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On Reporting, the Documentary and the Aesthetic in Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders’ Europlex

005 / 30 May 2013

Europlex, made in 2003 by artist Ursula Biemann and visual anthropologist Angela Sanders, provides an account of the trade routes that have been carved out by the continual move of people and goods on the Ibero-Moroccan border. Articulated as a video-essay, it explores the impact of macro-economic and political processes on the bodies of individuals and the micro-procedures of daily life. Taking the Straight of Gibraltar as the passage between two continents, the work is bracketed by a prologue and epilogue, split into segments that move between direct, onsite recordings – the unsteady footage operating as an extension of the artist's hand and as a hallmark for 'having been there' – and computer-generated images and green silhouettes of night-time recordings or textual data rendered as images and animation.


In many ways, Europlex aims to examine the very nature of images. In carefully tracing movement on the ground, charted by clandestine on-site recording and more abstract data such as co-opted satellite images, Europlex lends a visibility to a population and its interconnectedness across the borders of nation-states.


It ruminates on what Harun Farocki has discussed as the manner in which lens-based images work to both obfuscate and reveal. Whether it is the helicopters that keep patrol through radio waves; shipping reports that track the movements, routes and contents of containers; or even those that rely on relative obscurity to illegally transport goods, Europlex clearly prioritizes a need to compile and map such visual material so as to make clear connections in a vast 'totality'. At the same time, it gives visibility to movement that might otherwise go unseen due to the limits of vision and sheer geographical scale. Maps and abstract data from reports and statistical analysis are used to visualize and explain the way different users of the border space 'see', 'know' and experience it. The work develops formal techniques, through advancements afforded by post-production, to render visible abstract processes and connections that would otherwise appear isolated and fragmented.


Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders, Europlex, 2003, video still. Courtesy of the artists.
Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders, Europlex, 2003, video still. Courtesy of the artists.



A Border Complex


Europlex is particularly significant because it is concerned with a border. Such a space is continually reconstituted by a myriad of economic, social, political and cultural relations. Itemploys and inserts a range of techniques shaped by a variety of different institutional spheres: from news reports, to simulated reconnaissance images, to recordings of local knowledge.


The continually re-drawing of a border space requires an assemblage of knowledge(s) that extends to spaces beyond the specific. Biemann and Sanders use the trade routes that come in an out of such a space to guide the narrative of the work, rendering it explicitly spatial. In an opening scene, we learn of a fallen meteorite on the border between Morocco and Algeria. Biemann and Sanders describe the different ways in which this alien object is perceived, classified and used with the voice-over and images tracing these trajectories. For the nomadic Berbers living and working in the area, Biemann's camera follows local bartering and trading of the meteorite's pieces, entered into the market to be sold to tourists. For the archeologists', the isolated meteorite is shot on a plain and sterile background, ascribed with the appropriate classification number, thus presenting the meteorite as it exists in another system of meaning and value. The focus on connections and relations around this meteorite, capitulated in the real and abstract space of the border, contributes a distinct analytical framework to an arena typically dominated by contested notions of 'difference' and 'otherness'.


Biemann and Sanders use 'border logs' to organize the material in Europlex. They have noted that this choice was, in part, a nod to their activity as one that gleans from the history of the production of ethnographic travel logs.[1] Of course, Europlex does operate in the knowledge of this history although, as it would seem, at a slight remove. A focus on the distances between the filmmaker and the filmed subject (and implicitly the viewer) results in an overt interest on the 'text' of the work, rather than provide any close exploration into the broader concept of 'self' and 'other'. There are moments when our gaze is interpolated by those Biemann and Sanders' film: These looks – ones which appear as either, or indeed all at once, curious, voyeuristic and indifferent – can be understood as something more than capturing and determining one's representation when the work as a whole seeks to position perspectives alongside one another. This is not an argument for what would be a false insistence of egalitarianism, but rather an attempt to stress the dialectical relations between 'self' and 'other', 'subject' and 'object' or 'fragment' and 'totality'. Biemann's voiceover, a narrative that aims to create a thesis but one that nonetheless poses more questions than answers (even when enunciating a statement), intensifies the role of the spectator in the work. Throwing the gaze back out to the viewer in this way implicates a 'you': a spectator deemed even more implicit when the structure of the voice invites the spectator to reflect on the same subject matter as the authors themselves.


