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life in transit Arrow vol 2 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 1, 2003

Life in Transit: between airport and camp

Gillian Fuller
University of New South Wales

It’s all this and more besides…

Felix Guattari

Rotation [point of aircraft lift]

1. I know Singapore airport almost as well as my local mall. I seem to transit in Singapore almost every time I travel. I use the airport’s email centre, smoke on the rooftop terrace garden, eavesdrop on conversations at the carp pond, and buy American cigarettes at a good price. Habituated in a literacy learned from a lifetime of roads and shopping malls, I move from floor to floor, gate to gate in a way that seems instinctual. I have of course, never been to Singapore. I have never left the airport. Singapore — whatever that entity may be — is quite abstract to me. My knowledge of Singapore is gleaned through newspaper reports, stories told by students, and by time spent at its airport. I may never have been ‘to Singapore’, but I have been ‘in Singapore ’. On my way elsewhere, I have pressed against this nation’s frontiers from somewhere within its geophysical borders. As Donald Pascoe has noted in relation to airports, ‘the idea of "border" loses its physicality and reveals itself to be a theoretical construction which can materialise anywhere’(2001:34).

2. As geophysical space ‘diminishes’, and borders (as we once understood them) melt into air. So too do territorial dimensions of the state. The powers of borders take shape less through mountain ranges and seas, than through legislative and ‘capitalist parliamentarian’ structures that exclude (or include) through modes of compliance/non compliance (for/against, democracy/terrorism, citizen’s rights/human rights). New cellular spaces, axes of logic, affects and rules to abide by cut through the geophysical borders of ‘nation states’. This process isn’t new. Colonialism reorganised geographical space into sovereign zones of ideological and economic allegiances. Place became terra nullius long ago, wiped of indigenous particularities and incorporated into a totalising space of urgent global improvement. But as Virilio (1983) notes, speed propels geo-politics into other dimensions. Geography, he claims, has been replaced by chronography, which measures distance in time and speed, and in which a technological logic of speed and competition has reconfigured global territory.

3. At the crossroads of this transition is the airport, where the chrono-politics of jet travel collide with the remnants of national geo-politics. In other words, airports enact another way of thinking about global relationships. They quite literally operate through a ‘network logic’ that critically animates the categories of nation states and territory, of humans, animals, products and machines, and of material and informational modes of mobility.

4. In 1992, Dejan Sudjic may have been able to make the claim that airports are ‘high-stress landscapes, full of anxious people on unfamiliar territory’ (1992: 169). But like many writers in the fields of new technologies, what may have held in the nineties needs to be revised in the light of more recent ‘upgrades’. Before September 11, most air travellers had become quite habituated to the hybrid structures of an ever-evolving airspace system, slumping into the banality of the frustrating routines of travelling and the increasing predictability of the landside interface (which looks more and more like a mall). Now, a year after ‘the terrible events’, security offers a different spectacle where anxiety is integrated into the frustrations of the queue. In other words, the frustration of not being able to move.

5. This is not to say that airports no longer hold some allure. The airport is still the site of a take-off, an ascent into the vertical realm, with all its attendant tropes of power and transcendence. The modern airport still offers that frisson of danger that characterised the very early years of aviation — a ‘reversal of gravity, a death defied’ (Pascoe, 2000: 45)

Arrivals [aircraft, origin, time]

The phylogenetic evolution of machinism is expressed at a primary level, by the fact that machines appear across generations, one suppressing the other as it becomes obsolete. The filiation of previous generations is prolonged into the future by lines of virtuality and their abhorrent implications. But this is not a question of a univocal historical causality. Evolutionary lines appear in rhizomes: datings are not synchronic but heterochronic.

Guattari ‘Machinic Heterogenesis’ (1995: 40

6. Strictly speaking, there is no ‘first airport’. Records indicate that operational airports existed as far back as 1909. However these rudimentary aerodromes were generally indistinguishable from local athletic fields, parks and golf courses’ (Wells, 2000: 4). Some of these air strips were upgraded into regional airports and private landing fields, others expanded into the terminal cities of Sydney, Newark and Orly, few morphed back into fields and farmlands. Sydney Airport, for instance, has been in continuous operation since 1920, developing from a modest aerodrome in the middle of a swamped lined paddock on the northern shore of Botany Bay to the sprawling mass of Kingsford Smith International Airport. New York International Airport, now known as JFK, began operations as an airport in 1948. Its eldest sibling, Newark Airport (once the world’s busiest) began in 1928. Although the story of each airport is intimately connected to a most unique sense of place, the spatial history of airports, whether New York or Sydney, follows a repetitive trajectory: a marshland on the outskirts of town becomes a landing strip, which is later paved; and old sheds become international airports. The repetitiveness of the experience is part of the point. Part of the history of airports is the ceaseless remediation of the awkward materialities of place (like swamps and farming lands) into space that can be measured, represented and standardised.

