Art for sail

To navigate political differences, the Ex-territory project takes place in neutral territory such as the sea.

Organizers hold meeting 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Organizers hold meeting 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s a nice idea, and one not without interest. Take a ship, sail it into extraterritorial waters and project video art onto the sails.
Of course, there’s a little bit more to it than that.
The idea was the brainchild of two Israeli artists, Ruti Sela and Ma’ayan Amir, for the purposes of their project, Ex-territory – a project initiated in 2009 to serve as a platform for art and to encourage dialogue on issues such as identity and borders.
What made the project novel and aroused the interest of artists and curators, at home and abroad, was that the intended forum for discussion and the artworks for display were presented on a ship, which sailed out to a designated neutral space – in this case, a strip of extraterritorial water off the coast of Israel.
In the context of Sela and Amir’s ongoing project, extraterritoriality can essentially be understood as a physical space lying outside a country’s borders and jurisdiction – a neutral space, or a kind of no-man’s-land.
Reflecting on the idea in its early stages, Amir says, “We were interested in notions of space and identity. The idea that if art is exhibited in a specific location, it creates a certain context. How can art go beyond things such as nationality and ideology? For us, this logic doesn’t come from art but politics.”
Sela elaborates, “We are looking to create a new context where, for example, you are not necessarily seen as an Israeli or a Palestinian artist, you are outside of believing that you represent your country.”
Amir refers to these definitions or categories as a kind of “national identity theater” and ultimately limiting. “I think it’s a reaction to specific political conditions and a need to ask how we can go beyond this existing political context,” she says.
For the two artists, the answer was “to take this idea of an extraterritorial space, a space that would suspend – temporarily at least – these constraints, not necessarily to escape them but in order to rethink them,” says Amir.
The first Ex-territory event was a success, notable for the visually striking projections of video art onto the sails of ships. It also helped to encourage discussion and raise some of the more philosophical questions they were concerned with.
The next phase was, considering the political climate at the time, a brave move on the part of its organizers. Sela and Amir had been planning a second excursion into extraterritorial waters for over than a year and had selected more than 20 artists to participate and organized a program for the trip. A few days before their departure, the Mavi Marmara incident occurred.
“It completely affected our event,” says Amir, not least because it “took place in international waters. We were working on this art project, and the attack happened only days before. It completely shifted people’s opinions, and they were afraid to come,” she says.
“We knew we were taking a risk because the army had advised us against the trip, saying there was a possibility of more violence. Another flotilla was on its way, and we decided to join it,” she continues.
Despite everybody’s fears, there was no trouble. Video works were projected onto the sails of the ship, likewise onto the flotilla’s sails, and a series of discussions were held on board, revolving around the various themes of the project.
All of this was broadcast and watched on the Internet by thousands of interested parties.
Since this “event,” Sela and Amir have extended the project to Paris and received an award for their activities from UNESCO. The project has taken on a more theoretical and conceptual aspect, and there is a book in the offing centred around the subject of extraterritoriality.
The pair continue to hold meetings and events at home and abroad with a view to advancing the project. The latest of these took place on the last weekend of 2012 as a group of artists, curators and other interested participants were taken by bus to the Red Sea for a series of lectures, discussions, video installations and film screenings, some of which took place on a ship in extraterritorial waters.
The event was somewhat marred by program cancellations: the planned workshops and some of the film screenings never materialized. To compensate for this, some of the films were shown on the return journey on the bus.
There was also no getting away from the fact that a ship is a difficult space to curate, and one in which it can be difficult to hold people’s attention. After the curator’s introductions, participants were free to view the installations, the films or simply to mingle and enjoy the occasion.
While the art on display was unremarkable, the documentaries, in particular Silvia Casalino’s No Gravity, elicited more interest.
Joon Lynn Goh, an independent producer from England, curated one of the video installations and is working towards a future collaboration with Sela and Amir to take place in London later this year. According to Goh, the event will be themed around a mass of territory in Southeast Asia, historically referred to as “Zomia” – an area traditionally outside governmental control and populated by various ethnic minorities.
If all goes according to plan, the event will be structured over two or three days and take place in one of the city’s YMCA buildings. People will be invited to book a room, with a different performance taking place in each. Goh says the works will be language-less, with a view to “experiencing extraterritoriality in a bodily, physical sense.”
What next for Ex-territory? Amir says, “The ties between technology and extraterritorial epistomologies are the focus of the project’s current phase. [This involves] TMS technology – a non-invasive method that can cause brain activity through electromagnetic stimulation of magnetic fields in specific parts of the brain, which produces and controls body movement.”
According to Amir, this can lead to a “suspension of autonomy and moral responsibility.” She stresses that Ex-territory is not an anti-Israel project but one that should include all narratives.
Indeed, it seems that the project, as well as becoming more theoretical, is also extending its boundaries to be inclusive of more personal and social “territories.”
“We don’t want to limit the project to extraterritorial spaces,” says Amir.