With crosses on their arms and cogwheels on their lapels, delegates arrived at the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt to take part in the First NSK Citizens’ Congress, three days of deliberation to determine the future of the NSK State. Its emblem was there to greet them, projected full across a wall, replete with thorns, torches, and a swastika. Even for someone who has seen it before, this sigil invokes the primal reaction that the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) art collective often demands.
NSK formed in 1983 in Yugoslavia, and has always combined artistic mediums with the language and symbols, the raw materials, of propaganda and nationalism. In 1992, while their real country was disintegrating in genocidal chaos, this group created the NSK State, a state without physical territory or ethnic basis. Since that time they have unconditionally accepted all applications for citizenship, and issued every new citizen an NSK State passport. To date, they have issued over 13,000 of them. It is not a political movement working through the medium of art. It is an art movement, working in the medium of politics. The goal of this first citizens’ congress was to free this nascent state, to release this living social sculpture into the world.
The Business of Passports
Problematically, the NSK State is declared to be outside the boundaries of the world, existing only in time, and completely universal. This universality presented some unique challenges for the proceedings. On the question of establishing diplomatic relations with other, less universal states, it was determined that the NSK State’s transcendent nature prevented this. Some delegates had hoped to establish such engagements. Bertrand Thibert, a 32 year old Human Resources Consultant in Lyon, France, holds passports for the State of Sabotage and the Principality of New Utopia, so-called micronations, in addition to his French and NSK State passports. You will find only one of those represented at the United Nations. “We cannot forget the motto written on our NSK State passports,” he says, “‘Art is fanaticism that demands diplomacy’. How can we practice diplomacy without any form of recognition?” It was small consolation that this decision applied not only to the Principality of New Utopia, but to the better-known states, such as Germany and France, as well.
Though bilateral relations with territory-based states were snubbed, issues of geography were still alive. Although most passport holders live in Europe and America, an increasing number of citizens report Lagos, Nigeria as their place of residence. This phenomena is the result of a rumor that the NSK passport allows travel to Slovenia and the EU, a rumor perpetuated by con-men who offer to procure this document for a fee. A web search for ‘NSK passport application’ turns up many of these offers, as well as pleas for help in getting to the NSK State. Jude Anogwih, 35, a multimedia artist in Lagos and a delegate at the Congress, laid out the steps he believes must be taken to prevent this abuse: “I believe the process of correcting this starts with adequate publicity of the exact concept and activities of the NSK State in local newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations,” he stated. “This will also encourage national security networks, embassies, and foreign consulates to get a clearer view of this art project.”
Such clarity regarding the motives of the NSK and the NSK State, however, is difficult to achieve even when the effort is made to do so. Which it rarely is. Symptomatic of this ambiguity is the aforementioned swastika, appropriated from John Heartfield’s 1934 anti-fascist montage, Blood and Iron, which is superimposed on a cross pinched from the suprematist artist Kazemir Malevich to form the centerpiece of the NSK State emblem. The cross in particular is a recurring symbol, both in paintings and on armbands. “Kazemir Malevich’s black square and black cross function as forms that have become inert,” explains Lacanian scholar Ian Parker of Manchester Metropolitan University, a facilitator for the Congress, “forms that operate as if they are pure objects, and that can be resignified in and against Soviet realist and national socialist art, overidentifying with those art traditions to explode them from within.” The explanations of NSK works often seem as artistic as the works themselves, but as one becomes familiar with the subtle reversals that appear throughout their canon it becomes second nature to look for these traps.
The Safe Path
After three days of debate and discussion in the spare rooms of the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (and in the muddy yard behind it when cigarette cravings demanded), the delegates wearily affirmed the presence and principals of the state without proposing any dramatic change in stewardship. Rather than winding their hands tightly through the reins of government, the participants contented themselves with ideas for new projects, some amateur poetry in the NSK style, and many, many photographs and videos documenting the occasion. The State did not quite feel unleashed.
At least one delegate left Germany wondering what exactly had transpired during these three days. Had this gathering been a mass hallucination? Had this trip to Berlin been an exercise in absurdity? Did this imaginary state exist at all?
The last may seem trivial to answer in the negative, but the NSK State would not be the first entirely imagined entity to come into being. Ultimately, all states, all organizations, exist as the shared mental construct of its members. A state is not tangible. The passports, the uniforms, the lofty architecture – as physical objects these are all empty. Only collective imagination animates them with the gravitas of statehood.
One experiences the force of this gravitas, the presence of this imagined Leviathan, every time one checks in for a flight home, perhaps after a tiring trip abroad, away from home and family. It is present as you wait your turn to approach the customs desk. It is present as a man with stars and epaulets waves you forward and asks for your passport. It is present while he flips through the pages, looking for god-knows-what, leaving you wrestling with your impatience and dread. It is in your mind, it is real, and you, in turn, are held tightly within it.
The next scheduled NSK event is “Premier NSK Rendez-vous à Lyon“, January 25, 2011, at Café du Bout du Monde in Lyon, France.