Video and text by Ursula Biemann

The refugee camp encapsulates crucial features of our political planet – refugees are suspended from political rights and placed under quarantine in the political regime of nation states. In that regard, the refugee camp is above all, a capsule. A capsule where populations are suspended from the legal order that governs their lives, defined and regulated according to the United Nations’ humanitarian conventions and the volatile domain of international politics.

My latest video essay X-Mission engages with the camp – the Palestinian refugee camp more precisely – as this extreme form of extra-territoriality. Before getting into discussion of content, I want to present some reflections on the making of a video on this exceptional and yet exemplary case. X-Mission was conceived to be intensely discursive, an experiment in a kind of provisional theoretical criticism of the multiple discourses which constitute the camp. In 35 video minutes it delivers something of a geological cross section through the juridical, philosophical, urban planning, mythological, and post-national, narrative layers that articulate the highly compressed space. In this anthology of remarkable expertise offered by various scholars, what takes shape for once is not the metaphorical waiting room for a disabled history to pick up momentum again, but a veritable factory of ideas. In view of what could almost be described as an archeological endeavor, video is used as a cognitive tool to get to know the deeper strata of things.

However prominent the scope of Palestinian exile, its political complexity and historical depth, I am aware of just how difficult it is to make any meaningful contribution to a condition that is so glaringly over-represented. Firstly, my intention was to find a way to speak about Palestinians without falling into the inevitability of positing them in relation to Israel or to the conflict. The purpose of a non-dialectical approach is not to deviate from the problems or to depoliticize the subject matter of course but rather to avoid the trap of tired binary arguments, and allow instead a rethinking of the case in relation to other texts I have developed around global networks of contemporary migrant communities in previous video essays (Remote Sensing, Sahara Chronicle). In the midst of a general reshuffling of power and responsibility in the shifting global system of super states and supra-national bodies, I wanted to avoid lapsing back into archaic national allegories to create a conceptual framework in the attempt to grasp our being-in-the world. Particularly that the establishment of nation-states has produced a mass of non-citizens, stateless persons, and refugees at every instance.

In cognizance of this backdrop, the refugee becomes the walking proof of just how fallible and incomplete the global organization of nation states truly is. To (re-)think the camp is therefore an attempt to (re-)think the world system as such. This is the reason I went looking for other referential categories than those developed historically.

From "X-Mission"

From "X-Mission"

Growing urban dissolution, enclavization and ghettoization on a global scale assign people different sorts of spaces, mobilities and rights. The refugee camp is but a systemic variety of a condition, emblematic of developments in late capitalism. One way of considering the camp is through the lens of knowledge gained from analysis of globalization, trans-nationalism but also through other forms of political extra-territoriality – such as the al-Qaeda network and the US anti-terrorist paradigm – that have had a decisive impact on the Palestinian condition today. This is the reason for starting the video with images of Afghani refugees from 1989 – the instance when the focus of belligerence shifted from Cold War adversary to so-called militant Islam. Ultimately, this is the crucial time frame for X-Mission, particularly since 9/11 has been used to impose a state of exception and, through political rhetoric, legitimize measures that encroach upon the rights of any potentially suspicious person who fits the profile of a Muslim non-citizen male, regardless of his origin[1]. In the last years of the Bush Administration, when I was researching and filming the video, it became increasingly obvious that the case of the Palestinian refugee needed to be examined in the light of all these new developments.

Besides this historical re-contextualisation, and the non-dialectical approach at unfolding knowledge, there is another aesthetic strategy at work in this video essay. Like most of my other video works, X-Mission establishes a direct correspondence between the conceptual structure of the video and the particularities of the place it describes. A video on circuitous border movements calls for a different formal structure than one on clandestine, rhizome-like transit migration, or yet another on the construction of an oil pipeline running through three territories. The question of the geographic characteristics of the camp is crucial for the video montage.

