Ursula Biemann in Conversation: A Screening and Discussion of Black Sea Files (2005)
With an introductory text by Deniz Göktürk
Ursula Biemann came to Berkeley as a guest of the Strategic Working Group on “Cultural Forms / Local Stakes / Global Circuits,” funded by the Townsend Center and the Mellon Foundation and co-organized by Charles L. Briggs and Deniz Göktürk. On April 30, 2009, she participated in a seminar with the group, followed by a screening and discussion of Black Sea Files (2005).
Biemann’s visual strategies of “counter-geography” complicate our ongoing discussions about global circulation in productive ways. Her video essays engage with mobility and immobility – of bodies, resources, and images. Her investigations of life in borders zones began along the US-Mexican border, and her first video Performing the Border (1999) was shot in Juarez, Mexico. In Europlex (2003) and Sahara Chronicle (2006-2007), she has since pursued her videographies of the outskirts of Europe, showing how the border extends further and further south into Africa. In Writing Desire (2000) and Remote Sensing (2001), she investigates questions of mobility in relation to the global sex trade and the trafficking of women. In X-Mission (2008), she explores the exceptional space of a Palestinian refugee camp. The combination of macro and micro perspectives, of satellite images from the air and recordings of people and their routines on the ground, brings a systemic approach to questions of migration and globalization, while maintaining a focus on human agency, particularity, and unpredictability.
The blending of documentary strategies with artistic practice and aesthetic manipulation allows Biemann to highlight ironic discrepancies between mainstream media coverage of geopolitical events and frictions on site. Black Sea Files documents life along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The focus on the westbound flow of resources resonates with the geopolitical reconfiguration of the Caucasus and the wider Black Sea region as a new border zone of Europe in the post-Cold War era. Although the Black Sea remains visually absent, the video essay anticipates the recent cinematic discovery of the wider region as a transnational space in films such as The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akın, 2007) and Autumn (Özcan Alper, 2008).
Our discussion of Black Sea Files focused on the fragmentary structure of narration and on the split screen, which challenges the spectator to read two images simultaneously and contrastively. These strategies evolve hand in hand with exhibition practices in the museum and international exhibitions where videos are staged in spatial installations with multiple screens and projections. Black Sea Files was shown as a two-channel video installation at the 10th Istanbul Biennial in 2007, which Hou Hanru curated.
As a theoretically versed artist who reflects about her aesthetic practice in writing and has also worked as a curator of collaborative exhibitions in various cities such as Istanbul, Cairo, Zurich, and Vienna, Biemann succeeds in bringing into conversation different spheres of knowledge production – the world of internationally circulating visual arts and academic research. In times of increasing pressure on the arts and humanities to justify our existence, such amalgamations of site-specific local engagement with questions of power and geography on a global scale might help us transcend narrowly compartmentalized world-views and open up the horizon for new kinds of collaborations.
DENIZ GÖKTÜRK, University of California, Berkeley, Department of German