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Hito Steyerl on "Duty-Free Art"


Image: The Cultural Center in Suruç, Turkey. Photo: Hito Steyerl

The March issue of e-flux journal was released this week. The centerpiece of the issue is a provocative piece by Hito Steyerl on what she calls "duty-free art." This term has a double meaning in the piece. On one hand, it refers to art stored by wealthy individuals in shadowy, untaxed “freeports” located in Switzerland and elsewhere. Steyerl investigates these characteristically neoliberal spaces in the piece. On the other hand, “duty-free art” refers to an updated version of the classic idea of autonomous art:

Let’s think back to the freeport art storage spaces and their stock of duty-free art. My suggestion is not to shun or belittle this proposition, but to push it even further.

The idea of duty-free art has one major advantage over the nation-state cultural model: duty-free art ought to have no duty—no duty to perform, to represent, to teach, to embody value. It should not be indebted to anyone, nor serve a cause or a master, nor be a means to anything. Duty-free art should not be a means to represent a culture, a nation, money, or anything else. Even the duty-free art in the freeport storage spaces is not duty free. It is only tax-free. It has the duty of being an asset.

Seen like this, duty-free art is essentially what traditional autonomous art might have been, had it not been elitist and oblivious to its own conditions of production.

In the course of elaborating this idea of “duty-free art,” Steyerl explores recent examples of contemporary art being recruited to varnish the image of repressive governments, especially in Syria. She ultimately concludes that for art to be autonomous, it must transcend the “nation-state model”:

Autonomous art under current temporal and spatial circumstances needs to take these very spatial and temporal conditions into consideration. Art’s conditions of possibility are no longer just the elitist “ivory tower,” but also the dictator’s contemporary art foundation, the oligarch’s or weapons manufacturer’s tax-evasion scheme, the hedge fund’s trophy, the art student’s debt bondage, leaked troves of data, aggregate spam, and the product of huge amounts of unpaid “voluntary” labor—all of which results in art’s accumulation in freeport storage spaces and its physical destruction in zones of war or accelerated privatization. Autonomous art within this context could try to understand political autonomy as an experiment in building alternatives to a nation-state model that continues to proclaim national culture while simultaneously practicing “constructive instability” by including gated communities for high-net-worth individuals, much like microversions of failed states.

Read Steyerl full piece at the e-flux journal website.