Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler’s video installation 5 Factories – Worker Control in Venezuela at the Berkeley Art Museum

Along the Path of Revolution: Worker Control in Venezuela, Agency in Art

It is all too rare that a visit to a museum or gallery leaves me satisfied or stimulated, no less thinking about revolution. I am, to be sure, selective about what kinds of work I seek out. That I am more likely to have a satisfying experience walking to the corner grocer than walking the halls of a well-funded art institution says as much about my own desires and where I see creativity operating in the world, as it does about the concerns that occupy most of the art world. But every once and a while a museum visit actually enriches my life. Every now and then, someone uses media in a way that slices through our heavily mediated existence to take me closer to an experience or a body of knowledge otherwise hidden or not easily accessible.

When I traveled to Berkeley, California for the March 26, 2006 opening of Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler’s third collaboration 5 Factories – Worker Control in Venezuelaat the BerkeleyArt Museum, I was hopeful that I might learn something, but skeptical that it might be yet another unsatisfying art project about a pressing social and political situation. I was pleasantly surprised. The exhibition, accompanying essays, and panel discussion left me thinking not only about the social and political changes underway in Venezuela, but more broadly about the role of creativity in social revolutions and the implications of celebrating this creativity within the museum.

The 5 Factories installation marks the beginning of a yearlong exhibition cycle “Now-time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process.” As the series title indicates, and as organizer Chris Gilbert’s introductory text makes explicit, the works in the series are “not only or even primarily representations of or reflections on this process but…along the path itself.”

Not subjects, but agents
This distinction explains one way in which Azzellini and Ressler’s project—and the exhibition cycle as a whole—is important. Unlike other exhibitions about revolutionary processes or projects this one does not, to paraphrase Henri Lefebvre, turn the effects of a strategy into an aesthetic object. It is a documentary piece, but one that leaves the agency of its subject(s) intact. The fact that the videos take the viewer inside a process and let the workers speak for themselves—that they are not actually subjects, but agents—shifts the dynamic in a way that quelled my usual concerns about agency and representation. Like others who work with the Venezuelan people, Azzellini and Ressler have certainly been selective in their choice to interview workers from five worker-controlled factories. Yet their project succeeds in giving the viewer direct access to the voices, experiences, and insights of workers engaged in struggling for and reclaiming the means of production. It reminds the viewer that what is going on right now in Venezuela is not only—or even primarily—about Chavez.

The six ten-minute video installations feature interviews with workers from five different factories—a textile company, an aluminum plant, a tomato factory, a cocoa factory, and a paper factory. Each of these factories has been reconfigured under a system of co-management sanctioned by the 1999 Bolivarian constitution. The constitution provides legal basis for returning inactive factories to productivity as cooperatives governed and owned by the workers. In some cases, the state provides start-up loans; in others it helps purchase the factory in partnership with the cooperative.

Processes of factory reconfigurations
In the videos, the workers explain decision-making in the cooperative and the role of the factory in supporting the surrounding community. They provide thoughtful reflections on intellectual traditions with which they are engaged and the significance of their efforts. Although the situation in each factory is different, the workers share a commitment to a more equitable production process and a better way of life. The interviews, interspersed with sequences of the production process at each plant, give visitors to the museum direct entry into the process of factory reconfiguration. It is to Azzellini and Ressler’s credit that the film, which will be available in a single-channel DVD format in May 2006, is a clear vehicle for accessing this information. It provides a level of detail and a clear voice—from the people—that is not readily available.

But what, you may ask, is particularly liberating about industrial factory production? Perhaps nothing is inherently liberating about it, or about any form of labor per se. But, in a world where labor is a fact of life for most people, the potential for an otherwise oppressive relationship to be transformed into a liberatory one remains latent until it is brought to the fore. Creating a more inclusive and accountable production process when anti-human labor practices are proliferating under a neo-liberal order that cares nothing for people is something to be celebrated. Such a transformation is a decisive step in a larger process to transform social relations. For, as Elio Sayago, an environmental technician and member of the aluminum factory Alcasa’s Board of Directors states, “if we concentrate our workers, our people, on the construction of new human relations, which is for us what is at stake, we are guaranteeing the destruction of the… blocking, up until now, of the potential for human growth.” The electricity behind this vision comes through the videos loud and clear.

How does a company push toward socialism within a capitalist framework?

Said another way, the workers in Venezuela are using their labor to experiment with a crucial question. Carlos Lanz, president of the aluminum factory Alcasa sums it up well, “How does a company push toward socialism within a capitalist framework?” It is clear they are trying by beginning to establish coherent values outside of capital in practice, and making them law in their constitution. Article 113, for example, ensures “the existence of adequate consideration or compensation to serve the public interest,” in the case of the exploitation of natural resources which are “the property of the Nation.” Article 114 makes “economic crime, speculation, hoarding, usury, the formation of cartels and other related offenses” illegal. For the worker-controlled factories, a commitment to social interest is clear. As social production companies (ESP) they give 10 percent of their profit back to the community in which they are based through a local development fund. In two of the factories, everyone gets the same pay regardless of their position in the company. The five factories featured in this film are among 155 that, according to labor minister Maria Cristina Iglesias, are already being managed by workers cooperatives. They are a start along the path of an important shift in our thinking about industrial production and other forms of labor. For, as Azzellini stated during the opening panel, the point is to “put an economy to work for the benefit of society, not put society to work for the benefit of an economy.”

5 Factories provides a detailed look at factory reconfiguration, but it is only one component of the recent changes. The film builds upon one of Azzellini and Ressler’s previous collaborations, Venezuela from Below (2004), which also uses interviews to illustrate a variety of programs and changes, from the oil sabotage to farmer’s struggles, land reforms, grassroots media projects, and a women’s bank. Here again the strength of the project lies in the approach, as viewers hear the thoughts and stories of the people engaged in each action, in their own voice.

A curatorial agenda

That Gilbert is using museum resources to create propaganda “to support, defend, and promote the Venezuelan revolution and the Bolivarian government of Hugo Chavez” is worth some attention. “Works or exhibitions that advance revolutionary aims,” he writes, “are, by virtue of what they connect with and contribute to, quite creative.” This exhibition cycle is evidence of Gilbert’s commitment to, as he says, “put the superstructure back on the table,” to acknowledge that the political, economic, and social conditions in which we live are the context in which creativity operates, and the sphere in which art gains its relevance and its urgency.

Gilbert’s curatorial agenda distinguishes his work as a kind of organizing in a field where most curators are selecting. This exhibition cycle is in service of agency for the poor, challenging the notion that art and exhibitions are only ever in service of the upper classes. By using museum resources to make visible the inherent creativity of a social revolution, Gilbert subverts the internal micropolitics of art discourse by ignoring them. He puts the macropolitics of the struggle against capitalism back on the table. That he does this from within the institution—the art museum—that perhaps best epitomizes the architecture of bourgeois legitimacy, shows that it is possible to treat the museum as a vehicle in service of something larger than itself. This exhibition cycle is, thus, more than an important gesture within the world of art. A powerful piece of media has been produced—a piece of revolutionary propaganda—that will travel beyond the institutions walls and back out in the world where new creativities take form. And for a brief moment, the institution is transformed into a safe space in which a visitor can gain direct access to information on a very sensitive topic and come to her own conclusions.

Ava Bromberg is a writer, thinker, and student of cities currently based in Los Angeles.

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