Atlántica # 58

In the summer of 2015, the Center of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv held an exhibition by Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir devoted to portions of an ongoing collaborative art project that they call Exterritory. The exhibition, entitled Image Blockade, received little attention in the local media. This article seeks to expand the theoretical discussion surrounding it, the concepts formulated in it, and the joint research carried out by the artists.

Amir and Sela have been collaborating on Exterritory since 2009. As they put it, “The project is dedicated to theoretical, practical, and interdisciplinary examination of ‘exterritoriality,’ i.e., of the exclusion or exemption from the laws of the legal system within a designated place. The project examines the notion of exterritoriality as a tool for the critique of power structures and for reimagining practical, conceptual, and poetic possibilities.”1

Through various collaborations, workshops, and actions, Sela and Amir have formulated new and distinct conceptualizations that define the notion of “exterritoriality” as a prism for the critical examination of different underlying power systems. Not surprisingly, the project initially addressed spatial and territorial questions, but as I will demonstrate in this essay, it was expanded to include visual and even biological and mental questions. In fact, the idea of exterritoriality, which one might expect to focus on a certain physical domain, extends beyond the examination of particular objects or tangible territories, and can also be applied to abstract spaces, images, and ideas. Over the last five years, their work has been devoted to formulating the term “exterritorial image.” A book presenting their research is scheduled to be published in 2017.2

One of the two video works featured in the exhibition Image Blockade is entitled Scenarios Preparations. This documentary piece opens with an introduction and preparatory meeting, while the title on the screen reads: “Netherlands, Utrecht, training for the flotilla.” The participants introduce themselves, their occupation, and their previous associations with and knowledge of the Middle East and human rights organizations. They come from diverse backgrounds, and their degree of familiarity and involvement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict varies widely. Gradually the viewer realizes that the participants are about to embark on the Marmara flotilla to Gaza, and that he is watching a preparatory meeting arranged by the humanitarian flotilla’s organizers, which the artists joined and documented.

The participants are asked to explain why they chose to join this journey, which promises to be complicated and in all likelihood dangerous. The conversation affords them an opportunity to open up to one another, establishing the basis for the mutual trust that they wish to engender, a trust that will be critical to the success of the mission for which they have volunteered.

The group includes people of different nationalities, ages, and backgrounds, yet all choose to participate in the journey for humanitarian or journalistic reasons. Of course, “journalistic” reasons — revolving around the publication of the story and the images and experiences that it entails — to a large degree also have humanitarian value, by bringing the events to the attention of the world. Through rapid cuts and fast camera movements we get to know each of the participants. At the beginning of the meeting, one of the organizers warns that, immediately after the ship sets sail, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) will track it and monitor all communication to and from the vessel.

The documentary sequence that follows features a woman who says she used to run a theatre in the West Bank. She isn’t joining the flotilla, but is there to give an improvisation workshop in which participants are asked to imagine themselves in the shoes of different individuals who live in the target area and were forced reluctantly into the conflict. According to this facilitator, the objective of the workshop is for the participants to imagine themselves as someone on the other side, thereby instilling in them the fact that they are all human beings and “normal people.” The workshop adds another layer to the participants’ exposure and to the relative vulnerability that they are willing to experience in front of the group, thus strengthening their mutual trust. The camera captures the participants’ performances as well as the closing conversation, which introduces delicate and human issues alongside personal experiences and impressions from the region.

The next scene takes place in Greece, during the final preparations before embarking. Tensions run high and excitement rises, as it transpires that the date of the flotilla’s departure has been leaked to the media — whether deliberately or unwittingly is unclear — by one of the participants. This produces internal tensions and raises questions within the group about internal exclusion of some of the participants to prevent further information leaks.

