Noah Simblist: Heterotopia on the High Seas: Battles of Representation Around the Gaza Flotilla

Heterotopia on the High Seas: Battles of Representation Around the Gaza Flotilla

By Noah Simblist

Art Papers, 2011

In May of 2010, six ships called the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” sailed from Cyprus toward the Gaza Strip. Their aim was to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza[1] by delivering humanitarian aid, medical supplies and construction materials. These ships, lead by the Turkish flagged Mavi Marmara also included US, Greek, Swedish, and Irish activists. This flotilla garnered widespread international attention after an Israeli military operation against the Mavi Marmara ended with the deaths of nine activists.

A year later, in June 2011, a second Gaza Flotilla which included ten ships was organized to set sail from Greece. This time it included a major US presence on a boat called The Audacity of Hope, which carried over a thousand letters in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Like the US boat, which referenced the victory for civil rights that President Obama’s 2008 election symbolized, the Canadian boat that joined the flotilla was called the Tahrir, referring to the city square that was the center for the recent revolution in Egypt. The passengers on the US boat included artists, scholars and activists such as Nobel laureate Alice Walker. This time, all but one ship of the flotilla was stopped from even setting sail by the Greek authorities who worked closely with the Israeli government to prevent a situation similar to what happened in 2010 – not just the tragic deaths but also the public relations nightmare.

There are a few issues regarding these two flotillas that haven’t been covered as much by the mainstream press. First of all, the flotillas are predicated on performative strategies that sit at the intersection between art and activism. This is evidenced in the very nature of the protest, which used multiple levels of symbolic discourse. But the flotilla has also been confused somewhat by a disconnect between the seemingly utilitarian drive to bring goods to serve humanitarian needs and the more abstract tactics of signifiers like letters and flags. Finally, one of the most profound elements of this story is the voyage, which was used by the flotilla as a trope that has a long history of allusions to utopia and its linkage to new frontiers – both literal and political.

The flotilla as an idea uses the notion of the high seas as a space that, from a phenomenological point of view, seems wide and open to a new possibility – the utopian imaginary that rests on the horizon. It is a setting that is fitting for a group of activists that are proposing new idealistic models that exist beyond the reach of the political status quo. The sea is also is a space that can exist outside of national territorial boundaries. It is a space of multiplicity, outside the law of any one sovereign power.

Representations of voyage

The romance with the sea and its relationship to discovery and freedom can be found in centuries of artistic practice. Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, or even the story of Jonah and the whale are narratives of transformation set on the high seas. Even more recent examples such as A Voyage on the North Sea (1974) by Marcel Broodthaers or Bas Jan Ader’s final voyage in 1975 bring together the notion of the amateur, unskilled or unprepared individual setting sail out of a strength of conviction rather than the more professionalized impulses such as fishing, shipping or sport.

The late Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader famously set sail from Cape Cod in a 12.5 ft boat called the “Ocean Wave” to cross the Atlantic alone. The voyage was supposed to be part two in a trilogy called In Search of the Miraculous. Sadly, he never reached his goal and his boat was found off the coast of Ireland six months later. This story, of an artist reaching for the impossible and ultimately failing, is in keeping with the romantic notion of the artist sacrificing himself for the noble goals of beauty and truth. But it also is very much in keeping with the notion of the activist, who as opposed to the politician, works from outside the system, against incredible odds to try and affect social change. These are both heroic models that – to most postmodern sensibilities that have abandoned the genius myth – might seem quaint or naïve. But Bas Jan Ader’s work has gained a great deal of interest recently because his unique blend of conceptualism and sincerity challenges the simple binary of genius vs. its postmodern critique.

So why does sailing on the open waters lend itself to a sense of freedom? One reason is because it is an activity that exists at the borderland, in the space between national territories. Michel Foucault called this space a heterotopia[2], a space that exists between utopia and the real. Foucault thought that heterotopic spaces were illusions that revealed something about real space. The sea is a heterotopia that is free from the confines of real spaces, producing new forms of both interaction and representation. This interstitial space allows for international cooperation; human rights outside the laws of national legal codes; and the engagement with discourse that might be more difficult in any one nation. After all, one major difference between Bas Jan Ader or Captain Ahab from Moby Dick or Santiago from Old Man and the Sea and the Gaza Flotilla is that the first three are all stories of individual, existential struggles. The flotilla is a coalition of ships and activists from multiple nations who came together in the non-space that is the sea.

