The Transit Zone : Excluded Space and Art  

At the beginning of "Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben" The Use and Abuse of History Nietzsche says "I have tried to describe a feeling that has often troubled me: I revenge myself on it by giving it publicity." 1 These simple words can be used to explain why I have spent almost three years now exploring what I call the Transit Zone. An overarching frame work which positions contemporary international air travel within a separated space, bounded by a conceptual and bureaucratic border, and housed within the architecture of airports and aeroplanes. This space is excluded from the external environment, and through its mechanisms and spaces creates an experience of transit rather than of travel. People I talk to, who have flown internationally, commonly identify the experience as problematic, a strange combination of boring, exciting, aggravating, exposing, fearful and   interminable. The Transit Zone creates its own reality through control of access, identity, vision and space, both in the airport and air. It contains it's own time and spatial dynamic, which shape the passengers' experience. It exists between borders, outside of any nation-state.

This article looks at how architectural spaces express attitudes towards international air travel on a nation-state and city level. It will also explore how individual public artworks with the Transit Zone critically engage with its mechanisms and the individuals experiences. Like Nietzsche I revenge myself on the systems of international air travel by exposing them. And to do this I utilise some the many artists who have likewise explored and exposed these concerns.

Throughout this talk I will transpose Nietzsche's framework from the book The Use and Abuse of History onto public art practices within the context of the Transit Zone . In my use of Nietzsche to discuss public art I must acknowledge my debt to Paul Usherwood's 2004 essay Public Art and Collective Amnesia .  

Nietzsche argued that history fulfils different needs in an individual's life "in relation to his action and struggle, his conservatism and reverence, his suffering and his desire for deliverance." 2 He was revenging himself on what he saw as a destructive obsession with history in Germany in the late 1800's. In translating his arguments to both public art and international air travel I am expressing concerns that there is a destructive obsession with international movement in life and art, that can be examined through airports, aeroplanes, border and art. However simultaneously, perhaps destructively, I embrace and enjoy international movement in life and art.

Rephrasing Nietzsche's words we can say public art and/or international air travel fulfil different needs in relation to a nation-state's or individual's action and struggle, conservatism and reverence, or suffering and desire for deliverance. From these needs Nietzsche defined three types of methodology or form: "the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical." 3 These three forms will be utilised in my talk to discuss different aspects of public art and international air travel. The 'monumental' can be defined as that which seeks out the great moments, tragic or triumphant, creating a use of history that is inspirational. History that proclaims, and I quote "that the great thing existed and was therefore possible, and so may be possible again." 4

The monument celebrates the location, the people and the values connected with the place. Airports perform a similar   function. They speak to the status of the city and country that hosts the airport. They represent the economic and political situation which allows for travel and they celebrate the inspiration of flight both romantically and technologically.

Airport terminals such as the TWA terminal built in 1961 at New York's JKF International Airport with it 'space age' design, although obsolete in practical terms, are iconic architectural forms and act as monuments to the history of aviation. The TWA terminal has been retained as a functional monument and the centrepiece of the new redeveloped JetBlue terminal at the JFK Airport which ill be completed in 2008. Airport architecture is inherently monumental with vast atriums and viewing windows. The new terminal at JFK will swallow the old 1960's terminal inside its structure. The monumental size of an airport which handles long distance flights is not surprising given that a Boeing 747 has a wing span of 59.63 metres, is 70.66 metres long and stands 19.33 metres high, with the recently introduced Airbus A380 reaching even greater sizes, 5

Indeed the aeroplane is larger than many buildings. The architect Lord Norman Foster, when asked what his favourite architectural work was, named the aeroplane saying: "It has extraordinary presence. (...) I suppose it's the grandeur, the scale; it's heroic, it's also pure sculpture - " 6 The aeroplane itself can embody the action and struggle of a people and nation-state to be both respected and able to access the world. A 1979 history of flight titled Diamonds in the Sky said, and I quote, "The landing of Air India International's constellation at Heathrow on 9 June 1948, to inaugurate its Bombay-London service, was much more than a mere commercial flight. It was a symbol of the fact that the new Indian state had, in more senses than one, arrived." 7 In the panic that followed the events of September 11 2001 many nation-states financially supported their privatised national airlines rather than allow them to go out of business.