Although refugee camps are temporarily created in times of crisis, driven by a rhetoric of security, they tend to be consolidating and self-perpetuating. In the sixty years of their existence, Palestinian refugee tent cities spread in the Arab world have long since turned into precarious cinder block settlements. In the Palestinian case we have to understand the refugee camp above all as a spatial device of containment that deprives people of their mobility and condemns them to a localized life on extremely reduced grounds. Yet at the same time, the refugee camp is a product of supra-national forms of organization (United Nation High Commissioner of Refugees, NGOs) and in that sense, connected systemically to a global context. In a cultural analysis of this canonical space, it seems meaningful to link these two features. To render this condition I opted for the form of a cultural report that includes local analysis by experts (architect, anthropologist, journalist, historian) while drawing on data and video material from YouTube, suggesting use of media that connects the camp to the global distribution of cultural power. Although I made three field trips to Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank, documentary images of camp life have been deployed sparingly in this video. The interviews, interspersed with multiple-layer video montage deriving from both downloaded and self-recorded sources, spin an intricate web of discursive interrelations.As in my previous video works, the journalistic function of reporting joins the intellectual project of cultural analysis and aesthetic production.

From "X-Mission"

From "X-Mission"

When it comes to the refugee question, it is essential to understand the legal superstructure. Palestinians are of particular interest here, because their case is not only the oldest and largest refugee case in international law, but it also helped to constitute the international regime over-seeing the question of refugees after the Second World War. This case exemplifies how international law has failed to maintain a framework of protection, first depriving Palestinians of their political rights as citizens – turning them, perhaps too quickly, into a voiceless mass of refugees – and subsequently dispossessing them of the right to international protection guaranteed to all refugees. The Palestinian refugees are the exception within the exception.

Because it was the United Nations that created the “problem” of the Palestinian refugees in the first place, it set up a regime of heightened protection for them, explains Susan Akram (designated as ‘The Lawyer’).[2] From the beginning, in 1948, Palestinians were to have two agencies devoted exclusively to them: the UNCCP entrusted with a complete international protection and resolution mandate, and UNRWA, whose job was to provide food, clothing and shelter.[3] Thus were Palestinians regarded to have been taken care of, the charter of the UNHCR (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees founded in 1950) had a special clause excluding the Palestinians from its mandate. When it became clear that the UNCCP was unable to resolve the Palestinian conflict, its funding was substantially truncated, which incapacitated it in its role as protector. Within four years, Palestinians were left without this international protection provided by the UNHCR to all other refugee groups around the world. They had no agency to intervene on an international level and no access to the International Court of Justice. The protection gap has never been closed, not least because the absence of any legal framework has been very convenient to the power politics behind negotiations. Under the guise of fiscal prudence, a major refugee case was maneuvered outside international law, where it has remained parked for decades.

This exceptional condition has made Palestinian refugees especially vulnerable to arbitrary re-impositions of the state of exception, as a recent incident in Nahr el-Bared, a camp in northern Lebanon, demonstrates. Nahr el-Bared is one of twelve existing camps in Lebanon founded between 1948 and subsequent years; several others have been destroyed. Allocated by the UN, the plot of land near the Syrian border first hosted tented settlements that were replaced by cinder block houses whenever refugees could afford to build them. The urban fabric grew organically without a master plan, expressing a form of life all together indifferent to strategic urban planning. Fifty years later, the population had multiplied but the surface of the camp had not been allowed to increase, resulting in one of the most densely populated places on earth. In juridical terms, this is UN territory, but it is Lebanese territory for matters of security, and Palestinian in terms of identity.

For the purpose of this video, I interviewed Sari Hanafi and Ismael Sheikh Hassan, whose texts elaborating on the spatial politics of this camp and the tenacious negotiations of its reconstruction are included in this issue. To avoid re-iteration of details, rather than focus on the stratified and often ambivalent apparatus of sovereignty that rules this space, I drew attention to the flexible process through which refugees have begun to re-inscribe themselves into the political fabric. While the battle over Nahr el-Bared is still underway, a community-based reconstruction committee was established to research the state of the camp before its destruction and to draw an accurate plan that later served as a basis for negotiations.[4] In a collective process that included volunteer architects, the camp dwellers defined shapes and limits of their plot prior to reconstruction in order to recreate them. The reconstruction of the camp posed the interesting question of how refugees would plan their housing and urban organization themselves if they had a say. Despite the many complaints about lack of space and sunlight in the camps, which by the way the architects attempted to resolve, often successfully, it turned out that for the dwellers, the urban morphology of the old camp made a lot of sense. The Lebanese state and army, however, had different plans for the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared. In the organic system of narrow alleys, they saw an obstacle to entering the camp with vehicles, underscoring their perception of the space as a military zone, when in fact it is an urban zone.