There have been other recent cultural projects that engage the heterotopic dimension of the open sea. Women on Waves is a project by the Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts who turned a boat into a gynecological clinic that operates in international waters, just outside the maritime borders of countries that criminalize abortion. The Exterritory Project, initiated by a group of artists, curators and critics including the Israelis Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, conducts lectures, workshops and film screenings on boats in international waters. This has allowed artists, activists and intellectuals from places like Tehran, Tel Aviv and Beirut to meet in a neutral site that is not another country such as the United States or the EU. The Exterritory Project is set up to create a new space for dialogue with the hope that the creativity of constructing such a site might be mirrored in a political imagination that could arise from conversations within it.

Probably most analogous in form (if not in content) to the Gaza Flotilla is Swimming Cities, a group of artists, musicians and self described visionaries that annually build a series of rafts to float down a waterway. One of the first projects in 2006, spearheaded by the artist Swoon, was the Miss Rockaway Armada, which sailed down the Mississippi River. In 2008 Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea sailed down the Hudson River from Troy, NY to Long Island City in Queens where they docked and were part of a larger project of Swoon’s at Deitch Studios. The following summer the group sailed from Slovenia, across the Adriatic Sea to the Venice Biennale. This fall the group plans to sail down the Ganges River in northern India.

Swimming Cities is probably more akin to Bas Jan Ader’s voyage (though thankfully more successful in terms of everyone’s safety) in that there is no explicit political issue other than the romantic embrace of the voyage as a space for freedom. While projects like Women on Waves and the Exterritory Project are more explicitly political, and in that sense more like the Gaza Flotillas, they are also missing the raucus romanticism that many members of the Gaza Flotilla embraced.

The power of symbols

Despite the violent actions of some activists in the first Gaza Flotilla in 2010, the 2011 activists have been very clear about their intentions to engage in non-violent direct action. This comes out of a belief that non-violent measures that bring attention to the political issues surrounding Gaza’s closure and the Israeli occupation of Palestine can be more powerful and have more moral clarity than any use of violence might bring. Like the flotilla organizers, many in the Palestinian solidarity movement have increasingly embraced nonviolent direct action, drawing parallels to the American civil rights era and the international pressure that provoked the end to apartheid in South Africa. The interesting thing about this as a strategy is that it flies completely in the face of most normative notions about the location of power. The battle for signification, which is fought partially in the realm of the media, contradicts the notion that military or economic might are the sole arbiters of political agency.

Guy Debord’s methodology of subverting the society of the spectacle[3] through détournment is often cited as a model for art and activism that self-consciously works with forms of representation. In many ways the flotilla uses Debord’s Situationist strategies. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has saturated the media with a spectacle of competing ideologies, whether it be on CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, together with non-governmental organizations, have used the media to prove their points for years. In this sense it is ripe territory for alternative images that can shift the paradigm.

As Debord was writing in late 1960s Paris, a new consciousness about the potential power for media for both state actors and activists was mirrored by activism in the US. Audacity of Hope passengers like Alice Walker, who has famously written about the African American experience and Ridgely Fuller who was a freedom rider that protested segregation in the 1960s evoke activist strategies of 1960s America. The flotilla borrows tropes from both May 68 and US civil rights protests but takes them from the streets to the sea.

The Israeli government was so afraid of the power of representation that the flotilla embodied that it engaged in sophisticated techniques to undermine it. At one point an Israeli official declared that if any international journalists were on board the boats they would be banned for ten years from entering Israel. There was such a huge uproar over this blatant disregard for freedom of the press that Israel eventually backed down. But this still didn’t stop US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call on the flotilla to turn around and Texas Governor Rick Perry to write a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to prosecute all American participants in the flotilla for collaborating with a terrorist group.

In a savvy use of social media to serve their cause, many believe that the Israeli government was behind the Israeli actor Omer Gershon that played an activist called “Marc” who claimed on Youtube that he was rejected from the flotilla because he was gay. This video, with its ridiculous claims, was disseminated very early on by a staffer in the Israeli prime minister’s office and later by The Israeli Government Press Office. Another rumor that was later denied by flotilla activists was that they intended to use bags of sulfur to pour on any Israeli soldiers that would board the boats. Eventually, after intense diplomatic efforts, Israel succeeded in convincing the Greek government to impound the boats, forcing them to stay in port, even arresting the captain of the Audacity of Hope. It is also believed that two boats on the flotilla were sabotaged so that they could not set sail for Gaza.

