Considering the Border (Art) of the Transit Zone
Considering the Border (Art) of the Transit Zone
Presented at the Trans : A Visual Culture Conference – University of Wisconsin – Madison – 2006
My presentation today will focus on aspects of international air travel, and artwork about it. I am currently undertaking a PhD in the visual arts, a cross disciplinary research endeavour which will result in both a written thesis and an exhibition. This conjunction of art and theory enables me to critically examine concepts in a way that uses theory to examine art and art to examine theory and both to examine the central concern of the Transit Zone in an innately trans-disciplinary fashion .
The Transit Zone is the central construct that I work with . An overarching frame work which positions contemporary air travel within a separated space, bounded by a conceptual and bureaucratic border, embodied by immigration and customs officials. This space is excluded from the external environment, and through its separation creates an experience of transit rather than of travel.
Having just passed through this Transit Zone to get here today, I am again reminded of the concrete experience of what I theorise and use in my art practice. The Transit Zone creates its own reality through control of access, identity, time and space, both in the airport and air. It contains it’s own time and spatial dynamic, which shape the passengers’ experience. The Transit Zone exists between borders, outside of any nation-state.
The discussion of the Transit Zone has many facets and can engage with legal constructs, body identity, subjective experience, the globalised world and so forth. However, today I will focus solely on the exclusion of the Transit Zone from nation-state territory through border positioning and international agreements. By this I mean the suspension of the Transit Zone from the normal space of everyday life through an international re-conceptualisation of the border. This exclusion is one of the many paradoxes that the Transit Zone creates through its very existence. The implications of this separation have been explored and contested in artworks by many artists. The works that I will consider today are by Diller + Scofidio with the Builders Association, Francis Alÿs, Mark Wallinger and myself. I will discuss the works in conjunction with the ideas I will draw out in this paper.
The systems and mechanisms of the Transit Zone are based on the practices and premises of the nation-state. While the nation-state can be discussed in terms of territory, nationhood, sovereignty, citizenship, economics, violence, trans-national governing bodies, colonisation, etc. I am choosing to utilise the juristic model to outline both the nation-state and the Transit Zone. Of particular relevance to my paper today are issues of territory, and sovereignty as well as the creation and management of micro-borders to control legitimate movement into and out of the nation-state.
The juristic conception of nation-state defines the territory and the citizens of a sovereign state through the development and implementation of the law. The juristic state is based on the nation-state’s sole right to legitimate and to delegate an action, be it the right to violence, discipline, tax or, to control movement. National laws and international agreements are integral to the smooth functioning of our globalised culture and economy. Obviously with every discourse of control comes an associated avoidance of this control. Violence, movement and economic activity all occur outside of and in avoidance of state control. However these actions do not constitute legitimate actions.
The contemporary world polity is predicated on a overriding conception of the nation-state as a territorially bounded, self governing country with the right to exercise jurisdiction over its territory and over all persons and things within it. (1) This premise, formalised in 1949 by the United Nations, exists independently of any individual society.
In John Meyer’s “The World Polity and the Authority of the Nation-State” he argues that nation-state’s reciprocal legitimation each other enables an individual nation-state to both maintain the integrity of their state and interact on a global scale with other states. (2) As much of contemporary society crosses national boundaries, economically, culturally and physically, the reciprocal recognition of a nation-state by the others becomes an integral point of functioning.
In addition to the world polities endorsement of the right of a nation-state to exercise jurisdiction over its territory and over all persons and things within it, it is recognised that a nation-state has the right to control what passes across its borders. (3) However, the unique nature of air travel, with its ability to fly over the boundaries of a territory and land at any internal point within the territory required a new conceptualisation of the ability to control entry to a nation-state. The solidity of the frontier or border became permeable and nation-states developed internal micro-borders, represented by, in Thomas Wilson and Donnan Hastings words “airports, floating customs and immigration checks, post and passport offices, armed service installations, and internal revenue institutions.” (4) These micro-borders are designed to control legitimate movement of people and goods, and prevent illegitimate movement. The micro-borders of the airport are also the borders of the Transit Zone .
The internal micro-border does not remove the land border, rather it provides for multiple entry points positioned anywhere within a given state. The re-conceptualisation of the nation-state border from a physical edge into a bureaucratic edge allows the individual to re-conceptualise how they enter a nation-state. These ideas are demonstrated in Francis Alÿs’ 1997 work The Loop made for the annual exhibition inSITE which occurs on the border between San Diego and Tijuana.
Alÿs’s work was simple in concept, to take a paseo or stroll from Tijuana to San Diego without crossing the U.S. Mexico border The artists’ description of the project is on screen.
(“In order to go from Tijuana to San Diego without crossing the Mexico/USA border, I will follow a perpendicular route away from the fence and circumnavigate the globe heading 67? SE, NE, and SE again until meeting my departure point. The items generated by the journey will attest to the fulfilment of the task. The project will remain free and clear of all critical implications beyond the physical displacement of the artist.”)