At this point, a debate ensues about the ways in which images are constructed and about their public acceptance. The debate is moderated by one of the organizers, who explains that the organizers of the flotilla are interested in exposing images, stories, tweets, and so on: “we want media moments.” The participants of the flotilla, including the journalists, talk about the importance of creating a “media event” (which is, of course, an image) designed to be circulated globally. The discussion moves to questions concerning the nature of the image that will be circulated by the participants in a coordinated and organized manner, on the assumption – which proved to be accurate – that the IDF would immediately confiscate all memory cards (cameras, telephones, hard discs, and any other digital terminals) on board the flotilla; should the preparation scenarios that the participants are practicing be distributed? Should all onboard footage (including possible violence and scenes of people crying) be “handed” to the media? What in these materials might serve as incriminating evidence against the participants? What are the differences between documenting in real-time (the journey and clashes with the IDF) and the documentation of the preparations for the flotilla? How will these images be circulated, and will they be presented in the media as pornography or as or documentary footage? Can a journalist stand by and film a scene, deliberating questions of framing and composition, or is there a general duty to follow humanitarian codes of helping a person in danger first and only then turn to documentation?

As mentioned above, the unfolding discussion touches on the nature of the photographed image vis-à-vis its imminent future as an exterritorial image, once it is confiscated by the IDF. In an interview with Yonatan Mishal for the Erev Rav website, Maayan Amir defined exterritorialy:

[Exterritoriality] shapes relations between representations of space and law. The term usually applies to people or spaces. In the first case, depending on circumstances, exterritoriality can either exempt or exclude. This dichotomy of radically disparate possibilities becomes fundamental. Exterritoriality can in fact either exempt or exclude an individual or a group of people from local jurisdiction. In that sense, we can think of a diplomat in a certain place, who is subject to international agreements and exempt from the laws of that place, and on the other hand, a refugee who is excluded from the place’s rights and rules. It important to note that while the first is removed from one legal system, he is governed by another, as a means of creating an overlap between legal systems […] I propose that the term exterritorialy can be extended and applied to other spheres of activity and different representation regimes. Exterritorial representation can also be applied to images; images that were exempt or excluded from the legal system of a place […] exclusion of images is usually performed by those in power. In that case, images are removed from the circle of visibility, meaning, denied their appearance, performed through mechanisms of nationalization, censorship, privatization, banning, and more. And there are cases of images that seem to challenge the law and evade arbitrary definitions of territorial regimes and restrictions on distribution circles. As such, exterritorial images can offer ways of thinking about the relationship between representation and law from an ethical perspective.3

We can see that the conceptualization of exterritoriality, as it has been formulated by the artists, stems from the existence of border-instituting mechanisms. The existence of border relations is a prerequisite of the exterritorial condition, and the status of this condition changes with the restrictive or liberating ramifications of these borders. In fact, the artists suggest that the governing implication of criticism and power mechanisms can restrict people, territories, and even images. In that sense, the video work Scenarios Preparations is a workshop for dealing with images that are fated to become exterritorial. As mentioned above, the discussion among the members of the group addressed the different meanings entailed by the image’s varying degrees of freedom; how is the image circulated, by whom, to what extent, in what frequency, and how can one influence its status in the public’s perception?

On the Exterritorial Potential | Atlántica

Installation O’Say Can You See,  2001/2016  by Laura Poitras (Whitney Museum of American Art, Laura Poitras: Astro Noise  (February 5-May 1, 2016 ). two channel digital video, color, color and sound.  Collection of the artist.
Photograph by Ron Amstutz

The Image’s Degrees of Freedom

What is “a free image”? How can one think of an image as “free”? After all, an image is an object. However, the exterritorial image doesn’t function within a merely speculative outlook, but as part of forensic research led by Eyal Weizman, the director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London,4 where Amir is a participant. We can think about the autonomy of objects within exterritorial research as part of this perception, which also encompasses exterritorial images.

