically organized movements emerging, placing their bodies directly in the way of climate destruction. Through their actions, these movements remind us of what otherwise might stay largely unseen: namely, that we face a multi-dimensional crisis of ecological, economic, political, and social collapse and have already entered a mass extinction event. This is why the more radical and best-informed sections of the movement fight not only for decarbonization, but also for social justice and global redistribution of wealth and power. These climate justice movements use blockades and mass civil disobedience–and also sometimes demonstrations–to confront the political system and “business as usual.” 

Oliver Ressler, The Desert Lives, 2022, 55 min, video still, courtesy of the artist.

The climate justice movements are central to my research project Barricading the Ice Sheets, in which I record some of the movements’ mobilizations, occupations, assemblies, and working meetings, with a particular focus on the forms of collective organizing.

Barricading the Ice Sheets investigates the intersection of climate breakdown with climate justice movements and the relation of the movements to artistic practices. Materializing research findings in various formats such as film, photography, sculpture, large-scale drawing, conferences, and two publications, the project sets out to provide multiple access points to the current contestation of the future of the planet.1

Oliver Ressler, The Desert Lives, 2022, Installation view: MQ Art Box, MuseumsQuartier, Vienna.

The corresponding cycle of solo exhibitions, also titled Barricading the Ice Sheets, brings together pieces produced within the overarching framework of the project.2 These many pieces are presented together in varying combinations, emphasizing the complexity and apparent boundlessness of the climate crisis in its proliferating geographical, cultural, social, economic, and political manifestations. 

The title Barricading the Ice Sheets refers to the colossal scale of the emergency the climate justice movement faces and the scope of what it sets out to do. To barricade ice sheets as they melt is physically impossible. However, the movement is attempting something historically unprecedented, given that–with the possible exception of the danger of nuclear extinction–the planetary biosphere and all life on Earth has never in recorded human history confronted such an absolute threat. Polar ice is melting and the sea levels are rising all over the planet. Islands, coastal regions, and cities are sinking. Global exploitation of agriculture and fisheries is in free fall. 

                                                                                                                                                   

In the introduction to his book Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition, Yates McKee writes: “I understand this book as contributing to a project of para-academic ‘militant research’ of the sort that has arisen in other contexts of political upheaval around the world in the hopes that the stories it tells and the propositions it offers can in turn feed back into the contested work of movement-building.”3

My research developed along similar lines. McKee’s perspective as someone living in New York City at the time is that of a participant in Occupy Wall Street, writing about the relationship between art and activism in the Occupy movement. Likewise, my research is based on my experiences in those sections of the climate justice movements that act outside electoral politics and the UN framework, in organized opposition to climate breakdown and ecological destruction in general.

In the early stages of work on Barricading the Ice Sheets, my involvement in the climate movement differed from McKee’s role in Occupy Wall Street. I am based in Vienna, where a climate justice movement only began to emerge a few years ago. I have followed the climate movements in my work for fifteen years, but this has necessarily been an international engagement.

This commitment to movements at a geographical distance has played a decisive role in configuring several of my works. Over the years I have participated internationally in a considerable number of assemblies, working meetings of social movements, demonstrations, blockades, and mass actions of civil disobedience–and I have often recorded these activities. For some time, I have been personally unsure whether my artistic work relating to activism should be described as activist work, or indeed whether I should be seen as a participant in these movements at all. Was I an activist by virtue of this activity, or was I rather a sympathetic observer positioned in solidarity with the object of research? 

