Crossing Borders: The Art of the Passport

Harry Weeks
Live and Work in Palestine

In our contemporary globalised world in which a complex network of multinational corporations and nations maintains hegemony, a new type of ‘Empire’ as Hardt and Negri would say, it may perhaps seem an anachronism that the 19th century construct of the nation state retains near exclusive and universal control over the flow of humans across the planet’s surface. The passport – issued, owned and controlled by the nation state – remains the primary means of identification of citizens and – barring certain exceptions – the sole means of crossing borders internationally. Its small and insignificant physical form belies the sheer weight of abstract meaning held within. Each stamp, each unintelligible alphanumeric string of characters, each photograph is simply a streamlined frontispiece for a wealth of issues buried beneath, such as citizenship, migration, sovereignty, nationalism, nationhood, belonging, identity, exclusion and inclusion.

Given the recent ‘social turn’ in art – as it has been dubbed by the critic Claire Bishop – and the associated resurgence of interest in political matters amongst artists, theorists, curators and critics, it is no great surprise that the passport has found itself utilised as a shorthand by artists wishing to invoke these issues. When Allan Kaprow noted in his 1979 essay ‘Performing Life’ that a new ‘art/life genre’ was emerging, in which the supposed borders between these two domains had become blurred or even disintegrated, he discerned the nascent form of this turn. In a reworking of the early 20th Century paradigm of the readymade – most notably employed by Marcel Duchamp – one tendency within this turn, this new ‘art/life genre’, has been the use of everyday objects within artworks as signifiers for social or political issues. The passport, thanks to the concise and recognisable nature of its physical form has become one such object. It is one, however, that raises particularly weighty problems regarding the blurring of art and life, as well as regarding art’s agency in political or social circumstances. In this text, through a brief examination of several contemporary artworks and projects that have employed the passport as a means of broaching the issue of citizenship, I wish to offer some insight into the reasoning behind the increasing mutual encroachment of ‘art’ and ‘life’, and in particular how artists have sought to engage politically, and to discern and explicate some of the problems associated with the blurring of these two spheres.

States in Search of Artists

Discussions about the political potential of art have invariably led to debates about art’s autonomy. Since the early 20th Century this issue has waxed and waned in currency in art theory, from Clement Greenberg’s modernist call for each medium within art to be entirely self-referential, to Adorno’s suggestions of art’s purposelessness. The ‘social turn’ has, for obvious reasons, led to a resurrection of such debates, albeit with a slightly altered flavour. Negar Azimi, editor of Middle Eastern cultural journal Bidoun, recently asked ‘what is the good of engaged art – whether it take the form of governmental critique or institutional critique or otherwise – when it is subsumed back into the system?’ Santiago Sierra’s contribution for the Spanish Pavillion at the 2003 Venice Biennale provides an exemplary case in point of Azimi’s argument, enacting as it does both governmental and institutional critique while being Wall Enclosing a Space.jpgfully bounded within ‘the system’. Entitled Wall Enclosing A Space, it comprised an empty room that was accessible only to Spanish citizens able to present their passports. On an institutional level it played on the outmoded nation-by-nation infrastructure of the Venice Biennale, each country presenting their own pavilion housing – usually – work by one artist or a group of artists deemed to be at the forefront of that particular nation’s art scene. Sierra commented in an interview given the following year that ‘in the context of the biennial we are all playing at national pride, and I wanted to reveal that as the principal system of every pavilion … So the theme was already a given.’ By extension, then, his work implied a form of governmental critique, a critique aimed outside of the Biennale and art world. He continues, in answer to a question regarding the emptiness of the enclosed space, ‘a nation is actually nothing; countries don’t exist. When astronauts went into space they did not see a line between France and Spain; France is not painted pink and Spain blue. They are political constructions, and what’s inside a construction?’ His empty national pavilion acts as a metonym for the wider concept of nationhood.

And yet, in his position as Spain’s representative at a Biennale constructed around the conceit of national pavilions, he was subject to the operations of the Biennale itself, ‘subsumed back into the system,’ a point freely admitted by Sierra later in the same interview. He stated, ‘in the art world you always work for the powers that be: banks, governments and so on. Who else can pay for an exposition in a museum? You have to be conscious that we all work for a machine.’ Indeed, when the Spanish ambassador arrived to see the show, without his passport, he was allowed in by the guards, essentially voiding the conceit of exclusivity upon which the work was predicated.