Over the course of thirty-five days he flew from Tijuana to San Diego around the Pacific Rim via: Mexico city, Panama City, Santiago, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Bangkok, Rangoon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Anchorage, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.
While the line up of cities sounds impressive, the artist spent the majority of his time in aircrafts, airports, and airport hotels. During his extended paseo Alÿs collected his boarding passes and receipts, and emailed the curator, Olivier Debroise with updates on his trip. The evidences that his journey was performed are receipts, travel documents, postcards, emails, photos, passport. Standard items that any traveller creates and collects during their time away. These items were presented in 1997 as an archive in a file box in the Centro Cultural Tijuana and in 2005 in the online project Report(not Announcement) hosted by e-flux. (5)
Conceptually the work is engaging in an extended movement through time in an effort to avoid a problematic border. Alÿs asserts that the work is refraining from any ‘critical implications’ outside of his ‘physical displacement’. Alÿs discusses the Tijuana/San Diego border through crossing alternate borders, conspicuously avoiding the border the exhibition concerns itself with. He is engaging with the idea of a land border through utilising the micro border. The round the world, or rather round the Pacific Rim trip of the tourist stands in contrast to the politically fraught border between the United States and Mexico.
Alÿs’s work The Loop demonstrates that the micro-border of the airport is multidirectional. He is able to circle the world to come to the same point, border hopping via airports, entering and exiting the Transit Zone at varying stops. Once within the Transit Zone a passenger can remain outside the nation-state until their final destination, touching down in airports but never arriving in their host countries. International travel is no longer taking a path through multiple countries, one after the other. Rather it is a transition space outside the nation-state from anywhere to anywhere as long as there’s a flight and the individual has a visa.
The conceptual border of the airport concerns itself with compression of distance and global interaction in contrast to the land border, which concerns itself with possession of physical territory and relationships with neighbouring states. Contemporary western society considers the airport border as a symbol of our freedom of movement and cosmopolitanism. Alÿs’ ability to cross these borders puts him in the position of the privileged traveller whose citizenship and economic position enables freedom of movement. This is in contrast to the many individuals for whom the micro border is just as or more impassable as the land border.
The micro-border is managed by creating a separation between those inside and outside the Transit Zone . This demarcation enables the same space to be occupied by an individual who is in the country – airport staff – and an individual who has left the country – passengers or flight staff. The land on which the airside of the airport is situated is not excised from a nation-states’ territory and sovereign control. However, for the purposes of immigration and customs control the passengers and flight staff on the airside of the airport are not on sovereign territory. They have been placed outside the nation-state in limbo.
One of the ways in which we can theorise this is through the idea of exclusion, as developed by Giorgio Agamben in his books “Homer Sacre” and, more recently, “State of Exception”. Agamben argues that Western politics is based on a premise of inclusion and exclusion. Political power is wielded through the right to ‘ban’, to exclude an individual from the normative legal space of society. Borders are political as well as physical constructions and are used to the define limits to which national law and interest apply.
The Transit Zone represents “a strategic suspension of national sovereignty.” (6) The exclusion exists in relationship to the rule of nation-state in the form of the suspension of the nation-state territory. The nation-state does not give up its rights to the space of both the land and airspace above the land, instead it holds itself in abeyance. Through this strategic suspension of aspects of national territory the Transit Zone creates an outside to the nation-state. An outside that is simultaneously held inside the nation-state. This paradox of being outside and inside must constantly be considered while discussing the Transit Zone .
Without the excluded space of the Transit Zone nation-states could not impose systems of control onto international air travel. In “Homer Sacre” Agamben argues that “[t]he law has a regulative character and is a ‘rule’ not because it commands and proscribes, but because it must first of all create the sphere of its own reference in real life and make that reference regular. ” (7) By creating the ‘rule’ which excludes the space of the Transit Zone from the space of the nation-state, the normal position of an individual within the nation-state is made regular as well as the wilful suspension of an individual from being inside the nation-state. The reference point of the border becomes a concrete check point at which the individual may be moved from within a nation-state to being suspended outside of any specific nation-state. Or, as the Transit Zone is an internal sealed environment one can invert the words and say the individual is moved from outside the Transit Zone to inside it.
The second act of the multimedia performance work, Jet Lag, created by Diller + Scofidio with The Builders Association in 1998, situates itself within the excluded space of the Transit Zone . The performance explores the separation of the Transit Zone from the normative legal space of the nation-state. It takes as its starting point an event which occurred in the 1960’s. An American grandmother, Sarah Krassnoff, kidnapped her grandson and, in an attempt to elude the child’s father, spent a period of 6 months moving inside the Transit Zone , constantly in transit.
Finally, after flying between Paris and New York 167 times, Krassnoff died on the plane, from jetlag. In Jet Lag the grandmother and grandson take advantage of the statelessness of international travel by existing in an indeterminate zone, illustrating the confusion of being out of a country while standing on its physical territory. The Krassnoff’s were attempting to become if not invisible, untouchable by the nation-state, to avoid the application of national laws to the custody of a minor. By attempting to exist in a space officially not of the state they were attempting to exist in exception to the laws of the state – or at least one law.