The common struggle to define the refugee space suggests that the camp, in this instance, is not the site of what Agamben calls “bare life,” that exists outside all political and cultural distinctions; on the contrary, it is a highly juridical space of dispossession and re-possession. These endeavors have created an informal political domain that evades sovereign decisions, to reveal a place where Palestinian refugees – who are literally placed on the outer reaches of international law – can unfold self-authorized, constructive means through which to re-inscribe themselves into the wider political fabric composed, with the accumulation of time, of a complex mix of post-national considerations.

The refugee camp emerges as what Eyal Weizman calls “a site where the politics of a troubled geography is folded into a reduced, bounded space elsewhere,”[5] producing an intense microcosm with complex relations to homeland and related communities abroad. Given the importance of the inter-connectivity among these separated pockets of Palestinian populations, X-Mission attempts to place the Palestinian refugee in the context of a global diaspora and considers de-territorialized models of belonging that have emerged through the networked matrix of this widely dispersed community.

Post-national ideas have gained momentum through the relentless proliferation of trans-national and extra-territorial spaces in which people live or work with few guarantees for safety and dignity. For a growing number of people, life is now about finding a way to survive in the cracks of our system of nation states. This is why I turn to supra-national concepts – which are able to tackle massive statelessness – and to forms of post-national resistance and agency.

Half of the Palestinians live outside of historic Palestine and constitute the largest and oldest refugee population in the world. They are mostly in neighboring states (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria), but also in communities scattered across the world. “How Palestinians negotiate the space now and build a nation outside the territory should not be perceived only as negative, as a trap, as being outside of something” suggests Beshara Doumani (‘The Historian’).[6] “Their transnational experience is one of the most important resources they have in order to build a future for themselves in which they can live a life with dignity. whether inside or outside a state of their own, and have rights like other human beings. How they do that can be seen as a laboratory for other stateless and transnational groups, whether they are refugees or migrant laborers or people who simply find themselves outside certain spaces that they have long known.”

Somewhat out of phase with their trans-national condition, the Palestinian’s political language continues to focus on self-determination through territorial sovereignty. However, many Palestinians have started to wonder whether the national project should be expanded from its state-centric focus to also include other vehicles for attaining rights and the ability to survive in the world especially at a time that the nation state itself is in decline and has often proved to be a place in which large numbers of people do not necessarily attain civil or economic rights, and certainly not freedom or justice. All three segments of the Palestinian people – those in Israel, the Occupied Territories and in exile need to become part of a larger project that stretches the political beyond the traditional conception of state system established in the Middle East after the First World War.

From "X-Mission"

From "X-Mission"

In the meantime, like any other major diasporic society, the Palestinian community has devised all sorts of ways to build a transnational network that allows them to negotiate the juridical zones that they are not allowed to enter, or in which they are forced to stay, by breaking them, overcoming them and finding ways around them. Across Borders, a web project hosted by Birzeit University in the West Bank, links eleven refugee camps in the region. Given that the terrestrial connection between Palestinian cities is often disrupted and that refugees in Lebanon are not allowed to visit the West Bank, it is all the more important for camp dwellers to be informed about the circumstances in the other camps. Besides personal and collective stories, the website diffuses daily news relative to Palestinian camp life in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It is often the only way for people to know how their relatives are doing and if problems have occurred in and around the camp. The site also receives many visitors and commentators from abroad and Shaadi, who maintains the site in Dheisheh camp near Bethlehem, is something of a virtual cosmopolitan whose worldliness is acquired, in large part, via technology.