From a rather cynical and artworld-weary point of view, the conformity to Azimi’s critique can be easily explained. One can quite legitimately argue that, despite the supposed political comment inherent within his work, Sierra is perfectly content to operate in an autonomous and powerless manner. The question ‘what is the good of engaged art?’ is not his concern. Rather he focuses his attention on the execution of a neat and rather poetic conceptual trick. Politics may have been his source material, but it was certainly not his target.

Artists in Search of a State

A contrasting example to Sierra is the work of Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, who gained widespread media coverage for his 2011 project Live and Work in Palestine in which he marks passports with a ‘State of Palestine’ stamp that he created. Initially his action was limited to stamping the passports of people arriving at Ramallah bus station from Israeli territory; however in more recent times he has travelled to Berlin, Paris and numerous other European cities in order to continue his action. What is absolLive and Work in Palestine.jpgutely apparent is that Jarrar has not (yet) become ‘subsumed back into the system.’ Firstly, it is key to note that this is not the work of a biennial-hopping global art superstar such as Sierra; rather this was a piece by an artist who had achieved little or no recognition up until media reports of this project. Secondly, the action took place outside a gallery and outside any official state or multinational sponsored situation. Yet it can still very much be spoken of as an artistic performance for several reasons. Indeed Jarrar, when discussing the piece, is far more likely to talk about the ‘beautiful design’ of the stamp than its remarkable instance of political activism. When stamping the passports, Jarrar points out to his willing participants that they are taking part in an artistic project. Furthermore, while the early Ramallah-based stages of the project are relatively accurate in their mimicry of genuine border controls (taking place as they did at the entry point to Palestine), the later phases in Paris, Berlin etc. are utterly inaccurate.

While he is, in the act of stamping passports, adopting the role of national border controls, he is only acting or performing (as the Paris and Berlin examples show clearly). The stamp is not sanctioned, nor does he pretend it is. Rather, he admits his purpose and proceeds to take documentary photographs of those whose passports he has stamped. However, when these people then do cross international borders, especially when leaving Israel, the stamp develops some ‘real-life’ significance as this account of one participant’s experience, relayed to me by Jarrar in an email conversation, confirms:

I approached the male border police officer and handed him my passport. He noticed the stamp. "What's this?" he asked. "It's a State of Palestine visa," I told him. "What!?" he said. "It's a new State of Palestine visa," I told him. He looked at me perturbed, as if I was speaking a foreign language… "It's an art project," I said. They called their superior regardless… And with that, he took me to the interrogation room and confiscated my American and Israeli passports. After one hour, he returned and handed me my passports - the American unharmed, the Israeli cancelled - it's (sic) corners slit, the inside stamped with big CANCELLED letters.

While the owner of the passport attempts to call upon the alibi of artistic autonomy in stating ‘it’s an art project,’ the end result is that Jarrar’s project has caused a passport to be cancelled, directly impinging on the owner of that passport’s Israeli citizenship. It is key to note however that the participant’s sympathies clearly lie with the artist. The border officer (or more accurately the system within which he works) rather than Jarrar is blamed for the cancellation of the passport.

The case of the NSK State

This story is reminiscent of one particular inadvertent outcome of a long-term project enacted by the Slovenian collective NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst). In 1991, they established the NSK State, a pseudo-nation-state which although not territorially defined (the project is entitled State in Time by the collective) nevertheless was accompanied by an NSK passport whichNSK Passports.jpg designated ‘citizenship’ of the state. The passport appears genuine, albeit proclaiming allegiance to a nation which does not exist (nor has there been any claim that the nation should exist). This ‘overidentification’, as Slavoj Žižek put it in his essay ‘Why are Laibach and NSK not fascists?’, is simply a critical artistic strategy, aping the very same nation-state formation one wishes to criticise. One cannot in actuality cross borders with the passport, nor can one use it for identification. It is simply an art object that consciously resembles a real object with real use.

