Contre-géographie

Giovanna Zapperi - J'ai des questions à te poser par rapport à ton travail en général, des choses que j'aimerais te demander après avoir lu tes textes et vu tes travaux. Il s'agît plutôt de trois choses. Un c'est comment la géographie produit l'idéologie en étant un moyen puissant de produire une image du monde, puis je voudrais savoir comment tu articule féminisme et théorie post-coloniale, et également quel est ton positionnement face aux femmes avec qui tu travaille.

Béatrice Rettig - J'aimerais également qu'on parle de géographie, et de pratique politique de la géographie ou comme tu l'appelle, de contre-géographie. La géographie est une pratique institutionnelle, la contre-géographie est-elle une contre-pratique, ou encore la géographie de réalités non-inscrites sur les cartes ?

Ursula Biemann - Je vais parler en anglais, langue dans laquelle je suis plus habituée à m'exprimer à propos de mon travail.
Despite the fact i do produce quite a bit of theorie myself and that I do relate to theorical concerns and aknowledge my work through observatical reflexions, I'm mainly someone who is very involved in practice. And so part of my work consist always and is formalized in going into a particular field and work onsite and speak with people onsite, and then produce a visual reflection of what I've been doing. What I do is never in terms of video a documentory observation, but it's always reflection about the things I observe. So when it comes to issues around globalization, and migration, female body, which have been very much my fields of work for many years now, it's always in relation to particular sites that I visited. And one of the sites we've been talking about is a border area where a lot of different things becomes visible. And so my interest is involved with those visible things, visible and talkable, and they have to do with real bodys, and real existences and difficulties women have on surviving on those indows locations. And they also have to do with metaphores (1word(?)) on those sites that I visit. In disregard to the border in the United States and Mexico, a very particular situation because US industries have come and settled there and create a huge employement zone in a transnational mode that has attracted a lot of women to come there. A lot of migrants have moved to this area and are completly dislocated from their original contexts. So it has turn into a very artificial area, where women had to improvise their life but nothing were set for them. And I think their pure methods and procedures in trying to survive are in themselves already a sort of counter-geography.
If you want to talk about counter-geography, I think it has a lot to do with subversive ways of finding a way through a system that is very straighly regulated, not to the benefice usually, and you try to find a way within the cracks of these rules and regulations. And women have developped very creative means in order to survive and find a way ouside those territories that have, you know, that define the more secure situation within a social context.

BR - Le titre de ta vidéo Performing the border, pose la question des identités et des statuts par rapport à celle de la frontière. Est-ce qu'il s'agît de détermisme, ou bien est-ce justement là que ces identités, ces statuts sont brouillés ?

UB - This notion of performativity is taken from phenomenology and from feminists theories. The feminists have used it a lot to explain how gender is being constructed and reproduced constantly through certain performance of what is male and what is female. And so in my video Performing the border, this notion of performativity is applied on something like the border rather than gender and explains how the border needs to be constantly reproduced through the mouvement of people crossing it. Then a border gained meaning, because otherwise it's just a peace of landscape, it's just a river, or it's just a wall. And so it needs these different bodies that are not neutral bodies but have ethnic marks. If a mexican crosses the border it is not the same as if an american crosses the border. And they have different features and so on. Through the constant mouvement of those bodys who have different fonctions in those societies, the border gets constantly reconstituted in it's meaning and in it's political meaning, and in the dayly life of course, it's not just a line of separation, but it's a field of control into action and economic interaction.
So it's interesting to look at the border as a complete artificial construct that needs to be operated every day through the people who actually inhabit it.
In these transnational zones, free trades zones are created by international corporations, and they created absolutly perfect conditions for them so that liberalize completly out of order, they don't have to pay taxes, or they get the land for free. They have excellent conditions that they have created for themselves. And it's not like in the seventies where industries were still kind of proud to have workers that they relate to, they have camps where live the people working for them.
Here on the border you have nothing, it's just a desert.

BR - So here is what you called counter-geography ?

UB - Yes but I see also my own work as a counter geography because i recode the meaning of certain territories. Evryone is involved in this activity which is giving meaning to places and media are involved in this activity. And as a cultural producer or as artist who works with images I don't have the claim or the potential to change the actual conditions on location for these women. I can just see, and observe and talk about these conditions differently. In other words I cannot really change the world out there but I can change the discourse about the world out there. So in that sense when I go to the places and rework the signs about these places I produce also a sort of counter geography.

GZ - I would like to come again over this idea of performativity of the border. It seems that the border is significative in terms of gender also in your work, but not only national and etnic differences. How borderzones gather conditions that are most adressed to women ?

UB - When we talk about globalization, we don't talk about the extremely gendered aspect of globalization. We have not understood a thing about it, because on the border we can see that ninety five pourcent of the workers that were hide from the begining are female. It has change over the years a little beat but it's predominantly female labor. And there are huge areas in the desert were women have constructed their own living, where only women inhabit, and we have to see it in Juarez for instance where i shooted this video. It was a small border town and it has now two millions habitants. So there's hundred of thousand of women who have moved to this place and there's no men around. Obviously this changes set complete social different conditions of these relations between the gender and a place like that. So I think you can really observe it, you can see that for many of them the income in the factories are not enough to sustain themselves, let alone to sustain their families, who kind of depend of them. So a lot of them prostitute on week-ends and I thought that was a particularly interesting observation I found out, while I spoke with these women, that many of them gain a complementary income through prostitution on week-ends. That really tells us how very strongly connected the undustrial market is with the sexual market, and that tells much about the sexualization of female labor within a global context. And this is really something that concern us a lot, because we know that global migration is in a process of feminizing and more and more women are migrating in search for work. But this really tells us that in their work they are interpelated in their own sexuality. This is why I continued to research that connection for a next video on the trafic in the migration of women into sex work, in a post-soviet style. Most of the work i do looks at the world in a post 1991 era.