At the same time, narrative devices are formed through a confluence of the Giersonian-style 'voice of God' – a disembodied pedagogical voice-over that adopts an authoritative tone through the use of interviewees, intertitles and a variety of theoretically inflected statements. Angela Dimitrikaki has written that Biemann's voiceover articulates a non-authoritative 'I'[2] that both distinguishes this voice from the Griersonian tract (criticized for having a tendency to own and thus determine those filmed) and the dissolving of the importance of an author generated in the era of postmodernist theory. The voiceover, which either 'floats' over the images when spoken or locks them together when used as typed text on the screen, maintains a desire to be informative and not dogmatic.


Considering the camera as equally dexterous as the writer's pen when translating thoughts, the self-reflexivity of the 'essay' genre enables the author to be grounded at the centre of the work. This recalls the French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne's sentiment, 'I am the subject of my work', which formed the basis for his newly coined genre 'essais' in 1580.[3] For those that wish to thoroughly sully the waters between the often carefully drawn (and distanced) lines of fact and fiction, they work to instigate an identity crisis of sorts for their chosen genres.


Omer Fast's Schindler's List (2003)is a good example here. Fast records the extras from Stephen Speilberg's iconic film recollecting the horrors of deportation, without explicitly acknowledging that these are not the survivors of the Nazi's concentration camps, but members of a film director's cast. Fast's focus on representation – fiction or not – states the powerful role images have in constructing our past. In turning to the Hollywood film for accounts of history, Fast conflates the collective process of remembering and the physical space of experiencing films.[4] The focus on such shared acts runs against a simplistic assumption of memory as an internal, privately owned and individualized process.


Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders, Europlex, 2003, video still. Courtesy of the artists.
Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders, Europlex, 2003, video still. Courtesy of the artists.


We might also look to Biemann and Sanders' ability to translate the 'time-travelling' of domésticas – a Spanish term for female domestic labour – living in Moroccan towns but working in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. It is here that the document is best placed to translate such movement. Whilst we have directly filmed footage of women getting onto their buses to go to work, as editors of the image, Biemann and Sanders superimpose two digital counters on either side in the top corners of the frame. The clocks register the two-hour time difference. This simple technique acknowledges how the women's social lives are rendered out-of-sync with their families, friends, local economies. Instead, their bodies are determined by the axis of the European economy. Here the administration, the numerical plotting of these bodies is made acutely visible.


It is moments such as these, or when Biemann and Sanders knowingly choose to silence a woman – her mouth moving, the sequence looped – that the histories of the recording camera as part of the colonialist's toolbox rise to the fore once more. The camera has a history of being used to 'take stock' – to record and 'gather' information on other societies, peoples and ways of living. If this information is brought together and constructed by 'western eyes', then how far is it removed from the prescient problems of 'owning' and defining the image or even the subjectivity of an 'other'?


Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders, Europlex, 2003, video still. Courtesy of the artists.
Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders, Europlex, 2003, video still. Courtesy of the artists.



The Document(ary) Turn


In the 'Epilogue' of Europlex, the final scene unpicks and works to purposefully undermine an otherwise general explanatory set of 'logs' or segments that systematically order the video-essay. The voiceover, this time not Biemann's own, informs us that whilst making a documentary about clandestine migration, a Moroccan filmmaker hired locals to take part in a scene that would show them leaving the shores of the town in the small boat provided for the 'set'. The filmmaker arrived the next day only to find that his attempt to fabricate the 'real' had been taken as a very real opportunity for the selected locals: they had left, under the cover of night, without giving the filmmaker the all-important final scene. The choice to include this event in Europlex is a comment by Biemann and Sanders on their role as documentarians. The scene neatly encompasses an acceptance of the presence of the fictive in the non-fictive.