Ildewild Field 1945

New York Int'l Airport 1948

JFK International Airport 1971

7. Forever upgrading into something new and better, the airport is never complete. It is in a constant state of adaptation with the techno-cultural processes that constitute its operations. The history of airports is perhaps better defined as a series of processes operating through space: a series of perceptual loops, technocultural innovations and economic contingencies that cohere the materialities of space into place. In this sense the airport is an immanent system constantly overcoming its own limitations. Airstrips became airports, and in turn, airports became movies, points of memory and points of departure, sites of industry, military zones, and brand names. The airport evolved into a complex techno-cultural machine. It provides an interface not simply between material components (eg structures for processing from land to air). Rather, the airport interface functions at a variety of levels, both material and immaterial, both global and local.

8. Interfaces stabilise contexts across distinct systems in order to enable transfers of energy between people, codes and other machines to occur: airport signage stabilises traffic; pressurisation stabilises air. As Lev Manovich (2000) has pointed out, the interface shapes how ‘interactants’ conceive of the ‘object’ they are interacting with. Interfaces release us of the burden of understanding the workings of our machines — we need only push the lever, point – and – click, or follow the signs and things happen almost by magic. Thus the interface enables processes of transformation and interconnection between and within material and semiotic systems and in doing so troubles the distinctions between such systems. Within the evolution of airports, some interfaces, such as the runway have remained relatively stable. Other interfaces such as signage systems and landside design upgrade constantly.

9. More like a complex overlapping of co-evolving biotechnical systems, airports around the world process millions of things (people, messages, cargo, missions, procedures) in unlimited combinations everyday. Yet out of this incredible movement of multiple ‘ontological textures’ a remarkable homogeneity in structural aesthetics seems to contain this virtual diversity. For all the speed and radical heterogeneity of global air travel, a refrain of aviation aesthetics has emerged in the contemporary architecture of airports — the beep of metal detection, the expanses of glass overlooking the apron, the international pictograms, the slick retail space. This refrain seems to soothe the disorientation produced by the constancy of transit in modern lives; where the imperatives of advance are pre-emptive in every way, and the increasingly convergent logics of technocratic science and education, personal psychology and career planning, and corporate planning and war assure us that the future will somehow be rosier and more certain if we yield to flow and move with the rest of the traffic.

10. The integrated flows of aviation were not always so seamless. Flying was once the adventure of the reckless and the dashing. Unreliable aircraft generated real anxieties for a potential public up until the 1960s. Flying was uncomfortable, noisy, turbulent and expensive. Small propeller planes flew at low bumpy altitudes, stopping frequently to refuel. In the early 1960s, 70 per cent of North Americans had never taken a commercial flight (Lewis 2000: 34).

11. Modern jet aviation reassured passengers’ underlying anxiety about air travel. As traffic increased so did the complexity of corporate, individualist and nationalist forces that materially and symbolically stabilise through the airport’s diagrammatics of technical compliance. A runway must be so long and so wide, and a departure gate must be able to accommodate a series of different model planes. The variety of inter-nationalist protocols, immigration, flight path routing, safety standards, corporate ‘customer focus’, airside management, signage systems, landside access and flow management converge and create architectures of global logistics. While all airports may not be identical, there is a sameness to them throughout the world. Wherever I am in the world, I know where I am when I’m at the airport. I’m on my way somewhere else.


