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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Ursula Biemann

Zurich,
Switzerland

Ursula Biemann is an artist, theorist and curator who has in recent years produced a considerable body of work on migration, mobility, technology and gender. In a series of video projects that are widely exhibited internationally, as well as in several important books—Been There and Back to Nowhere: Gender in transnational spaces (2000) and Geography and the Politics of Mobility (2003)—she has focused on the gendered dimension of migrant labor, from smuggling on the Spanish-Moroccan border to migrant sex workers moving from the East to the West. She has initiated various collaborative projects with women migrants. ”Kültür” (1996-97), a group project on migration, urban politics, and Istanbul’s plan to become a ”global city,” carried out together with Turkish women sociologists and media scientists, was created in this context for the 1997 Biennial in Istanbul. Her first video essay Performing the Border (1999) looks at the border as both a discursive and a material space of migration and globalisation processes constituted through the performance and management of gender relations. This was followed by Writing Desire (2000) on the ”bride market” in cyberspace, Remote Sensing (2001), a topography of the global sex trade in the age of geographic information systems developing a visual language on the worldwide trafficking and migration of women; and Europlex (2003), an experimental ethnographic video created in collaboration with visual anthropologist Angela Sanders, on the Spanish-Moroccan borderlands making visible the obscure paths, both literal and figurative, taken by the back and forth movements around the border between the Spanish enclaves on the African continent. These video essays have been shown at international festivals and art exhibitions, and have received several awards. Based on dozens of interviews made with women around the world on global sex work and trafficking, Biemann has compiled a World Sex Work Archive (WSWA). Her theoretical texts are regularly published in feminist media, film, and art journals. All of her projects are carried out in complex forms of collaboration including anthropologists, cultural theorists, NGO members, architects, as well as scholars of sonic culture.

Ursula Biemann studied first at the Bellas Artes in Mexico, then in New York at the School of Visual Arts (BFA, 1986), and the Whitney Independent Study Program (1988); she is based in Zurich.

Feminist Artist Statement

My ongoing investigation into the role of gender and migration in the logic of global capitalism has prompted me to visit several sites that are pertinent to the project: border areas, free trade zones, entertainment cities catering to military camps, and resorts for sex tourists. These places tell us the repetitive, standardized stories of how capitalism addresses women and their labor, but they also narrate the fresh, inventive, personal worlds women develop within and around them. My art and video work insists that location is spatially produced rather than pre-determined by governance and in trying to assess what precariously inhabited environments operate. In a series of video projects, collaborative exhibitions and in several important books, I have focused on the gendered dimension of migrant labour from smuggling on the Spanish-Moroccan border to migrant sex workers moving from the East to the West. In all of my work, there are 3 interlinked dimensions; an understanding of how complex geographical location is to identify, the degree to which new technologies are shifting our understanding of the relations between places and the dimension of gendered subjectivities through which these movements are lived out. Beyond focusing on the conditions of women’s lives within shifting borders and movements between places, I’m using these conditions to be able to read other, less considered aspects of the experience of movement both material and virtual. This attention to the gendered dimension of migration and border crossings allows me to incorporate a complex body politics into a discussion that often lacks it; the Mexican workers on the Ciudad Juarez/El Paso border in Performing the Border are an embodied work force whose many obligations also determine how and where they can work and how they experience their dual lives between Mexico and the US, the Moroccan women in Europlex use their expanded bodies as the vehicles for the smuggled goods while the sex workers in Remote Sensing are the manifestation of both labour and subjectivity in one human body.

<p>Performing the Border</p>

Performing the Border

A video essay set in the Mexican-US border town of Ciudad Juarez, where the U.S. industries assemble their electronic and digital equipment, located right across from El Paso, Texas. “Performing the Border” looks at the border as both a discursive and a material space constituted through the performance and management of gender relations. The video discusses the sexualization of the border region through labor division, prostitution, the expression of female desires in the entertainment industry, and sexual violence in the public sphere. Interviews, scripted voice over, quoted text on the screen, scenes and sounds recorded on site, as well as found footage are combined to give an insight into the gendered conditions inscribed in the border region.

Performing the Border

A video essay set in the Mexican-US border town of Ciudad Juarez, where the U.S. industries assemble their electronic and digital equipment, located right across from El Paso, Texas. “Performing the Border” looks at the border as both a discursive and a material space constituted through the performance and management of gender relations. The video discusses the sexualization of the border region through labor division, prostitution, the expression of female desires in the entertainment industry, and sexual violence in the public sphere. Interviews, scripted voice over, quoted text on the screen, scenes and sounds recorded on site, as well as found footage are combined to give an insight into the gendered conditions inscribed in the border region.

