Yvonne Volkart on Sun, 16 May 1999 21:55:12 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Bodies, Identity and Femininity in the High-Tech-Industry

War Zone: Bodies, Identities and Femininity in the Global High-Tech Industry

Yvonne Volkart

These notes are about the Swiss artist Ursula Biemann's videoessay
>Performing the Border< (1999) which she presented in preview form at the
Second Cyberfeminist International in Rotterdam, March 8-11, 1999.

I wrote a German version for the Vienna based art magazine springerin,
issue 2/summer 1999, and an English version for the London based feminist
art magazine n.paradoxa, issue July 1999.

>I have known Concha for more than five years. Due to the facilities she
>had in crossing and avoiding US border officials, Concha started to pass
>wet backs. Her strategies were multiple and variable<.
This is one voice we hear in the video as we see a woman driving her car
through the desert. When she became pregnant and was abandoned by her
husband, Concha had to look for a new income. She started a service for
pregnant women who wanted to give birth to their child in the USA, hoping
to get a US-passport by these means. If you want to work in the Mexican
border city Ciudad Juarez, it seems you have three possibilities as a
woman: the maquiladora, the household and prostitution.

In her 40-minute-long videoessay >Performing the Border<, Zuerich based
artist Ursula Biemann takes Ciudad Juarez as an example to investigate what
kind of bodies, identities and genders the global high-tech-industry
produces at its low-end. She seems to begin at the same point which Donna
Haraway in her >Cyborg Manifesto< identified too fatalistically as the role
of Mexican women working in the chip-industry as caught within the cyborg
state of being. However it is not Donna Haraway, who Biemann uses as a
reference, but the Mexican border activist and artist Berta Jottar whose
portrait and whose voice we hear at regular intervals in the video. Biemann
also refers to the theorist Mark Seltzer, although his name is not
mentioned. Seltzers ideas about the entanglement of Fordistic
industrialisation and serial killing inspired Ursula Biemanns voiceover to
offer further interpretations of the still unsolved brutal serial killings
against women which take place continuously in this region.

>Performing the Border< is a polyvocal, visual heterogenous dialogue, in
>which Biemanns video and film researches from 1998 and 1988, interviews
>with local women organisations, TV-clips of the representation of the
>border and of corporations like Philips and police documentaries of the
>serial killings are intrinsically interwoven. The video itself performs
>the pattern of performativity of borders, bodies and technologies on a
>structural level. The esthetics of the videoessay suggests unspokenly,
>that the border city Ciudad Juarez, beyond its signification as place of
>exploitation in the context of the new international labour division and
>high-technology, is also a metaphor for the signification of
>performativity in general (of bodies, genders, identities, nations and
>capital). This happens primarily by putting a constant set of movements,
>which are only interrupted sometimes by shots of sitting women who are
>either being interviewed by Biemann or waiting together in bars or on the
>streets for their clients. With the camera position facing outwards the
>video begins in a driving car filming the landscape and it ends with
>dancing bodies in blue light and a strange electronic sound. In between,
>there are the movements of the masses of women streaming in the pure and
>clean maquiladoras, of the bus rides there in the morning, of the cars and
>horsemen in the desert, of the excavating of the corpses, of the
>flickering images on TV, of the virtual pictures of the detonations of the
>mine fields on the US side and of the drive along the borderfence which is
>500 kilometers long. There are the movements of a floating rubber dinghy,
>of white women working in pure white rooms, of the woman washing the
>laundry by hand, of a girl walking down the street: >She is still a little
>girl. Can she find a way to steer her through these cultural ruptures?<
>asks the voiceover. The movements of the camera, of the montages, of the
>people, imitate metaphorically the rhythm of the assembly line, of the
>flow of the financial capital from the north, of the production of female
>bodies, of the streaming of female desire as it is articulated in the love
>songs heard in the morning bus rides.

More than 20 years ago the first of the US-high-tech-corporations settled
in this region. On the screen is written: >The maquiladora is a laboratory
of deregulation<, and the voiceover comments: >Within short, a new
technological culture of repetition, registration and controlling was
introduced in the desert city.< Control is an important issue in the video
in terms of the regulation and use of female bodies in the production
process, in the sex industry, and as victims of murder. However Ursula
Biemann does not show the actual technologies of repression nor does she
even try to be authentic and convey the intimacy of these womens lives, she
lets her interview partners narrate some of their concerns about their
individual ways of existence. The productive force of control is expressed
by the mention of the regulation of their labor and leisure rhythms, and by
creating parallels between these womens lives and the increasing
militarisation and mediarisation in which the geographical border itself is
re-marked again and again. This equation happens from the very beginning of
the tape. While we hear Jottars sentences about the materialisation and
naturalisation of the actual US border politics, we see an infrared image
of the border and a man on observation duty controlling by surveillance
through his binoculars: >In a way the border is always represented as this
wound that has to be healed, that has to be closed, that has to be
protected from contamination and from disease. [...] Its like a surgical
place.< Jottars words regarding geographical landmarks remind us of the
discourses of the body, of the idea of the body as a battlefield, of open
and closed bodies, and of the female body which is traditionally
represented as a wound.

