x-it

Extraterritoriality is a word most commonly applied to the hermetic terrain of diplomatic missions, embassy grounds and foreign military or intelligence bases: a sovereign part of one state inscribed onto—while nonetheless circumscribed by or cordoned, detached or even quarantined from—the soil of another, its host country. It can also refer to a plot of land ceded temporarily from one country to another for activities that require relatively neutral ground, such as a trial that needs to be witnessed independent of national interests; or, inversely, activities that need specifically not to be witnessed. It suggests indistinct, nondescript geographic or metropolitan nooks and crannies—‘safe houses’ or ‘non-places’—that go unnoticed by outsiders and, in some cases, remain unrecognisable to those being interrogated and tortured on the inside. Extraterritorial zones don’t necessarily fall off the map; a truce bestows the safe passage for an alien political representation to parlay, whether it’s an ally or foe. As long as it stays contained within that representative function, the alien’s extraterritoriality is a visible and locatable apparatus for exemption from the jurisdiction of its host’s local law. Like Julian Assange’s sanctuary, this can bestow immunity as well as being the condition of imprisonment.

The terms of treaty that politely establish and then fortress all these aberrant geopolitical enclosures paradoxically invoke both licence and prohibition, because they can provide a protected reserve, such as a wilderness zone, as well as command the exclusion of a separation wall. No matter how contractual its manifestation, extraterritoriality is always ambiguous and sly in its manner of exception. It can, for sure, offer a prospect of immunity, asylum and temporary autonomy, in the forms of an economic free-port or tax haven or a pirate enclave. It could be obtained with the loopholes and wormholes of global finance disclosed by the Panama papers, but also in the sense rhapsodised upon by poet Hakim Bey, for whom piracy is a utopian, carnivalesque gap in territorial dominion, the outlaw geopolitics of which he generalises as the modus operandi for a ‘temporary autonomous zone’. But let’s not be naive: ‘temporary autonomous zone’ can now be tagged to any number of far-right secessionist movements or military ‘black sites’, from compounds used for extraordinary rendition to backwoods survivalist hermitages stacked with weaponry. It could also be a sales pitch for the ‘seasteading’ scheme of floating plug-in gated communities—ungoverned, deterritorialised assemblages on the high seas that seem distilled from J.G. Ballard’s High-rise and Super-Cannes fantasies of privilege—which are attracting investment from anarcho-capitalist tech entrepreneurs, neoreactionary (NRx) eugenicists and social Darwinians, all keen to exploit international waters to elude the industrial and economic regulations of land-lubber governments.

Extraterritoriality’s exit route from local law is neither passive nor pacific. It can be in the name of optimising evolution or belligerent retardation; we are talking of a war-machine—and, in more humanist terms, the liberties and lines of flight or getaways it affords also accord peril, exploitation, imprisonment, exclusion, ruination. This agenda will include the fourth-world itineraries of a stateless precariat and the refugee trails across the Libyan desert and Syria onto beaches on Lampedusa and Lesbos; the camp at the mouth of the Calais tunnel; and even the dark tourism of aficionados of collapse-porn, trails through abandoned Chinese millennial ghost-metropolises and poisonously irradiated landscapes in Kazakhstan, Honshu, Ukraine or Australia. Extraterritoriality is an ambiguous exit from the territorial and deserves to be treated with ambivalence. But there is an instrument in extraterritoriality that critically disrupts and assaults the fabric of grounded territorial culture, of xenophobic ethno-nationalists who resent cultural pluralism and cosmopolitanism, as if it were a Goldilocks-like usurpation of a genetically pure family-first domestic (that is, nationalist) routine of mealtime and bedtime. For those who fear diversity as a neurasthenic decadence and as socially divisive, extraterritoriality is an accelerant of horror: something wicked this way comes … and, for our part, let’s not hinder its rough beast slouching. Go dark. Extraterritoriality partitions the host’s terrain of the here and now—that’s to say the locality—in a mode of incursion that coalesces in that isolationist, protectionist host as both sign and substance of creeping foreignness: it’s a division from the inside as a kind of territorial rot or leprosy. There’s clearly a touch of sorcery as well as sickness in this. And the black magic becomes more vivid when, at the perimeter of an extraterritorial zone, that representative role of the foreign turns volatile: diplomacy slurs into espionage, dissonance tips towards a brink … a catastrophic brink as an operational limit to territory. This may manifest in episodes of ‘lone-wolf’ terror attacks and state-run subterfuge assassinations by drone. But it might also manifest when—and to a degree at the expense of these strategies of assault—information discharges from what was previously blockaded, or when art incandesces within the vortex of fission and entanglement generated through unexpected states of cultural superposition or new matter effloresces in the decay of accelerated collisions.

