GEOPOLITICAL TENSIONS AND PROBLEMATICS OF EXHIBITING: EXTERRITORY PROJECT

 by Sascha Crasnow*

Geopolitical tension pervades the Israel/Palestine region. Within the art world, this strife dictates the who, where, and how of exhibition practice. Since the 2004 launch of the Cultural Boycott of Israel, many Palestinian and Arab (as well as other international) artists refuse to exhibit their work in Israeli institutions or at events coordinated and run by Israeli organizations. These conditions present a significant challenge for Israeli cultural practitioners trying to put together exhibitions or events with an inclusive international roster of artists without having participants effectively abandon their opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories—a stance that may be shared by the organizers themselves.  One innovative solution is to seek out extraterritorial spaces in which to display the work of Palestinian and Arab artists (as well as other artists in zones of conflict). Exterritory Project, conceived in 2009 by Israeli artists Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, provides one such model. For Sela and Amir, these spaces provide “new meeting points positioned outside the boundaries of any clearly defined place which have the potential to evade the imposition of any specific ideology or language.”[1] Further, extraterritoriality is defined as “the condition of being considered outside the territory of the state in which (a person) resides, and therefore of not being amenable to its laws.”[2] This essay presents Exterritory Project as an attempt to evade the juridical and geopolitical confines of the boycott, and, by extension the geopolitical conditions of any particular nation.

Initiated in Ramallah in 2004, The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel asked the international community to:

comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions until Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugee rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid.[3]

According to its guidelines, the cultural boycott includes projects or events “commissioned by an official Israeli body or non-Israeli institution that serves Brand Israel or similar propaganda purposes.”[4] The “Brand Israel” campaign promotes a positive image of Israel internationally through cultural programming, such as food and music festivals featuring Israeli products and performers.[5]  As with most state-sponsored propaganda, it seeks to replace the negative associations held by the international community toward Israeli policy with positive cultural associations (for example, the idea of the occupation supplanted by a lingering memory of delicious falafel).

Moreover, guidelines stipulate that the boycott extends to projects or events that are “partially or fully sponsored or funded by an official Israeli body or a complicit institution,” and those that “promote false symmetry or ‘balance’ […] between the ‘two sides’ in presenting their respective narratives […] based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the ‘conflict.’”[6] Any project or event that includes both Israelis and Palestinians must acknowledge where each is situated within the conflict (occupier and occupied), and must not attempt to portray a sympathetic view of the Israeli occupation as a counter-narrative to that of the Palestinians. In other words, all such projects must acknowledge the occupier/occupied relationship, as even the desire to achieve a kind of “balance” would necessarily be unbalanced.

Since the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 and the ejection of Palestinian residents from the new country, the Israeli state has continued to expand and expel. During the Six Day War of 1967, East Jerusalem was annexed and the Golan Heights region was captured. Continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the construction of the “security fence” barrier wall violate the boundaries demarcated by the Green Line—the border established by the 1949 Armistice Agreement following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.[7] Participation in Israel’s cultural system within these contested boundaries may be considered not only an affirmation of the State of Israel and but also a legitimization of its actions as occupier.[8] Consequently, many artists refuse to exhibit their work both within the disputed territory and Israel’s institutional framework.

Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir initiated the Exterritory Project in 2009 to coincide with the Tel Aviv International Biennial (Art TLV 09). The project aimed to exhibit the work of Palestinian and other Arab artists and stage a series of discussions among an international group of cultural practitioners (such as curators and writers) outside the national boundaries of any country, in order to enable participation while honoring the boycott. Naturally, such an exhibition could not have taken place at any of the Israeli sites hosting the Biennial; Sela and Amir looked for a space without national ties, where they could screen videos by artists from throughout the Middle East that responded to the questions of boundaries and hyper-national claims central to their own artistic practice.[9] By situating the exhibition in such a space, the project refuted the practice of categorizing artists by nationality and encouraged critical examination of the promotion of nationalism ingrained in the art world.[10]  As Sela and Amir explain, they were “searching for a location to screen a video compilation […] which articulated these questions in a neutral space, unsaturated by any national preconditions.”[11]