On a different note, this video essay reflects on the artist’s mission as a particular sort of fieldwork. Most obviously, perhaps, X-Mission can be understood as a witness report from the field, inserting artistic research into a wide range of scholarly and humanitarian field works. Humanitarian officers are almost never simply on a field research they are on a mission, which implies their visit has purposes beyond the simple collection of information. They go with the aim of making a direct intervention, relieving suffering, helping people recover from disaster, providing medical and educational assistance or witnessing injustice; a mission can, therefore, be understood as the kind of fieldwork that embraces a moral component. Adi Ophir argues that “contemporary technologies of disaster are “in the moral” in the same way that scientists are said to be “in the truth,” which does not necessarily mean to act morally (in the same way that a scientist may err and still be “in the truth”); it means that a certain attention to moral considerations becomes inevitable.”[7] From this perspective, the camp as a response to crisis is always already a place for morality, not because it is placed above and beyond its political, economic, or religious meanings, but because of the existence of a complex apparatus of rescue and relief.

My video essays investigate the condition and organization of survival in the world, but they are not meant to contribute to an abstract relief program of sorts; they don’t mean to rescue anyone. The area that constitutes “the moral” in society is a complex humanitarian apparatus run by the state, the market and civil society at large, which consists of a fairly structured assemblage of power and knowledge, including spatial arrangements, means of communication, means of data collecting and processing, organizational procedures and discursive practices. It is into all these practices that my videos intervene. In terms of representational politics, the struggle for autonomy is the focus of my approach to this most fragile form of life, which borders on “bare life,” where human agency is taken for the fundamental rhetorical practice.

Aside from intervening in rhetorical conventions of human rights discourse, X-Mission reports on a distinct tendency in the art world to converge aesthetic pleasure and moral mobilization. Since the early 1990s, the art market has channeled an astounding quantity of participatory projects with “communities in crisis” towards privileged global art consumers. We might indeed ask why the global art world should be considered the appropriate stage for the concerns of a disenfranchised community when it remains unclear whether increased representational visibility is necessarily linked with political agency. Drawing on Ophir’s ideas, one possible explanation is that art projects with a strong social commitment provide a special opportunity for the “moralization” of the market-driven art world and its civil audience. On the other hand, when it comes to large international exhibitions perceived by city and state governments as image-enhancing, such art projects present an opportunity for the politicization of a morally-motivated civil society. How X-Mission, or any of my videos for that matter, operate within these parameters is difficult to monitor. Their intention is to make an aesthetic contribution to current discourses that form and inform complex geopolitical developments while reflecting on how art participates in making them intelligible.


[1] Human Rights Watch report on 9/11 detentions, quoted in Leela Fernandes “The Boundaries of Terror, Feminism, Human Rights, and the Politics of Global Crisis” in Just Advocacy? (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press), eds. Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy Kozol, 2005, 66.

[2] The circumstances of the founding years of these institutions are extracted from a video interview I conducted with Susan Akram, Professor for International and Human Rights Laws at the Boston University Law School in February 2008.

[3] UNCCP, the UN Conciliation Commission on Palestine, was established in 1948 and UNRWA, the UN Relief and Work Agency in 1949.

[4] Interview conducted with Ismael Sheikh Hassan, architect and urban planner involved in the Nahr el-Bared reconstruction committee, December 2007 in Beirut and July 2008 in Tripoli.

[5] Eyal Weizman, in conversation with Médecins Sans Frontières founding member Roni Brauman, Colombia University, New York, 2008. Also see the text “Return to Nature” by Decolonizing Architecture in this issue.

[6] Beshara Doumani, University of California Berkeley, interviewed in July 2008 in Tripoli. The conversation continues in the present journal in a discussion on the Palestinian museum in the making.

[7] Adi Ophir, “The Sovereign, the Humanitarian, and the Terrorist” in Nongovernmental Politics, (New York: Zone Books), ed. Michel Feher, 165.


Ursula Biemann studied art and cultural theory at the School of Visual Arts and the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York. As a video essayist, theorist and curator, she has produced a considerable body of work on migration, mobility, technology and gender. Recent art research projects include “Black Sea Files” on the Caspian oil geography (2005) at Kunstwerke Berlin and the Istanbul Biennial; and the video anthology “Sahara Chronicle” 2006-2009. Her award winning videos are internationally exhibited. She published numerous books “Geography and the Politics of Mobility”(2003) and a monograph “Mission Reports—Artistic Practice in the Field “(2008) Cornerhouse Publishers. Biemann holds a honorary degree from the Swedish University. She is a researcher at the Institute for Critical Theory at the University of Arts Zurich and teaches seminars and workshops internationally.