Imre Szeman on Fri, 6 Mar 2009 00:48:31 -0500 (EST)

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<nettime> Review - Ursula Biemann: Mission Reports

fyi, imre

Disparities of Flatness: Ursula Biemann's Mission Reports
Andrew Pendakis

MISSION REPORTS: Artistic Practice in the Field - Ursula Biemann Video
Works 1998-2008, ed. Ursula Biemann and Jan-Erik Lundstrom (Bildmuseet:
Umea University, 2008)

When entering the harbor, the voyager leaves the exceptional condition
of the boundless sea?-this traversable space of maritime immensity?-to
come ashore in an offshore place, in a container world that only
tolerates the translocal state of not being of this place?-nor of any
other really?-but of existing in a condition of permanent not
belonging, a juridical non-existence. He comes to signify the itinerant
body, bound to string along a chain of territories, never reaching a
final destination. (Biemann, 56)

Ursula Biemann's artistic practice occurs in long videographic loops
around one of the central paradoxes of contemporary capitalist
globalization: namely, that on a planet increasingly folded by novel
contiguities and closenessess, precocious new abutments and weird
optical cross-overs and lags, there is a simultaneous, continuous and
frenetic impulse to hedges, borders, moats and walls. In a world the
secret telos of which is the universal propinquity of things, Biemann's
?video essays? arrive to finger the impasses, the jammed-up and airless
places where the flows slow to reckon with or evade the circumspection
of a state or boss.  And what she inevitably finds are pools of
desirous human labour, abstract from the angle of the factory or
satellite, indefatiguably concrete when seen from the slant of a Thai
stripper smoking between clients in Berlin. Fleeing the tedious,
violent or unlivable personal contexts of structurally blighted
locales, locked out of affluence or jurisprudence by the stupid dice of
birth and the dementia of uneven economic development, these migrants
contest the right of nativity to script their destinies and leave
through a pained door to riskily re-shuffle the possible. 
But what distinguishes Biemann's work is her attentiveness to the
limits which mark from within this frission of quitting the
intolerable. Not only is there never a question of banally
counterposing a possessed desire to the brutal contingency of codes and
rules, there is never an instant when the drive to flight can be said
to exhaust the shape of freedom. Refusing to conflate the latter with
the nomad expansivity of the new beginning, she documents the
conditions of a present in which the systematicity of relations and the
intimate order of pleasures operate in a space coeval with that of
determinate technologies, mileus, images, and investments. Unequally
globalized informational networks soaked in opacities as well as greedy
showings; a modular container afloat in the hold of a ship on the ocean
(its objects accompanied by a migrant guest); the export processing
zone and its utter subordination of material space to the requirements
of ?stringless? production: desire and necessity, rupture and limit,
are here so wholly confounded, that the partition invested in drawing
from this imbroglio a happy subjectivity of finding will be sorely
The world, for Ursual Biemann, is relentlessly flat, which is not to
say equal or morose. Hers is a rigorously horizonotal imaginary, one
which places the option of a subject at the meticulous intersection of
precise finitudes, a topography dramatically overlaid by territorial
and geo-physical  limits that are themselves myriadly rent by digital
simultaneities, transnational imaginations, and hierarchical,
technologized modes of vision.  For Biemann the passage between a
situation and its outside, though always singular, fragile and
unrepeatable, never arrives at the border of the desert infinitely
open. The paths, instead are ?serialized?; one is where others have
been and will be again. Perhaps, there will be an escape, but nothing
guarantees against one's happiness arriving at the check-point of a
brothel or city the impasses of which may echo (39). Pipelines, oceans,
and highways-- to say nothing of an omnipresent apparatus of
borders--role over the horizon of Biemann's films in continual
insistence on this unrepresentable contiguity and interdependence of
global space. Though there is something relentless in this flatness
Biemann's filmic essays are never photographs of the crushed or dead,
never victomologies, but rather snapshots from the altheticism and
cunning of those still alive in the ?cracks of capitalist reality?
?Mission Reports: Artistic Practice in the Field? is divided
structurally into two sections. The first chronicles eight of Biemann's
videos in short pieces authored by the artist herself. Because
Biemann's videos are a good distance from conventional documentary, it
would be easy to imagine a diaristic solution that simply substitutes
the strong presence of sites and ethnographical anecdote for the
difficult labour of translating codes of vision and formal gestures
into the planar time of writing. 
Certainly, her films are spatially ?anchored?--that is, bound to a site
or to a set of sites, whether it be the Mexican border or a Saharan
migratory route--but this binding--at least theoretically amenable to
conversion into communicable ?situations?--is continually breaking down
under the pressure of an inter-mediality and formal complexity which
places the limits of representation directly onto the surface of the
films themselves. Biemann's written pieces extract intelligently from a
speed of cuts, zooming in on and unpeeling thicker segments with an eye
to the difference made by merely reading. This deftness between media
is in part explained by the nature of her visual practice itself:
Biemann's film's add  to the topographical flatness described above one
equally operative in the domain of form itself. Their surfaces thicken
outwards like overburdend corkboard; masses of text, graphics,
scientific data, maps, documents, as well as countless stills from
satellites and surveillance cameras compromise the sovereignty of the
image with a thousand begging annotations. The collection--richly
filled out with shots from Biemann's ouevre--does a nice job of
foregrounding this supremely adhesive method.  About Writing Desire
(2000), a video essay on the gendered technologization and
transnationalization of the erotic, Biemann suggests that her task was
to build into the depth-perception of cinema something like the flat
interface of a computer monitor.  Adding to this impression is her
frequent usage of simulations. Writing about Contained Mobility, a film
based around a migrant's permanent exemption from representation, she
states that all of the video's images are eminently artifical: ?a
simulated seascape, a visual rendering of digital data, a webcam set up
for a staged scene? (59). 
This prohibition on transparency should not be confused with the
predictable contortions of the ineffable, an ontologized and convenient
unrepresentability. Rather, there is a way in which Biemann can be said
to enframe a realist gesture under the determinate conditions of
world-systemic capitalist spectacle. Refusing a dutiful invitation to
the funeral of wholeness, she digs around the place it was last seen
with an energy that looks suspiciously like logic (but also thinking
doubt). That her discontinuities are means and not ends, or rather,
means in the absence of ends, becomes clear only as an effect of the
consistency of her objects. She does not begin just anywhere on the
surface of the socius, opening her lens onto a flow mistaken for being
itself: on the contrary, she begins-- to repeat Jacques Ranciere's
well-known formulation-- at the part which simply doesn't fit, orbiting
its context to find the secret principle of its belonging to existence
and to history. The Mexican assembly line operator who returns home
through the desert to a silence she resents; the Russian mail-order
bride whose post-communism incites a cheeky will to flight; a Taureg
migrant bent on Paris or London: this is an obstinate, charting
oscillation, a practice of bristling fragments which takes as the outer
limit of its hope a better way of doing justice and an end to

