Talk Slow

An Interview with Ursula Biemann Swiss video artist and researcher

How does the corona virus pandemic affect your artistic practice and your daily life? 

 The current conditions don’t affect my artistic practice at all, since most of my work takes place in the digital and virtual realm, my productivity is unhindered. On the contrary, since there are no more interruptions in the form of exhibition participations or lectures that I should give, I can work on my projects in peace and quiet. Nevertheless, I feel a break, an unplanned pause, which I am currently using as a space to rethink overriding issues, because I can’t shake off the feeling that this sharp cut into business-as-usual will change future scenarios for good.

Do you think you will have a different attitude to life and art when this crisis is over?

 I don’t think so. But the pandemic has put our value system to the test. You could ask crisis of what exactly? Which crises does the virus make visible? Weak points are coming to light. I do believe that humanity is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. However, we have seen it coming for some time in the exhaustion of Earth, the hopelessness of a destructive economic model, the sluggish energy transition. The ecological crisis is at least as threatening to human survival but has never been approached with this kind of emergency measures and zeal. Our system is in crisis. Yes, definitely. It just looks more alarming because the agent is now in our body, that’s more freaky. I see the eco crisis and the pandemic as one complex. My art and writing have engaged in the transformation of the human relationship to the natural world for years, so I will continue along those lines. It just so happens that last October I came back from a field trip to the Amazon with a lot of video material that I’m editing, sorting, translating now. That’s perfect because field trips are the one thing I cannot do right now.

In what way do you think this virus has fundamentally changed our lives or has it changed it at all? What can we learn from it?

Economic interests keep expressing the need to go back to business-as-usual as soon as possible. But I think that’s not going to happen, certain economic and structural breakdowns that are currently in process but still invisible, will emerge over the next months. That’s just a given considering the blown-up credit economy, the disruption of supply chains, the slowdown of transportation and insane mass tourism, the burden of increasing climatic stress on agriculture and assets etc. I see big changes. I’m mostly interested in the structural changes that are needed for a more sustainable life. I think we need them desperately.

Do you think that art has the means to effect social changes? And if so, then in what ways?

 The objective of image and meaning making, as I practice it, is not primarily to influence the opinion of others. It is in and of itself an act of reality-making. In my view, images themselves possess a kind of conceptual, even material capacity to act. Hence, the preservation of the world can also be restored and re-conceived within experimental aesthetic practices. Ultimately, we effect change by changing our own practice, by choosing our focus of attention, by feeding the collective imaginary with creative speculations and poetic proposals, by being an inspiration to others.


Swiss video researcher and artist Ursula Biemann has long been interested in the ecologies and uneven distribution of the Earth’s resources, peoples, and information. For this project she is joined by Paulo Tavares, a Brazilian architect and urbanist who studies the politics of space and indigenous resistance in the Amazon, in the collaborative production of Forest Law (2014), a two-channel video-installation and photo-text assemblage. Forest Law draws on research Biemann and Tavares carried out in the oil-and-mining frontiers of the Ecuadorian rainforest at the transition between the Amazon Floodplains and the Andean Mountains. This border zone is one of the most biodiverse and mineral-rich regions on Earth, but one which is currently under pressure from the dramatic expansion of large-scale mineral extraction activities. Guiding the work is a series of landmark legal cases that bring the forest and its indigenous leaders, lawyers, and scientists to court, including one such particularly paradigmatic trial, recently won by the indigenous people of Sarayuku from the Ecuadorian lowlands, whose case argued for centrality of the cosmology of the “Living Forest” in their community’s survival.