All of these measures by the Israeli government reinforce the power of the image that the flotilla represented. But what was the nature of this power? What did it threaten? The current Israeli government is run by some of the most conservative administrations in a long time. They rely heavily on a longstanding Zionist picture of the political situation in the Middle East, which is predicated on Jewish victimhood. Based on their policies, one would think that in the minds of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Palestinians and perhaps all Arabs are inherently violent terrorists or autocrats who want to wipe all Jews off the map. Jews on the other hand, after suffering centuries of anti Semitism are in constant threat and need to protect themselves at all costs. By extension, anyone in the Palestinian solidarity camp is also a terrorist. Additionally, Netanyahu has fiercely pushed the image of Israel as the sole democracy in the Middle East that promotes freedom of the press and human rights. But the much-publicized non-violent populist strategies of the Arab Spring revolutions provide us with another picture. If non-violent strategies like the flotilla succeed in giving the world a very different image of both the solidarity movement and Palestinian civil society then the simple binary that Netanyahu and Lieberman are working with collapses.

Misplaced Feelings?

Some on the political right who defend Netanyahu, Leiberman and the conservative policies of the Israeli occupation have dismissed many of the solidarity activists as naïve old hippies who have been duped by Hamas. This point of view takes the opposite approach from looking at flotilla activists as sophisticated cold-blooded terrorists and instead paints them as a group with an embarrassing set of misplaced feelings. These critics suggest that the power of logic and facts will overcome the vulgarity of their emotions. It is true that many of the activists on board the Audacity of Hope were driven by sentiment. But is this so bad? Like their fellow maritime cultural warriors Bas Jan Ader and Swimming Cities, the Gaza flotilla is predicated on an overabundance of feeling.

One of the interesting things about feeling is that it exists in between and around physical things. Feeling, or what some have called affect[4], is not something that is about a body. Rather, it is about a relation between bodies – a condition that mirrors the interstitial space of the heterotopic sea. The audacity that President Obama and the flotilla boat of the same name alluded to is so radical because simple emotions like hope, empathy, sadness or joy are so often ridiculed in both political and artistic circles. The audacity of the flotilla is not just its use of détournment to subvert the dominant paradigm of political representation but also its belief in the politics of feeling. The main cargo that The Audacity of Hope intended to carry to Gaza was love letters. Thus the solidarity that the activists on board were delivering was supplemented by the sentiments of a thousand people. These activists simply wanted to touch the shores of Gaza and the faces of its people. They wanted to touch a place that seems politically impenetrable and break through the territory’s status of isolation.

Heterotopia is a space for the messy, unformed or difficult things to exist. Brothels, hospitals and cemeteries allow for sex, sickness and death to exist in a proscribed space for the abject. Similarly, the heterotopia of the high seas allows the messiness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to become manifest. It exists outside of the binaries that seductively offer the illusion of clarity and form. The heterotopia of the high seas on which the Gaza flotilla exists is also about the messiness of feeling where empathy, idealism and the desire to touch the untouchable can exist undeterred by the perceived vulgarity of hope.


[1] The conditions under which Israel imposed this blockade and the details of its very nature are related to a complex history that would be too complicated to go into here. But in short, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967. In 1993, in conjunction with the Oslo Accords, The Palestinian Authority was established to govern some Palestinian areas including Gaza. Despite some degree of autonomy, during this time Israel controlled its airspace, borders and territorial waters. In 2005, Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza and since 2007, following the 2006 Palestinian elections, Hamas has functioned as the government of the Gaza Strip. But since 2005 Israel, in conjunction with Egypt, has kept tight controls on anything that moves in and out of Gaza – a policy that tightened after the Hamas kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Operation Cast Lead, a 2008 war in which over 1000 Palestinians in Gaza were killed in response to rocket attacks on Israel, had a major effect on Gazan infrastructure and made the experience of the blockade even harsher.
[2] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 22-27
[3] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994)
[4] Gregory J Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, 'An Inventory of Shimmers': Affect, For Now’ in The Affect Theory Reader (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010) p1