On Wednesday Nov. 8th, 6:30-7:30pm, at DiverseWorks, we held an open forum called “Extraterratorial Sites & Persons”, an Artist & Community Roundtable. It was moderated by DiverseWorks Exec. Dir., Xandra Eden and myself. We invited a number of artist that were willing to accept questions from us about that artist's position in society/communities and artist concepts of extraterritoriality and citizenship. The following is the transcript of my delivered remarks about the subject of “extraterritorial” artworks and artists.: ...............................................................................................
Why Extraterritoriality? One of the major concepts of the show is how artists test, challenge, reimagine, disrupt, and question received notions of borders and boundaries particularly in the context of nationality-nationalism, immigration-emigration, equity-inequality of power relations and basic human rights. Extraterritoriality in its strict, historic definition refers the state of exemption of local laws or jurisdiction that are applied to specific sites or individuals where competing national and international interests meet. For example these can be places like embassies, foreign missions, military bases or ships, the UN and to people like diplomats, government officials or workers, or personnel from the armed forces. Extraterritoriality can come from bi-national agreements, treaties, diplomatic negotiations.
Extraterritorial places are where contiguous nations lie next to each, such as land borders or when they share international waters or even the earth’s atmosphere. They can become Extraterritorial zones, such as the border of the US and Mexico. They can be Special Economic Zones. The border becomes the border landscape enveloping counties, cities, municipios, state governments; the people and populations, businesses and homes and the multi-varied authorities, laws, governance mechanisms that exists within the zones. They become places with their own customs, norms, general practices and laws.
Extraterritoriality can extend to the places that juxtapose, overlap, reside in the same place which at times conflict. But let us consider other kinds places that have their own rules, norms. Shouldn’t we consider the spaces of art and artists with their own “states of exception” for imagination? They can be neutral spaces, within the normal public zones, such as the museum, parks and art institutions. But they can be places that suspend, or conflict, challenge traditional norms and rules and establish new types of communities. These can be the private galleries, the art spaces, alternative art venues, artist run projects spaces, installations and even the artist studio. They become the artist extraterritorial space. Like the traditional definitions of extraterritoriality, they also involve communities, transnational communications, with transcultural exchanges which can happen on borders and border zones. Artists, however, have created their own special kind of extraterritorial zones.
During my conversation with Michael Galbreth, one half of the Art Guys, Michael said to me, and a paraphrase: “Territory is how humans organize themselves and establish rules for behavior. Its binds the people in the spaces and places they live. Its called politics: organization of human behavior with agreed upon codified rules and laws. It is traditionally tied to territory. However, people interpret laws and codes which tend to restrict. And artists, like any other citizen, wants to explore the borders and beyond that territory. They want to travel and see other spaces.”
Michael then adds, “extraterritoriality also becomes a framework for thinking, with the “frame” as the context and the border of the ideas and art. As artists we are constantly perforating that frame, exploring around it and exploring outside to the other territories both conceptually and physically. Artist do a very good job of materializing the space. You can touch, smell, feel, taste and become part of it.”
The physical manifestations of “extraterritorial art spaces” develop their own rules and norms. These rules are part and parcel of the artist prerogatives and unique skills sets, such as: a place for having senses, thought, imagination; a place for you to emote freely and beneficially without coercion; a place where you can affiliate, collaborate and becomes friends with people that are not like yourself; and most importantly to have the space to Play. When artists experiment with new norms in those spaces for themselves and their communities it perhaps can provide the chance for many citizens to be part of and enjoy an art extraterritorial space. Perhaps this becomes an example where the rules, codes, and norms are “internal” just as much as they are external.
Though some of these extraterritorial art spaces may already have embedded societies, they also develop new communities, while being inclusive to outside and incoming groups. While these, sometimes, neutral spaces exist inside the prevalent, normal, traditional, public territory, they reach out and move outside the “frame” in the direction towards the general public and community service organizations, not just art organizations. It is outside of those spaces or here (in the self-made extraterritoriality) that artists can find themselves having another kind of role in society rather than just the author or arbiter of aesthetics.
So what about extraterritorial persons/artist? Many artists can move freely around and outside the “frame” as Michael put it, to explore other extraterritorial spaces. Ideas of internal and external spaces are occupied intuitively and the inclination to slip and cross borders while existing in undefined spaces is continually explored artistically. The “extraterritorial persons/artist” may be born in one country but work globally around the themes of borders and border spaces, for example,:
Alfredo Jaar, born in Chile, lives in New York, but works internationally, explores the sociopolitical division that result from globalization. In 2000 he created the art project called THE CLOUD: a performance that took place at the border of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California consisting of classical music soloists accompanying the release of three thousand white balloons that symbolize the people who lost their lives trying to cross the US and Mexico border, known as “la frontera”, over that decade.
Francis Alys, a Belgian born artist who is based in Mexico, explores spatial and social realties such as national borders with ideas about localism and globalism, in areas of conflict and community. With his art piece called “Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River”, he organized a line of kids from the Spanish side and the Moroccan side of the Straits of Gibraltar (the ocean border and narrowest point between Europe to Africa). He had them walk single file into the sea with a boat made from a shoe, they formed an imaginary bridge swimming towards each other shores and so they could meet in the horizon. It was a way to illustrate the contradiction of promoting the global economy while limiting global migration.
One of the artists in our show Mariam Ghani, researches spaces and places where social, political and cultural structures take tangible forms. Though she works on projects in Afghanistan, her family’s country of origin, here at DiverseWorks she exhibits her video “The City & The City” a video narrative of the book of the same title by China Mieville. Her video however follows the geography and the division of St. Louis, MO, as a liminal spaces within the city. This was done at the same time after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, just outside of St. Louis, in 2015.
To bring the conversation back to where we are, in this circle of people within an alternative art gallery; an extraterritorial gathering within the extraterritorial art space which is separate, but part of the traditional territory of Houston, we want to talk about the role of artists in society and how extraterritorial art spaces and artist can work beyond our “frame”.