Carlos Motta, "The Good Life," 2005–2008. Thirteen-channel video installation. Installation view from "Geography of Transterritories," February 25–May 22, 2010, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of the artist.

Carlos Motta, The Good Life, 2005–2008. Thirteen-channel video installation. Installation view from Geography of Transterritories, February 25–May 22, 2010, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of the artist.

Like many curatorial efforts to respond to contemporary phenomena, this all felt urgent, persuasive, and timely, at least at first. But after further thought, Hou’s model began to seem overly schematic and under-elaborated. Clearly a small show can only do so much, and all the other caveats about the difficulties of curating apply here, too. Even so, it was hard not to question the extent to which all the works shown really exemplified Hou’s concept of transterritoriality. Given that Motta’s interviews concerned the relationships between United States foreign policy and Latin American sovereignty, wouldn’t traditional notions of national sovereignty and regional hegemony have been sufficient? Moreover, it is hard to imagine why a show on transterritoriality didn’t really register the manifold, profound changes this concept has undergone due to recent technological innovations. The obvious site to consider would have been cyberspace, with all the heterogeneity that its everydayness inures us to. Such transterritoriality is by now an unremarkable fact of life for Hou’s affluent audience, through online commerce, virtual communities, and even the clandestinely installed malware programs that turn our computers into remotely controlled pawns in cyber warfare campaigns.

The refugee camp is still a compelling and relevant example, albeit one haunted by the sort of problems that often plague liberal photojournalism, particularly the spectacularization of poverty and the potential for narcissistic viewership. However, it must be acknowledged that the analogy of the camp cannot be universalized, but has only limited applicability outside certain well-defined situations. Moreover, the refugee camp belongs to a historical conjuncture–that of totalitarianism and its aftermath– that predates the show’s problematic by a half-century. Here Hou’s expansiveness tipped over into the sort of dehistoricizing generality that is all too familiar from recent debates around Giorgio Agamben’s theorization of the camp as the actualization of a “state of exception” in which law is suspended. For Agamben, the camp is among the most essential features of Western biopolitics, a tendency that supposedly originated in Greco-Roman antiquity, facilitated totalitarian efforts to manage and exterminate populations, and culminated in American torture and detention policies during the so-called “war on terror.” As many critics have pointed out, this quasi-transcendental, borderline ahistorical argument sits uneasily with Agamben’s stated intentions to undertake a genealogy of the present.10 Hou might have done well to distance himself from such overreaching with a more substantive argument about the historical specificity of his object, linking it to the contradictions of postcolonialism, or to the resurgence of traditional sovereignty in the United States’ response to the 9-11 attacks and the militarized neoliberalism that accompanied it.11 For that matter, one wishes the show had clarified the relation between the transterritory and other established concepts like extraterritoriality (the condition of statelessness first analyzed by Hannah Arendt) and deterritorialization (the process by which Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari theorized the relation between cultural formations, place, and immanence).

These issues might seem purely academic, an excuse for so much gratuitous niggling about terminological precision and so on. But phenomena can’t exist outside the concepts we use to make them sensible, and this is all the more so in curatorial practice, where the thematic of a show determines what work appears there and how it is received. Further complications arise when curators draw on philosophical theory, especially since the gallery has become one of the few places where such thinking has a public presence in the United States. Does this activation of critical concepts test, translate, or otherwise transform them? Or does it reify them as consumable commodities within an economy of perpetual novelty? To be fair, this opposition often collapses in practice, and plenty of interesting practices derive from this fact. One thinks here of Thomas Hirschhorn’s uses of text as material, or his role as a self-proclaimed “fan” of philosophers. However, this doesn’t mean that curators should look to theory as a shortcut or an alibi, and it certainly doesn’t excuse them from the work of criticism that should accompany their appropriations.

At issue here is Hou’s rhetoric of displacement and mobility, which sought to aggregate works that might otherwise have seemed somewhat disparate, but stayed too close to the jargon of nomadism that has long pervaded discussions of globalization and migration. Such discourse tends to claim a Deleuzian pedigree, valorizing “flows” and “lines of flight” as it undermines the ontological stability of foundationalisms. In doing so, it seeks to understand emergent phenomena through a conceptual matrix that arguably has more to do with the politics of the French academy circa 1968 than with the present. More troublingly, such debate tends to conflate the circulation of people with that of goods, services, and information. It also often fails to mark the differences between voluntary, necessary, and coerced movement. Tensions between these conditions were evident but largely unremarked at Hou’s exhibition, which risked inadvertently identifying the mobility of wage laborers or political refugees with that of artists and curators on the biennial circuit, an altogether different form of transterritoriality.

Among the practices surveyed in Geography of Transterritories, Ursula Biemann’s went furthest in exploring the implications of the exhibit’s topic. Her video installation examined immigration to the European Union from North Africa. The Sahara Chronicle linked this issue to the history of the Maghreb, a region in which the tension between nomadic peoples and imperial states long predates European colonization and in fact persists today, with the sovereignty of Western Sahara still in dispute. In this context, transterritoriality is also necessarily a kind of transtemporality, with border patrols using drone aircraft to monitor the movement of prospective migrants along age-old smuggling routes through the desert. Biemann’s piece mixed appropriated surveillance footage with interviews with police, guides, and detained migrants. As if acknowledging the primary importance of research to geography, this work was conducted in remote locations in the Libyan and Sahara deserts and along the Algeria-Morocco border, in sites ranging from bus stations to deportation jails.

Footnotes

  1. For discussion of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the relation between human rights, refugee camps, and totalitarianism, and for a critical assessment of Agamben’s ahistoricism, see Mark Greif, “Apocalypse Deferred: Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception,” n+1 2 (2005).
  2. A discussion of recent transformations of the field of postcolonial cultural production can be found in Okwui Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition,” in Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, Nancy Condee, eds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). For analysis of military neoliberalism, see Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (New York: Verso, 2005).
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