Despite the tendency to argue that these recent treatments are a 'reinvention' of the documentary, or an act to isolate certain 'good' techniques from this medium, we would do well to consider Allan Sekula's reminder that the mistranslation of the ' reflexive documentary methods of Dziga Vertov's Kino-Pravda and Jean Rouche's cinema vérité into 'direct cinema' produced a 'cult of the invisible camera'.[5] This lends a more nuanced edge when we come to examine the surge of interest in the documentary and the ability for the technology to capture, relatively quickly, the unfolding of events. It calls for an acceptance of a sure need to document, alongside a careful consideration of the politics of knowing.[6]


Thinking about Europlex, an observation by Irit Rogoff comes to mind. Rogoff wrote in 2004 that a whole host of large-scale exhibitions presented platforms for artworks that inform in a 'seemingly factual way' but at a 'slight remove from reportage'.[7] This statement, published two years after Okwui Enwezor's Documenta 11 in 2002, indicates the increased presence of the documentary approach in contemporary art production and the debates around it over the last twenty years.[8] An analysis of this 'documentary turn' needs to include two shifts both formed and produced by this recourse to the document. First, a consideration of what affects digital technologies have had on the lens-based medium is needed, particularly if one is going to critically engage with the false assumption that the index – the too-often assumed unique attribute of the analogue image – is lost in the 'digital era'. Second, to consider how new modes of vision produce new ways of seeing. Shifts in 'dominant' economies and changes to the borders of nation-states require new modes of visuality in order to picture and document such seismic changes.


The mass-marketability, increased portability, and the lens-based medium's indexical relationship to the real, means the video camera can be a politically potent weapon. We need only look to the French inventor, Etienne-Jules Marey's chronophotographic gun, made in 1882, to understandthe particular resonance the phrase 'to shoot' holds. The potential violence of the lens-based image is perfectly articulated in the early technology of the chronophotographic gun. The systems of distribution, increased through technological innovation, and the relative ease through which we can manipulate images in the twenty-first century, form a myriad of platforms from which to extol injustices and revelations. For nation-states undergoing processes of revolutionary change the fidelity that the lens-based medium has to its social environs must be fore-grounded above and beyond other its inherently opaque properties.


Here, a demand to be recorded, seen, heard, and to solicit witness, is necessary. We might consider the photojournalist and activist, Philip Jones Griffiths' work on the political act of photographing and making visible the violent effects of US chemical warfare on the people of Vietnam. Here, the photograph is used as a method for assigning accountability. Or more recently, Ariella Azoulay's conceptualization of the tripartite relationships between image-taker, those photographed and the viewer, that render the photographic image as an 'event'.[9] What this understanding attends to, by and large, is a commitment to what Azoulay understands to be the vernacular of the lens-based medium. That is, its capacity to record people, places and things.


The document(ary) – formed in the notion of truth and telling history – has arguably become a favoured model for socially engaged contemporary art. Enwezor's 2002 Documenta captured the concerns of artists working and leading up to that point. It also legitimated and instigated further exploration into this field of concern. However, if we look to Hans Richter's writing, one of the earliest commentators on an expanded and critical understanding of the documentary form, we can gain some insight into why the document(ary) might have become such an important medium over the last fifteen years. On cinema's ability to capture events unfolding, Richter writes: 'nature [was] not just as a view, but also as an element, the village not as an idyll, but as a social entity'. It is clear that the camera's ability to trace, produce and mediate relations aids a socially engaged practice.


In the case of Europlex, the re-engagement with the documentary should perhaps be read alongside the broader debates around recent considerations of the heteronomy of art.[10] The documentary has long been over-stated as the poor relative of art, often perceived as 'artless' in its inability to disrupt established ways of seeing and accepted methods of knowledge production. A perception that focuses too heavily on the much derided and unfashionable terms such as 'mimesis', 'objectivity' and 'reflection': the documentary may be indispensible to the research process, however, the ability to gather information often renders the documentary to documentation. Nonetheless, as Boris Groys has noted, the act of documentation has become an increasingly valued procedure for understanding the processual nature of subjectivation.[11]


On Western Historical Precedents 


Writing in 2008, Biemann states she has no interest in the 'documentary real'. But this is not the same, I should stress, as having no interest in the political demands set forth by the aesthetic category. It does, however, put into motion the historical and dialectical relationship between the 'document' (window on the world) on one hand, and the 'picture' (constructed image), on the other. It is from within this paradigm that Europlex raises questions. If one adopts certain stylistic and theoretical techniques, renounces the real and deploys the synthetic and fictive, is one able to abandon the relationship between the colonialist and the camera?