The diplomatic gateway or security fence is not just a checkpoint to each side’s local jurisdiction, not just a procedural swap of commands conducted through a visa. It is also a threshold or verge upon which locality fails: an asymptotic intersection of regimes veering the spatial propriety of each side towards an infra-thin no-man’s land or transit lounge occupied by an indistinct, uncanny political entity, sans papiers but also sans frontières. Let’s call this extraterritorial entity that occupies the crossing—an entity that is generic yet exceptional, familiar yet estranged—by the abstract name given to any unknown quantity: x. The protocols protecting this geopolitical twilight zone may be established under the guise of a hygienic international code of conduct, one that permits any speculation that begins: ‘Let x represent … (undercover agent, asylum seeker …)’ Yet in that zone there is—not just to suspicious minds but also to adventurous imaginations and travellers—an uncanny warping of territorial decorum. And ‘uncanny’ is the best word here for this x factor. Extraterritoriality is a condition not only of strategic displacement or dislocation (with a nostalgia or homesickness for one’s birth territory) but also a contaminating insinuation of unbelonging, of off-shore detention, unsettlement, delocation—and thus of the ‘unhomely’ in the celebrated translation of Freud’s German, Unheimlich. Is not something lost in translation? That, too, is the price of extraterritoriality, but also its gain—getting lost through skewing, slurring, misappropriation and piracy, something moves out of bounds—an entity that doesn’t belong on the sea and yet has no right to land, something drifts between the shorelines of grounded states. Some thing alien, ‘it’: call it x, to mark the uncertain, inexact spot of its occurrence. We conjoin the pronoun ‘it’ to this unknown value x by means of a hyphen to generate a new compound; but, simultaneously, this operation designates the extraterritorial by means of a withdrawal, subtraction and escape of ‘it’ from its place or location: x-it. This x-it is not a negotiable surfeit on a territorial prerogative, an optional supplement or a bonus quantity of belonging or security. Some thing is lost, but this loss enacted with the minus sign is not a complaint against exile or exodus, or expropriation of a homeland. That prefix of the ‘extra’ supercharges the territorial imperative (be that instinctual or strategic) with an inflationary, inflammatory advantage: it is an accelerant that catalyses anomaly or malfunction or aberration within territorial decorum and its proprietorial claim. Our x is a shadowy, secretive agent that undoes territorial protocol; ‘it’ is an unpropertied impoverished figure, but no less a trafficker in cultural contraband—a cypherpunk trafficking in all that x might represent. But, then, recall that the brink of extraterritoriality is where representation collapses with a dark sorcery. In that episode of subtraction (of a traction underneath territory: a tectonic, telluric ripping) there is a cryptic inversion or perversion of property development, a kind of selling out of the homeland. Extraterritorealty: an unreal estate that cannot accommodate and that expels its owners and investors; an estate that has no capital.

Extraterritoriality catalyses its exit as a simultaneous opening out and flaring up of territory: a secession and a supersession. (It takes both a fortuitous accident and nefarious ingenuity, which we’ll call an art, to exploit the opportunity.) Picture it like a crack or glitch or hack within a regulated and programmatic region of a geographic, social or cultural form. This need not just be an obscure smuggler’s cove hacked out by the weather under sea-wracked cliffs, or a makeshift haven hidden in the crevasses and fractal crooks of the Caribbean archipelago. This manifestation of extraterritoriality could be a crack in a shoreline but also in the wall of an office block, in a rigid facial expression or well-rehearsed behavioural or linguistic routine. It could be a glitch in a cybernetic circuit; or it could be the cracking or hacking of a line of code (cultural, computational or genetic) or of the combination lock on a safe in a bank or a hard drive tucked under a politician’s desk. As it opens up, it leaks. A torrent of data. In any of these cases, the extraterritoriality of the fissure or tectonic rift exceeds any symptomatic, and thus therapeutic, diagnosis of the system—imperial administration or robotic factory labour or neurological activity or memetic subroutines—that might be cracking up.

Let’s admit that this hyperbolic scenario, extolled in various directions and measures in this journal issue, is disintegrative rather than unifying. Things fall apart, the centre does not hold (at least, not the formerly comfortable centrism of establishment political compromise and power balancing). We are flung through the cyclonic vector of a maelstrom clogged with cultural debris in the vomit of a molten quake, in the torrential massif of a tsunami sweeping around an oceanic planet: extraterritoriality can be detected as terrain torn into shreds as it falls towards an event horizon. And here is where we should think of extraterritoriality not just in spatial but also in temporal terms, and use a conceit from science fiction for the directions of our cultural supersession: the warp of normative space-time into extra-dimensional hyperspace, accessing the warp-field that, in s-f, facilitates faster-than-light communication and transit and the entanglement of distant space-time coordinates. This journal is a log of the warp-field of that slipstream that renders art historical strata, iconological repertoires and territorial disciplinarity unstable, dodgy, shaky, porous, hyperspatial. And we can attune our travelling in this slipstream in several ways. As virtualisation and counter-factuality (through subterfuge or subversion): undercurrents and vermiculate hollows that undermine the ground of art history—whether these might be induced by decaying and corrupting corpses of style, fashion, aesthetic theory or methodology that cause the ground to collapse; or from over-mined strata, exhausted and depleted resource veins, or subterranean sewage flows of unconscious effects that open up sinkholes in the manifest content of art history. As cryptography and esotericism: hyperstitional inducements of occulted diagrammatic or gnomic speculations or unpicturable nanotech or quantum-computational artefacts; of anachronic theoretical fictions and conspiratorial simulacra or the exhumation of alien fossils embedded like DNA-junk in our cognitive models of historiographic evolution. As cyclonic vortex and accelerated tangential vectors: the formation of data-storms, blackening iClouds and disaggregating whorls of feedback into artificialisation, downstreaming into an inhuman denaturing of art. We are at the brink. We have lift off.

 

 

Image: The road to the Joint Defence Facility at Pine gap near Alice Springs, Australia. Photograph CC BY-SA 3.0

Edward Colless is Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Aside from education, he has in the past also worked in theatre, film, broadcasting and architecture, been a curator, occasionally worked as a travel writer, and dabbled in fiction—but mainly he writes art criticism. In this field he has been an arts reviewer for The Age and The Australian, and associate editor and features writer for Art Collector. He is currently editor of the journal Art+Australia, with its associated publishing program. He also shamelessly uses any opportunity to write on arcane topics, the more obscure the better: heretical theology, art historical marginalia, crypto-zoology, dark tourism….