Genders 33 2001
A Journey Shared
Ursula Biemann's Been There and Back to Nowhere:
Gender in Transnational Spaces
by JO-ANNE BERELOWITZ
Note: Click on each image to see an enlargement of it. |
 Ursula Biemann's Been There and Back to Nowhere is about minority women in border zones, the representations made of them in the media, and the efforts of artists working collaboratively with them to construct a different set of images. More specifically, it is about the ways that female bodies circulate in the transnational spaces of the global economy. It is an unusual text, so much so that I hesitate to use the word "book" to describe the experience it offers, for its discursive mode is qualitatively different from a traditional "book." The front cover with its subtitle "postproduction documents 1988-2000," alerts us to this difference by attuning the reader to its filmic and photographic origins. Indeed, Been There and Back to Nowhere is, simultaneously, filmic document, artwork, vita, and feminist text.
 Although there are four other contributors to Been There, the dominant voice is Biemann's. The entries/chapters map her artistic developments and her efforts to pursue an art practice that directly engages with social, cultural, and political concerns, especially those that impact the lives of women. Her reach is global, for her cultural pursuits lead her from Germany to New York, to El Paso, Texas, to Zurich, to Istanbul where she investigates the lives of women entering newly emerging labor markets, lives that are profoundly marked by experiences of journeyings, of trajectories fraught with dislocations and the traversings of borders. Her own nomadism, albeit that of the privileged artist, generates an identification with the migrant women on whom she centers her art practice.
 There is always a potential danger of subscribing to victimology when the privileged, peripatetic artist/curator/documentarian offers kaleidoscopic/telescopic views of the powerless and the un-homed, but this Biemann manages to avoid and for several reasons. The first is the elliptic dedication on the acknowledgments page: "To my grandmother May Ellen who was sold to Switzerland for child labor." This horrific and tragic reference situates Biemann within a framework that knows the tenuous fragility of privilege and the most powerless form of servitude. Secondly, Biemann's autobiographical mode, her emphasis on her own process - a kind of stuttering toward understanding - frees her from what Haraway calls the "god-trick" -- the all-knowing disembodied eye that "fucks the world," (Haraway, 189) locating her practice, rather, within a social space gendered as female. Indeed, Biemann is acutely aware that the ethnographer is always already deeply implicated in the field that she records. Accordingly, she both embraces and acknowledges her own subjective involvement in the representations she shapes. Thirdly, although we are always aware that it is Biemann who holds the camera and asks the questions, much of the text is comprised of the voices of other women, for Biemann seeks not to speak for them, but, rather, to provide them with a platform from which the subject speaks for herself. Her work is collaborative, motivated by the desire, in her words, not to "work on 'Third World' women but with them."
 Projects are presented in a (mostly) chronological order with texts explaining how each project builds upon the previous one. Whereas most academic authors use images to illustrate text, Biemann accords to each equal weight so that they become parallel discourses. One of the questions that this text/image juxtaposition raises is the rhetorical adequacy/inadequacy of text versus image. What is ultimately most interesting in this juxtaposition is a sense of slippage, of evanescence, of the impossibility of any mode of address being other than a representation, a form of mediation, for the text "illustrates" and fills out the images as much as the images "illustrate" and flesh out the text.
 But the slippages I experienced arose, also, from something else, for these images, these texts, are traces and tracings of art projects that took forms other than the one we can now hold in our hand in these bound pages. Some, for example, were videos, and the book's powerful photographs are stills from these. After being asked to review Being There I had the fortunate opportunity to view Biemann's video Performing the Border, the text and discussion of which are included in Being There. Indeed, the section in the book titled "Performing the Border" constitutes by far the longest and meatiest.
 It concerns women working in the maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants) in the border town, Cuidad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. "Maquiladoras" means, literally, "golden mills," and these factories are a significant revenue source for the Mexican government, although not for the Mexican women who labor in them. The maquiladoras are part of an agreement that the Mexican government has with multinational corporations whereby foreign firms are lured to set up assembly plants in a "free zone" on Mexico's northern border. Enticements include the labor of minimal wage workers at "Third World" labor rates, freedom from labor laws and from the payment of social security, taxes, and customs. Needless to say, the multinationals and the Mexican government benefit enormously. The situation for the female work force, is, in contrast, complicated and fraught with problems. It is these complications and problems that Biemann addresses in "Performing the Border."
 One of her concerns is to examine the impact of a young female labor force on traditional family and gender roles, for while the Mexican government's initial plan had been to provide jobs for unemployed men, the maquiladoras have, from the outset, been powered by young, single women between the ages of 16 and 23. Corporations prefer this population because of its youth, dexterity, and vulnerability to a patriarchal structure, for just as Mexican culture is strongly patriarchal, so too is corporate management. Moreover, these young women, now in the unusual position of being primary bread winners for their families -- producers rather than reproducers - are subject to familial pressures to keep their jobs. Families thereby inadvertently assist management in maintaining a docile work force.
