Performing the Border

Article excerpt

Performing the Border. 42 minutes, VHS, color, 1999. Writing Desire, 25 minutes, VHS, color, 2000. Remote Sensing. 53 minutes, VHS, color, 2001. Filmmaker Ursula Biemann, Switzerland. Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012. Tel: (212) 925-0606; e-mail: cinema@wmm.com; website: www.wmm.com; Sale $250.00, rental $60.00 (each).

Europlex. 20 minutes, VHS, color, English or Spanish, 2003. Filmmaker Ursula Biemann in collaboration with Angela Sanders, Switzerland. Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012. Tel: (212) 925-0606; e-mail: cinema@wmm.com; website: www.wmm.com; Sale $195.00, rental $60.00.

Swiss-based filmmaker, curator, and cultural theorist, Ursula Biemann has recently created a series of critical feminist video essays that interrogate and map the physical, metaphorical, and gendered geographies of borderlands produced by the intersection of new technologies and globalized capitalist economies. Like the transitional performative spaces that are the subject of this series, video essays are a mixed "genre" of practice that taps the creative potential of mediating between cultural spaces while deploying innovative aesthetic strategies.

In her commentary on her video essays, Biemann categorizes them as part documentary, part art, transgressing the borders of both. In a documentary tradition they engage reality, but their gaze is subjective, disassociative, and theoretically situated in post-colonial situations of diaspora, migration, and ambivalent experiences of nation, borders, and belonging. Likewise, as art, video essays concern more than aesthetics since they are socially involved and explicitly political. In reviewing Biemann's videos, it is qualities of contingency and ambivalence that configure their transdisciplinary nature and experimental qualities. Reflective of the digital age we live in, the imagery of video essays is highly concentrated, non-linear, and draws on multiple sources of knowledge and audio-visual effects. As cultural studies theorist Imre Szeman notes: "it is no easy task to deconstruct these visual documents" (1). "Stuff it! Distill it! Stratify and compress it" are mottos of the digital essayist.

In mapping the transnational topographies of border zones, Biemann focuses on several places to investigate their layered complexity. The first video, Performing the Border, focuses on Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican border town located in a Free Trade Zone where the first US high-tech assembly plants were built some twenty years ago. The second, Writing Desire, examines the internet as a space for the construction and pathways of desire. The third, Remote Sensing, utilizes satellite technology to monitor the trafficking and migration of women who transverse national borders to work in the world-wide sex industry. And the fourth, Europlex, fixes on the Spanish-Moroccan border to follow the crossings of three groups of Moroccan women: those who clandestinely smuggle clothing on their bodies; domesticas moving in and out of Moroccan and European time zones; and women working in trans-national zones for the European market.

While all four of Biemann's videos link border zones to globalization, they utilize diverse ways of recording this. Shooting from an aerial perspective gives a remote view of traffic but eliminates specificities; shooting from the ground gives visibility to the movements of people, capital, and technology to make gender and power relations evident. And camera zooming can distance or embed the viewer in border spaces providing a sense of their compressed reality.

Performing the Border opens with the camera's lens positioned in the front of a car as it speeds through the landscapes of the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez and its desert hinterlands. This topography covers the "entertainment" area, the industrial parks of the maquiladoras (golden factories), and thousands of shacks spread out across the desert built by the maquilas' largely female work force as unauthorized housing. …