Geography and the Politics of Mobility | 2003

Geografie Und Die Politik Der Mobilität

In the last years the concept of Geography undergoes a fundamental transofmration. The increasing circulation of people, goods, and data create new cultural, social, and virtual landscapes, which can not be described by traditional geo-scientific categories. This publication documents projects of five international art collectives, which pursue questions of global miration, changing work environments, and worldwide infromationsystems, and outline alternative models for a new geographic praxis. Art scholars Irit Rogoff, Brian Holmes and media theorist Lisa Parks critically enlight in their theoretical essays the metaphor of Geography towards a new level of knowledge.

With art projects by Bureau d’étude, Frontera Sur RRVT, Macrolab, multiplicity and Raqs Media Collective.


Geography and the Politics of Mobility
Ursula Biemann

The exhibition pursues questions around the transformative quality of locations and geographies at a time when subjects are no longer bound to one particular place. Rather than focussing on the formation of dislocated subjectivities due to global migration or the participation in virtual world-wide activities, Geography and the Politics of Mobility will look at the way places are being constituted through them. One of the recurring questions will be how the human trajectories and the traffic of signs and visual information form particular cultural and social landscapes and inscribe themselves materially in the terrain. Spatial and geographic thinking has gained significance in postmodernism and has become, in the course of globalization, a crucial and most welcome tool of analysis. Geography as a discipline of geophysics is not what interests us here, but the postmodern understanding of geography as a distinct mode of producing and organizing knowledge regarding the way natural, social and cultural conditions relate to one another. The model operates as a theoretical platform from which to think about society in a networked, complex and spatially expanded way that includes concepts of boundaries, connectivity, and transgression. Even though everything seems to be a part of world systemic processes and global networks, the notion of place and location remains important in all this. Only this “place”, or at least the way we conceive of it today, has undergone some major transformation. Geography examines places, which are constituted not only by people who inhabit them, but by connections and movements of all sorts that traverse them on a variety of scales, ranging from local, private and intimate processes to public, economic, transnational and systemic ones.

We notice an abundance of images of fluid, unfixed, and transitional identities in circulation at present. These increasingly recognized qualities of identity are partially a result of transgender discourses but also of cybermobility and physical migration as well as a general increase in travelling and repeated or multiple chains of human movement. (1) No doubt, the fast spread of information technologies and the liberalizaton of post-socialist countries had a definitive impact on the mobility of people since the early 90ies. But migration has always existed and travelling people too, only these phenomena have been examined as particularities from the view of the experience of the stable, settled, productive citizen. Today, the stable, settled and legalized subject is no longer the focal subject matter in recent critical cultural writing. It also doesn’t accurately describe the conditions of many writers, artists and other cultural producers any longer. Both the theorizing subject and the object of interest seem to be temporarily stationed in a “transit lounge,” to use James Clifford’s words, their position destabilized, and in motion. (2) We may indeed ask what is actually in crisis, the material setting out there or the academic discipline that provokes a new fascination with conditions that reflect its own state of instability. Let’s assume it is a combination of the two. In any case, the focus is on translocal existencies, on transformative cultural practices, and on the movement itself, on the politics of mobility.

In an immediate geographic sense, the exhibition traces the logic of particular human economic circuits in a changed world order: the female teleservice industries in India, illegal refugee boats entering the Mediterranean Sea, the European industrial prison complex, the smuggling paths across the Spanish-Moroccan border. These sites and non-sites speak of a rearticulation of the relations between social and territorial conditions.

On another level, the exhibition maps various forms of collaborations and temporary alliances practiced by artists and other cultural producers who are engaged in assembling and producing knowledge about how these circuits operate, how they are reiterated discursively and semiotically, and how they mark and give meaning to the space they traverse. Geography deals with cultural and operational systems, which are conceivable and representable in geographic terms. The cultural agents, i.e. the participating artists and writers, are perfectly aware that they are personally involved in writing a geography that contributes to the building of the very space they describe.

The exhibition space may be looked at as one such transient location whose meaning is generated through the passage of people and the appearance of temporary projects, which may inscribe themselves, over time, in form of a program, into the space. None of the works represent closed positions, they rather open up the networks within which they have been generated and of which they are an operative part. Each one of the projects gives insight into a system, which is as much a system of navigation than a system of representation.

The transformation I want to address in this exhibition, then, also encompasses a certain discursive shift in the way location and dislocation can be conceptualized and talked about today. The diasporic identity as a subject with a history, a concept developed in valuable intellectual and artistic work during the last decade, will no longer serve as a conceptual framework for this new cartography. A theoretical platform that articulates gender, subject, mobility and space, and a visual language, which can speak of a hyper-mobile, capitalized, gendered body needs to be invented. Geographic bodies. Bodies with a travel schedule. Itinerary identities that grind their routes into the land.