 Although on one hand the maquilas perpetuate the traditional patriarchal familial structure, they are also potent catalysts in effecting profound changes in traditional cultural identity, for they draw women from domestic work in the relative stability of rural homelands to industrial work in the fluid, transient, and transgressive zone of the borderlands. Moreover, as Biemann argues, the grinding, repetitive, machinic labor in the maquilas "technologizes" the bodies of the young female workers, dehumanizing and roboticizing them, transforming them into components in a production process. Additionally, after long hours of grinding, repetitive labor, the young maquila workers are eager for recreation, and to meet their needs there are now bars that cater - via male dancers and strippers - to female desire. This new female-driven entertainment culture is a rescripting of the female body, a rewriting of gender relations. However, at the same time as the women become agents of desire, many of them are, simultaneously, also objects of desire, using time off from the maquila to earn extra money by prostituting themselves. The body of the female worker thus becomes an emblem of conflictive cultural transformation, at once traditional and moving toward a new type of identity.
 Biemann's essay -- in both the filmic and typographic versions -- ends with an horrific account of "another, more violent aspect to the clash between bodies, sexuality, and technology in the U.S.-Mexican border zone" (Biemann, 142). What she goes on to describe here is a rampage of 200 serial killings since 1995 in which the bodies of young maquila workers are violated and their clothing interchanged, as though the bodies and identities of the women were themselves exchangeable. Although some criminologists have attributed the killings to drug traffic, gangs, and prostitution, Biemann cites research that "makes intriguing connections between sexual violence and mass technologies proper to a machine culture" (Biemann, 143). She argues that the serial killings are a product of the inherent transgressiveness and violence of the border zone and of the maquila culture which treats women's bodies as interchangeable, disposable, repeatable objects, non-persons of irrelevant identity. She thus makes a chilling connection between the repetitive technologizing labor to which the women's bodies are subjected and the repetitive dehumanizing of the region's serial killings.
 There are actually two entries with the title "Performing the Border." The first is the video script, followed by an essay by Biemann discussing the events and issues of the film. Each fleshes out and augments the other. By the time I saw the video I knew the published versions well and had found them forceful, but my experience with them in no way prepared me for the tremendous impact of the video which drew viewers into the lives of the maquila workers, placing us with them in their homes, the bars they frequent, the streets they walk, the buses they ride to and from work. Later when I went back to the book it resonated with memories of the video and I wished that I might see the artwork that the other texts and images relate to, for Biemann is a gifted and effective artist, and while the book certainly stands on its own, it acquires an added dimension when viewed with the original artwork. But the book does stand on its own and is a significant document -- or rather -- "postproduction document" - that resonates both with the silent fullness of the film stills and with the articulateness of Biemann's verbal discussions.
 Her other projects deal, in different ways, with globalization and representation. Two of them, "Lexicon Hispanica" and "Global Food," are photographic ethnographic studies. The first of these, "Lexicon Hispanica," presents photographs of Hispanic grocery stores. Originally shown in a fine arts context, the photographs implicitly comment on and critique traditional anthropological exhibits. "Global Food" focuses on one globally distributed food -- Knorr instant soups -- and examines corporate strategies of assimilating and integrating the packaged soup into widely divergent local markets -- from small towns in the Venezuelan Andes to rural areas in Thailand. She observes that "Despite all the individual assimilations to match local taste, the corporate image demands to be recognizable at all times," maintaining an iconic constancy on the packaging where other elements, such as the rest of the script, are subject to local customs and languages. Although seemingly benign, Knorr (she notes) is an agent of transformation
in consumption practices where the local production and consumption of food are still organically connected and thus don't require hard currency which has to be earned, one way or another. That's how rural and remote parts of the population get tied into the economy without lucrative jobs being created there that would help them afford this modern lifestyle. The purchase of a Knorr instant soup is never merely an expression of existing eating customs; it introduces structural changes in a local consumer culture (Biemann, 186).
She thereby alerts the reader to the effects of a transnational corporation at the most micro and domestic levels.
 Other entries by Biemann are about: community work with Latinas in Zurich; exhibits of Afghani artifacts sold to the West to finance the war against the Soviet Union; and a collaboration with eight women artists and social scientists from Istanbul on the subjects of migrancy, urban politics, and their implications for women. This last project which she titled "Outsourcing and Subcontracting" was, for Biemann, essentially curatorial -- although "facilitator" would be a better word than "curator" here, for Biemann saw her role as that of providing opportunities for Turkish women artists to create an exhibition. It was a complicated project in which she wanted simultaneously to make it possible for Turkish women to become part of an international discourse and, at the same time, deconstruct and critique the master discourse that they so longed to be part of. Here, as elsewhere, it is characteristic of Biemann to function as a postcolonial theorist, a social activist, and as a catalyst enabling minority women to develop their own critical strategies. The work's title, "Outsourcing and Subcontracting," refers to Biemann's strategy of facilitating a discourse by minority women while attempting to hold back her own Western perspective.
