Video Essay Digital Age

URSULA BIEMANN teaches at the Ecole Supériore des Beaux-Arts Genéve in Geneva and at the School of Contemporary Art, Zurich. Ursula Biemann, educated in New York at SVA and the Whitney ISP and now based in Zurich, makes video essays charting the effects of globalisation and new technology on women in a changed world order. Her work has been shown in major festivals and art spaces around the world including the 2002 New York Documentary Festival at the Museum of Modern Art New York, the 2001 Havanna Biennale, and the Biennale of Contemporary European Art 2000 in Lubjana. In addition to her video practice Biemann has worked as both a curator and collaborating artist on a number of large-scale international exhibitions. She curated Kültür at the 1997 Istanbul Biennale, examining migrancy, urban politics and Istanbul’s plans to become a global city and "Geography and the Politics of Mobility” at the Generali Foundation in Vienna in 2003. Ursula Biemann currently teaches at the CCC Program at ESBA in Geneva and researches at the HGKZ, the School of Contemporary Art, Zurich

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The metaphor of compression sits at the heart of Ursula Biemann's anthology [End Page 83]Stuff It: The Video Essay in the Digital Age, for it suggests such physical states as contraction, pressure, squeezing, crowding, reduction and deflation. According to the back cover, these are the very issues the collection of 15 essays addresses about the

art, theory and critical practice [of the video essay] in all its variations: from monologues of disembodiment to cartographies of diaspora experiences and transnational conditions, from the essay as the organization of complex social shifts to its technological mutation and increasing digitalization.

Biemann's introduction sets the tone for the book and elaborates on the origins and trends of the video essay: As she tells us, the film essay was first introduced in the early 1980s by Chris Marker in Sans Soleil. Intrigued by what happened to the genre in the digital age, she hosted a conference, also named "Stuff It," in 2002. The book, like the conference, "recontextualize[s] the audio-visual essay both technologically and culturally," focusing on a

wider development of new media, the Internet and digital image production and understand how these technologies emphasize or mutate the characteristics of the essay while opening up new possibilities for a critical engagement with them

(p. 8).

Two other essays, Nora Alter's "Memory Essays" and Jorg Huber's "On the Theory-Practice of the Transitional," help to further expand on Biemann's introduction. Alter's essay situates the video essay in the long tradition of the essay genre, beginning with Essais, Montaigne's 16th-century work, progressing through time to de Sade, Emerson, Nietzsche, Lukacs, Adorno and Barthes. No one who has taught any form of the essay recently will disagree with Alter's stance that the essay is "critique of ideology" or that "since film, video, or literature is the work of re-presentation, veracity is an impossibility" (pp. 13-14). Her final statement that the video essay is now a "full fledged peer of the narrative and documentary films" (p. 21) is substantiated by the other essays that follow, particularly Huber's, who focuses his attention on theoretical underpinnings of the video essay.

It is Huber's essay, in fact, that explains to the novice of the genre the reasons surrounding the shift to a postcolonial, cultural-studies approach. As he says,

Practical experience shows that traditional forms of knowledge production with their enclosure into disciplines and dogmatic methods are hardly adequate to this task. It rather requires an approach that understands itself as an open, interminable and transdisciplinary process which is self-reflective of its procedure, also in terms of its style

(p. 92).

Traditional literary studies, particularly those ensconced in formalist and even new critical approaches, insist on objectivity fixed upon a static object, while the

video essayistic mode exposes the process of subjective perception and associative thinking; . . . is involved in translation and transition; [and] . . . focuses on the ambulatory character of imagination, far removed from any programmatic statements

(p. 93).

Thus, the video essay is symptomatic of the general ambiguity that emerged in the late 20th century-what Huber describes as a "general sliding, gliding and shifting, where any discourse can transform into any other discourse, where it can be continued in other fields, be grafted onto anything and placed anywhere else" (p. 96).

The general nervousness about utilizing theories involving language for discussing the video essay is echoed in Jan Verwoert's "Double Viewing: The Significance of the 'Pictorial Turn' to the Critical Use of Visual Media in Video Art." Verwoert argues for an approach to the video essay that turns away from semiotics (or a linguistic approach) to a "post-linguistic, post-semiotic rediscovery of the visual image as a complex interplay involving visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurativity" (p. 25). His notion of "double viewing" offers, he suggests, a "model of a mobile, pleasure-oriented, yet emancipated recipient of the media of popular culture . . . based on the presumption of the multidimensional...

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