>Gender Matters for the Global Capital< says a running text in the video.
>Biemann reveals life on the border as a set of total sexualisations. Here,
>the woman is permanently reinstalled as mute working and sex object,
>although there are striking shifts in traditional patriarchal patterns
>(women are now the consumers who the local entertainment industry aims at,
>and women are the main earners in their families). However, beauty
>competitions organised by maquiladoras and advertisements of international
>corporations in which pretty young girls are explicitly looked for, help
>to renew patriarchal structures under the sign of global capitalism. In
>>Performing the Border< none of the many girls filmed talks about her
>situation. It is only the older women, the journalists, the members of
>women organisations, the activists, the mothers of the missing girls or
>the fired trade unionist who dare to talk into the camera: >The
>maquiladora is a strategic point in the national economy of the Mexican

An older interviewed woman who some time ago had to prostitute herself to
support the family of her ill brother and who in the meantime is involved
in AIDS-prevention, calls the actual closed border >the war<. This >war<
dried off the money flowing from the north and cancelled the basis of
existence for older women like her. She shows her baby and narrates how she
got it: It is a >present< of a young prostitute who is HIV-positive and a
heroin addict. Nothing is natural in Ciudad Juarez, everything is under the
dictate of the pancapitalistic machine. It is what Jottar said in the
beginning: >So you need the crossing of bodies to produce the discursive
space of the nation state and also to produce a type of real place as a
border.< And this place is always represented as a dangerous place, which
may lead to death, if you do not fit to its prohibitions.

Since 1994 more than 140 women have been killed and buried in the desert.
Many girls are missing, many remain unidentified. Sometimes they only find
parts of clothing or single limbs or parts of the body, sometimes the
clothing has been changed. The pattern of the murders remains always the
same: strangled, stabbed, decapitated, raped. We learn that the nameless
murdered women are catalogued by the kind of wounds which led to their
deaths and that the local corporations do not want to be named as their
employers. Thus, the dead woman from the South becomes the pure metaphor of
this wound which is always represented as an effect of this war zone. But
Biemann goes one step forward and argues that the way of female death is
being caused by the rhythm of the machines: >The compulsive, repetitive
violence of serial killing does not exist without an extreme entanglement
between eroticized violence and mass technologies of registration,
identification, reduplication and simulation. [...] Serial killing is a
form of public violence proper to a machine culture<. A woman who struggles
for these murders to be solved and the murderers caught, comments that not
all murders are serial killings. Some men take advantage of the dominant
serial killing role model and kill the lover who doesnt suit them anymore.

The economic war which dominates this region, is made over the bodies of
poor women from the south and can therefore be endlessly naturalised and
renewed. The new international labour division is structured as a
>technology of gender< (Teresa de Lauretis). Its for the permanent
re-construction of gender difference, for the consolidation of power,
subjectivity and identity in a scared world of cyborgs. Voiceover: >The
serial killer fails to distinguish himself from others and this lack of
self-difference, of self-distinction, is immediately translated into
violence along the line of sexual difference, the one fundamental
difference he recognises. Loosing the boundaries between the self and
others, he is perpetually in search of a border.< >Performing the Border<
refers to the opening up and closing of bodies in the endless cycle of
actual high-tech-control-technology, where they are consumed, produced and
fixed as female. >We believe technology is good when its shared for the
benefit of all<, states the journalist Isabel Velazquez. >Everything should
be shared, there is a social price thats not being shared and there is a
wealth thats not being shared. Its not enough to pay minimum wage, its not
enough to give breakfast to your workers. Its not enough.<

>Performing the Border< reflects the point of view of a european artist. It
>is both a criticism of pancapitalism and an attempt in a discursive way to
>establish what the possibilities are for individual female lives in this
>cyborg world of labour.

Yvonne Volkart   Riedtlistrasse 30   CH-8006 Zuerich
fon/fax 0041 1 362 41 09  e-mail: yvolkart@access.ch

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