Sela and Amir located the screenings in the international waters off the coast of Tel Aviv. Their statement explains, “the exterritorial waters, a space located only 11 kilometers from the shore, served as an autonomic area that can bypass laws of territory and can allow at least temporarily the postponement of arbitrary stipulations.”[12]  Within this nautical space Sela and Amir projected the video series entitled Wild West —comprising the work of artists from throughout the Middle East—onto the sails of a boat, viewed by both spectators onshore and those who ventured out into the waters on inner tubes, boats, and other flotation devices. They were also successful in leading a series of discussions about national identification and geopolitical borders, particularly with regard to the difficulties surrounding the presentation and dissemination of artwork.

Ruti Sela & Maayan Amir, Exterritory Project, 2010

Ruti Sela & Maayan Amir, Exterritory Project, 2010

The Exterritory Project boat was privately donated and the project was not funded by any national sources.[13] Sela noted, “We found no financing for the project, which is a good sign because it means it’s not serving anyone’s interest.”[14] However, despite the removal of geographical and financial ties (and thereby obligations) to national interests, Sela and Amir were unable to foster a completely protected neutral zone, evidenced by the fact that they could not release the names of the Palestinian and Arab artists who participated in Wild West, due to fears that this would create problems for them in the regions in which they live their daily lives.[15] Though the project took place outside the State of Israel, as the boat set sail from Israel, the organizers were Israeli, and the project ran parallel to the Tel Aviv Biennial, participation in the project—though not a violation of the boycott—could easily mar an artist’s reputation and affect their ability to continue to exhibit and make a living in his or her own country. (The names of some of the Israeli artists who participated were published, including Keren Cutter, Sharon Zargari, and Shay-Lee Uziel.)

The geopolitical challenges of exhibition practice were addressed in the discussions that took place on the boat among cultural practitioners including Paul Schimmel, then Chief Curator of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; independent curator Manon Slome; Ruba Katrib, then Associate Curator of the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art (and now Curator at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City); Galit Eilat, Director of the Israeli Center for Digital Art; and Lisa Freiman, Senior Curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Eilat, for example, shared the experience of Palestinian artist Jumana Emil Abboud, whose work, owned by the Herzliya Museum in Israel, was exhibited without her knowledge or consent in a collections show in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Israel. Abboud was very upset that she had been unwittingly implicated in such a celebration.[16]

The following year, Sela and Amir launched the second iteration of Exterritory. This time, three boats left the shores of Israel and made their way to Cyprus; in the exterritorial waters of the Mediterranean, more than 50 artworks and curated programs examined the notion of exterritoriality via various media, including performance, sound, installation, and video.[17] Mirelle Borra’s video Walls of Separation, part of a series organized by independent curator Chen Tamir, was fueled by the Dutch artist’s frustrations with her visa while living in the United States. Borra began to consider the restrictions to mobility placed on all of us—“some more than others,” the artist notes.[18] She traveled to and photographed boundaries throughout the world: the West Bank barrier wall between Israel and Palestine, the Tortilla wall between Mexico and the United States, the Peace Lines in Belfast, and the Berlin Wall.[19] These photographs served as material for her video. For another project in Tamir’s series, the curator invited three artists to create editioned artworks to be thrown overboard in bottles in hope of reaching someone on the nearby coasts of Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, or Israel.[20]  Tamir aimed to make accessible the works of these artists (whose nationalities are not identified) to an audience that would likely otherwise not see them, and to enable dialogues limited by geopolitical restrictions to travel.  Tamir’s ambition, however, functions largely as a symbolic gesture: even if the work were to reach someone who would not otherwise have seen it due to geopolitical restrictions, the exposure would end there. Facilitating such an international exchange more formally—in an exhibition, for example—would be confronted by the geopolitical restrictions that exist between these countries. This “message in a bottle” method of communication conjures the image of shipwrecked castaways isolated on an island. Tamir’s project is thus perhaps best understood as an emblematic call for communication among nations.