But, in the words of a press release for a 2010 NSK exhibition in Lagos, Nigeria, ‘the project is currently receiving a substantial number of requests for citizenship of the NSK ‘State’ from Africa, especially from Nigeria.’ The assumption that NSK citizenship is equivalent to Slovenian citizenship lies behind many (although by no means all) of these requests, a fact alluded to by a warning on the website of the Association of Nigerians in Slovenia which reads as follows:

IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO ALL CITIZENS OF THE NSK STATE AND TO ALL THOSE WHO WISH TO BECOME CITIZENS OF THE NSK STATE. NSK is not an internationally officially recognised country and NSK state passport is not a legally valid document. Owning the NSK passport does not grant citizenship of Slovenia or any other country of the world.

Like Jarrar’s project, and similarly by virtue of the usage of the passport within the artwork, the NSK state project has had implications outside of the art world, outside of the supposedly autonomous sphere art resides within. While Jarrar’s work has led to problems crossing borders and in the case outlined previously the annulment of a passport, NSK’s project caused people to attempt to cross borders by claiming citizenship of a fictional national entity.

There have been numerous other cases of artists manufacturing passports in an artistic context, Alfredo Jaar’s One Million Finnish Passports (1995) being a prime example, however without these passports then being released ‘into the wild’. In Jaar’s case, the passports – manufactured to resemble the Finnish passport, although of different dimensions – were exhibited behind a window and subsequently destroyed so as not to be confused with the genuine article. Likewise Shlomi Yaffe and Tamara Moyzes produced a fake EU Israeli passport as part of their 2011 installation in Jerusalem, The Redemption of Zion. In this case, only one was produced for the exhibition and it remained part of an installation throughout.

A passport for a supra-state

Jarrar attempts to achieve impact through enacting an artistic project that has a subsequent effect in a non-artistic context. Yaffe and Moyzes onRedemption of Zion.jpg the other hand adopt a poetic and tongue-in cheek mode, exploiting art’s fictive quality in order to enact a political gesture. The text accompanying their work proclaims:

We propose that our country becomes a member of the European Union, which will bring about the redemption of Zion.

Palestinian émigrés who are citizens of the European Union will be able to return to Israel and live in peace here. They will become citizens of Israel regardless of the Law of Return.

Jewish citizens of Israel will become European citizens and will be able to reside in the territory of Europe, by which they will rightfully re-acquire their lost identity.

The wry reversal of Zionist rhetoric surrounding the right to return to one’s homeland and re-acquire a lost identity, and the suggestion that Israel counteracts its own Law of Return by entering the EU are examples of artists disingenuously utilising the tone and language of serious political statements in order to illuminate what they view as the inconsistencies and prejudices of the country they take as their subject. In the same way that NSK adopt the language of politics in order to attack the nation-state as a construct, Yaffe and Moyzes adopt the language of politics to attack Israel. The tongue-in-cheek nature of their work becomes truly apparent in the final sentence of their press release: ‘Entry into the EU will allow Mossad agents to travel around without having to steal European passports, which will spare Israel from future diplomatic crises.’

The Belgian sociologist Pascal Gielen recently criticised political engagement in art as being impotent due to the ‘childish touch’ of the artist, the seemingly inevitable aestheticisation which occurs when political issues are placed in the hands of artists.1 However, in this instance Yaffe and Moyzes are actively exploiting this ‘childish touch’ as a means of engagement. Both NSK – despite inadvertent ‘real-life’ consequences – and Yaffe and Moyzes treat art as a form of critical discourse, almost akin to political philosophy. They utilise the potential art has to, in the words of the philosopher David Wood, ‘restage’ reality on altered terms, to offer an alternative to what exists in order to demonstrate and question the flaws and faults of our current situation.

