Recycling Conjectures

by Paul Domela

Once it was explained to me that artists always want to live where other artists have lived and worked before. The footsteps of Rembrandt, Picasso, Joyce, Warhol or John Lennon had pulling power. A curious feeling of historical continuum and radical departure would underlie much of contemporary art making and thus may well constitute an important reason for an artist to choose to live in a certain place. All the same, it seemed to me a conversation with art history is of no consequence if not measured against the present day. There is of course another approach to art making which takes its cues less from the footsteps of history, but from contemporary urgencies or the possibilities that other fields of practice hold. These migrating practices are deeply frustrating to an art history that aims to fix time and place and we could see in this light the ongoing struggle of critics and art historians to corral the more dialogically defined practices within the stable of the discipline. Migration and mobility are somehow assimilated in an essentially closed-shop notion of culture as a contribution or detraction to a territorial and rooted prerogative. Over the last 25 years this position has lost much of its foundations in particularly thanks to the work coming out of cultural and post-colonial studies, but interlocking place and identity continues to stir up virulent emotions and in the current recession it will take great political courage and skill to navigate the groundswell of xenophobia and protectionism.

Port cities have historically been the scene of these negotiations and justifiably stand for a certain cosmopolitanism where the flow of tide and trade emphasised the impermanence of place and people. In the last phase of globalisation ports have made a comeback both in the transportation for goods and metaphorically as a paradigm for worldliness. Actual movement of people and ideas no longer take place through concrete harbours but through air slots and by analogy. Yet if the suggestion holds that cosmopolitanism is somehow embedded in bricks and mortar, the regeneration of buildings should also bring a return to an intercultural diversity that underpins contemporary urban thinking on the future success of European cities. The reuse of former bonded warehouses for cultural, residential and commercial ends re-mediates abandonment and decay, but better bricks will not by themselves return the hub-bub of (dis)embarking liners or the fecundity of intellectual freedom. Cosmopolitanism is therefore not a quality of place but how people do, a relational practice of difference, transformation, negotiation and production.

In these days when the frenzied pursuit of greed is in abeyance perhaps we can embark on a thought experiment to reclaim this worldliness of port cities as the negative incarceration of economic and political migration. Hyperbolizing the free zones of container goods, port cities would be host to a concerted state of exception, an expansion between nations of the Mare Liberum to include innocent passage through free ports. Even if written with partisan motives Hugo Grotius thought the seas a common property under inter-national rule to the benefit of all. Of course to encompass port cities the law of free seas would need to extend land inward and to find the answer we only need to follow the dispute between Mare Liberum and Mare Clausum, that is between the Dutch and British, and invert Cornelis Van Bynkershoek’s solution to the question of territorial waters: coastal waters would have a right to the adjoining states. The width of land that could be claimed by the ‘negative continent’ would equal about 3 miles, or the distance that a cannon could fire from shore. This 18th century ‘cannon shot rule’ would cover every medium sized port city. Such spatialisation of the ‘negative continent’ could give face to the idea of a non-nation and validity to statelessness as the logical conclusion of accelerated internationalism. To seafarers little more than 100 years ago this scenario would not be implausible, recognisable as a reflection of lived experience. Today this expanded transit zone would allow the migrant to bridge the dichotomy between tourist and vagrant as the backbone of global mobility. For port cities it would be little more than a reinstatement of a relational gravity tending to other shores rather than the hinterland.