 With all of these projects, Biemann is an engaged participant, uncertain of the outcome - for herself and others - of the processes that she catalyzes, but always driven by deep moral concern, a questioning of art practices, and a desire to make and use art in ways that improve people's lives. Art is her tool for resistance and change.
 The four other contributors to the volume are: Avtar Brah, Yvonne Volkart, Bertha Jottar, and Rosi Braidotti, the first two in the form of essays, the second two as interviews. Additionally, there are excerpts of text and images from videos by Sikay Tang and Simin Farkhondeh. Unlike some anthologies where authors and entries bear little relationship to one another apart from some loosely-threaded theme, there is a dynamic integration here, a sense the reader has that these writers and filmmakers know each other well and worked collaboratively, for the essays complement one another much as, in a symphony, the component parts draw together as a whole.
 Thus Avtar Brah in her essay, "Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identies," addresses the dependence on female labor of the new global economy and the concomitant new "feminisation of migration" that this entails. Yvonne Volkart in "Survival and Exploraterrarism, Re-Mapping the Posthuman Space," examines the work of different artists who are concerned with how international conflicts, divisions of labor, and globalization impact on bodies and gender identities. She discusses works by artists that "map identity models for an existence in the posthuman space" which she explains as a world simultaneously "based in humanist ideology and in the deconstruction and restitution of those ideals."
 Unlike these essays, Bertha Jottar's interview is not a separate entry, but an integral part of Biemann's "Border Project," for her voice appears not only in "Interview with Bertha Jottar," but also in the video script of "Performing the Border," interviewing and interacting with the women who work the maquiladoras. Indeed, the very concept underlying "Performing the Border" - the foregrounding of hitherto little-heard voices of minority women -- is very much in line with Jottar's own work, at least when she was a part of the Border Art Workshop, a collaborative of artists from both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border region who sought, via art, to draw media attention to the many injustices perpetuated at the border. For example, in a 1989 Border Art Workshop exhibition titled Lost Lives/Vidas Perdidas, Jottar interviewed the (mainly) female workers in the flower farms in San Diego County and collected from them stories of the effects on their bodies of the toxic chemicals used to produce high yields of beautiful flowers -- stories of miscarriages, high-risk pregnancies, birth defects, and other medical problems. Biemann's own strategy in Performing the Border of interviewing migrant female workers and relaying their stories thus seems to be an extension of -- or at least in tandem with - Jottar's own work.
 Braidotti's interview also appears as the verbal component of a video by Biemann,, "Writing Desire," which is about the transmission of private desires and fantasies into the public sphere via electronic communications technologies. An example is the advertising by "brides" from countries like the Philippines and the former Soviet Union to complete strangers -- men in "First World" countries. The issues raised are about boundaries, gender, and sexual relations. Braidotti observes that the cybernetically-imaged bodies of advertising brides are a form of "the super-duper anorexic body," a "flirting with bodies that aren't really there, that are evaporating, that are as slim as possible, if possible, non-existent." Like the other contributors, she is interested in the movement of women's bodies across space. Her focus on the cybernetic transmission of bodies adds an important dimension to the book's compass.
 There are some other unusual aspects that warrant mention, such as the text's bilingualism, with articles appearing in both English and German, Another atypical feature is that for the most part texts are printed on colored paper and are interspersed with a large diversity of images that give it a richness and textural pleasurableness, factors that invite the reader to engage with it on a more visceral level than is the case with most books. Indeed, the effectiveness of Been There and Back to Nowhere is that it demands a certain kind of interactivity from the reader who experiences the visual imagery in a way that is qualitatively different from reading the accompanying texts and that compels the reader to shift from one form of mediation to the other and back again. The reader thus becomes a participant, a fellow traveler in the journey undertaken by Biemann, her colleagues, and the women whose narratives they present. It is a significant and unusual contribution to the growing literature about women in the transnational spaces of the global economy.
Biemann, Ursula. Been there and back to nowhere: gender in transnational spaces, postproduction documents 1988-2000. Berlin. B Books, 2000.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 1991.
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JO_ANNE BERELOWITZ is Associate Professor of Art History at San Diego State University. Her research focuses on art about the U.S.-Mexico border region.
Copyright ©2001 Ann Kibbey. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
Copyright ©2001 Ann Kibbey.