Documenting Capital: Intersections of Free Trade Zone Architecture and Digital Filmmaking

By Patrick Smith and Patrick Brodie


What can digital filmmaking bring to an understanding of the spaces of capital circulation and accumulation?

This project falls under the umbrella of the Global Emergent Media (GEM) Lab’s Works-in-Progress (WIP) initiative. This workshop is meant to showcase and investigate nascent research-creation projects. To find out more, please see the GEM Lab website:

 The Shannon Free Zone is a 2.43 square kilometre international business park located adjacent to Shannon Airport, County Clare, Ireland. It was established in 1959 to attract foreign and regional investment, and claims to be the world’s first free trade zone. Prior to its establishment, Shannon Airport relied almost entirely upon trans-Atlantic flight stopovers for its business. As commercial aircraft increased their fuel capacity and flight distances, it was more and more likely that air traffic would soon begin to bypass Shannon altogether. Consequently, Brendan O’Regan, an entrepreneurial County Clare resident, proposed a manufacturing incentive aimed at creating a production and finance hub with special tax incentivization. While now a free trade zone in name only, its model of the special economic zone—a sequestered space of territorial and financial exception—has been exported and implemented across the world in places like Shenzhen, Dubai, King Abdullah Economic City (Saudi Arabia), Cyberjaya (Malaysia) and across the Global South (and North) (Easterling, 15). In these places, deregulated industry has led to massive spatial transformations, due chiefly to financial growth/investment and the resulting migrations of labor and expulsion of populations.

Driven by a motivation to document and visualize financialized spaces like the Shannon Free Zone—which, while containing a distinct history, also functions as an active financial conduit—we embarked on a multi-media research-creation project aiming to “cognitively map” the abstract flows of capital through the area. Our adoption of a “cognitive mapping” praxis intends to represent the complexity of these histories, and extends primarily from Fredric Jameson’s work on the cultural and economic logics of late finance capitalism. Cognitive mapping—a primarily aesthetic-political practice—should “provide, in one way or another, glimpses into, or distant refractions of, the functioning of a global political economy” (Toscano and Kinkle, 20).

By visualizing the spatial machinations of finance capital (shooting on a Sony A7sII camera), we hoped to confront its invisible circulations by focusing on its material infrastructures and conditions of labor.

Our understanding of free trade zones has benefited enormously from the work of scholars such as Keller Easterling and Aihwa Ong, both of whom have written extensively about the dynamics and negotiations between transnational corporations and governing bodies in the administration of these deregulated zones of industry, trade, and services. We hope to confront these spatial dynamics designed to eliminate friction in certain modes of privileged circulation, while maintaining strategic barriers around a condition of exception. While not necessarily novel, these processes have intensified under the militarized, logistical governance of these zones across all corners of the world since their inception.

While it provided a material and managerial template for free trade zone governance, Shannon never became Dubai. The space itself contains traces of this unrealized and offset potentiality, especially as it re-emerges from obscurity and dilapidation, but one must account for the Republic of Ireland’s unique political and economic context when discussing and representing its present, past, and future state. Ultimately, within the epoch of finance capital’s unrelenting expansion, its increasing globalization requires spatial placeholders to both absorb the surplus of financial overaccumulation and to create new strategic centers for further movement and expansion.

After spending some time on site, were struck by was the everydayness of the operations of corporate development. When we arrived in Shannon, we were given a presentation by executives of Shannon Commercial Properties (SCP), who described the zone’s growth, decline, and current regeneration as a commercial hub. Nested quite snugly next to the grounds of the Shannon Airport—also administered by the Shannon Group and a site of controversy as US military planes often stop over for fuel on the way to and from their undeclared wars in the Middle East—the zone is a visual relic of earlier forms and stages of production and circulation.

While the offices of the development corp were new and refurbished, we were informed that much of the zone, especially the manufacturing spaces, needed to be reclaimed, demolished, and rebuilt in order to continue operating. While SCP had not repossessed all of the manufacturing and warehouse spaces still in use, the process was underway. Across the main road of the industrial estate were the razed and rebuilding grounds of two new office buildings. These were intended to ultimately plug into the tech and knowledge economies being so successfully developed in and around the nation’s other urban centers (and elsewhere in the zone, where GE Capital holds massive headquarters).

The presence of our camera served as both a passport and mediator between ourselves and the spaces we entered and individuals with whom we interacted. Goals, intentions, relations, and intimacies emerged organically, yet the sense of our intrusion, capture, or exportation remained. However, this was not necessarily a unidirectional process. We were tactful about our intentions, but the goals of the executives were clear: they needed to promote the space, and it did not matter where this promotion went. The fact that the Shannon Group also has interests in an airport, regional touristic development, and other branches of commercial industry betrays a logic of expansion that will ride whatever medium of circulation made available. The managers of these smaller arms simply follow the mandate of whatever development process they are promoting.

This brings us to a question of methodology, and the deep imbrications of industry and knowledge creation, of capital and creative production. It is quite common for the barons of industry and policy-making to mine the analyses of humanities research, however critical, to better understand the processes that they are meant to design, regulate, and optimize. When we visited with the critical geographer Rob Kitchin at Maynooth University on this same research trip, he told us that the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis, which has produced some of the most searing critiques of Irish neoliberal policy through the Celtic Tiger and since the crash, was often under contract to produce research and policy papers from the very organizations that they threw into the flames.

While this can produce affirmative results, as developers and policy-makers may better understand the violences and hierarchies of these processes, they always appear to toe the line between critique and complicity. The information produced can aid in more robust and sustainable forms of urban development, but can also be utilized by developmental logics that further optimize systems of exclusion and exploitation, whether intentionally or not.

So, where does research creation fit into these complex systems of governance and critique, design and disruption? The ethnographic approach inevitably must account for the lived experience of both the environments observed and the researchers involved. It is impossible to impose binary oppositions to everyday contingency, social practices, relations, intimacies, and experiences. As mentioned above, in an attempt to investigate this approach, the GEM Lab—created and led by Canadian Research Chair Joshua Neves—is beginning a Works-in-Progress (WIP) initiative (co-organised by Patrick Brodie, Viviane Saglier and Patrick Brian Smith), which will create a space for alternative methodologies and practices, investigating research trends in the humanities such as visual anthropology, digital ethnography, field recording and sound experiments, approaches to information technologies, and other on the ground research practices. WIP can hopefully create a space for such exchanges. While the workshop will not propose answers to these questions, it will serve as a site of conversation around the future of humanities research that is constantly put under pressure by the same neoliberal logics that it often strives to critique.