The space of politics.
Formed in 2009 by artists Maayan Amir and Ruti Sela, the Exterritory Project adopts the concept of extraterritoriality, taking it as an opportunity to reimagine the representational, political, and economic systems affected by nationalism. In the first iteration of the project, Amir and Sela projected video works made by Middle Eastern artists onto the white sails of boats navigating through the international waters of the Mediterranean. Since then, their work has taken many forms, including a number of interdisciplinary colloquia in various parts of the world, inviting artists, scholars, and students to explore notions of extraterritoriality. Their most recent video work Image Blockade (2015)—commissioned for the New Museum Triennial, Surround Audience—reacts to an open letter published in September 2014 by anonymous members of the elite Israeli military intelligence unit 8200, denouncing the surveillance practices used to gather information and exert control over Palestinians. Amir and Sela altered filmed interviews with the writers of the open letter that had originally been aired on national news programs and, in partnership with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, used MRI technology to capture the neurological responses of 8200 veterans as they watched these interviews, visualizing how bodies self-censor.
I spoke with Amir and Sela primarily over email. Our conversation reflects the highly porous relationship their work establishes between political and artistic production.
Talia Heiman Why are you interested in extraterritoriality? What potential do you think it has for change, both in the political sphere and the art context?
Exterritory Our original interest was in the ability of the extraterritorial high seas to suspend national borders. The high seas have been perceived as a space of “experiential unruliness.”1 While lands were occupied, the sea remained outside of sovereignty. We wanted to create an image of art exhibited in an unruly space and use that space as a meeting point for others—artists, but also people from other fields of knowledge—interested in its potential. We later expanded the project, becoming fascinated by extraterritoriality as a politico-judicial concept with a unique logic of representation. Its main characteristic is its ability to hold certain people and spaces, but also images at a legal distance, removed from their usual legal system while being subjected to another. By exploring this distancing—this representational logic—we hope to encourage the need to rethink the limits of current political concepts, as well as those of current modes of relations between law, representation, and space. These shape what is perceived as the “political sphere” and consequently, the art world. Outside of our work, Sari Hanafi, of the American University in Beirut, has used extraterritoriality to reimagine possible solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, proposing the creation of “two extraterritorial nation states…with Jerusalem as its capital, contemporaneously forming, without territorial division, two different states.”2
TH What do you do with the information gleaned out at sea? It seems like some, but not all, of the presentations have been posted on your website.
Exterritory The project takes on different forms. One of the ongoing attempts is to try, in different ways, to create extraterritorial experiences. These manifested at the beginning with journeys in the extraterritorial waters and later with workshops for diverse participants, including artists and students. Each of these workshops was different from the other, addressing diverse issues. These were already conducted in varied locations. Within the kind of a grammar that the project undertakes, we tend to think in these cases that documentation is less productive than active participation. The presence of the camera changes the situation, which is why these are not presented online. Simultaneously, as part of the project’s theoretical endeavor to create public platforms for critical examination of the concept of extraterritoriality, we initiated a series of public events that brought together researchers from various fields who have critically reflected on extraterritoriality, and related notions, in recent years. These lectures are available online and, alongside seminal essays on extraterritoriality, will be included in a book we edited, to be published this year.
TH What I find the most radical about your project is its notion of escape. Since the Occupy Wall Street movement began in 2011, just about every spatial or institutional entity worthy of critique has been occupied—art museums, entire cities—but your project advocates for a relinquishment of inhabitable place. As artists based in Tel Aviv, the word “occupation” might mean something much more politically and historically fraught. Was creating an alternative model to occupation inspired by that context?
Exterritory That’s a really interesting point. To answer without criticizing other models of protest, Exterritory was born out of a political situation where notions of occupation, territorialization, and similar forms of control did not seem like strategies we wished to adopt. This is why we initially thought about producing an image of retreat from national politics and, in general, from occupation as a political tool for dominance. Nevertheless, it was an escape, if only in trying to temporarily suspend certain stipulations in order to enable a space for entering new possibilities and rethinking political concepts we inherited. In this context, our first project dealt with the power of exchange by projecting images onto the sails of boats drifting through sea, as we were interested in the production of unstable images as a way of questioning the borders of images themselves. We were interested in questioning the power of images in a space in which borders are constantly changing.
TH And how does your project consider extraterritoriality on the internet—an amorphous space that circulates infinite images? I’ve noticed you don’t necessarily maximize the internet’s potential in your project and am wondering if that’s out of a resistance to surveillance, or if perhaps you find the physical dispersal of its collaborative potential ill suited to your project?
Exterritory Exploring the logic of extraterritoriality, the project looks at how this concept may be extended to other spheres of activity such as regimes of information. We try to look at efforts to exclude certain information from circulation, distribution, and the public sphere in general. Extraterritoriality and cyberspace fascinated us from the very beginning of the project. Already from the onset, together with Dr. Anat Ben-David, who is also one of the project team members, we held discussions on the ways the internet was originally perceived as a borderless space but with increasing state regulations was understood to be immensely nationalized in addition to being increasingly controlled by corporations. We were interested in phenomena such as the occupation of digital territories by migrants, as well as with cybercrimes and extraterritorial jurisdiction, the borders between online and offline worlds, to give just a few examples. Our recent work, Image Blockade, also tries to confront issues of online surveillance, and surveillance in general. The work depicts an experiment we initiated, in collaboration with a neuroscientist, that asks questions regarding the ways in which blocking information affects sensory regions. It seeks to raise questions concerning the ways these practices of surveillance affect not only what we see and what we fail to see, but also the ways it influences how one perceives what is visible.