The next installment of the Exterritory Project is slated to take place in the Salt Desert on the border between India and Pakistan in January 2013. As part of their continued investigation of geopolitical conflict zones and international artistic exchange, Sela and Amir are currently putting together a book on extraterritorial epistemologies. The artists describe the book as a “collection of essays on extraterritoriality and a series of interventions which explore the implications of new advanced technologies that in varied ways attempt to provoke new understandings of extraterritorialities.”[21] As examples abound of global exploitation of territory in order to expand power, elude legal jurisdiction, and violate rights (Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, tax havens, maritime boundary disputes over resources), artistic practice such as that of Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir work to produce spaces of international cooperation and exchange.

*Sascha Crasnow is a second-year doctoral candidate in Art History, Theory & Criticism at the University of California San Diego. 


[1] “About,” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel, accessed October 28, 2012, http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=868.

[2] “Exterritoriality,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed October 28, 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/67012#eid4857558.

[3] “History,” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel, accessed October 21, 2012, http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=868.

[4] “PACBI Guidelines for the International Cultural Boycott of Israel (Revised October 2010),” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel, accessed October 21, 2012, http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1047.

[5] Sarah Schulman, “A documentary guide to Brand Israel and the art of pinkwashing,” Mondoweiss, November 30, 2011, accessed October 28, 2012, http://mondoweiss.net/2011/11/a-documentary-guide-to-brand-israel-and-the-art-of-pinkwashing.html. This lengthier treatment of the history of “Brand Israel” was written as a follow-up to Schulman’s op-ed in the New York Times on November 23, 2011, which focused specifically on how “Brand Israel” had targeted its appeal to the gay community.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Full text of the agreement, which was made with Jordan, which controlled the West Bank at that time, is available here: http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/F03D55E48F77AB698525643B00608D34.

[8] The notion of legitimizing a government comes from Max Weber: Wolfgang J. Mommsen, The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber: Collected Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992): 46-47. However, while Weber’s discussion focuses on ways that the government legitimizes itself in the eyes of the people, in this instance, I am looking at how the actions of an oppressed people (Palestinians) could be considered an acceptance of the legitimacy of the oppressing government.

[9] “Background,” Exterritory Project, accessed October 21, 2012, http://exterritory.wordpress.com/background/.

[10] Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, e-mail message to author, October 28, 2012. Paul Schimmel addresses this practice with regard to the national pavilions that make up international biennials, in one of the conversations that took place on the Exterritory Project boats. Clips of these conversations, as well as those from some later events, can be viewed at: http://exterritory.wordpress.com/video/.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Charmaine Picard, “Politically sensitive art to be exhibited at sea,” The Art Newspaper, September 1, 2009, accessed October 13, 2012, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Politically-sensitive-art-to-be-exhibited-at-sea/18701.

[14] Alice Pfeiffer, “Artists Investigate Identity and Boundaries in Extraterritorial Waters,” The New York Times, June 22, 2011, accessed October 13, 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/23/world/middleeast/23iht-M23C-EXTERRITORY.html?_r=1.

[15] Hili Perlson, “Internationalism and Insularity in Tel-Aviv,” Art in America, September 17, 2009, accessed October 16, 2012, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/news/2009-09-16/art-tlv/.

[16] Clips of these conversations, as well as those from some later events, can be viewed at: http://exterritory.wordpress.com/video/.

[17] “Events,” Exterritory Project, accessed October 13, 2012, http://exterritory.wordpress.com/events/.

[18] “Mirelle Borra, ‘Walls of Separation,’” Vimeo: Crowdbooks Publishing, accessed October 21, 2012, http://vimeo.com/37583872.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Chen Tamir/Ex-Territory,” Chen Tamir, accessed October 21, 2012, http://chentamir.com/exterritory.html. As noted on her site, “the bottles and their contents were biodegradable.”

[21] Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, e-mail to the author, October 28, 2012.