I still have no definite answer to this question, partly because my practice of varying strategies between one project and the next could generate different answers in each particular case. But when discussing my work, activists and movement participants from both within an “art world” context and outside it have given me an answer many times, telling me repeatedly that they regard me as part of the movements because of the way I approach my work as an artistic researcher. Many see my work as wholly unlike that of even the most personally sympathetic print or broadcast journalist, whose reporting is bound by a professional code of “neutrality” to eliminate all trace of such sympathies. Whether “neutrality” is epistemologically possible at all in politically contested matters is doubtful to say the least. What is beyond doubt is that “neutrality” or “impartiality” in hegemonic media organizations means compliance with political precepts held to be self-evident. In his book Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today, T. J. Demos writes: “If we are to survive the Anthropocene–which is indeed a big if–what we need urgently is more activism, not neutrality, to rescue the democratic political process from corporate oligarchs, to enact a just transition beyond the fossil fuel economy, to reassert the priorities of equality, and to eliminate discrimination and prejudice.”4 

In Barricading the Ice Sheets I have used my personal position of involvement in the climate movements to establish a new body of research-based art works. The project evolved differently from anything planned in advance. It is complicated enough to follow a social movement that is in constant change. It became even more complicated when at the beginning of the endeavour the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all our lives, and with it also the far advanced plans to block and film Shell’s annual shareholder meeting in The Hague on May 19, 2020.5 Or to document the resistance to the Karad Airport expansion in Maharashtra, India, by peasants whose very existence was threatened. After spring 2020, borders were closed for months and necessary actions of mass civil disobedience had to be cancelled due to necessities of physical “social distancing.” Needless to say, Shell’s annual shareholder meeting was moved online, so also the physical target chosen by the movements disappeared. 

This example clearly shows how this research is situated in real-life settings and therefore tremendously influenced by changing political, social, and economic conditions. But against all odds, several works were produced presenting the climate justice movements in various forms and formations, with special emphasis on praxis organized non-hierarchically.

Was I an activist by virtue of this activity, or was I rather a sympathetic observer positioned in solidarity with the object of research?

While working on Barricading the Ice Sheets, my relation to the movements deepened and expanded when a powerful climate movement emerged in Vienna around the struggles against the construction of that city’s Lobau freeway and the euphemistically named “Stadtstraße” (city road) planned in conjunction with it.6 On September 6, 2021, building machinery was blocked near Vienna’s Hausfeldstraße metro station. After several weeks of political pressure from climate activists, Austrian federal environment minister Leonore Gewessler ordered the cancellation of the Lobau freeway. But still the Vienna city council opted to go ahead with the city road project. In response, wooden structures were erected to ensure that the occupation could continue through the winter.

Oliver Ressler, The Desert Lives, 2022, 55 min, video still, courtesy of the artist.

I followed the movement and occupation of the so-called “desert” (the major construction site) over five months. Lisbeth Kovačič and I took turns filming the activity.7 The resulting film, The Desert Lives, is structured around three on-camera discussions in October 2021, December 2021, and January 2022, in which action participants discuss the status and prospects of the occupation at that moment.8 The October discussion addressed the history of the occupation, the collaboration between various political groups involved, and organizational issues. The next, filmed on December 9, 2021, is an emergency plenary meeting, called immediately after police declared the occupation legally dissolved. 

The third discussion took place in a three-floor wooden pyramid–an iconic structure for the resistance–whose image was distributed hundreds of times through media of all kinds. Lobau bleibt was subjected to multiple forms of repression, discussed in the pyramid in my film.9 In December 2021, a lawyer instructed by the City of Vienna sent around fifty letters to individual activists and two traffic experts from the Technical University in an attempt to intimidate participants in the blockades and other outspoken critics of the freeway scheme. The letter threatens recipients with supposedly mandatory legal action by the City to recover losses incurred where construction work was obstructed. Amnesty International Austria described this practice as a “SLAPP lawsuit,” making strategic use of the courts to discourage public participation.10 In proceedings of this kind, governments and corporations seek to intimidate dissenting individuals or organizations whose existence would be destroyed by a lawsuit. The intimidation method is used frequently in Sudan and Kosovo, but until now it has been rare in Austria.

One of these threatening letters was addressed personally to me, demanding that I “immediately stop the obstruction of the construction,” i.e., the blockade which I documented but was not involved in building. The letter threatened to criminalize my artistic work documenting civil disobedience actions. The fossil fuel capital-driven climate emergency demands urgent action against rising temperatures, but the institutions of representative politics are taking no meaningful action whatsoever. Therefore, a blockade of a construction site of another harmful freeway is fully justified by this emergency situation. 

