The Politics of the Zone

Conceived of to enable states to trade at the global scale, the zone is compelled, by design, to disregard domestic laws and “inefficient” state bureaucracy to succeed in its quest to provide uninhibited economic growth. As Keller Easterling reveals in Extrastatecraft, through its rejection of state governance, “[the zone] has become an agent in the growth of extrastate urban space (space beyond the reach of local jurisdiction),”19 allowing its host to navigate and profit from shadow economies. As the zone grows, it engulfs more of the host state to become what Easterling refers to as a “large-scale spatial organization that demands an administrative authority comparable to that of the state.”20 Known as the zone state authority, this entity is an extrastate player with the power to negotiate with foreign businesses and governments. With the power bestowed upon it, the zone authority belongs to a network of international, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental players and enjoys the ability to grant an exception from any law and implement selective regulations. Despite its apparent apoliticism and lawlessness, the zone is actually “a powerful political pawn that trades state bureaucracy for more complex layers of extrastate governance, market manipulation, and regulation.”21

Although the zone’s operations elude local standards and regulations, its physical space is contained within state boundaries, resulting in sites of multiple, overlapping, or nested forms of sovereignty where domestic and transnational jurisdictions collide. Characterized as “a temporary phenomenon to launch economies,”22 the zone’s earliest iterations were expected to dissolve into the economies of their host cities and migrate to a new host where they would contribute to the revival of new economies.

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Devoid of the contradiction and diversity that characterize richer forms of urbanity, the zone remains a closed-loop, mutating by breeding with other increasingly prevalent urban enclave forms such as office parks, container ports, offshore financial areas, tourist compounds, knowledge villages, IT campuses, and even museums and universities, to become a world contagion.23 Rather than merging with the general business and industrial climate of the host city, the zone became a “persistent yet mutable instrument, transforming as it absorbed more of the general economy within its boundaries.”24

Using each other as proxy, state and non-state actors manipulate and decouple from laws to manufacture the most advantageous political or economic climate. As a result, the zone, in some cases, has evolved into an entire city or city-state, becoming the seat of governance from which it is selectively exempt.25 In other cases, it has multiplied, operating as a mini-city or acting as a doppelganger of the host state.

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The Aesthetics of the Zone

Designed to entice the audience into believing that fantastical projections of delirious buildings shaped like diamonds, dolphins, and crystals are a plausible version of reality, zone imagery is a powerful tool that relies heavily on a set of strategies to sustain the illusion it presents. 

To understand the zone’s ambitions, it is imperative that imagery associated with the zone is isolated and assessed qualitatively. Easterling’s analysis of media advertising the zone criticizes the crude and tacky quality of production and simplistic representation to insinuate that the current aesthetics of the zone obscure the violence and complexity characteristic of the form. An evaluation of zone imagery that seeks to understand how the medium “destabilizes the familiar to redistribute the sensible”27 momentarily disregards the lack of sophistication and dishonesty to consider the aspirations of and effects produced by the image itself. Michael Young’s work on estrangement and the aesthetics of abstraction is appropriated to zone imagery to engage with different representations of the zone and judge qualities made available by the image. In this consideration, a level of sophistication and tact that is frequently eclipsed by the amusement and disbelief evoked by the strange projections begins to materialize.

The local context is substituted by a ceaseless and expansive landscape that protects and separates the zone from other urban forms. The limited information presented in the image renders the zone as an enclave that is liberated from the constraints of its host. In its isolated depiction of the zone, the image erases the messy politics of the zone which  result from jurisdictional overlaps and complex affiliations. Rather than dismissing these qualities as being the result of an unrefined production effort, it is crucial to recognize their effects; the abstraction and transformation of the context intensifies and lengthens the observer’s attention and triggers aesthetic engagement.

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The dense cluster of generic high-rises that defines the skyline is occasionally interrupted by a preposterous, extravagant icon that fractures the monotony of the zone. The placement of this iconic object in the context of the zone estranges the observer’s relationship with the more normative forms that create the background and disrupts the temporal flows, thus altering the manner in which one experiences the reality proposed by the zone. Michael Young postulates that abstraction in aesthetics requires a background to suggest that the estrangement comes after something, but does not demand that the background show sequence or process.28 For zone imagery, which strives to impart optimism through plausibly futuristic realities, this tactic produces a defamiliarization that is innovative and engaging, while preventing the observer from contemplating the systems and processes that enable the development of such a flamboyant context. Jacques Ranciere notes that aesthetics can alter what a community believes can be said; this is how it begins to redistribute the senses.29 In the case of zone imagery, the presence of the incredulous icon alters what the observer believes can possibly exist within the space of the zone by disturbing the assumptions of the background to upend the very appearance of reality.

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As Easterling observes in Extrastatecraft, the isomorphic zone rejects most of the circumstance and contradiction frequently associated with more familiar forms of urbanity.30 Advertised as an instrument of economic liberalism, the zone attempts to appear apolitical to advance its agendas. The image of the zone relies on the identical application of abstract materials on every form associated with the zone to create a unified space devoid of violence, conflict, disagreement, and inequality. The zone is calibrated through this abstraction of material and appearance. In the immaterial but immaculately polished multiplicity of surfaces, the absence of any cultural identity associated with the city surrounding the zone is inevitably captured.