There are two specific moments in the twentieth century that provide historical context for reoccurring questions and concerns around the documentary and realism. First, we can note the call to make films politically, rather than simply, import political problems into an ideologically normalized set of forms and methods. A consideration of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's Dziga-Vertov group, and Chris Marker's work with the Medvedkin group and SLON in and around France's 'May 68' climate is an important example for examining the questions, problems and tensions at stake in this sentiment.[12] Whether through a focus on the political efficiency of the filmed document – serving a purpose for those who are the subject matter for the work – or whether it is to re-insert an intellectual vanguard of sorts through a critical stance on the commitment to the 'voice of the people'. 


Second, we can extrapolate the influences of figures, such as Sekula and Rosler. Returning to the concerns and techniques generated in the 1970s, we can consider the lineages that these artists, filmmakers and writers drew upon. It is from this vantage point that we can observe attentiveness to the co-emergence, and subsequent separation, of the European Formalist avant-garde of the 1920s and the Soviet political avant-garde of the same era. The fruitful, yet brief, encounters and interactions of practitioners such as Sergei Eisenstein and Hans Richter indicate a closer allegiance than one has come to expect. Despite this reciprocity, the documentary theorist, Bill Nichols, argues that the impact of twentieth century events – the rise of Nazi power, its effects on modernism and the development of the role of propaganda; the impact of socialist realism; and the role of the camera in Depression era USA – as crucial in distinguishing how the format of the documentary was established after 1940 and remained unchanged until the critique of the 1970s.[13] This shift in emphasis explored whose proof was exported by the photomechanical image, and why such a truth might have gained such dominance. Formal devices needed to be invented in order to translate this new shift in emphasis, while technological advancements developed alongside these demands, thus facilitating new aims.


There is a need for a counter-narrative to the usual story of documentary's 'early birth' and 'gradual maturation' throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The placing of modernist fragmentation and narrative structure alongside photographic realism de-stabilizes the understanding of the documentary lineage: early newsreels are not the only heritage. A sole focus on the objectivity produced by the mechanic lens must not be ignored, however, it cannot be thought in isolation from other key characteristics listed by Nichols.[14] This composite history opens up possibilities for our understandings and readings of projects such as Biemann and Sanders' Europlex.


Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders, Europlex, 2003, video still. Courtesy of the artists.
Ursula Biemann and Angela Sanders, Europlex, 2003, video still. Courtesy of the artists.


In Europlex, the flow of capital is registered quite literally at the site of the body. Amidst all this, Biemann stands at quite a distance; her camera records women putting on clothes behind a warehouse building located on the border. This image is made strange when one registers that the act is repeated over and over again. The women tie the contraband to their bodies; their size growing as each layer is added. From here, they will walk the unofficial trade route, carved deeper into the landscape by the tracing of both the camera's eye and the travellers' feet. Utlimately, devices are used to explore what cannot be represented – devices that strive to make visible social relations and solidarity, but also trauma and loss – this gives rise to un-escapable questions that have ethical considerations. As Hito Steyerl has noted, the 'urgency' imbued in the documentary is tethered to 'the ethical dilemma of having to give testimony to an event that cannot be conveyed as such, but instead contains necessary elements of truth as well as of  'darkness''.[15] The problems of indexicality in the lens-based image, of the relation to the real, are re-thought in contemporary engagements with the genealogy of the documentary. It is the index that demands us to face up to the world as it is.


