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  • Disparities of Flatness
  • Andrew Pendakis
Mission Reports: Artistic Practice in the Field—Ursula Biemann Video Works, 1998–2008 edited by Ursula Biemann and Jan-Erik Lundstrom. Bildmuseet, Sweden: Umeå University; Bristol, UK: Arnolfini, 2008. Pp. 208. € 29.90.

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 nonexistence. He comes to signify the itinerant body, bound to string along a chain of territories, never reaching a final destination.

—Ursula Biemann

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 closenesses, precocious new abutments and weird optical crossovers 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 labor, abstract from the angle of the [End Page 175] factory or satellite, indefatigably 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 reshuffle the possible.

But what distinguishes Biemann’s work is her attentiveness to the limits that mark from within this frisson 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, milieus, 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 disappointed.

The world, for Ursula Biemann, is relentlessly flat, which is not to say equal or morose. Hers is a rigorously horizontal imaginary, one that places the option of a subject at the meticulous intersection of precise finitudes, a topography dramatically overlaid by territorial and geophysical 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 checkpoint 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 victimologies, but rather snapshots from the [End Page 176] athleticism and cunning of those still...


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