Ursula Biemann, "Sahara Chronicle," 2006–2009. Video still. Courtesy of the artist.

Ursula Biemann, Sahara Chronicle, 2006–2009. Video still. Courtesy of the artist.

Against the dedifferentiating tendencies of Hou’s propositions, the Sahara Chronicle represented transterritoriality as a starkly uneven distribution of mobility in which free transit within the Euro zone comes at the cost of increased restrictions for those outside of it. The installation showed how European migration policy has effectively outsourced border control to North African nations, such that the movements of nomadic tribes across the Maghreb well outside the European Union have been curtailed. The piece proved persuasive not only in exposing these systemic contradictions, but also in charting some of the manifold means through which subjects attempt to negotiate these formidable constraints.

Another strength of the Sahara Chronicle was its insistence that geography cannot afford to ignore the extent to which material spaces are constituted by and inextricable from the transitory, virtual sphere of image circulation. In fact, one of Biemann’s chief concerns was to contest the hegemonic representations of EU immigration that dominate the mass media. In this view, migrants aren’t kept from the public eye but instead are sensationally placed before it in countless images of police busts, overcrowded camps, and capsized boats. The Sahara Chronicle meant to counter these effects by incorporating an undefined number of videos, not all of which were shown at once, or indeed ever. Without a story arc, narrator, or other organizing conceit, the installation prompted the viewer to disregard received image-structures and build her own map of the phenomena it represented.

Ursula Biemann, "Sahara Chronicle," 2006–2009. Video still. Courtesy of the artist.

Ursula Biemann, Sahara Chronicle, 2006–2009. Video still. Courtesy of the artist.

Such an approach held that the task of political cinema or video is not to produce the most compelling image, but rather to intervene in existing image flows. However, these intentions were thwarted somewhat by the aesthetics of the actual installation, in which the rawness of the source material clashed with the upscale production values apparently meant to mark its technical or artistic sophistication. The installation’s imposing array of monitors and projections, together with the large, loosely organized range of footage, nudged the work toward a quasi-sublime effect that dulled one’s sense of the imbalances between the conditions of the videos’ production and their exhibition. Such unacknowledged contradictions unfortunately detracted from one of Biemann’s more generative propositions: namely, that critical videography can participate in maintaining a sustainable “aesthetic ecology” by helping map the connections that link seemingly disparate populations in webs of ethical reciprocity.12

Carlos Motta, an emerging artist who was born in Colombia and is currently based in New York, produced another piece in the show with similarly ambitious and well-articulated objectives. For The Good Life, Motta travelled to twelve major cities in Latin America and conducted some four hundred impromptu interviews with pedestrians. He asked the same six questions of his subjects, recording their views regarding the United States’ foreign policy and their own elected leaders, and asking them to speculate about the nature of a truly democratic government. This premise suggested any number of heterogeneous reference points, ranging from ethnographic research and the public opinion survey to direct cinema and underground video. At times the piece resembled recent work by Katya Sander, which foregrounds the unpredictable responses that result from the deceptive complexity of straightforward questions such as: How would you like to be governed?13

The type of exchange that emerges in response models a certain ideal of democracy as an event that can occur anywhere, a contingent encounter between subjects who freely voice their opinions and are thought to possess the same potential aptitudes, regardless of appearances. Citing Aristotle’s Ethics with its title, The Good Life earnestly posited such debate as a component of committed citizenship, reinforcing its claim to a classical lineage by displaying videos in a wooden structure meant to recall the Athenian amphitheater. But where one might have expected this approach to invoke a familiar Habermasian model of rational communication, Motta instead cited the postcolonial activist cinema of Latin America’s Tercer Cine, which looked to film as both an agent and example of counter-publicity. This avowedly radical, agonistic aesthetic helped to balance out the installation’s utopian tendencies. In addition, it reminded viewers of the divergent and intensely contested histories of democratic rule across the region, a history whose specific complexities tend to dissolve when viewed from the North.

Footnotes

  1. Ursula Biemann, “Dispersing the Viewpoint: Sahara Chronicle,” available online at http:// www.geobodies.org/03_ books_and_texts/texts/ (accessed July 23, 2010).
  2. I refer here to Sander’s film installation What is Capitalism? (2003). More information on the piece can be found at http:// www.katyasander.net/ works/whatiscap.html.
Further Reading