The airport also functions as a symbol of nation-state and civic pride. Norman Foster, who has designed three airports Stansted in London, Hong Kong International Airport, and the almost complete Beijing International Airport 8 said, of the Beijing International Airport, "It will be welcoming and uplifting. A symbol of place, its soaring aerodynamic roof and dragon-like form will celebrate the thrill and poetry of flight and evoke traditional Chinese colours and symbols." 9 The airport functions as a symbol of international interaction and is site which is used by nations and cities to declare their stake in the global economy. The new Beijing Airport terminal, when completed will make Beijing International airport the worlds largest airport, Although it may not remain so for long. China is engaged in asserting its place as major player in the world, not just economically but culturally, with the upcoming 2008 Olympic games. A showcase airport is part of constructing an image of a modern, international, open society. To be without an international airport, or airline is to be isolated from the global economy, and be seen as closed and parochial, and hence major cities invest in them.  

Architects are expected to create terminals which unify all the functions both practical and symbolic. They provide clear routes through the airport, and form spectacular gateways to their cities, while still providing for the functional and security necessities of an airport. Nietzsche warns, of the monumental perspective that it "will never be able to have complete truth; it will always bring things together that are incompatible and generalize them into compatibility, will always weaken the differences of motive and occasion. Its object is to depict effects at the expense of causes - 'monumentally'" 10

This analysis of monumentality can be taken as an accurate description of how airports function. They unify the diverse requirements of nation-states, cities, airlines, retailers, passengers, and corporate bodies, to effect the processes of air travel. The processes of international air travel are based on a logic of exclusion and immanent disaster. While flight purports to be democratic, it privileges citizens of richer nations above those of poorer. The endeavour to control immigration and the fear of sabotage and terrorism has led to racial and ethnic profiling. Inside the monument the individual and their belongings are scrutinised and their body identity fixed according to government issued documentation. The freedom and achievement of air travel that the airports celebrate encloses a controlled location where the passenger is separated from the outside world and held physically and conceptually within an excluded space. The association of airports and airlines with national identity and politics has created a target for protest both peaceful and violent.

To distract the contemporary passenger from the security processes and control mechanisms of the airport the airport uses entertainment, and shopping options. The contemporary airport experience is all about distraction, keeping the individual on the surface of an experience, distracted from waiting. Separation from the habits and routines of everyday life can be liberating or confronting. The scale of the space, the stresses of flying and the obsessive scrutiny have different effects on individuals. In 1987 psychiatrist E. Graham Lucas wrote of air travel: "In short, every conceivable environmental stress is exaggerated at a time of maximum vulnerability when basic personality traits such as anxiety, aggression, obsessionality, and irritability can all be caricatured." 11

Public art is used as a form of distraction and a method to change problematic spaces. Within public art practice as a whole there exists the sub genre of public art for the purpose of beautifying, enlivening, or entertaining. Public art whose mission is to make people feel good. 12 The problem with this is that such work is conservative, and unambitious and results in art that occupies space rather than genuinely interacting with the given public and politics of the site. The work does not challenge, nor does it inspire, it only preserves the status quo.

Nietzsche describes this kind of practice as 'antiquarian,' a form of history, or in this case, art which "invokes the past not for any ennobling or educative purpose but simply to provide amusement and interest." 13 As with the monumental this relates to specific needs and does have its place, when not created to excess and in exclusion of more critical dialogues.   Both art and travel that entertain are positive experiences. Quoting but changing Nietzsche I argue that "The fact that life does need the service of history (or in my case art or travel) must be as clearly grasped as that an excess of history (or art or travel) hurts it." 14

Art commissioned by airports tends to fall within the realm of the antiquarian, for a variety of reasons, which are not that different from other public art sites. As is demonstrated by Denver International Airports exhibition program policy statement, airport art commissioning criteria and processes tend to be conservative, orientated towards diverting and entertaining the passengers.

"The DIA Art Exhibition Program entertains and informs passengers and airport visitors by providing a diversion from what can be a stressful time. The exhibits are engaging, aesthetically pleasing and enlightening to visitors, thereby enhancing their experience at DIA. (...) The subject matter of the exhibitions must be appropriate for viewing in an airport venue. In keeping with the Airport's mission statement, DIA does not accept for display political statements, nudity, lewd or pornographic depictions, violent or menacing images, weapons, ethnic slurs or any controversial materials that could make airline passengers apprehensive about flying." 15

The difficulty with a policy that does not accept political statements or controversial materials, is that it leaves very little room for a critical engagement with the site of the Transit Zone . particularly as this would involve questioning the system through which the passenger is in transit. To ensure smooth running of the Transit Zone critical engagement with it is primarily avoided within the public art works commissioned for it.

