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Changing Colors

Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Fast-Changing Citizenship

Harbin Ice Festival

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, Harbin, China

Wikipedia: Ice Snow World.jpg

In colloquial discourse, “citizenship” often serves as a polarizing term, a method of exclusion rather than inclusion. Unlike the word “democracy,” the meaning of which seems somewhat amorphous in the 21st century, the word “citizen” remains concrete: either you are or you aren’t.

I was told recently about a family member who had been faced with conscription into the national army of the Middle Eastern country of his birth while struggling to get through college abroad. Instead of purporting to have left his passport at home—there was no reason to have attended a summons by the consulate with his passport in hand—he slid it across the table without protest, effectively renouncing his citizenship on the spot. More than 40 years later, he finally was able to have it reissued on the basis of his birth, thanks to a provision that allowed dual citizenship by his countries of origin and residence.

It’s a grand gesture to renounce one’s national citizenship, and much harder than most might imagine. Entire chatboards are devoted to helping Americans renounce theirs. But what if we consider citizenship in other terms? Was my relative a citizen in heart and mind all those years, though not on paper?

As Christine McLaren noted in her summation of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s final days in New York, curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer described the need for—and ability of—urban dwellers to practice mindful adaptation, playfully calling this “chameleonic citizenship.” The urban environment is unforgiving for those excluded from paper citizenship, but the basic human need for belonging still exists. In a city crammed with people, we retain the right to readily “change color” or personal attributes as needed, often as a primary method of survival.

Our “colors,” whether defined by nation, politics, sexuality, gender, or any other term, reflect the need for inclusion—and an effort to create a future-forward definition of citizenship. In the best of all possible worlds, this “fast-changing” or “chameleonic” citizenship could inspire us all to become active and engaged citizens, no matter where we live or what passport we do or do not carry.

While considering this post last week, I applied for citizenship of the NSK State, a virtual state without physical territory, founded in 1992 by members of the artists’ group Neue Slowenische Kunst. “The NSK State . . . does not exist in the real, three-dimensional space. Its sole territory is time,” the passport application announces. “Owning the NSK State passport does not grant citizenship of the Republic of Slovenia or any other country of the world within coordinates of physical territory. The NSK State passport also does not facilitate legal passing of concrete international borders.” Could being a citizen of the NSK State hold unforeseeable benefits, should my own citizenship become something I am willing to compromise?

The passport stamps: Via Flickr: Ken_Mayer

“Your passport will be ready in 90 minutes,” the clerk said as she stamped my application. As I waited in line to take my photo, I overheard a woman sigh—90 minutes? It takes 90 minutes? This was the fastest example of fast-moving/fast-acting citizenship I could think of. I received my document and a Xeroxed sheet of paper that described its benefits. Not trying told scold her, I said under my breath: “This normally takes years, lady. Years.” Which then had me thinking: Is there a direct correlation between the time it takes to become a citizen and its value?

“So what can I do now with an NSK passport?” I asked. “Well,” the gentleman replied, “I haven’t used it yet besides for fetishistic purposes.”

Hey—in case you need one, too, you can apply for one here.

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the third is Fast-Changing Citizenship.

  • mikegogulski

    An interesting set of reflections. Your link to brought me here. My site isn’t really devoted to helping Americans quit their citizenship. It began, rather, as the chronicle of my own journey to renunciation, and my life since late 2008 as a deliberately stateless person.

    There’s an intriguing bit of thinking to be done at the intersection of national by-default citizenship acquisition at birth, the “problem” of statelessness and the real-world value of “vanity” passports such as the NSK passport and the World Passport (such as recently issued to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden). The only conclusion I can come to, atrocious though it is, is that somehow most of us have come to allow our lives to be defined and circumscribed by certain pieces of paper not of our choosing, or the lack thereof.

    Children aren’t conceived or born with citizenships. Prospective parents don’t ask each other, “shall we have a Norwegian?” but rather “shall we have a baby?”