Dossier | Offshore Havens and Supra-Juridictional Space | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Offshore Havens and Supra-Juridictional Space

  • Meredith Lackey, Elephant in Cairo, video still, 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • TeleGeography, Submarine Cable Map, 2015. Photo: © TeleGeography

Offshore Havens and Supra-Juridictional Space
By Robin Lynch

The representation of geopolitics is a site of theoretical and artistic tension and, at times, contradiction. There are numerous parallels between the debate around the murky ownership and power of telecommunications and debates around the unregulated circulation of art. In this essay, I consider the entanglement of art and telecommunications in order to pose some vital questions about art’s struggle with its own use as a tool for manipulation on a geopolitical scale. By observing the emergence of supra-jurisdictional zones that bypass exclusive regulation and control by state power, including offshore havens for art, I will attend to the embeddedness of art — a largely unregulated sphere — in a broader geopolitical process.

The theory and design collective Metahaven has produced much of its work around data: their transparency or lack thereof, their ownership, their use by states and corporations, and their power. In its two-part article “Captives of the Cloud” (2012), Metahaven uses the term “supra-jurisdiction” to describe how, under the Patriot Act, the United States government has the authority to access information hosted by any data centre owned by a company registered in the U.S. (1) The Patriot Act extends the government’s authority beyond its own territory and citizens, granting it power over some of the largest search engines in the world, including Google. In a similar vein, Benjamin Bratton describes how conventional models of map and territory have been reworked on a planetary scale, and he calls this new political formation a stack: a “vast software/hardware formation, a proto-megastructure of both bits and atoms, literally circumscribing the planet, which, as said, not only perforates and distorts Westphalian models of State territory, it also produces new spaces in its own image: clouds, networks, zones, social graphs, ecologies, megacities, formal and informal violences, weird theologies, each superimposed on the other.” (2) The stack structure of physical and telecommunications infrastructures folds every transnational corporation into a tangled web of jurisdictional entities. It would not be doing the power dynamics justice to place the power solely in the hands of the United States, as Metahaven implies. Indeed, representing it as such risks negating many crucial bodies that are implicated in this vast infrastructure, as well as glossing over the pivotal understanding that this formation shifts depending on the other jurisdictional and corporate interests with which it overlaps. For example, if the United States wanted to shut down a data centre outside of its borders, it would require the consent of the government of the nation in which these data centres are located, and of the various corporate and private stakeholders involved. Therefore, although the United States may exert a significant pressure point, it does not have sole discretion in the matter.

The usual critique aimed at the state as the culprit, or at capital as the overarching nemesis, cannot be easily applied to telecommunications, because of both the sublime scope of telecommunications and its increasingly intricate and personalized use in everyday life. Telecommunications encourages an “it’s all about me” attitude in users who demand personalized creativity and freedom — an attitude that implies boundarylessness, individual autonomy, and convenience for the user. No Apple commercial is complete without the call to realize one’s personal freedom, potential, and creativity. Such mentalities certainly do not impede the expansion, mobility, and “supra-jurisdictional” nature of communications. Indeed, it is these qualities of libertarianism that fuelled Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s 1995 critique of “Californian Ideology.” Barbrook and Cameron stated that the idealistic views of early telecommunications orchestrators made telecommunications a perfect pairing for the market expansion demands of the right, and helped to advance the free market and neoliberal economics. (3)

The inability to pinpoint one culprit, or even one locale, for the vast telecommunications network is only one of the many difficulties in its representation and theorization. In response to the problem with tackling the nebulous nature of data and Web 2.0, many cultural practitioners have attempted to map the actual material of submarine cables in order to track their geopolitical lives. Nicole Starosielski’s book The Undersea Network contains a mass of research on this topic, demonstrating the wealth of knowledge that can be generated from the study of these cables. (4) However, as artist Meredith Lackey — whose latest work documents and maps the laying of cables in Africa — states, observing these cables does not equate to understanding their massive and, at times, incomprehensible histories, consequences, and effects. (5) In essence, one cannot immediately resolve the grey status of telecommunications by focusing on and referencing the cables that provide its material support.

Observing the slippery politics of telecommunications in relation to finance, financial anthropologist Bill Maurer has noted that the laying of submarine cables in relation to trade has played a significant role in the development of offshore subsidiaries in the Caribbean, Singapore, Bermuda, and other locations. (6) Due to their position as significant trade nodes, these locations’ communications infrastructures were more extensively developed than were others’. Consequently, they have become zones through which capital can move rapidly. Offshore havens are often portrayed as murky geopolitical regions, where jurisdictional lines are supposedly skewed to reroute or hide capital. However, contrary to their historical status as shady zones and the frequent portrayal of them as illegal and unknown holes — due to increasing awareness of offshore tactics and, at times, states’ acceptance of them — many offshore bodies not only are very legible in legal terms, but are actually quite transparent.

