Over the past decade [written in 2008], Ursula Biemann has been engaged with numerous collaborative art and visual research projects in contested trans-national territories of the world, uncovering the underlying power mechanisms that produce the idea of borders and thus the conditions of mobility. Her ‘way in’ to such contested political and cultural situations is to focus upon individuals’ lived experience, often conflated with the visual language of surveillance and control, so as to upset prevailing representations and thus reveal a more complex, unseen human geography of collateral effects and unrecorded movements on the ground.
I first met Ursula Biemann in 2005 at the premiere of her multi-channel video installation, Black Sea Files, at Kunst-Werke, Berlin; a project that resulted from three years of research on the Southern Caucasus and the Caspian basin at a time when global interests in crude oil had turned the region into a corridor of devastation and conflict. Characteristically, she was already also working on an intensive research project in the sub-Sahara, Agadez Chronicle, focusing on migration flows into ‘Fortress Europe’ from Niger, via Libya and Morocco. This was to form part of her curated exhibition, The Maghreb Connection, at the Townhouse, Cairo, in December 2006. Subsequently Arnolfini commissioned her to extend this research so as to include routes of migration through Mauretania and the Western Sahara, via the Canary Islands, and the project grew to become Sahara Chronicle, presented as part of the group exhibition, Port City, in Bristol, 2007. In February 2008, Bildmuseet, in Umea, exhibited the first retrospective of Biemann’s work, looking back at ten years of socially-engaged video art practice.
A decade earlier, in 1998, Ursula Biemann took a video camera on a field trip to the Mexican border for the first time. The research trip resulted in the making of Performing the Border, a video essay on the role of gender in the globalized economy. The project marked the beginning of a period of prolific video art production, including an initial group of four one-channel videos (Performing the Border, Writing Desire, Remote Sensing and Europlex), followed by a number of multi-channel video projects (Contained Mobility, Black Sea Files, Sahara Chronicle and Mission Report).
From the beginning, Biemann sought to develop a unique aesthetic language with which to explore her concern with the idea of borders and contemporary forms of migration. A focus common to all of her video essays is a critique of the visual technologies developed for the acceleration or control of global mobility. Geographic information systems and communications technologies constitute a massive and powerful visual machinery employed to monitor the circulation of people and goods around the globe. Through precise territorial observations and in-depth reflections, Biemann maps a counter-geography consisting of trans-local networks and connective spaces of clandestine activities, movements and economies: from global migration into the world sex industry to border circuits of Moroccan smugglers around the Spanish enclaves, from the use of the internet for mail-order brides in Southeast Asia, to the perpetual movements of a Belorussian biologist through the dysfunctional European asylum apparatus, to the parallel flows of migrants and crude oil in the Caspian geography, and the clandestine transportation network for sub-Saharan migrants in the Maghreb. In the process, Biemann has explored different modes and methods of artistic field research as well as engaging in collaborations with many individuals including NGOs, anthropologists, cultural theorists, architects and artists.
== Text by Tom Trevor, first published as the Foreword to Ursula Biemann – Mission Reports: Artistic Practice in the Field, Video Works 1998-2008 by Bildmuseet, Umea, 2008, with Arnolfini, edited by Jan-Erik Lundstrom, ISBN 978 0 907738 91 6 ==