Disregarding Borders: On Francis Alÿs’s The Green Line

by Christian Sancto


In 1948, Israeli army commander Moshe Dayan used a green pencil to draw a line across a map of Palestine. The general’s gesture marked the border of, and effectively founded, the new state of Israel. The United Nations ratified the border and officially recognised the state of Israel in 1949, thus making the border effective de jure, but it only remained effective de facto for just short of two decades: in 1967 Israeli forces transgressed ‘the green line’ (this had become the 1948 border’s informal appellation) and enforced a new border between their territory and that of the Palestinians. This new border, however, as well as the several modifications to it that have ensued in the years that followed, never attained formal legal recognition.

In 2004, just over half a century after General Dayan’s border-instantiating act, Mexico-based Belgian artist Francis Alÿs spent two days traversing Jerusalem on foot. His route followed the portion of Dayan’s green line that cuts through the city, dividing it between Israel and Palestine. The artist carried in his hand a punctured tin of green paint; the decanting liquid left behind a thin trail on the city’s surface as he walked. Alÿs’s transposed iteration of Dayan’s border-marking act was filmed by the artist’s frequent collaborator, Julien Devaux; the footage was subsequently edited into a roughly 17-minute digital video and released into the art world under the title The Green Line.

Alÿs’s artwork has attracted much critical attention. According to many of the artist’s interlocutors, The Green Line’s political overtones emanate from the way the work discloses the absurdity of social divisions effectuated by the violent instantiation of geopolitical borders. In this text, however, I frame its political potency differently: aside from concerning itself with the violence of border-marking acts themselves, I argue that The Green Line articulates a critique of the forms of violence that inhere in disregarding legally instantiated geopolitical borders. In so doing I bring the dynamics of Alÿs’s artwork to bear on a problem that has long occupied philosophers and political theorists, namely that of the relation between violence and law. I turn in particular to Giorgio Agamben’s engagement with this problem in State of Exception to suggest a double movement made in The Green Line: I argue that the work indexes the 1948 Israel-Palestine border’s spectral legal status in the contemporary moment, but also articulates the conditions for producing new political spaces predicated specifically on the spectral legality of the border itself.

In State of Exception Agamben discusses two main forms of relation between violence and law. The first, the state of exception itself, is elaborated primarily through a critical commentary on the work of Carl Schmitt. Agamben identifies the state of exception as a singular legal mechanism that, when activated, effects the suspension of the juridical order itself. This capacity of the law to suspend its own functionality opens onto a number of paradoxical yet constitutive features of the state of exception. Salient among these is “the separation of ‘force of law’ from the law,” that is, the separation of formally-inscribed legal norms from the violence, or force, that instantiates and preserves them. This situation allows legal norms to lose their “applicability,” while certain acts that are relative to the law without as such being legally binding—such as orders issued by executive powers—can, nonetheless, “acquire [the] ‘force’” of those legal norms. Agamben uses the syntagma “force of law without law” to describe the state of exception’s defining dynamic.

The second form of law-violence relation that Agamben develops emerges from a consideration of Walter Benjamin’s concept of “pure” or “revolutionary” violence. This is a concept that, for Agamben, contrasts Schmitt’s figure of the state of exception in highly significant ways. Agamben notes that in formulating the concept of pure violence Benjamin is concerned with figuring a type of violence that resides entirely outside any possible capture in juridical praxis. But rather than implying the outright destruction of law, pure violence “is attested to only as the exposure and deposition of the relation between violence and law.” For Agamben the possibility of such a deposition is the point of irreducible distinction between Benjamin and Schmitt: if, for Benjamin, the thought of pure violence testifies to the possibility of a wholly extralegal form of violence, for Schmitt the state of exception is the device by which a form of violence separated from law can always be retethered to the juridical sphere.