TH Image Blockade certainly expresses a sensory concern with censorship and the bodily (or embodied) impact of the state’s possession of images. Outside of the Exterritory Project, the two of you have collaborated on a series of video works called Beyond Guilt, in which male sexual prospects, approached through dating websites and in nightclubs, are made to discuss their sexual preferences through the lens of their time in the Israeli army. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the connection between these two projects and how you believe the body absorbs and negotiates territorial desires?
Exterritory One clear connection could be outlined on the axis of the ways state governing stipulations are internalized by individuals and in turn shape subjectivity, objectivity, ethics, desires, and the ways these are represented, performed, and suppressed. In this sense, when we worked on the video trilogy Beyond Guilt we were interested in questions like how state militarism not only affects society and public behavioral conduct, but actually penetrates and shapes most intimate relationships. We also attempted to provoke the borders of self-censorship and one’s own mechanisms of secret repression. With Image Blockade, we added another set of questions, concerning the ways state stipulations directly influence not only one’s psyche or political censorship but also shapes individuals’ sensory perception. We sought to raise questions concerning the ways sensory regions are activated differently in light of one’s involvement in a system of state secrecy and devotion to maintain national security. To an extent, we also wished not only to look at the participating subjects as witnesses of their experiences, but also to ask how the senses themselves testify.
TH Can you talk about location and presentational context? These days you’re doing a lot more on land than at sea. And you are accepting invitations to present in museums. What is the motivation behind these choices, and do you believe anything has been lost since the project has moved away from extraterritorial spaces?
Exterritory The project started in the extraterritorial seas because we were interested in the potential to signify the suspension of national borders, but very soon, we understood that this limited the project, “territorializing” it in a space that too was historically constructed for social and economic reasons. This is why the project attempts to maintain a conceptual and experimental thinking of what is, or what are, extraterritorialities—a type of thinking that also tries to ask what new meanings could be added to existing definitions. Consequently, our curiosity regarding this concept very quickly developed not only as a dialectical relation to nationalism, the state system, and territorialism, but much more broadly. For example, one of our current interests relates to science and concerns an assumption we have that new advanced technologies may promote novel understandings of extraterritorialities.
TH But you aren’t only looking to the future to shape projects. I know you’ve begun several archival works.
Exterritory This direction of examining archives in relation to extraterritoriality emerged from a brief anecdote Hannah Arendt mentions in Eichmann in Jerusalem: Report on the Banality of Evil regarding applications of Czech brides to marry German soldiers. Arendt brings this up in relation to the claim made by some Nazi officials after the war that they chose to stay in office despite their disagreement with the Nazi ideology in order to temper Nazi policies from within. Elite members of the Nazi Party, she writes elsewhere, insisted that those who “retired into private life had chosen the easy, ‘irresponsible’ way out.”3 To illustrate this argument from the lesser evil, Arendt recalls a peculiar anecdote, which involves the production of a visual archive of images provided by the marriage law’s subjects. During the Nazi period, she writes, Czech brides of German soldiers were required to provide their photos in a bathing suit in order to be given a marriage license. The order imposing this strange requirement was signed by Hans Globke, who explained that, until he intervened, the Czech brides had to provide completely nude photographs.4 His own contribution, he insisted, was to “soften” the original policy, to make it more bearable and humane.
Similar contemporary archives are used today, like in Turkey where homosexual men, who are exempt from otherwise mandatory military service, must prove their homosexuality by supplying the government with film of them having same-sex intercourse. While access to such archives is usually restricted to state authorities, their opening may prove that the acts subjects were asked to execute are bluntly humiliating, and in some cases a violation—conducted through repressive state apparatuses—of basic human rights. At the same time, participants’ compliance produces a visual recording that might, if made public, further offend or put them in danger. These archives occupy a space between a repository of documented history and an inaccessible inventory. At the same time, the visual images that the archives contain remain present in the public sphere, if only at a distance, by virtue of their potential use to incriminate the individuals who contribute to them. So, as part of the project, we are working on finding ways to represent these phenomena of what we call “State Incriminating Co-Produced Archives.”
Image Blockade, Exterritory’s commissioned work for Surround Audience will be on view at the New Museum until May 24, 2015. Exterritory will present a solo exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, July 30–September 26, 2015.
1. Mireille Hildebrandt, “Extraterritorial Judisdiction to Enforce in Cyberspace? Bodin, Schmitt, Grotius in Cyberspace,” University of Toronto Law Journal (63, no. 2, 2013): 196–224.↩
2. Sari Hanafi, “Palestinian Refugees and The Right of Return: Towards an Extraterritorial Nation-State Solution in Light of Arab Uprising,” Palestinian Refugees (2012): 91.↩
3. Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 35.↩
4. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem,(New York: Penguin Classics, 2006), 128.↩
Talia Heiman is an arts writer based in New York and Tel Aviv.