The spaces of the airport and aeroplane are designed to create a passive passenger. The individual is transformed into a unit of movement. The airport is a movement processing machine, which directs the passengers through its spaces to the aeroplane (and back out). It channels the flow of passengers through both control and retail spaces. Clear routes are created which separate departing from arriving passengers and minimise the choices that need to be made. Regarding air travel psychologist Robert Bor says :

"Almost every aspect of the experience reinforces a sense of lack of control: we queue, wait, have to check in, are separated from luggage, may be delayed, are told when we are to be seated and when we may leave our seats, and so on." 16

Nietzsche says, of the necessity for criticality "Man must have the strength to break up the past, and apply it, too, in order to live. He must bring the past to the bar of judgement, interrogate it remorselessly, and finally condemn it." 17 Or in the case of public art it should interrogate the given public, the politics and the site.

In the remaining time I will briefly discuss two such works that can be found in the Transit Zone . Both works have been selected from   the recent Toronto Pearson International Airport upgrade. Pearson International Airport's art commissioning body deliberately avoided artwork that engaged the 'local boosterism' common in airports. They stated that "The art wasn't designed to represent Toronto. It was designed to say we are part of the global aviation fabric, we are a major player on the global scene, and what you'll experience here is art in support of aviation, not art in support of a community or province or even a country." 18 Pearson International   Airport, through   asserting itself as international site, both located itself as a global player and reinforced the positioning of the Transit Zone as a separated space outside the nation-state.

Richard Serra's work Tilted Spheres was completed in 2004 and currently stands in the shell of the terminal Hammerhead F. The work is so large that walls of the terminal need to be built around it. As with many of Serra's works the abstract form gains political and conceptual direction through intervening with the architecture of the airport. Tilted Spheres will be experienced through motion, as an act of approach and passage. The Terminal's passengers descend an escalator from a mezzanine, whose floor sits just above the height of the sculpture, creating an initial perspective from above. Once at the bottom they can pass through the centre or sides of the Tilted Spheres. In this way the work will be viewed first as a plan, a double walled, open ended oval and second as a sculptural space.

As Yve-Alain Bois, discussed in "A Picturesque Stroll around Clara Clara," a plan view of Serra's work can never convey the actual visceral experience of passing through the work. Likewise looking at an airport plan does not accurately invoke the scale, time spent, and experience of passing through it. Nor does the intellectual knowledge of a flight duration prepare the passenger for the experience of it. With Tilted Spheres a visual understanding of a double walled oval in plan from above will be overset by the experience of the work leaning over the person at ground level, disturbing their sense of space and balance.

This work, like Richard Serra's other sculptures creates a relationship between the body of the viewer, the sculpture and the site. The sculptures overwhelm the viewer through scale, towering above them, and are experienced through the movement of the viewer through the site and around the work. The weight, scale and perspective of his works cut the sites they occupy, using sculptural space to critique the architectural space they are within.

With Tilted Spheres you walk in at one end and travel through it visually separated from the surrounding space. The walls create a void to be traversed. The solidity   and weight of the rolled steel sheets making up Titled Spheres express an enclosure that over-arcing windows with views and light filled space of the airport deliberately denies.

The solidity of the walls can be compared to the security and immigration proceedings the passenger has just run, and will run upon arrival at their final destination are the entry and exit points to the nation-state. Every passenger must submit to inspection and assert their innocence.   Just as some will find it easier to walk through Serra's work than others so does state-control over movement fall lightly or firmly on different individuals.

At the other end of a journey, in the baggage claim hall Jaume Plensa's work for As One... can be found. Plensa's work is made of 130 metres of neon tubing, spelling out one 'super word' made up of the words "Asia," "Africa," "Oceania," "Europe" and "Americas." Departure and arrival continents are displayed and reconstituted in a letter jumble, the full word containing all the continents. Individual letters illuminate in combinations that spell out incomprehensible words, or alternatively new locations. Plensa takes the original state of the continents, as one land mass which separated, "the Pangaea of 200 million years ago" and recombines them. 19

His textual recombination of the world's geography parallels the way that the Transit Zone springs from the texts of international conventions realised in the laws of each nation-state. These laws codify the exclusion of the Transit Zone from the site of the nation-state and through their articulation in flight create the paradoxical geography of international air travel. It 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. While the aeroplane passes above geographical locations and through sovereign airspaces, the inside of the aeroplane is nowhere. The passenger is in transition, sitting still waiting to be reintegrated. Until they are reintegrated into the nation-state they are in limbo. At baggage claim the passenger is suspended on the threshold, accepted through immigration control, but not yet reintegrated into the geographical location. Geography is warped by the conceptual and legal construction of the border to the point that the same space of the airport can be occupied by people firmly located in the nation-state (airport staff) and people located outside it in transit (passengers and airline staff). Movement from one place to another is only realised when we arrive.