And so, what is “a free image”? It is an image that is destined to fulfill its purpose – its distribution and circulation, its appearance in the public domain as having freedom of movement. On the far end of the spectrum, we have an image that could be likened to a refugee, an image whose freedom has been denied, and which has no rights in the sense that it isn’t allowed to realize its nature, just as a refugee is not allowed to live as a free man or realize his natural rights. Or, to quote Amir: “images are removed from the circle of visibility, meaning, denied their appearance.” As mentioned earlier, the manifestation of an image is its fundamental characteristic and defines its very nature as such. Exterritorial images, therefore, will oscillate among varying degrees of denied freedom in relation to a specific legal system. In that sense, exterritorial research proposes to think of the law as an arbitrary construct; the exterritorial image that is exempt from the law is an image that escapes this construct, and is therefore not subject to it.

In other words, the exterritorial image gains its degree of freedom (or is denied freedom, depending on the specific case) due to poorly-worded laws, or to laws that fail to cover the range of possible images. Amir and Sela suggest that, in the case of exemption from the law, “it is clear that the exterritorial image appears as a type of legal lacuna. As such, it has the power to uncover the law’s ethical problems,” since it allows us to challenge an existing legal system through the areas that are somewhat less governed. “The exposure of the ethical problems in the same manners in which political /social/economic/international relations were regulated and fixed under the law, is where the immense importance of the exterritorial image lies, allowing us to rethink legal violence,”the formulation of the law, questions of exclusion and inclusion, and the enforcement of national and political power mechanisms.

For instance, in some European countries, if someone chooses not to help a person in danger, she will be exempt from legal prosecution but may find herself exposed to lawsuits. In that sense, she will find herself in an exterritorial zone, since the law doesn’t take any explicit position on either side. However, in Israel, the Good Samaritan Law (1998) imposes a duty of rescuing a person in danger, and therefore a person who refuses to help a person in danger will be subject to prosecution. While there are several countries where a legal lacuna exists in situations of this kind, Israeli law leaves no loopholes and covers all eventualities.

In certain cases, like that of the Marmara flotilla, images excluded from visibility become exterritorial; according to the artists these images can be likened to refugees. In practice, when the IDF forces took over the flotilla, the first action they chose to take was to confiscate all digital images on board.6

Before I turn to the other piece in the exhibition, I will try to expand the discussion surrounding the nature of the exterritorial image and its intrinsic potential of resistance.

In the essay “What to Do with Pictures,”7 David Joselit proposes a consideration of the functional, public, and visual nature of the contemporary image, a nature that is essentially digital, that is, processed, compressed, stretched, or pixelated to varying degrees. Joselit analyzes a list of our go-to verbs for describing contemporary images, in contrast or addition to the list of verbs employed by Richard Serra8 to describe his work with materials. To that end, he turns to Seth Price’s important text entitled Dispersion9 — a term that in the biological discourse relates to the intermolecular attraction between all molecules. (It’s interesting to consider this fact in the context of the construction of information and its association with different areas of the brain as portrayed in the piece Image Blockade.)

On the Exterritorial Potential | Atlántica

Installation view ANARCHIST…, 2016 by Laura Poitras (Whitney Museum of American Art, Laura Poitras: Astro Noise  (February 5-May 1, 2016 ). 6  pigmented inkjet prints mounted on aluminum.  Collection of the Artist.
Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Joselit analyzes Price’s introduction of this term through positive associations relating to the appearance of images, associations borrowed to denote terms of purportedly negative nature, like “spreading” (a term often associated with viral contamination). In that sense, the term also acquires bio-political and social meanings. Since the contemporary image gains value through its dissemination, the system that surrounds it is based on duplication and distribution as an essence. That is, by sharing images and collaborating on their distribution, the system is formed as a functioning social tool. In this way, according to Joselit, networks provide a safety net and protection for the individual images they contain. Just as in the human body, failure in the distribution network will lead to death. Failure to distribute the individual image indicates a flaw in the distribution system, and consequently its finality.10

Alongside this approach, which demonstrates an aspect of exterritoriality according to which a functioning distribution system circulates images and allows them to function naturally as long as they comply with a given set of rules, i.e. an exempting system, there is also an excluding aspect that bans images and hinders circulation, in effect creating states of refugeehood. 