The grandmother and grandson compounded the normal state of exclusion by remaining constantly in transit. Their repeated shuttling back and forth between borders demonstrates a paradigm of international air travel as a stationary process, a form of suspension. This is highlighted in the performance by the way the Krassnoff’s do not move through the space, instead the environment created by digital imaging moves and changes behind them.
Sarah Krassnoff utilised the exclusion of the Transit Zone from the nation-state to hide from the state. However in many cases the exclusion space of the airport is used to quarantine and filter undesirable movement. The exclusion space of the Transit Zone is also a confinement space. The individual is fenced inside and the perimeter is guarded so that they can not exit via alternate crossing points outside the conceptual bureaucratic border. Legal exit of the Transit Zone into the nation-state is only possible through the offices of the border control staff. Individuals who enter a nation-state illegally or without documentation stand in a position of non-existence. The nation-state does not recognise such individuals and excludes them from all rights and benefits of inclusion.
In a world dependent upon defined citizenship those who have lost their citizenship are banned from the normative legal space of society. For an individual to be deprived of citizenship, makes them illegitimate everywhere. This unhappy condition is best known in the case of Mehran Karimi Nasseri or “Sir, Alfred” [sic] who, stripped of his Iranian citizenship and loosing his Belgian refugee documents, was stranded in France’s Charles De Gaulle airport in 1988 when attempting to fly to England. Stateless he could not be deported or allowed entry to a nation-state. Although in 1999 the Belgium authorities offered to re-issue his refugee documents he remained in the airport having asserted that he wants citizenship not refugee status. Other stateless individuals have been indefinitely held in detention centres and prisons in various countries including the United States and Australia, but none with so much notoriety. (8)
More and more nation-states are increasing the number of zones where people can be excluded by cutting land out of their recognised migration zones. In addition to the partial exclusion of the space of the airport from its territory, countries such as Australia have excluded fringe territories, such as islands within sovereign waters, for the purposes of forestalling possible refugee claims. The exclusion space of the airport becomes even more extreme in locations such as the detention centre within the airside of the Frankfurt Airport, which holds asylum seekers outside the borders of German sovereign territory. (9)
Carl Schmitt in his text Political Theology argues that western societies’ legal systems, and the conception of the state, are based on religious concepts.
“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, … .” (10)
In this light the systems of border control, citizenship and immigration can indeed be considered theologically, the state is the ‘omnipotent’ body which controls the border. The regulations and requirements for entering a nation-state are set by the state, and adhered to by its representatives. As explained earlier, the right of a state to determine its borders, citizens and entrants is, in contemporary social and political thought, a given. Just as in traditional theological thinking the unbaptised soul can never enter heaven, instead remaining in limbo, in contemporary immigration the individual without citizenship and a visa can never enter the nation-state legally.
Mark Wallinger engages with the secularisation of the theological or inversely the theologising of the secular in his 2000 video work Threshold to the Kingdom. This work situates the Transit Zone as purgatory or limbo and the moment of exiting it as a moment of transcendence. In the video Heathrow Airport functions as the doors to both England and Heaven.
In slow motion the doors between the Transit Zone and the public area swing open, untouched by any hand and arriving passengers walk out, past a seated security guard and into the arrivals area. The soundtrack to the video is Allegri’s hymn of atonement, “Miserere Mei.” On the passengers faces, and in their postures, are the varying emotions of arriving, of exiting the paradox of transit and entering the ‘real world’ again. Or alternately leaving the mundane reality and entering heaven. The profane, the bureaucratic management of entry to the United Kingdom via immigration and customs is compared with the spiritual entry to heaven, regulated by religious laws.
The catalogue text for Wallinger’s exhibition at the 49 th Venice Biennale by Ralph Rugoff, says.
“Imagery of a random dispersal in a profane and soulless environment is somewhat miraculously made to suggest its opposite; in a place characterised by indifference, if not oblivion, Wallinger prompts us to envisage the possibility of mercy and spiritual arrival.” (11)
The act of exiting the Transit Zone is governed by processes of proving identity, asserting intention and innocence, just like entering it. Ones luggage is rescanned, ones identity documents inspected. And given the every increasing security procedures, entry to and exit from the Transit Zone is becoming more and more complex. Refugee claimants, people with suspect documents, or suspected luggage are detained from the exit gate, are not allowed redemption or movement.
In island nations such as New Zealand and Australia the micro-border of the airport has become the dominant border image. Almost all international passenger travel occurs by aeroplane. In this 2006 work by myself, Consummation, the border icon of the immigration processing desks shuttle before our eyes, the separation marked by a thin line. We stand suspended on one side of the line. The visual simplicity, and openness of the border does not stop it from being a solid fence weighted down with the juristic premises of legal movement. As relocatable and arbitrary as it is, the conceptual micro-border is set in law and administered according to regulations. The simple strength of a line determining the inside from the outside, and a decision made by a government employee, can not be underestimated in our contemporary legal, social and visual culture.
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