Before the free world


One of the most remarkeable "state of exceptions" in the context of my art school in Geneva was its free port.

A free port is a bonded zone under customs control to store goods in transit. The ‘free’ aspect of free ports refers to the suspension of customs duties and taxes until the moment the goods reach their final destination. Mostly free ports are found in border areas, harbors or airports, but in Geneva you can find one on a general industrial plot.

The free ports and warehouses of Geneva have made media headlines, since it is increasingly used as a permanent home for investment goods such as heritage objects or artworks. It is said to house more artworks than the Louvre in Paris.

I started a research project, that lead to my graduation project.



Freeports and Warehouses, an observatory


When reading about the global art market things are described as conceptual, obscure, ungraspable and anonymous. I wondered what the importance of place was in this debate, and decided to look very carefully to the functioning of this freeport.

By renting a container in the Swiss zone of the site, I had a reason to hang around. I became friends with the secretary, the handyman and the dog of the customs agent. I collected rumours and observed the activities taking place.

Entering the “free zone”, however, always seemed impossible without knowing any tenant inside. But strangely, at the very end of my stay there, the handyman granted me a short cut through this zone, without having to show my passport.


“Before the free world sits a gatekeeper.To this gatekeeper comes a woman from the nation who asks to gain entry into the free world. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant her entry at the moment.The woman thinks about it and then asks if she will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.”

At the moment the gate to the free world stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the woman bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. From room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.”

The gatekeeper gives her a stool and allows her to sit down at the side in front of the gate.There she sits for days ... and months. She makes many attempts to be let in, and she wears the gatekeeper out with her requests.The gatekeeper often interrogates her briefly, questioning her about her homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells her once more that he cannot let her inside yet.”

(after Kafka, 1915)

Freeports and Warehouses, a guided tour

Article, contribution to Vermeir&Heiremans’ InResidence Magazine on art and capitalism, May 2015.  Download



Freeports and Warehouses,

hyperflexibel national borders

The free port has one space, called GenevArtSpace that can be rented by tenants to organise a small exhibition open for the public. The door towards the "Swiss" zone of the site is opened so that everyone can enter without passing customs constrol.

The fascinating thing is that when one is interested to buy a piece, this door is closed again, a sign is given through the security cameras to the customs office, and the doors towards the "free zone" are opened, which makes it possible that the art pieces can be sold without paying taxes.

National borders depend on the opening and closing of two double doors.


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Freeports and Warehouses,

a "modest" emergency map

The evacuation plan of the site is highly fascinating since the plan does not reveal at all how the space is organized. Only the hallways are drawn, but even these did not fit the hallways I was walking in.

The map shows in grey how the "free" zone is situated on the site.

If we assume that the free zone is a no-man’s land, then this would mean that national borders run through a building here. The local workman showed me how the doors to the grey zone change with the floor of the building. “Every few years they change, according to the demand for storage facilities in both zones.”

Here national borders respond to the law of supply and demand.

Freeports and warehouses,

a fluid emergency map

Animation, see link:

The original evacuation maps served as a basis for an animated movie, that invites visitors to carefully examine the alleged normality behind which critical economic processes take place.


One chapter explains what you will encounter when walking through the building. A second chapter elaborates on the history of the free port: all forms it has taken and how gradually the "free" zone was expanding over time.



Freeports and warehouses,

fluid exhibition furniture

In this free port, millions of valuable art pieces are kept in boxes, so that they are safeguarded for transportation and "the velocity of the art market".

In my container I was organizing a site-specific installation, but actually reflected on a phenomenon that tries to be as site-unspecific as possible.

Therefore the container was arranged with fluid furniture: a box that can be transformed into a bench, a closet, a pedestal, ... all elements useful for a pop-up exhibition.


Freeports and warehouses,

Movie screening and debate

When doing this project, Dieter Leyssen and I were at the same time asked by Kathleen Vermeir and Ronny Heirmans to design the set of their movie “Masquerade”, which is criticizing the functioning of the art market. Fluidity was the key concept of the movie: the set changed shape, the characters changed roles, the editing was controlled by an algorithm.

I decided to invite friends and actors from the art field to come and see this movie in my container, as a start for a group discussion. The very presence and focus on the functioning of the space recalls the centrality of space in the current discussions on globalism and transnationalism.


The security agent came to check why so many people were present. I told him: “we are here to discuss about the art market and criticize the money laundering that is taking place”. He looked at me, doubted and finally answered with a smile: “well I guess you are in the right place”. And we could continue our gathering "modestly".