12. According to French anthropologist Marc Auge, today we live in a world

where people are born in the clinic and die in the hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday camps and refugee camps, shantytowns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces are developing; where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicate wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce: a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral…(Auge 1995: 78)

This is a world of constant transit. On any given day about 3 million people are in the sky. When Pure War was published in 1983, Paul Virilio claimed the figure to be ‘over 100,000’. This world of transit doesn’t operate at the same velocity, or in the same modes in every place. For instance, The United States of America is, by far, the number one nation in terms of total-tonne-kilometres and passenger-kilometres. Of the 1,480 million passengers moved in global civilian airspace in 1999-2000, 36 per cent were carried on US badged airlines. Of the top 25 airports in the world in terms of passenger throughput, 17 are located in the US. The world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s ‘Hartsfield’, processes 77.9 passengers per year. Chigago’s ‘O’Hare’, the world’s second busiest airport, processes 72.5 million passengers per year. Both of these airports are major domestic hub airports and US traffic is overwhelmingly commuter-based and domestic. Sydney’s ‘Kingsford Smith’, Australia’s busiest airport, processes around 23 million passengers a year (all figures from ICOA 2000).

13. The airport is a machine for processing and controlling mobility that operates a particular logic of transit, where the differently motivated imperatives of inclusion/exclusion and capacity and flow integrate. Within this process the seemingly preordained Cartesian coordinates of global space and attendant premises like national citizenship and human rights become enmeshed within the imperatives of globalising movement where the sovereign structures of geography, culture and law are logistical issues – impediments to direct movement. As US congresswoman, Claire Luce Booth so presciently and ingenuously stated over 60 years ago ‘American postwar aviation policy is simple: we want to fly everywhere. Period!!!’ (cited in Lewis 2000: 16)

14. Like data in a network, packets of information-made-flesh are transmitted to other places. For instance, as I travel from Sydney to Egypt, I engage in a series of mostly involuntary protocols. I am routed through the network in set ways: SYD/SIN/CAI. If that is unavailable I could reroute SYD/BKK/CAI and arrive in Cairo—a message to another country much poorer than my own. I peel out of my PAX 43K, SQ SIN/CAI weight/cost unit configuration with the aviation machine with which I was incorporated and pass through the airport.

15. Cairo Airport may look nothing like Singapore’s Changi Airport, but its information architecture is the same – it is designed to process mobility. It is a self renewing machine that ‘refreshes’ after each take-off and landing. Planes download passengers, baggage, cargo, excreta, and rubbish, and then upload passengers, baggage, cargo, fuel, food and packaged gadgets. The airport propels direction and flow: planes take off on the northern approach, baggage goes landside to carousel 6. As Scott Bukatman notes ‘the airport doesn’t deny the outside world — it just privileges directionality’ (Bukatman 1993: 126). A destination firmly in mind, we wayfind through the airport, a space where the near and the elsewhere coalesce into a series of macro and micro connected itineraries that are simultaneously real and virtual— check in, immigration, departure gate, Sydney-Singapore-Cairo, the colourful markets, the ancient pyramids!

16. The airport not only transforms a body on the ground into a body in the air, but it also involves the incorporeal transformation of the travelling body — as a citizen, a passenger (pax), a baggage allowance, an accused or an innocent. The airport constitutes a space where a series of contractual declarations (I am Australian, I have nothing to declare, I packed these bags myself) accumulate into a password where I am free to deterritorialise on a literal level — I take flight, but not without a ‘cost’. I have been scanned, checked and made to feel guilty. I could be a body containing wrong bodies (a smuggler), a body that could explode (a ‘terrorist’), or I could be a body with no rights (an ‘illegal alien’). As Bukatman might say, ‘the subject has been propelled into the machine’ (1993: 17). I’m not sure I’d evoke the relation in such transitive terms, but one thing is quite sure: ‘the subject’ is definitely in trouble at the airport.


17. In the pursuit of our itinerary, the place – that ethnographic imaginary of organic sociality — becomes little more than a sign saying ‘you are here’. In our need to move, we submit to a series of invasive procedures and security checks that are becoming pervasive and yet are still rationalised through a discourse of jurisdicial exception. In transit spaces one doesn’t so much see landscape, so much as one sees landmarks, and oneself indefinitely othered as ‘pax’, citizen, consumer, security risk, traveller, or anonymous ‘free spirit’. As the passenger moves through the airport, she focuses on symbols for orientation and passes through thresholds that authenticate her identity. As Auge says: ‘There will be no individualisation (no right to anonymity) without identity checks.’ (1995: 102). At the airport place is turned into passage and identity into a biometric (literally, the measure of life). The airport is a non-place: its topos is primarily symbolic and transitory; its sociality is solitary and contractual.

