Borders are continually being altered and redefined by the people who inhabit and cross them, who in turn are shaped by the spaces they occupy. Addressing diverse yet often interconnected issues including migration, prostitution, identity and border spaces, Ursula Biemann’s experimental video-essays connect a theoretical macro-level with a micro-perspective on local political and cultural practices. She involves academics, anthropologists, cultural theorists, NGO members, architects and other artists in her work. Her video essays reach a wide and diverse audience through festival screenings, art exhibitions, activist conferences, networks and educational settings. She has also published a number of books and other texts addressing the themes and medium of her video-essays, including ’Benn there and back to nowhere now’ (2000), ’Geography and the Politics of Mobility’ (2003) and ’Stuff It: The Video Essay in the Digital Age’ (2003). The world is criss-crossed by a network of seemingly arbitrary borders, which attempt to control the flow of people and goods into and out of nation states. To Biemann, a border is not a line but a space, a zone which belongs to neither side. This space is defined by the border and by the trades which this division generates – legal trade and smuggling, cross-national commuters and businesses are drawn to these zones and a community without a history is born. Traditional roles and identities are often undermined by new or unfamiliar needs imposed by these strange spaces, and crime is often rife. Biemann interviews residents and films them conducting their day-to-day business. ’Performing the Border’ (1999) is set in the Mexican-US border town of Ciudad Juarez, where US companies assemble factories manufacturing electrical goods, taking advantage of a cheaper labour force. ’Europlex’ (2003) follows smugglers along the Moroccan-Spanish border, at Ceuta and Tangiers, while ’Contained Mobility’ (2004) examines the position of the asylum seeker in Europe today and in the future. The border is not the only vaguely defined space, an in-between, a non-space: a refugee camp is also a place between departure point and destination, a stationary yet transient community. The space is allocated different values and significances by governments, policies, legal systems, religions, history and other factors. The inhabitant carve out new roles, build new relationships and generate their own culture. In her 2008 piece ’X-Mission’, Biemann explores a Palestinian refugee camp, placing it in the context of a widespread displaced population and a global diaspora of identity and longing to return to the homeland. The refugee camp is an example of an "extraterrestrial" space – other examples include embassies and free trade zones. This is defined as a space outside national boundaries, and administratively and judicially separate. In the spring of 2010, Biemann guest-edited a special issue of the online magazine Arte East entitled ’Extraterritoriality in the Middle East – Open Anthropology’. Increasingly, identities and even lives are built across national borders. Biemann follows trans-national networks in her investigative work, whether that is a network of smugglers or a network of pipes. Her ’Black Sea Files’ (2005) follows an oil pipe being constructed to link the oilfields of the Caspian to the consumer market in Western Europe. The pipe links the lives and livelihoods of people who work on or near it, but will eventually be buried underground, an invisible web linking distant parts of the world. Biemann interviews people from all walks of life along the pipeline, revealing numerous small stories and characters overlooked in the international affairs of the region. Another example of an invisible network is the links maintained between separated members of a scattered community. With migration and refugee scenarios becoming familiar sights or stories the world over, some of the strongest links hold together people, families and communities who are geographically distant. Diaspora identities tie those who have left or fled to one another and to their homeland. Biemann reveals the importance of such ties among those in a Palestinian refugee camp in ’X-Mission’ (2008). At all borders, smuggling people across the border is a lucrative if risky occupation, and a network of small organisations and companies moving, housing and feeding hopeful migrants has evolved. ’The Sahara Chronicles’ (2006-2007) follow some of the threads of the migration network across Sahara. Examining official policies designed to keep people in or out of certain spaces – which she describes as "policies of containment" – Biemann here chooses to do without her usual informative and seemingly objective narration, instead allowing the viewer to make their own journey, joining dots in different ways. The migrants here are not imprisoned – but are they free to choose whether or not to make the journey, the attempt to breach the walls of Europe? One migratory group who are often not free are prostitutes. ’Remote Sensing’ (2001) follows the global sex trade from the Philippines to Germany, from Thailand to Nigeria and from Burma to Bulgaria, interviewing past and present prostitutes. Some are kidnapped or lured with false promises, some choose the only option available to them. Combining globally observed trends with individual stories, Biemann offers a detailed and in-depth investigation into this world. Gendered roles and spaces form a constant theme throughout her work. In ’Remote Sensing’, her video-essay on the global sex trade, Biemann combines the well-known with the unexpected, the familiar with the shocking. In ’Performing the Border’ (1999), she observes that many US companies employ only women, which has reversed the traditional division of roles between men and women and led to the rise of entertainment industries catering primarily for the demands of women. ’Writing Desire’ (2000), her examination of the impact of online dating and pornography on relationships, considers the circulation of female bodies in both digital and real form, paying particular attention to mail-order bride companies in this era of capitalism, consumerism and internet shopping. Relationships are begun or even conducted entirely through the internet, sometimes facilitating people falling in love with themselves in the words of another rather than forming a genuine relationship, but sometimes allowing people to transcend the limitations of their geographical, economic or social situation to find lasting happiness in unexpected places. Desire is increasingly being relocated away from the physical body, found instead in digital images which present the idealised, non-threatening woman. What is ’real’ sex? Biemann’s video-essay is challenging on many levels. Migration, gender, identity and desire all interlink, forming networks and systems which cross national boundaries and occupy extraterrestrial spaces. Combining the bigger picture with intimate portraits of individuals and small communities, Biemann produces compelling video-essays – sometimes fascinating, sometimes shocking, sometimes moving, she never fails to provoke contemplation and re-evaluation. Ursula Biemann is a researcher at the Institute for Theory of Art and Design at HGK Zurich and teaches seminars and workshops internationally. She was appointed Doctor honoris causa in Humanities by the Swedish University Umea in 2008 and in 2009 received the Meret Oppenheim Prize, Switzerland’s national art award.
- ° 1955 Lives and works in Zürich, Switzerland (CH)