The work displays a need to understand how the economic unity of Europe is upheld. It asks when, for whom and at what times are borders impenetrable, or, indeed, malleable? As Biemann's voice-over states, the 'European Union as an economic entity has expanded its borders way in to north Africa, using human and material resources there to produce for the European market'. The low wage workforce and high productivity provide lucrative spaces to colonize once more. In an effort to move away from fragmentation – a characteristic required by capital modes of re/production – Europlex aims to prioritise connections. In doing so, it moves into unsteady ground and faces the significant challenges of pedagogy, critiques that it is too didactic running perilously close to the supposed 'poor cousin' of art: the documentary. In some accounts, not only does this potentially render the work as something other than the aesthetic, it also risks exploiting a second time round those who are the subject matter of the work, through the very act of re-presentation.


Creating and enforcing a strict opposition between social documenter and artist risks, as we have seen, assigning the document/ary to the real world and the artwork as bound for a kind of special transcendental journey. The challenge in analysing works like Europlex is inherently contradictory for this reason: one is required to think both sociologically and aesthetically in analysing the work.[16] The form, therefore, plays with an aesthetic paradigm (that is concerned with artifice and speaks to a degree of autonomy) and the documentary paradigm (charged with a dominance of political, truthful representation and a degree of responsibility). This confluence of responsibility and distance (in an effort to develop criticality) enables one to maintain a more reflective position on the politics of the gaze and its neo-colonial configuration.


It is from within this framework that we need to analyse works such as Europlex. It is all too simple to place them in a historical lineage with exploitative 'explorer' films and thus dismiss their complexities of both the subject matter and the histories of the form they are operating within. It examines flows of capital and bodies, and most importantly, the manner in which these are emphatically intertwined. It speaks politically in its visualization of how so-called 'dominant' or 'first-world' economies are produced, enabled, and run by a global workforce. And though Europe and North Africa take center stage, we need only look to the names of companies on the shipping containers that pass the Strait of Gibraltar, recorded by Biemann and Sander's camera, to understand these geographical connections cross much larger spaces. Whilst the meaning of an artwork must be regarded as 'contingent' and not 'immanent', 'universally given, or fixed', it is crucial that we do not evade or erase these histories when discussing works that see the 'white western' traveller gather their material from the newest zone of conflict.[17] Work such as Episode III Enjoy Poverty (2009) by artist Renzo Martens, for example, is not the first to parody this, albeit in an (intentionally) conceited fashion. The Surrealist filmmaker, Luis Buñuel's Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan /Land Without Bread (1932), is infamous for its satirical gesture of critiquing the anthropological 'expedition'.[18] Then there is the gaze in Europlex, made possible by many of the same forces that exploit North Africa.


Biemann's and Sanders's reflections in Europlex acknowledge that, despite unsurprising attempts to resist, the documentarians of Europlex and its subjects remain, nonetheless, part of this network of power relations. With this acknowledgement comes accountability rather than inert resignation. In assimilating a detailed history, or rather genealogy of the documentary, a medium that the video-essay is unequivocally annexed to, we must look simultaneously to a reading that retains the importance of the camera's relationship to the real and subjective (both individual and collective) analysis that shapes such 'documentary' images. Such a reading might speak of our relations to and responsibilities for one another in our current times.




[1] Ursula Biemann, 'Logging the Border: Europlex,' Mission Reports: Artistic Practice in the Field, Video Works 1998-2008, eds. Ursula Biemann and Jan-Erik Lundström (Bildmuseet: Umeå University, 2008), 48.

[2] Angela Dimitrakaki, 'Materialist Feminism for the 21st Century: The Video Essays of Ursula Biemann,' The Oxford Art Journal 30.2 (2007): 209.

[3] M. A Screech, 'Introduction' in The Essays: A Selection, by Michel de Montaigne (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), xii.

[4] Spielberg's elaborate set itself is now part of the Holocaust 'tour circuit'. Once more, history, in all its guises, is remembered and  'lived' through a collective viewing.

[5] Allan Sekula, 'Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Photography (notes on the politics of representation)', The Massachusetts Review 19.4 (Winter, 1978): 870.