18. Non-places are increasing— everywhere we are addressed as agents of one kind or another —‘do not eat in the train’, ‘find/lose yourself in Paris’, ‘please present boarding pass and passport’, yet this agency is highly modulated. The conditions of traffic or the rules of use address a virtual 'average man' subject to a series of silent exchanges and injunctions (turn left, insert card now, Welcome to Sydney), where contractual modes of interaction are sharply defined and textually mediated. Yet if the non–places of supermodernity are so overwhelmingly contractual and solitary, why can driving down the highway or walking to the departure gate feel so liberating? Once my bags are checked, I perfunctorily endure the prolonged goodbyes as I impatiently edge closer to the immigration gate. This is the entry point of my pure transit. My boarding pass and passport separate me from my loved ones and although I’m scared of flying, I can’t wait to go.

19. The ficto-critical characters of Serres (Pantope, an angel of Newtown) and Augé (Pierre Dupont, an urbane businessman), also love the solitude the jet travel. Pantope eulogises:

The wild passion of letting yourself be transported by wind, by burning heat and by cold space… the pleasure of being anonymous, of being quiet for a long time, of existing in no place at all... where the dialogues of others continually slip in… the pleasure of leaving, of being far away, of being missing… the subtle pleasures of erasing the presence of your body, your words and your shadow, of counting for nothing, of hiding yourself, of becoming so light that you fly away…(Serres 1995:262)

There sure is something to the motionless motion and placeless place of jet aviation. There is a certain sublimeness to the felt experiences of becoming–airborne –anonymous–absent and a corresponding banality to the felt experiences to becoming –stuck–identified. In the world of transit, operational logic is utterly calibrated to movement. Everything is organised around motion. By dint of this ontological twist from ‘being’ to ‘becoming’ as a material organisational principle a whole series of previously held concepts organised around more static concepts like category or position, don’t seem to have the same purchase on the real as they once did. In the case of airports, operations are set toward the dynamic unities of traffic, rather than the categories and positions of particular planes. The world is on the move, money, people, machines, data whirl around the planet, and in so doing the world necessarily changes: new continuities and discontinuities emerge. There is a time-space recalibration that is on one level totalising, producing standardised networks of material and information highways, generic travel experiences and ‘by the numbers’ biometric processing, but which on another level is deeply personal: the discontinuities of mass-migration, mass-transit and mass-media produce actual lives and experiences.

20. When citizenship of a mass-transit world entails neither blood (born of citizen parents) nor soil (born in sovereign territory), as in, say, ‘multicultural’ Australia, ‘the continuity of man and citizen, nativity and nationality’ (Agamben 1998: 131) is broken — and with it some of the fundamental presuppositions of modern sovereignty. Travellers, immigrants and refugees may be ‘released’ from the shackles of earthly and sanguinous citizenship out of which new virtual relationships emerge. But on the whole these relationships at the airport are coagulated into highly public and semioticised contractualities. As Agamben (1998), Castells (1998) and others have noted, states don’t deal with strange particularities of networked and virtualised individuals, they prefer to keep the subject within the more knowable constraints of identity.

Sydney Airport 2000  

Departures [being given the all clear]

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live
is not the exception but the rule.

Walter Benjamin (1992: 248)

21. At the airport the upside of such transformational possibilities, such as becoming pax, becoming citizen are only available to the ‘innocent’ and the technical nature of innocence is changing. The airport is in a constant state of emergency – its structures prepare constantly for disaster. As shoes are searched and fire teams do drills, innocence is not presumed, it must be proved. After 9/11, examples of the exception becoming the rule are myriad. Any skin irritation is possibly anthrax, rather than a more common allergy. Every Muslim is possibly a terrorist.

22. The markers of my identity which may once have derived from the cross matching of body to my passport (mimesis) have expanded into more comprehensive modes of biometrics in which iris scans and face recognition systems, nationality, bank accounts, age/gender/ethnic profile and itinerary assemble my innocence — which also becomes the criteria of my increasing complex virtual identity. (No wonder I want to get inside the plane to feel the embrace of anonymity). For Giorgio Agamben, such a convergence of zoe (the biological fact of life) and bios (the form of living proper to a group) constitutes the crossing of a threshold into the realms of what he calls, ‘bare life’:

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the west must begin with a clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zoe and bios, private life and political existence, between man as a simple being at home in the house and between man’s political existence in the city. (Agamben 1998: 187)

