The Geneva Freeport can hold up to one million artworks. Recently its facilities had to be expanded due to increasing demand. The artworks end up in wooden transport boxes, stacked in rows on shelves in huge halls, where they sit and wait for their price to rise or fall, or to be shipped to an auction or to another freeport. The air temperature measures 21 degree Celsius, with exactly 55 percent humidity. These are considered ideal conditions for the survival of artworks.
We know of many strange cults that have produced works of art not meant to be seen, at least not in this world: paintings in Egyptian pyramids; a terra-cotta army buried alongside the first Chinese emperor; ritual art, when it isn’t entirely funereal; totems and fetishes; shrines where artworks remain hidden; triptychs opened only once a year.
It is safe to say, however, that never before now have so many artworks been produced to remain hidden, all enclosed in disenchanted wooden boxes, suspended in a permanent circuit of exchange, in a place called a “freeport” because it is free of customs duties and taxes of all kinds. Since no one is allowed to see the art, it is also free of audience and spectators, an anti-theatron; it is a place of un-seeing. We must examine the conflict between the forces that create new ways of representing and being seen, and the relations that just as quickly place these out of sight.
What does it mean to participate in such a cult? What discursive operations accompany the production and marketing of these works? Art and ideas alike have always responded to their conditions of encounter, to how they are exhibited, inscribed, perceived, bought, and sold, adapting to whichever is dominant among their various modes of representation. Hito Steyerl was the first to recognize the significance of “duty-free art” and to theorize the mode of representation I am calling “freeportism.” Steyerl notes how this tax-free art concretizes and complicates the old dream of total artistic self-legislation, of autonomy from the heteronomous laws of the market, the court, and the state:
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