According to Joselit, Price proposes a reverse distribution system, in which the “economic” logic, i.e. the value of the image, is gained via the opposite path: the practices of banning, hindering, and slowing the rate of dissemination of the image are what allow the image to express resistance to economic image regimes. He proposes to consider an image regime in which, as the global distribution of an image soars, its value drops and approaches zero. For Joselit, an antagonistic mode of distribution of this kind may lead to the iconization of the image by hindering and banning distribution mechanisms.11

In contrast with the “refugee” exterritorial image, Price refers to a “free” image – an image that “chooses” to be distributed in a way that challenges the legal, economic, and distribution means that circulate it. However, this free image chooses not to comply with the liberating logic of transparency that serves the hypercapitalist structure, but instead adheres to an anti-economic outlook; by utilizing the potential of evasion and distribution mechanisms, it seeks to create added value for the image.

Image Blockade

In addition to Scenarios Preparations, the exhibition also features the title piece Image Blockade. This video portrays mechanisms of censoring thought, distribution, and circulation. Raising questions about the limits of censorship and the boundaries of distribution, it offers private, subjective, and even subliminal possibilities for examining exterritoriality.

In this piece, the artists joined forces with scientists from the Weizmann Institute in an experiment to test the effects of both self-censorship and public censorship on the perception of images that uncover immoral acts. The main protagonists in this video are IDF Intelligence Unit 8200 refusers. Under the directive of the military censor, their faces were blurred and their voices disguised. In that manner, their identity has also become an exterritorial entity and image, abandoned to a certain degree, a refugee that evades exposure and is left unprotected and unsheltered. In the video, refusers gave testimonies on events they witnessed or took part in during their military service. The subjects in the experiment – non-refusing peers who also served in Unit 8200, and a control group (as in any scientific procedure) – listened to these confessions while an MRI scanner (which also concealed their faces) monitored their brain activity. The experiment tested electrical responses of the brain that indicate responsiveness in areas that involve censorship versus areas associated with honesty and exposure. In fact, we might say that the experiment strove to delineate no-man’s-lands within the human brain, i.e. the exterritorial areas, where the self-imposed censorship system associated with social, informed, and calculated behaviours conflicts with its less-governed areas. For instance, we could think of the subconscious as an area to which we have no direct access. It is, nevertheless, an exterritorial area, since the conventional laws of reason do not apply to it, yet sublimative processes do take place in it, and therefore it is also subject to the laws of censorship or processing and governing information in various ways.

On the Exterritorial Potential | Atlántica

Seth PricePixar Activity Kit, 2014
Screen print and acrylic polymer on printed cardboard
Unf ramed: 35.3 x 25.5 inches; 89.7 x 64.8 cm
Framed: 42.8 x 30.75 inches; 108.7 x 78.1 cm
(SPR 15/167) Copyright Seth Price. Courtesy of Petzel, New York.

I won’t go into the specific responses of the participants or the significance of the experiment, its results, and hypotheses, since I wish to concentrate on the refugeehood that underlines this piece. Amir and Sela chose to focus on those who were ejected from the system (refusers, who in contrast with other types of refugees, still have most of their rights and to a large degree are “refugees” by choice who contest the moral position of the organization as the enforcer of a foreign government on an occupied territory) and their peers in the organization they oppose, while examining the moral exterritorial realms in which they operate.

Image Power

These fascinating video works engage in a complex and rich dialogue. Scenarios Preparations addresses the status of the forming exterritorial image, and on a certain level functions as a meta-discussion towards the other video. It portrays a complex, compassionate human scene that is not free from aggression, and which offers an open and public discussion about the status of the future exterritorial image and the possible ramifications of its transformation into an image condemned to be banned.

