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Counterarchives, Appropriation and the Disobedient Gaze: Archival Structures in Ursula Biemann’s Contained Mobility and Charles Heller’s & Lorenzo Pezzani’s Death by Rescue


In the past twenty years, an abundance of video works has emerged that engages with the global crisis of forced migration, many of which employ a critical documentary approach in their negotiation and exploration of these issues. Two such works, which are the primary objects of analysis in this article, are Ursula Biemann’s Contained Mobility(2004) and Charles Heller’s and Lorenzo Pezzani’s Death by Rescue: The Lethal Effects of the EU’s Policies of Non-Assistance(2016).

The venture point from which both works are analyzed is the concept of the archive – a concept that on the one hand is of crucial importance to the production of knowledge and that, on the other, has coined contemporary art practices to a significant extent. After establishing a working definition of the term archive (in reference to seminal texts by e.g. Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Marlene Manoff) as a.) a discursive function, b.) as producing rather than merely recording reality and c.) a storage or container, both works are subjected to an in-depth formal analysis.

The article explores how both works employ different – sometimes diverging – conceptions of the archive and how they are brought into dialogue with each other. Whereas both engage information in the form of data that was initally used for means of surveillance and control, Biemann brings these in conversation with what I term a ‘counterarchive’, whereas Heller and Pezzani employ their strategy of the disobedient gaze. Through these strategies, both works make new forms of knowledge visible and enunciable that had not been tangible before.

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