The second section of the monograph consists of essays written by
cultural theorists and art critics. A number focus explicitly on
Biemann; others deal more generally with the epistemological
coordinates of postmodern documentarity and possible destinies of the
?video essay?. Angela Dimitrakaki's piece attempts to link--via Antonio
Negri-- Biemann's hetrodox realism to a materialist feminism revivified
by real subsumption and its disabling of clean beyonds.  Uta Staiger's
excellent contribution frames Biemann's practice as singularly
sensitized to a global order characterized by what she calls a
?citizenship gap?-- the grim and sliding disjunction between
universally established human rights and their territorial abridgements
at the hands of states. Brian Holmes interestingly details the contours
of what he calls the ?extradisciplinary? nature of Biemann's
production: a method distinguished from the ?aimlessness? and
?indiscipline? of interdisciplinarity?a kind of unrigorous subjective
decrepitude?by a linked, militant practice which draws the space of art
directly into the knowledge corridors of finance or psychiatry, for
example, but also the political practices of social movements and other
organized networks. There are a number of misteps: a few essays inhabit
lugubriously the windless odours of our old friend the ?victim/agent
binary? (138). These paralyzed and hieratic repetitions assume as their
ethical ideal the passive silence of an interminably listening ear.
Against such conveniences Hegel operated his binaries in the direction
of a continually refreshed and purposive lucidity--a dimension added to
opposition which binds the negative to a new agental simplicity never
confusable with undifferentiated immediacy. Another occasional error
arises from a conflation of epistemological representationalism and
political authoritarianism. Jean-Pierre Rehm's identification of the
conventional documentary with the shrunken horizons of a ?planetary
petty bourgeoisie? are nearly risible, missing in their insistence on
the governmentality of truth and the gentle diffuseness of form a
categorical stability as inflexible as realism itself.  But these are
small squabbles in a collection that nicely showcases Biemann's
singular brand of videographic political economy. 

Ursula Biemann -

Andrew Pendakis, McMaster University

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