This ‘restaging’ of life in art, to return to the language of Kaprow, necessarily entails an enlargement of scale, a shift from microcosm to macrocosm. Whilst NSK only specifically reference their own fictitious nation-state, the poetic element bestowed upon the project through its framing as art extends their target to the nation-state as a whole. The Serbian artist Tanja Ostojić has particularly exploited this peculiar ability of art in her practice, most notably in another work in which the Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport.jpgpassport plays a central role, Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport (2000-2005). In 2000, the artist posted a photograph of herself naked and with head and pubic hair clean shaven on the internet as a personal ad in which she stated that she was seeking to marry an EU passport holding male. She married a German man in 2002 and received a two-year visa in the spring of 2005. They were divorced later that year. When examined on the basis of these facts, the series of events details one very specific case. However, the subsequent exhibition of the project as an archival installation, as well as the fact that a ‘Divorce Party’ was held at a gallery in Berlin, frame the situation not simply as the act of a woman wishing to obtain an EU passport, but as a woman wishing to obtain an EU passport as an artwork. At this point the reading of the work changes. This is no longer an individual case, a lone citizen utilising the means available to them to alter their own status; rather it functions at the aforementioned microcosm/macrocosm level. Ostojić herself become synecdochic of women involved in the wider issue of arranged or politically motivated marriage, invoking the 60s/70s feminist mantra, ‘the personal is political.’ She deploys her own agency as a citizen to, if not alter the status of other women, then at the very least highlight their plight.

However, another view is that again we have returned to Azimi’s implied view that art which is ‘subsumed back into the system’ is politically powerless. Indeed, the man Ostojić married was himself an artist. While Azimi’s critique can be circumvented in the case of Sierra by acknowledging that he is engaging in pseudo-politics, that politics is not the intended target of his work, such circumvention is not possible here. By dint of Ostojić’s actions’ real-life basis – she did indeed get married to a man with an EU passport – and the explicitly controversial and grand scale argument she makes regarding the issues mentioned previously, one cannot ignore the ‘engagement’ of this work. Certainly, she is implicated (consciously) within the system, but in this case it could be deemed that this is where her work derives its political potential. If this action was undertaken on non-artistic terms it would simply have been one of many politically beneficial arranged marriages. As it is, however, she offers a focal point for broader discussion regarding arranged marriage in general based on the need of so many non-EU citizens for whom an EU passport or work visa holds a promise of a better life, a sense of protection and avoidance of border-crossing humiliation. The ‘system’ of art is here being utilised positively, the press and media attention it offers and the critical debate spawned being actively exploited by the artist in order to shift emphasis from a singular citizen to a multitude of citizens.

Conclusion: Art as active citizenship

It is perhaps this ability of art to translate the singular into the plural that provides the greatest potential for art to affect change outwith its own borders. Each individual action mentioned in this text, taken out of their contexts and as isolated incidents, are simply acts of singular citizens having their passport stamped, receiving a counterfeit passport or dubiously obtaining an EU passport. Once viewed in their artistic contexts, however, they become plural, one passport being cancelled (in the case of Jarrar) becoming a symbol of the denial of citizenship in Palestine, one marriage (in the case of Ostojić) standing as an emblem highlighting the plights of innumerable citizens in a comparable position to the artist. The publicity, media attention, critical discourse and debate prompted by the aestheticisation of the acts of individual citizens (under the banner of art) translates these acts from the private to the public sphere and gives them an audience who may learn, be moved in some fashion or prompted to alter opinions and subjectivities. The presentation of these actions as art does not entail a direct relaying of the everyday to this audience, however. Each of these projects was conceived of from the outside as artistic projects, and as such were conducted differently than they would had they been simply individual non-artistic acts. They were conducted with an audience in mind, with a political statement at their core. They are reality restaged rather than neutrally relayed. They are the undertakings of artists who have utilised their own citizenship in an active way, in this case to question and debate the nature of citizenship itself. The ‘childish touch’ of the artist, the ability to poeticise, to generalise and to restage, far from being a barrier to political potentiality as Gielen suggests, is in fact where art’s political potential lies.

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1 Bruyne and Gielen, Community Art: The Politics of Trespassing  (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2011). 18.

Images 1 and 3: Khaled Jarrar, Live and Work in Palestine, 2011

Image 2: Santiago Sierra, Wall Enclosing a Space, 2003,

Image 3: NSK Passports

Image 4: Tamara Moyzes and Shlomi Yaffe, The Redemption of Zion, 2011

Image 5: Tanja Ostojić, Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport, 2000-05