The shift from a historical to a geographic discourse in this area has been particularly appreciated by those scholars and cultural producers who are engaged in issues of globalization and migration. When spatial interests in cultural discourses have been largely aimed at cyberspace, urban structures, and the workplace, I would like to see these concerns extend to the global technological geography that constitutes the environment for a constant migration of gendered bodies. The exhibition then traces the navigation of people through material as well as electronic terrain, actively engaged in communicating, networking, laboring, informing, servicing and searching. In this instance, with electronic landscape I means both the electronic communications networks and the landscapes visually generated by satellite media and other geographic information systems. The collapse of these two spaces into one dynamic and highly gendered geography is present in many of the works and will be further evidenced by the way they correspond to each other in the exhibition context.

Electronic landscapes have increasingly become the surface for action. Besides grasping the material topographies of the earth, satellite images also record the invisible elements of atmospheric, underwater and subterranean formations, as implemented recently in the military reconnaissance of the cave network of Al Quaida. Representing a traversable space, satellite images are no longer the map of a static moment in time but a dynamic geography of moving and changing surfaces over which a steady flow of signals and data is recording human migration, refugee movements and border crossings. These migrations are registered and evaluated for scientific purposes with entail political consequences. But the control of flows always takes place within the regime of meaning e.g. the old culture is threatened by the influx of foreigners. It is a cultural domain. Even the most technologically produced images will be filtered, at the moment of interpretation, by human fantasies, desires and projections, as Lisa Parks exposes in her analysis of the remotely sensed discovery of Cleopatra’s underwater palace.(3) A possible aesthetic strategy, then, does not seek to intervene in the production of the image, but in the production of knowledge derived from the visual data. The essay on Global Positioning Satellites, contributed by Parks to this volume, imagines alternative ways and finds personal and creative applications for these technologies. In her practice, she embodies a new generation of media scholars, who undertakes fieldwork along the highways of Southern California,Australian tourist trails and in the borderlands between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, exposing and commenting on her own positionality in the thorough manner of a feminist geographer who fluctuates between researcher and consumer, observer and participant, imperialist and tourist. She demonstrates how by inscribing the materiality of human movement into the discourse of cartography, the GPS map brings global positioning and social positionality together. They reveal a particular intervisuality in displaying “beings of movement” located somewhere between the objective map of territory and the subjective experience of motion on the ground.

The appropriation of high capital technologies for cultural low-tech uses is also at the core of Makrolab, one of the five collective projects in the exhibition. Initiated by Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan in 1997, the self-built, spacey structure is a nomadic, temporary, sustainable research station designed to listen in to data from around the world from locations in remote and fragile environments. The lab provides hightech communication facilities in alien, survivalist living conditions. Inviting artists and scientists to develop projects that relate to the particular setting, Makrolab sets up an intense biosphere among the participants who agreed to live and work together in a very reduced space over a number of weeks, resulting in a web of related studies and artworks. The last Makrolab was located on the Scottish highlands from May through July 2002, the next one is planned to be held in the Antarctic.

As a form of “living between an online and offline world in time zones on the outer reaches of cyberia,” Raqs Media Collective describes the gendered conditions of the new data outsourcing agent, the digital proletarian: the online working woman who is the quintessential twenty first century worker. Conceived specifically for this exhibition, their video and text piece A/S/L (Age/Sex/Location) maps the time geography of shifting identities in a new economy, where call center employees who are physically located in India answer customers in Minneapolis in a Midwestern accent. Moving between these worlds and their respective cultural and economic terms, while at the same time carving out a personal space of agency and pleasure for oneself becomes the existential challenge for these women.

Two projects set a European focus in the exhibition. As an initiative for Geography with a life expectation that will hopefully extend beyond the exhibition, Frontera Sur RRVT (the European Southern Border in Real Remote and Virtual Time) is not a formal collective but a loose group of artists and activists who are taking a look at one exemplary geographic site and its multiple strata of meaning. The site is the European Southern rim – La Frontera Sur, the Spanish-Moroccan border area. In a variety of artistic and thematic approaches, the project examines a region in which questions of gender, ethnic filters, migration and labor debates as well as civil initiatives, claims for the public sphere and technological control mechanisms correlate on a small territory. This place is not about a simple line but a complex system of forces that strive towards constituting the meaning of an entity called Europe.

multiplicity proposes an extended study of the Solid Sea project on the nature of the Mediterranean Sea, on the fluxes that cross it and on the identities of the individuals that inhabit it. They critically contradict the prevalent soft notions of the Mediterranean as a “lieu de rencontre,” the blending of traditions, the cradle of distinct yet connected cultures. While Europe is passing through a period of uncertainty and reformulation of borders, multiplicity proposes to look at the Mediterranean as a solid space that is criss-crossed at different depths and according to different vectors, by tourists, immigrants or refugees holding a different status.