At the same time, Image Blockade brings to the forefront the manner in which an image was already distributed in a certain system (even though it is not actually accessible to us, and probably never will be), and discusses its processing and possible presence in an internal, moral, and subliminal space, that is, in the mechanisms of self-imposed censorship, personal experience, and private memory of each participant. Furthermore, the piece exposes a public arena in which the participants’ positions are challenged and point to the construction of these (exterritorial) images in the shared space. 

In fact, the two works function as the “before and after” phases of an event that is portrayed in neither. We only gain access to the actual event through discussions surrounding its processing, freedom, and construction in the shared space. It is an event in which human rights were trampled, leaving the images that were left in its wake to move through legal and practical, abstract and mental realms, while the images that attest to it also exist in an exterritorial expanse. The images of the actual event are not presented at any stage of the exhibition, yet their embodiments attest to a denied territory, an “obscure” event that scorched the earth and seared memories, leaving its presence to be felt throughout the exhibition.

According to Joselit, Price offers a reverse distribution system in which the value (social, iconic, and economic) of the image is gained by slowing the image’s distribution. Similarly, the case of Unit 8200 refusers also involves a free image, in the sense that the participants’ self-imposed censorship mechanisms censor it by choice, since Unit 8200 refusers are not people whose freedom has been denied from the start, but rather those who have chosen to oppose government actions and who are consequently subject to exclusion. (Their self-censorship is added on top of government censorship, of course, but that’s not our subject here.)

However, a system such as this will clash with the normative objective of distribution systems that are designed for speed, range, and expansion. Joselit claims that once an image distributed in a system of this kind reaches a tipping-point at which the rules of the game change, it becomes iconic. Price wishes to create an alternative process in which a slow system opposes conventional standards of distribution. For him, this constitutes resistance to the contemporary mandate of speed. According to Price, by regulating distribution speed, the image can also gain iconic status. He sees resistance to distribution speed and conventional modes of distribution in the image regimes as a tactic of escape and defense. Like Exterritory, Price focuses on power mechanisms and infrastructures that construct the image’s mode of operation. He seeks to utilize the mandate given to ”free” images, while Exterritory seeks to look at the exempt field as an arena for a critical examination of the image’s possible range of action. By creating various evasion mechanisms (smuggling images or slowing down distribution), both proposals seek to realize the liberating potential of the exterritorial image. Building on Price, Joselit proposes to think about images that defy regular distribution mechanisms as “image power,”12  revalidating the iconization of the image.

On the Exterritorial Potential | Atlántica

Seth Price
Untitled Discomfort
Collage with charcoal and pen on paper
Unframed: 18 x 23 inches; 45.7 x 58.4
Framed: 28 x 22.5 x 1 inches; 71.1 x 57.2 x 2.5 cm
(SPR 15/044)
Copyright Seth Price. Courtesy of Petzel, New York.

These different expressions of exterritorial images, which seek to defy the power structures limiting them or exploit the legal loopholes exempting them, can be found in many visual contemporary platforms.13 Such tactics — opposition to existing distribution networks, unexpected leaking, counter-prohibition of the image (by the weaker party), or resignation to the degree of censorship and expropriating it at a surprising moment — are what may establish the iconic status of the silenced exterritorial image. In fact, this discussion builds on the discussions of the participants in the Marmara flotilla, while placing the images’ mode of operation under the regime’s restrictions in a way that undermines it.

One contemporary example of such a mode of distribution, which actually facilitated the iconization of the censored image, can be found in the solo exhibition of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras that was held in 2016 at the Whitney Museum in New York. This exhibition included exterritorial images of refugees that were censored, banned, and suppressed by various government organizations. Among them were photographs of interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, satellite images of areas defined as “enemy zones,” and documents attesting to illegal activities. However, these images, long banned and censored, suddenly appeared in the exhibition in all of their ragged pixelated glory for the public to see. They are not mass-distributed, since they still fall under the status of “artworks,” but their iconic contemporary status, exposing the wrongs of the American administration, was formulated through their limited distribution, banning, and censorship, as well as the decision of when and how to present them.