Art, on the other hand, due to its own insistence on resisting ties to capital, has left itself with fairly lax market regulations and pricing and has formed its own internal hierarchies and codes. (7) This is not to say that art resists all ties to capital such as taxes and economic fluxes. Rather, it is to say that art’s financial transactions do not rely on a fixed pricing system, are often not recorded where they can be accessed, and therefore can frequently be manipulated for selling or collecting tactics such as upselling. (8) In addition, such transactions are shaded by codes and beliefs internal to the art world, such as a love of art or belief in its global status. (9) Often sharing libertarian attitudes toward telecommunications, art’s individualized pricing, speculation, and mobility make it very well attuned to the free market. This has enabled art to become an investment for offshore subsidiaries and money laundering, as it is loosely regulated and able to pass smoothly through various geopolitical zones by its very virtue as art — a “global” and boundaryless medium. New York-based lawyer Nathan Newman goes one step further to call art the new offshore haven and an investment gold mine. (10) A concrete example of this new trade can be found in the Singapore FreePort, where it is estimated that millions of assets held in art are stored in a jurisdictional “free zone” — out of reach of law and tax. The FreePort was recently described by artist Hito Steyerl as one of the “prime spaces for contemporary art,” functioning as an “off-shore or extraterritorial museum.” (11) Indeed, the rapid mobility of contemporary art, as well as its dependence on wealth and power, make it a good match for offshore strategies such as “roundtripping.” (12) Coincidentally, the Singapore FreePort also happens to be located at a significant landing point for the country’s telecommunications cables.

I bring these two points together — the difficulty of representing geopolitics in huge infrastructures such as telecommunications, and art’s nebulous relationship with finance and global trade — in hopes of encouraging future research into art’s jurisdictional status. In essence, there is a need for art to examine its own geopolitical function as a “supra-jurisdiction,” and this ties into its own calls for boundarylessness and anti-statism. The frequent insistence on freedom from fixed pricing — the regulation of art in a financial sense — is similar to the free market’s insistence on boundarylessness. If we associate the desire of those who control the circulation of art to protect art from regulation with art’s own attraction to global movement, we can see that art is a very fast-moving grey matter that is difficult to represent and pinpoint. These are some of the same qualities that made submarine cables ideal for large financial institutions and trading in areas such as the Cayman Islands. Like the cables, the material status of art proves to be another point that — though rich in history and information — does not provide a resolution or a concrete mapping of this geopolitical movement, as so much of art’s evaluation and market is not contingent on any material basis.

Indeed, if art has become a “stack” formation, a mapping or understanding of how it is being utilized is necessary in order to comprehend what possibilities and consequences this new configuration opens up. Furthermore, research and projects by cultural practitioners are a vital step in re-investigating what grounds, if any, remain for critique of capital in art, especially as it would seem that art is currently just as implicated as are the large power structures that it critiques.

NOTES
(1) Metahaven, “Captives of the Cloud: Part 2,” e-flux Journal 38 (October 2012), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/captives-of-the-cloud-part-ii/.
(2) Benjamin Bratton, “On the Nomos of the Cloud: The Stack, Deep Address, Integral Geography” (2011), bratton.info/projects/talks/on-the-nomos-of-the-cloud-the-stack-deep-address-integral-geography/.
(3) Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” [1995] Mute (October 2008), http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/californian-ideology.
(4) Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).
(5) Meredith Lackey, speaking at “Offshoring and Virtual Infrastructures,” conference by offshoreart.co, April 2015, http://offshoreart.co/online.html#event-1.
(6) Bill Maurer, “Islands in the Net: Rewiring Technological and Financial Circuits in the ‘Offshore’ Caribbean,” in Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment, ed. Yarimar Bonilla (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 461 — 501.
(7) For an apt summary of some of these characteristics in art’s mobile nature and its internal codes in relation to finance, see Suhail Malik and Andrea Phillips, “Tainted Love: Art’s Ethos and Capitalization,” in Contemporary Art and its Commercial Markets: A Report on Current Conditions and Future Scenarios, ed. Maria Lind and Olav Velthuis (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 209 — 40,
http://bnarchives.yorku.ca/327/2/20120000_malik_phillips_tainted_love.pdf.
(8) Ibid. Using references to Noah Horowitz’s work, Malik and Phillips give more concrete examples of how pricing and markets within the art world are manipulated by dealers, collectors, and other internal members.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Nathan Newman, speaking at “Incorporating Offshore: The Stakes of Going Offshore for Art,” conference by offshoreart.co, April, 2015, http://offshoreart.co/online.html#event-2.
(11) Hito Steyerl, “Duty-Free Art,” e-flux Journal 63 (March 2015), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/duty-free-art/.
(12) Roundtripping is a financial strategy in which capital goes from a central source to a foreign jurisdiction and then returns to the originating country in order to distort statistics on investment economies. See Bill Maurer, “Jurisdiction in dialect: Sovereignty Games in the British Virgin Islands,” In European Integration and Postcolonial Sovereignty Games: The EU Overseas Countries and Territories, ed. Rebecca Alder-Nissen and Ulrik Pram Gad (New York: Routledge, 2013), 130 — 44.

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