So, after fifteen years of working on the climate movements internationally, finally I documented a movement in the city where I live. This allowed me to establish stronger connections to individual activists than is the case in international collaborations where I stayed for limited amounts of time. The attempt to criminalize the climate activists and to include me among the targets also made it clear that authorities do not bother about individual reasoning. In The Desert Lives I am sitting among activists in the pyramid, discussing criminalization at length. All buildings including the pyramid were evicted and destroyed by police on February 1, 2022 when 48 activists were arrested, and the felling of hundreds of trees began. But even after the loss of the occupation, the movement remains active; only the tactics have changed. 

Oliver Ressler, The Desert Lives, 2022, 55 min, video still, courtesy of the artist.
                                                                                                                                                           

I believe that the documentation of a social movement contributes to the creation of that movement. There is no “neutral” position from which a social movement could be merely documented. Every decision–concerning how and what to record, what to omit or the inclusion/exclusion and editing of the activists’ direct speech–must be recognized as simultaneously conditioned by and constitutive of the relation to that movement. Consequently, the artistic production drawn from my research includes material that might momentarily be seen as straightforwardly “documentary”, along with other elements where the “artistic” engagement is more obvious. Any sustained attention to the work, however, will reveal its systematic blurring of any artificial line between “document” and “artwork”. 

In my understanding, art is the space from which it is possible not only to reflect on the multi-dimensional crisis in a “hothouse earth”, but also the perfect place to think beyond it. Therefore, it is essential for me to work politically as an artist, as opposed to a journalist, politician, or documentarian. And therefore it was essential for Barricading the Ice Sheets to produce work that is of interest not only to art workers and exhibition viewers, but also to our climate movements: those we have now and those that will emerge in the future. 

It is my hope that this work can contribute meaningfully to these necessary struggles.

Oliver Ressler is a Vienna-based artist who creates installations, public art, and films addressing economics, democracy, racism, climate breakdown, resistance, and social alternatives. His extensive work includes 41 films screened in numerous events organized by social movements, art institutions, and film festivals. Ressler's impactful solo exhibitions have been held at prominent venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, and the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. His featured work, Barricading the Ice Sheets: Artists and Climate Action in the Age of Irreversible Decision, is available now from CameraAustria.at.

Notes

1. Oliver Ressler, ed., Barricading the Ice Sheets: Artists and Climate Action in the Age of Irreversible Decision (Graz, 2020)

2. The research endeavour Barricading the Ice Sheets was supported by the Austrian Science Fund and took place as solo exhibitions at Camera Austria, Graz (Sept.-Nov. 2021), Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb (Nov. 30, 2021-Feb. 6, 2022), Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), Berlin (June-July 2022), Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn (Aug.-Nov. 2022), LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Gijón (Jan-Sept. 2023), and The Showroom, London (Apr.-June 2023).

3. Yates McKee, Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (New York, 2016), 7.

4. T. J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Berlin, 2017), 81.

5. Future Beyond Shell is a coalition between codeROOD, SOMO, and TNI based out of The Haag, Netherlands, www.futurebeyondshell.org

6. Some might argue that Austria's climate movement started with the resistance against Vienna International Airport’s proposition in 2007 to build a third runway. But several groups ready to engage beyond what is being described as legal in Austria only emerged with the Lobau bleibt movement 2021–2022.

7. Lisbeth Kovačič served as a research associate for Barricading the Ice Sheets, supporting and contributing to the work for nearly three years. 

8. The Desert Lives, dir. Oliver Ressler (2022).

9. Lobau bleibt is the name of the network formed by different organizations, movements, and citizens' initiatives that joined forces to prevent the construction of the planned freeway and associated streets. Read more at www.lobaubleibt.at/

10. “Stadtstraße: Klagsdrohungen ,massive Menschrechtsverletzung’” [“City Road: Lawsuit Threats 'Massive Human Rights Violation'"], Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, Dec. 15, 2021, https://wien.orf.at/stories/3134565/

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