23. Bare life is the state of pervasive exception where ‘power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation’ (Agamben 1998: 171). Agamben focuses on the more extreme biopolitics of the west, in which the thresholds of indistinction between juridical rule and biological life manifested Dachau’s Versuchs Personen (many of whom were used in aviation pressurisation experiments). Yet unlike much of the voluminous contemporary Holocaust literature that excises zoe from bios altogether (inasmuch as the procedural and systemic operations of power are exceptionalised into a humanist narrative of atrocity and thus comfortably resolved with ‘never again’), the so called ‘exception’ of the Holocaust lays the ground rules for life today. Decades after Walter Benjamin took flight from Germany, his damning insights on the rhetorical functions of ‘progress’ and ‘the future’ - ‘[t]he current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical’ - are proved as the ‘war of terror’ legislates exceptional provisions to bypass the global rules of war, as well as the national constitutions of many liberal democracies. (Benjamin 1992: 249)

Artist's impression of JFK in the near future (Courtesy PANYNJ)  

[Transit] Life [but not as we know it]

24. If freedom of movement is, as Arendt (1978) claims, one of the most elemental of freedoms, then the camp provides the ultimate backdrop to the sublime feelings of placelessness that many experience as they wander through the airport. The camp, like the airport, is built for transit. Yet in the camp, no one moves. Both airport and camp constitute zones of exception, each are framed by a rhetoric of emergency, each are limit concepts of the other. One facilitates movement and the other denies it, yet both are zones of perpetual transit and futuristic promise.

25. The asylum seeker in Australia’s infamous Woomera detention centre is there on a promise, that protection and a life elsewhere is at hand. As she waits, for sometimes up to three years, over 60 millions citizens have transited through the terminals at Sydney. On the other side of the world, Israeli bulldozers destroy Palestinian houses and farms to complete a 400 km network of ‘settler by-pass roads’ which are off-limits to Palestinians, ostensibly for ‘security reasons’. These roads crisscross the West Bank and connect illegal Israeli settlements to each other and into the Israel’s 1948 borders. The effects of these roads are twofold: they materially hook Palestinian land into the Israeli road traffic network, further fragmenting the territory of Palestine; and they duplicate the most modern of time/space displacements in a land overburdened with history: the production of a non-place. The Holy Land becomes a type of ‘Holywood’. Like the commuters of LA who can drive for years and never see the slums, Israelis can travel through Palestine along the settler roads and never encounter an Arab.

26. All spaces today are complex and multidimensional. As Michel Foucault noted:

We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side by side, of the dispersed. We are at the moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein. (Foucault: 1986: 22)

Increasingly life is a series of itineraries and transit stops, home to work, gym to supermarket, Sydney to London, Iraq to Woomera (and increasingly, deportation back). Transit life is the life form of this millennium, if the nation state is floundering, the control moves from geophysical borders to borders of jurisdiction which themselves are constantly upgrading in response to ‘new threats’. The polis, itself, is increasingly organised through the logic of exception and flow control that dominates the airport: ‘The transience of the airport embodies contemporary urbanism in a real, as well as a metaphorical sense’ (Sudjic 1992: 152) As George St in the CBD undergoes another upgrade and a new motorway cuts into the ground so that I can travel from the city to Randwick and never see a single suburban street or house, I know Sudjic and Virilio are right: the airport is the city of the future. But what of Agamben’s claim that "the camp, which is now securely lodged within the city’s interior, is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet"? (1988: 176)

27. For Agamben, any zone where ‘normal order’ is suspended is a camp. A camp is a space where anything is possible, including death. New camps thus emerge daily: dogs sniff commuters on trains, detention centres are a growth industry and the category of refugee is constantly being redefined. The post war refugee, the brave dissident fleeing communist regimes, has been ‘upgraded’ to the queue jumper and the illegal alien. Over at the airport, in the interests of efficiency, the traveller too has undergone some upgrading. The ‘sophisticated’ experience of the jetset traveller of the sixties is now available only to those travellers in the business class or in the right ‘loyalty scheme’. The rest of the travellers are now in the queue as well, waiting for a bag search and body pat down.

Gillian Fuller is Lecturer in new media at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. She is currently collaborating on a large multimedia project on airports with Ross Harley, UNSW, URL:, and writing a book on transit semiotics. Email:


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