In addition to the creation of a separated space outside of geography, international air travel has reprioritised locations. In the current world of instantaneous communication, virtual communities and international air travel the continents are being recombined. Not through continental drift, geological movement, but through technology and the erosion of kilometre-distance by time-distance. 20 How long it takes to get somewhere is more important than the distance travelled. Geography is prioritised by airport size, a city that hosts a flight interchange or hub is closer to another hub than a location with no onward flights. Just as shipping routes historically determined the importance of harbour cities now the placement of an airline hub does.

Airports and planes represent contradictory realities. They are monuments to modernity, freedom of movement, economic development and global society. But they are also spaces of government control, exclusion,   psychological stress and the limbo of transit. The idealistic dream of air travel embodied by the TWA terminal at the JFK airport, has changed into a mundane reality informed by fear of the next disaster. One part of society consumes movement where the other parts are trapped in one place. It has become so usual for many of us to inhabit these zones that we forget to consider the implications of them. International air travel is used by individuals in action and struggle, conservatism and reverence and in relation to suffering and desire for deliverance. It can be celebrated, and used as a distraction but it must also be critiqued.

In Nietzsche's words "we need it for life and action, not as a convenient way to avoid life and action," 21 In accepting international air travel without critique we accept all the attendant controls, restrictions, and attitudes of which I have mentioned a few. Serra's Tilted Arc and Plensa's As One... introduce critique into the internal spaces of transit, endeavouring to do more than distract us from our experiences. These works engage with the passengers, requiring them to be aware of their suspended and passive state, their contribution to the rewriting of geography and their submission to nation-state control. Simultaneously they require the passenger to consider the monumentality and excitement of   international air travel and its transformative possibilities. Likewise my presentation today asks you to be aware of the impacts and excitements hidden within the mundanity of transit

1Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (Vom Nutzen Und Nachteil Der Historie Fuer Das Leben, 1874). pp 3

2 ibid pp 12


4Ibid. pp 14

5 Wingspan 79.8m, length 73m, height 24.1m. Airbus Aircraft Families (2006 [cited 20 March 2006]); available from

6Norman Foster. "Boeing 747 : Joseph F Sutter." In Building Sights, edited by Ruth Rosenthal and Maggie   Toy, 52 - 55. London: Academy Editions, 1995.

7Kenneth Hudson. Diamonds in the Sky : A Social History of Air Travel. London: Bodley Head : British Broadcasting Corp., 1979. pp 60

8 Beijing International Airport is under construction at the time of writing.

9Norman Foster, Catalogue: Foster and Partners. pp 54

10Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (Vom Nutzen Und Nachteil Der Historie Fuer Das Leben, 1874). pp 15

11 E. Graham Lucas, "Psychological Aspects of Travel," Travel Medicine International   (1987). pp 99

12 Patricia C. Phillips, "Out of Order : The Public Art Machine," Artforum December (1988). pp 93

13Usherwood, "Public Art and Collective Amnesia." pp 122

14 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (Vom Nutzen Und Nachteil Der Historie Fuer Das Leben, 1874), trans. Adrian Collins, Second (Revised) ed. (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1957). pp 12

15DIA Denver International Airport, About Dia - Art Program Policy (2005 [cited 14 November 2005]); available from

16Robert Bor, Anxiety at 35,000 Feet : An Introduction to Clinical Aerospace Psychology (London: Karnac, 2004).

17Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (Vom Nutzen Und Nachteil Der Historie Fuer Das Leben, 1874). pp 20 -21

18 Andrew Blum, "The White Zone Is for Loading and Unloading Art," The New York Times, March 28 2004. quoting Louis A. Turpin, president and chief executive officer of the GTAA

19Jaume Plensa : Recent Public Installations (Richard Gray Gallery,   2005 [cited 29 November 2005]); available from . Pangaea refers to A hypothetical supercontinent that included all the landmasses of the earth before the Triassic Period. When continental drift began, Pangaea broke up into Laurasia and Gondwanaland.

20 Paul Virilio argued that human beings have shifted from determining distance by geographical terms to determining distance by time.   With electronic communication distance is erased, creating the instantaneous connection of two or more disparate places. With air travel and bullet trains physical distance is eroded and measured by the time it takes to reach a certain point, not how many kilometres away it is. Major cities connected by fast transport methods are more quickly travelled to than closer destinations connected by slower methods. Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

21Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (Vom Nutzen Und Nachteil Der Historie Fuer Das Leben, 1874). pp 3