Alice Pfeiffer
The New York Times
June 22, 2011 - 12:00am

The legal term “ex-territory” historically refers to being outside the physical borders of a country and beyond its laws. Today, a project by two Israeli artists has found life in extraterritorial waters off Israel using a floating gallery and conference space as a forum for questions of boundaries and identity.

The project was conceived in 2009, when two artists in Tel Aviv — Maayan Amir, 33, and Ruti Sela, 36 — were looking for a neutral space to screen a compilation of films by various artists in the Middle East.

The only space that appeared to be suitable, allowing people from countries in conflict to show their work together, was a strip of extraterritorial water 11 kilometers, or about seven miles, off Israel in the Mediterranean. The strip is generally about 13 kilometers wide, beyond which lie international waters.

“This project started off with the wish to bring together artists and thinkers from conflict areas where such meetings are usually denied,” Ms. Sela said. To put the project in motion, a video named “Wild West” was projected onto the sails of a boat in June 2009 in the extraterritorial strip and followed online by thousands around the world.

Their approach caught the eye of artists and thinkers, especially for its use of a politically neutral platform for critical thinking on the problems of nations and borders worldwide.

For the next nine months, the two video artists worked on a new edition of the project to study the notion of territory from multiple angles: legal, linguistic, sociological and artistic.

“Extraterritorial space exists as a site in which one may protest against the power of a disciplinary authority — a unique arena from which culture can be examined with a certain removal,” said Ms. Sela, adding, “We found no financing for the project, which is a good sign because it means it’s not serving anyone’s interest.”

The two artists made an open call for participants and received responses from all over the world. Ms. Amir said, “Artists and professionals felt this project was very much connected to their practice, which is great, as our aim was to consolidate an interdisciplinary thought, a tool for critically reflecting upon cultures’ discriminating geographies.”

The new edition of the project was planned for June 2010, in the form of a floating journey starting off in Israel’s extraterritorial waters and heading toward Cyprus.

But a week before the planned departures, Turkish aid ships on their way to Gaza were attacked by Israeli commandos.

“They warned us that there were hostile flotillas coming from Beirut and Iran,” Ms. Amir said, “and when the artists asked us what we were going to do, we responded that we would just project the videos on flotillas.”

The Israeli Army strongly advised them not to go ahead with their plans. Despite the warning, two days later the artists proceeded with the project anyway, at a distance from the aid flotilla.

The result was a resounding success, followed by almost 7,000 viewers online. A total of 24 artists took part and 50 programs were presented.

Videos and photos were projected from boat to boat, and conferences were given on ship decks and on beaches. All these were viewed by the participants, filmed by the organizers and followed live on the Internet.

Anne Maniglier, a French photographer involved in the project, said: “There was a great tension at first, as the Turkish flotilla had just been attacked by the Israeli Army, and it was a real challenge to maintain a curatorial and artistic thought in such a moment.”

Ms. Maniglier showed a series of photos of nomads living on the street in India.

“My photos were taken in a place outside the usual territories, in non-places,” she said, summing up the philosophy of the project. “I didn’t perceive the project as being specifically about the Middle East, but rather a search for a platform of discussion.”

“Art today is immediately part of a market and has to conform to its rules,” she added, “but this project allowed for “an exchange on a suitable area to discuss things usually left aside because they have no mercantile value.”

To illustrate the broad reach of the project, the next ex-territory project will be held in the Kutch Desert, on the frontier of Pakistan and India, a no man’s land that is facing similar issues of belonging and identity. Ms. Sela said the questions that the ex-territory project “addresses and the issues it provokes are relevant everywhere.”

Another project screened during the June 2010 ex-territory project was a lecture by Amir Khatib, an Iraqi artist and journalist who divides his time between London and Helsinki. Mr. Khatib is the founder of EU-Man, the European Union Migrant Artists Network, an association supporting the work of migrant artists in the E.U. region.

In his lecture, he described his theory of a “Third Culture,” the idea that being in-between several cultures led to a hybrid, novel identity — in his case related to his experiences in both Iraqi and Finnish cultures.

What the ex-territory project and EU-Man have in common, he said, is their attempt “to identify a new culture which is coming to the world” following globalization. “This project is a great challenge,” he said, and “an ideal time in history.”

This year, the two Israeli video artists were selected by Unesco for an award for young artists for their “outstanding” and “innovative” ex-territory project.

The artists’ work continues to investigate the notion of belonging. Their current show, “History of Violence,” at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris, consists of a series of their videos of seemingly mundane scenes in Israel that bring to the surface deep questions of belonging, identity and authority.

In one video, Ms. Sela, who is also an art teacher at the University of Haifa, films her students’ consternation when they learn that a video by the Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum, who is notoriously pro-Palestinian, was being shown in the Museum of Haifa. The rest of the video consists of a discussion with the students about whether or not the piece should be shown, whether it had a rightful place in the museum or not, or whether the artist herself even knew that her work was being shown there.

Léna Monnier, a manager at the Kadist Foundation, said: “This ties in with the rest of the work, because it explores the power of cultural boycott” as well as “notions of authority and submission, private and public.”

“It is very important for the artists to escape the mediatic representation of ‘the Israeli artist,’ to expatriate themselves,” Ms. Monnier said. “Their work thus starts from a local, precise situation, to move on to a global thought” about the tensions of territory and all the limits it implies.

The two women are preparing for a conference of various scholars in Paris in September, with the aim of defining precisely a theory of extraterritoriality. They are also looking for a boat and financing to give the project a permanent home in extraterritorial waters off Israel and serve as an artists’ residency from conflict areas around the world.

“Our goal is not to reach a specific destination, but rather remain outside any clearly defined space,” Ms. Amir said.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017