This is what the positive potential of exterritorial image can look like. In fact, some of these images, which have been censored and veiled from the public, were discovered by Poitras as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit she filed in 2015.15 No clear explanation is offered as to the origin of all the images presented in the exhibition, but it is explained that some of them came to light in the wake of the suit, some are very important documents, and others were inspired by the archive in the possession of Edward Snowden. All of the documents in Poitras’s exhibition serve as examples of the iconic status that can form around an exterritorial image through resistance to distribution regimes, late and gradual exposure, and delayed transmission of information, alongside an emphasis on the less governed areas, the legal lacunas, and the evasion of a restrictive legal system.

Exterritory Project expands these possibilities through attempts to stretch the arbitrary boundaries applied to images. We may recall, in this regard, the projection of artworks by Middle Eastern artists carried out by Amir and Sela in exterritorial waters, or the sending of carrier pigeons as transporters of images and messages from the two sides of a closed border (a work in progress). The potential of exterritorial images lies in the logic that seeks to challenge the clear visibility and prevalent distribution of the image, in the logic that undermines the all-encompassing liberating logic of transparency. This is the logic that looks at distribution mechanisms as a system of borders that impose violence and power, and seeks to challenge it through alternative circulation. In that sense, the presentation of a political event in an exterritorial space through its absence, by tracing the signs it had left or the preparations for it, expands the positive potential of the “refugee” image and institutes its iconization in the shared social space, thus opposing the censorship of political images.

As a result, we can conclude that any exterritorial image has the characteristics for the formation of image power.16 In that sense, the “refugee” or exterritorial image holds great positive potential for resisting censorship, for exposure, and for establishing its status as an icon of a political action.

On the Exterritorial Potential | Atlántica

Seth Price
Sex & Character
Pen and graphite on paper
Unframed: 8.5 x 11 inches; 21.6 x 27.9 cm
Framed: 15.1 x 17.5 inches; 38.5 x 44.5
On verso lower right
(SPR 15/031)
Copyright Seth Price. Courtesy of Petzel, New York.

– 1

– 2 Amir and Sela have also edited an anthology entitled Extraterritorialities in Occupied Worlds (Punctum Press).

– 3

– 4 Forensic research seeks to use architectural and spatial tools that function as providers of testimonies in the examination of crimes against humanity.  As such, when they transmit their forensic examination, these tools become witnesses with faculties and autonomy. In that sense, bestowing faculties on objects, architectural infrastructures, and algorithms that allow the construction of truth, is a part of forensic thought that chose not to manifest itself via speculative language, yet which gives presence to the autonomy of “non-humans.”

– 5 The artists in conversation with the writer.

– 6 Amir, M. “Extraterritorial Images,” in: Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, Berlin: Sternberg Press. 

– 7 David Joselit (2011). “What to Do with Pictures”, October 138: pp. 81-94.

– 8 David Joselit (2015). “What to Do with Pictures”, in: Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty -First Century. Lauren Cornell and Ed Hatler, eds. MIT Press. p. 267.

– Ibid., p. 268.

– 10 Ibid., p. 270.

– 11 Ibid., p. 272.

– 12 Joselit chooses to link Price’s writing with the distinction made by Hannah Arendt (who coined the term “image power”) between violence and force, according to which violence is the public manifestation of power, whereas force is held in the effect of human moral and a public and shared essence. With that in mind, he proposes to think of images that defy conventional distribution mechanisms as image power, which stems from social (moral or ethical) resistance that enhances the iconization of the image.

– 13 Including those of photographer Trevor Paglen, activists and artists, and numerous political movements.

– 14

– 15

– 16 An image that will formulate as iconic, as image power, complies with the outline drawn by Arendt, and will be formed as such in the wake of an active, collective, non-violent action that reflects human conscience in opposition to violence and force.