[6] We might be best placed to productively trace this vital need to know the world back to Brecht.  In recent times, the exhibition, 'The Need to Document' (2005), curated by Vit Havránek, argued that the crucial issues at stake for much of the work included in the exhibition meant the defining, for the curators, of the documentary as 'something which expresses itself in an ontologically immutable form' which examines the prominent features of the 'documentary attitude'. This was a cooperation between Kunsthaus Baselland, Muttenz and Basel, Halle für Kunst. See the exhibition abstract on the Kunst Haus website page http://www.kunsthausbaselland.ch/enUS/exhibitions/archive/2005/-/exhibition/the-need-to-document.htm. This definition, however, is too close to suggesting an a-historical genre which risks ultimately homogenizing the fractured and rich genealogy of the documentary.

[7] Irit Rogoff, 'The Where of Now,' Time Zones: Recent Film and Video (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 85. Rogoff lists Documenta 11, Manifesta 2004 and Istanbul Biennial 2003 as just some of the examples.

[8] It is worth noting here Mark Nash's work in Enwezor's curatorial team. In addition, we should acknowledge how the French curator, Catherine David's previous Documenta X set the terrain for some of the theoretical questions and curatorial strategies for Documenta 11. David focused on the specific dates of political and social upheaval, asking viewers to consider how the aesthetic device might aid one in recognizing the 'state of the world'. David also, as part of this concept, instigated discussion forums such as the '100 days – 100 nights' which included speakers from far beyond the 'art world' and can be seen as a precursor to the diversification of 'platforms' which populated the 2002 exhibition.

[9] Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008).

[10] Whilst each pertaining to specific theoretical tracts and contemporaneous concerns we might look to the surge of interest in Rancière's work and how this might intersect with Adorno's notion of autonomy and heteronomy. We could also place Boris Groys' writings on non-art (Art Power, 2008) as not too distinct from Peter Bürger's earlier work on the non-art work and the avant-garde.

[11] Boris Groys, 'Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation' in catalogue for Documenta 11 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 110.

[12] Sociète pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles. The SLON films attempted to insert another history, emphasizing Medvedkin's role and that of the cine-trains alongside the existing 'history' of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and the increasing role that Dziga Vertov played through the aesthetic eyes of Godard and Gorin.

[13] Bill Nichols, 'Documentary Film and the Avant-Garde,' Critical Enquiry 27.4 (Summer 2001): 580-610. Allan Sekula claimed in his 1978 text on documentary, that as a genre, the documentary contributed little to a critical understanding of the social world. Rather, it has been used to focus on spectacle, retinal excitation, voyeurism, terror, envy and nostalgia. This is of little surprise when one considers what the documentary came to mean in the aftermath of the 'events' listed by Nichols. See Sekula's 'Dismantling Modernism'.

[14] Whilst Nichols is an important figure for examining documentary and broader 'non-fiction' film work I would like to acknowledge the important role photography theorists have played in the debates around the two-fold capabilities of the camera lens. Writers such as Sekula, Steve Edwards, Molly Nesbit and Blake Stimson, give perhaps the most complex account of the important place of the index whilst still maintaining considerations of how dispositifs of power co-opt the lens-based image. John Roberts writes that these theorists argue that what distinguishes 'photography in its specificity is that it is more – or less – than art', it is this contends Roberts that therefore 'defines its epistemological, cultural and historical status'. John Roberts, 'Photography as Truth-Event', Oxford Art Journal 31.3 (2008): 464.

[15] Hito Steyerl, 'Documentarism as a Politics of Truth,' Republic Art, trans. Aileen Derieg, May 2005 http://www.republicart.net/disc/representations/steyerl03_en.htm.

[16] Griselda Pollock, 'Thinking Sociologically: Thinking Aesthetically. Between convergence and difference with some historical reflections on sociology and art history,' History of the Human Sciences 20 (2007): 141-175.

[17] Sekula's 'Dismantling Modernism'.

[18] The historian James Clifford coined the term 'ethnographic surrealism' in order to note the intermeshing of the hitherto separately conceived disciplines of art and anthropology through which Buñuel's film travels. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) 145.

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