Remote Sensing

Spiralling down from an orbital view captured by image satellites, the video-essay takes an earthly perspective on cross-border circuits, where women have emerged as key actors. “Remote Sensing” traces the routes and reasons of women who travel across the globe for work in the sex industry. Voluntarily or not, women are displaced in great numbers from Manila to Nigeria, from Burma to Thailand, from Bulgaria to Western Europe: female bodies in the flow of global capitalism. The highly digital documents generated for this video link new geographic technologies to the sexualization and displacement of women on a global scale. Using the latest images from NASA satellites, the video investigates the consequences of the U.S. military presence in South East Asia as well as the European migration politics.

Europlex

The collaborative video of artist Ursula Biemann and visual anthropologist Angela Sanders shows the many different activities that have developed on the border between the Spanish enclave Ceuta and Morocco. It also makes visible the obscure paths, both literal and figurative, taken by these back-and-forth movements. Among the most common activities of the women who cross the border at Ceuta are smuggling clothes, domestic service and working full time in transnational companies producing for the European market. These frenetic movements between the two territories and across this border space shed light on the particular cultural and economic exchange that occurs between Europe and Africa.

Writing Desire

“‘Writing Desire’ is a video essay on the new dream screen of the Internet and how it impacts on the global circulation of women’s bodies from the third world to the first world. Although under-age Philippine ‘pen pals’ and post-Soviet mail-order brides have been part of the transnational exchange of sex in the post-colonial and post-Cold War marketplace of desire before the digital age, the Internet has accelerated these transactions. Biemann provides her viewers with a thoughtful meditation on the obvious political, economic and gender inequalities of these exchanges by simulating the gaze of the Internet shopper looking for the imagined docile, traditional, pre-feminist, but Web-savvy mate.” Gina Marchetti, Ithaca College

Black Sea Files

“Black Sea Files” is a territorial research on the Caspian oil geography: the world’s oldest oil extraction zone. A giant new subterranean pipeline traversing the Caucasus will soon pump Caspian Crude to the West. The line connecting the resource fringe with the terminal of the global high-tech oil circulation system, runs through the video like a central thread. However, the trajectory followed by the narrative is by no means a linear one. Circumventing the main players in the region, the video sheds light on a multitude of secondary sceneries. Oil workers, farmers, refugees and prostitutes who live along the pipeline come into profile and contribute to a wider human geography that displaces the singular and powerful signifying practices of oil corporations and oil politicians. Drawing on investigatory fieldwork as practiced by anthropologists, journalists and secret intelligence agents, the “Black Sea Files” comment on artistic methods in the field and the ways in which information and visual intelligence is detected, circulated or withheld.

URSULA BIEMANN MISSION REPORTS Artistic Practice in the Field Video Works 1998-2008

This substantial monograph, on and around Ursula Biemann’s practice, provides an opportunity to engage with more than a decade of her video art production and writing. Through a range of essays by cultural theorists, as well as texts by the artist herself and generous visual documentation, this book surveys the numerous artistic and visual research projects Biemann has conducted throughout the contested trans-national territories of the world. She has consistently developed a unique aesthetic language with which to explore her concerns with the concept of borders and the contemporary forms of migration that they produce. Her video essays offer a critique of the visual technologies being advanced for the acceleration, and control, of global mobility, confounding the prevailing representations to reveal a more complex human geography of collateral effects and unrecorded movements on the ground.

Texts by Ursula Biemann on conceptualising artistic fieldwork discussing her videos essays from Performing the Border (1999) to X-Mission (2008); and essays by Angela Dimitrakaki Materialist Feminism for the Twenty-First Century: The Video Essays of Ursula Biemann, Wendy S. Hesford Global Sex Work and Video Advocacy: The Geopolitics of Rhetorical Identification, Uta Staiger Visualizing the citizenship gap: EU borders and migration in cultural productions, Brian Holmes Extradisciplinary Investigations. Towards a New Critique of Institutions, Jean-Pierre Rehm Political Typographies, J?rg Huber Getting to the Bottom of Vision: Theory of Images – Images of Theory, The Significance of Ursula Biemann’s Video Work for a Theory of Culture, T.J. Demos Sahara Chronicle: Video’s Migrant Geography.

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Roentgenstrasse 48
Zurich,
Switzerland

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