To further qualify the distinction between the state of exception and pure violence, Agamben turns, surprisingly perhaps, to some of Benjamin’s remarks on the status of law in the work of Franz Kafka. I will limit myself to considering Agamben’s commentary on Benjamin’s assertion that, in Kafka, “[t]he law which is studied but no longer practiced is the gate to justice.” For Agamben, this “enigmatic image” of law not only corresponds to the way in which pure violence can contribute to the “unmasking” of the bind between law and violence; it also describes “a possible figure of law after its nexus with violence and power has been deposed.” Agamben explicitly contrasts this possible figure of law with the force of law that animates Schmitt’s version of the state of exception:

What opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity [inoperosità]—that is, another use of the law. This is precisely what the force-of-law (which keeps the law working [in opera] beyond its formal suspension) seeks to prevent. Kafka’s characters—and this is why they interest us—have to do with this spectral figure of the law in the state of exception; they seek, each one following his or her own strategy, to “study” and deactivate it, to “play” with it.

What exactly might this ‘playing’ with the law consist in? For Agamben, to play with the law is equivalent to separating law from its “canonical use” and finding for it a “new use,” a gesture that the philosopher notes is akin to the way in which children find new uses for “disused objects.” Moreover, the final passages of State of Exception allude to an isomorphism between this modality of play and the possibility of clearing spaces for what Agamben calls “truly political action.” Such spaces would facilitate “the use and human praxis that the powers of law and myth had sought to capture in the state of exception.” For Agamben, the possibility of differentiating between the suspension of law (the state of exception’s paradigmatic gesture) and deactivation of law (an effect of making law an object of ‘study’ or ‘play’) thus accrues the weight of a specifically political imperative.

Such a political imperative can be seen as a primary animating force in Alÿs’s treatment, in The Green Line, of the 1948 Israel-Palestine border. In this regard a double function that General Dayan’s green line serves in Alÿs’s artwork can be identified. First, Alÿs invokes the 1948 Israel-Palestine border as an exemplary crystallisation of the state of exception’s “force of law without law.” By transposing General Dayan’s border-marking act to the milieu of contemporary Jerusalem, Alÿs’s gesture makes the force that animated the border’s legal instantiation inseparable from the suspension of that same legal effectivity. That suspension, namely, is the one effected by the state of Israel—a suspension by means of which its continual transgressions of the legally ratified border attain the force of law without being formally instantiated as law. The 1948 border thus takes on a legal status akin to that of formal law in general in the state of exception: it becomes a legal formation that is both in operation and held in suspension.

But the 1948 border also serves a second function in The Green Line: turning to Agamben’s invocation of Benjamin’s Kafka essay, it can also be seen as an object of ‘study’ or ‘play’. By means of his mimetic gesture, Alÿs cleaves the 1948 border away from its “canonical use”—that is, a formal legal use—to confer on it an alternative “possible use of law.” In a manner akin to the way children make new uses for “disused objects,” it is precisely that ‘disused’ quality of the 1948 border that conditions Alÿs’s particular modality of ‘playing’ with it. But just as Kafka’s characters’ “studious play” is predicated not on law as such, but on the “spectral figure of the law in the state of exception,” so the latter provides an indispensable condition of Alÿs’s ability to find a new “possible use” of the 1948 border. In other words, Alÿs’s reiteration of General Dayan’s border-marking act recapitulates the double movement Kafka’s characters exercise vis-à-vis the state of exception’s “force of law without law”: a simultaneous invocation of the law’s ongoing use after its formal suspension, and a deactivation of that use that makes the inoperative law an object of ‘study’ or ‘play’.

Through this analysis, The Green Line’s political stakes may be brought more sharply into focus. By navigating various modalities of disregarding borders—that is, by navigating the difference between suspending and deactivating a border’s legal operativity—The Green Line refigures the 1948 Israel-Palestine border’s legal disuse as a possible condition for the production of new political spaces.


Christian Sancto is a candidate for the masters degree in the Department of Media and Culture, Utrecht University (The Netherlands).


Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Translated by Kevin Attell. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Alÿs, Francis. The Green Line. Accessed February 28, 2018. http://francisalys.com/the-green-line/. Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings Vol. 1, 1913-1926. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Weber, Samuel. Benjamin’s -abilities. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2008.