Bureau d’études takes the politics of space on a higher level of abstraction. The artist duo conceives gigantic maps that show an increasingly interconnected network of data-gathering systems involving the military, energy and biochemical sectors as well as the entertainment, information and social surveillance systems. In contrast to the geographic map which is an analog representation that grounds in a phenomenological reading of space, the organigram is a digital and structural representation, which seems more adequate in representing the real, which can no longer be grasped by photogaphy. The pictographic arrangements in their piece don’t worry be happy reveal an interlocking order which suggests a high degree of complexity. The accompanying handout folder cosmology provides a viewer’s guide to the networks of cooperation, power, normalization and property, which makes no attempt at simplifying the matter.

A highly discursive project, Geography includes a program of events, discussions and screenings with the purpose of further linking artistic expressions to the theoretical and political debates they stand in dialog with. Among them is the cyberfeminist web project womanspacework, which is conceived as a communication and mediation platform for existing internet projects and other initiatives run by women with the purpose of bringing together artistic, theoretical and activist practices. Republicart, based in Vienna, is a research project and an initiative towards a transnational network of politically driven art interventions in the public sphere. And finally there will be a screening of my video essay Remote Sensing, a topography of the global sex trade with a guest speaker from an Austrian organisation dealing with female migration and the international trade in humans.

Geography is an exhibition about the transformation of space. Within the specificities of the concept, the term transformation also relates to the changing interdiscursive configuration between art and geography. If the academic discipline of geography as been unable to represent the major changes that have occurred in the post-colonial, post-migratory and post-communist world, can art rewrite geography’s relations with place and mobility? This is one of the questions asked by Irit Rogoff in her enlightening book Terra Infirma, which has been a steady companion in the development of this project (4). The exhibition follows Rogoff’s tracks in that it engages in the problematic of geography and proposes a reading of the present transfer of the geographic signifying practice into art discourses and the alternative artistic strategies which have emerged over the last years. Curating, the way I understand it, is an extended form of my own artistic practice. It does not involve touring Europe to scan the major art shows for exciting discoveries. I have been personally involved with some of the projects included in Geography, have entered their network or initiated new cooperations with Spanish artists and Moroccan activists, for instance, who work on the politics on the Straight of Gibraltar, both through connective and transgressive activities. Together with Lisa Parks we spent 2 weeks on the drafty Scottish highlands last summer, immersing ourselves in the Makrolab biosphere that is composed of extreme working and living conditions. I have the chance to participate in Irit Rogoff’s research project European Conversations on Cultural Difference through which a network of progressive cultural producers and policy makers is established. And there will be future collaborations ensuing from this project. The permeability of the activities defined as curatorial, scholarly, artistic and activist is recognizable in every one of the projects, in every contributing lecture. The main purpose of the exhibition, then, is not to show final artworks but to give insight into a networked art and intellectual community who shares a common concern with the European politics of border closure, with the new forms of consolidation of power and the gendered shifts in the global labor. The central questions of state, security and the production of difference is taken up by Irit Rogoff in her attempt of rethinking the relations of global power by proposing to think “terror” through another set of parameters. Setting visual culture as the arena, her text Engendering Terror carefully reads terror and the archive of earlier resistance practices, anti-colonial wars and urban guerilla movements, as an alternative relational geography, a set of geographical ambivalences in which the nation state is unframed. By linking radical movements that took place in different geographies who shared theoretical precepts and mutual engagements in the second half of the 20th century, Rogoff cuts diagonally through post-colonial time-space to arrive at a spatialized reading of history. What her analyses of the case of RAF terrorist Gudrun Ensslin and more recent incidents of female Palestinian suicide bombers brings to light is that terror and its forms of representation is a highly gendered matter where concepts of femininity and terrorism have to be resignified.

Another kind of counter-geography is written by Brian Holmes who explores the way in which increasingly large-scale collaborative performance and conceptual art projects performatively map out the new locations and forms of institutional power in the Global Days of Action. His questions about the role that specialized art practices and institutional spaces can still play, as sites of production, reflection, exchange and archiving, but also as sites where the debate over the transformation of values becomes explicit, reflect the overall inquiry of the exhibition.

1 McDowell, Linda (1999) Gender, Identity and Place – Understanding Feminist Geographies, University of Minnesota Press. The last chapter Displacements focuses on movement and travelling.
2 Clifford, James (1997) Routes – Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Harvard University Press
3 Parks, Lisa (2003) Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and Television, Duke University Press
4 Rogoff, Irit (2000) Terra Infirma – Geography’s Visual Culture, Routlegde


212 pages with many images in b/w and in color, 16,5×23 cm

Herausgegeben von/edited by Ursula Biemann
Verlegt von/published by Generali Foundation Wien/Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln, 2003
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International distribution:
Generali Foundation, Wien ISBN 3-901107-38-x
Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln

ISBN 3-88375-673-3