GZ - I have a question about this video, Remote sensing. You criticize geography as a tool in this video essay, that produces images of the world, and that is a very important issue for artistic pratices and feminists discourses. How are you using geography, this powerfull tool for producing ideology, as a critical tool ?

UB - I have been working on post-colonial criticism for many years in connection with feminist theories. This discussion for a long time was really focused on issues around identity, thinking about the subject as a subject with an history, with an identity. Then when the subject moves to another place, it creates displacement, and confusion and readaptation, and all those different processuses and discussions were about community building, indows metropolis ecaetera. That was a very important and exciting discussion. I also feld that in a post-soviet time, specially in the observation I included in "Remote sensing" when I looked that phenomenon of hundreds of women on the road looking for work and sex work, and realized that these theories are not going to be sufficient to understand what is happening now. Some people call this a period of post-migration, meaning that it's not the idea to migrate from a place like India to London, and then settle there, create a community. It's a different phenomenon, people are on the way for a long time all the time and don't settle anymore and don't readapt. We need different theories to help us to understand what's hapenning. So I came across geographic theories, and many feminists geographers who have opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at things. Someone like Ingrid [rogo] who put fourth the idea that geography is a legacy radical instrument, for us, a theorical platform on which we can start on thinking about relations between the space, and the subject, and mouvement, and belonging, and nation and all of those different ways of relating to a space and not relating to a space. And it helps me tremendously to free myself a bit from this idea of the subject with an history, which has this very marxist historical kind of tise too, and to look at special theories that are not at unpolitical in any way but help to realize this mouvement.
Geography is a theorical tool but geography is also a form of practice, a visual practice that is extremly technologicalized today. It has a particular power on the way you see the world, and the way you understand it. It has a cognitive control over how we understand territory.
I have been thinking about all these mouvement of women and the sexualized labor mouvements, I was also researching some of these images that have been produced through these technological geographic information systems, satellites images, and how they have formed our vision about the world, how we understand the world as a globality because we're able to produce images that shows the globe as an entity.
One of the problem that feminists geographers always criticize is that these images are firstable extremly abstracts. They means absolutly nothing when you look at them until someone interpret them. And so it's only at the moment of interpretation that they gain meaning, and always at the moment of the interpretation the criterias that you apply for this interpretation are absolutly important. And gender, or identity has never been a criteria to analyze these images. And gender always fall through notoriously in all these analyses. So it would be interesting to reintroduce gendered reading of these images, and imbue them, saturate them with gendered meanings of these mouvements of women who are working in global sex industry. This would be in Remote sensing an artistic strategy to recode these images as they appear on the surface together side by side with some of the lifes that these women tell us about. Well we can say cartography is a sort of masculine activity, but of course there's always room for recoding, room for rethinking, appropriating it for your own.

GZ - Can we look back to this fact of women migrating constantly to some place to another. Isn't there a danger to deshistoricize those women constantly moving and migrating, abstract them from their history, that could give keys for a deep understanding of their situations ?

UB - I try to describe these different locations, where women come and do sex work or are forced to do sex work. I tried to really describe as many as I can in Remote sensing, without totally being able to go to all the places. But I really tried to describe these places without saying it's everywhere the same. These places have completly different reasons and histories, why the phenonomenon that is hapening is hapening. In the Philippines or in all of the south-est of Asia, it's mainly the US military who were there during the Vietnam and Corea war that created an extroardinary need for sexual services that have been supplied, had needed to be supplied by local women, and that survived even beyond the departure of the us army. So there is always reasons why things are like they are. One of my great interest in doing this research is to reveal some of these reasons, and not naturalized prostitution as saying, a yes, asian women are particulary up in doing this kind of work therefore everyone gores there to. It's not like that at all. We have to look at the structured reasons why thing are the way they are. Every location, every border have completly different circumstances, but we should not deny women have become extremely active and self sufficient in trying to survive within these locations, and find ways of creating their own existences. in these border circuits, women have become extremly flexible in using borders also for their own means and create a living, and that is something we need not to forget. it's not easy to find positive aspects when you look at the trafficing of women, but it's also deprecing to only say that they are helpless and victimzed. In terms of adressing women from different cultural context, what I observe in the media, is that most of the time they are adressed in their experiencial level. We have the expertise about theorical analysis. When I go to Mexico or Thailand or the Philippines, women are adressed by question such as "How it is for you to do this kind of work?", and to talk about the experience. And then we use this as a raw material to do analysis, and this is a very problematic relationship. I always try to find experts on locations, women who are working with these issues for a long time, who really articulate about what it is that makes that situation on location the way it is, and really let them speak at lenghts, because that's another problem. In US, the border radio has been shown a lot, and people are completly surprised to see that mexican women can speak the way they speak in this video, because they don't see it in the medias.