By Patrick Bixby, author of License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport
Passports occupy a place in some of our most avid fantasies. They can promise travel to exotic destinations; they can provide secure passage to a new life far away; they can enable flight from the dangers, the restrictions, or just the mundanity of familiar surroundings. They can give us license to cross borders of every description—geographical, but also cultural, linguistic, economic, legal—in search of something unattainable at home, and then bring us safely back again. But these little books also assign us with official identities and advance the efforts of nation-states to monitor and control the movement of peoples and populations. This is the unyielding paradox associated with our passports: even as they promise independence and mobility, adventure and opportunity, escape and safe haven, they are also essential tools of government surveillance and state power, ostensibly assuring homeland security and regulated traffic across national boundaries.
Yet there is a class of travel documents, often referred to as “fantasy” passports, that seeks to circumvent the sovereign authority of the nation-state by asserting other forms of sovereignty or making other claims to freedom of movement. Many of these documents have been catalogued by the US Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Manual and European Union’s “Non-Exhaustive List of Known Fantasy and Camouflage Passports,” based on information received from its member states. Generally speaking, the EU list contains documents “to which a visa may not be affixed,” while it defines fantasy passports specifically as “‘passports’ issued by minorities, sects, and population groups and identity documents, etc., issued by private organizations and individuals.” In the final chapter of my recent book, License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport, I examine a number of these “fantasy” passports in order to better appreciate their form and function and to better understand the passport paradox that adheres to our “official” documents. Below are a few brief excerpts from the book accompanied by illustrative photos. All of these documents — along with many others — are explored in greater detail in pages of License to Travel.
Garry Davis and the World Passport
[Garry] Davis would … establish his own idiosyncratic (and mostly ineffectual) counterpart to the United Nations, the World Government of World Citizens and its administrative arm, the World Service Authority (WSA), which quickly began to issue “world citizen” documents, including birth certificates, marriage certificates, and, of course, passports. Rather ironically, Davis drew his mandate for the travel documents from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 13.2), adopted by UN General Assembly Resolution 217A (III) of December 10, 1948: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to one’s country.” Hannah Arendt would point out the persistent contradiction that the declaration required nation-states to protect the “universal” rights of human beings, even as nation-states continued to affirm their own legal and territorial sovereignty. By creating the World Passport, Davis sought a way beyond this contradiction. By 2020, the WSA could claim that there were some 750,000 World Passport holders around the globe, many of them refugees and stateless people lacking official travel documents from recognized nation-states.
Although some of these passport holders have managed to cross borders or prove their identity using the documents, the function of the World Passport remains largely symbolic— to remind us of the fictional status of nation-states and the borders they rely upon. The documents assert that all human beings belong to a single family, which has been divided up by man-made boundaries and historical circumstances. Moreover, they affirm, even if they cannot guarantee, the sacred and inalienable rights of man, separate and distinct from the rights of the citizens of nation-states.
NSK: The First Virtual Global State of the Universe
To confirm its “temporal space,” the NSK State soon began to issue its own passports, which, according to the collective, grant “the right to NSK citizenship . . . to thousands around the world, to people of different religions, races, nationalities, sexes and beliefs.” Aspiring NSK citizens need merely to navigate to the NSK website, print out a passport application, complete and sign it, and then send it off to the NSK Information Center in Ljubljana, along with a €32 application fee. In parodying the design of “real” or “official” travel documents, the fantasy passport seeks to connect identity not to a national territory or community, but to an artistic collective and its imagined community of NSK citizens. By reappropriating this familiar instrument of state authority, by playing with the signs of nationality, belonging, and mobility, the passport works to provoke reflection on the attachments we have to territorial states and, more importantly, on the possibility of reconceiving or even remaking those affiliations.
The documents thus offer participation, however indirect, in a new form of art-activism for whomever becomes a holder of these mass-produced objets d’ art and thereby becomes a “member” of this collective-of-choice. Undoubtedly, the most widely recognized citizen of the NSK State is Slavoj Žižek, the prolific Marxist philosopher, Lacanian critic, and all-around controversialist (as well as former Slovenian presidential candidate), who has defended “the mythology of the state” against claims that it is “the original source of Evil, as a living dead sponging off the body of the community.”. . .
As the European migrant crisis intensified over the decade that followed, the NSK continued to pose the question of what nation-state citizenship should mean, while promoting the construction of new collectivities and new forms of collective identity. One manifestation of this ongoing project was the NSK State pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which took its place alongside the many “actual” national pavilions at the arts exhibition. The NSK contribution included an installation piece by Ramesch Daha and Anna Jermolaewa—“an open archive of experiences, ideas, and hopes,” including reflections on the promise of “Europe” written by a hundred migrants from the global South and the former Eastern bloc—as well as a temporary NSK State passport office. The Slovenian art collective was not alone at the Biennale in presenting work that interrogated traditional conceptions of the nation-state and document-dependent movement: Tunisia presented a “dispersed” installation piece on the grounds of the Biennale, with three kiosks staffed by migrants and refugees who issued “freesas” (i.e., “free visas”), fantasy “Universal Travel Documents” that mischievously claimed to authorize “freedom of movement without the need for arbitrary state-based sanction.” Both exhibitions thus sought to call attention to the maltreatment of “undocumented” and “paperless” people in the current world order, which denies them legitimacy for want of a passport or proper visas. By now, this is an all-too-familiar logic.
Passports of the Aboriginal Nations and the Haudenosaunee
The EU list of “fantasy” passports also includes a number of documents that make strong claims to legitimacy in the international community, such as the “Aboriginal Nation[s] Passport” and the “Ha[u]denosaunee (Native American passports).” In 1987, Tasmanian lawyer and activist Michael Mansell began issuing Aboriginal passports as an alternative to Australian passports and a prelude to the founding of the Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG) in 1990. The passports were first used for international travel in March 1988, when Mansell and an Aboriginal delegation traveled to Libya at the invitation of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who recognized the documents in the wake of convening a Conference on Peace and Revolution in the Pacific the previous year. Yet when members of the delegation returned to Australia, immigration authorities refused to stamp their Aboriginal passports and barred their reentry until Australian documents were produced. In the decades since this trial run, the APG has continued to offer passports to any Aboriginal person “who provides all of the necessary documentation and details,” despite the fact that they can expect “some form of harassment from officials” whenever they pass through Australian customs. The documents have nonetheless taken on heightened significance in recent years . . . .
Like the Aboriginal passport, the Haudenosaunee passport provides both a form of identification and a means to underscore the sovereignty of indigenous peoples, in this case the Six Nations Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy (composed of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras), among the original inhabitants of what is now known as North America. The Haudenosaunee government began issuing passports in 1923—just before the recognition of citizenship for indigenous peoples in the United States—so that one of its statesmen, Deskaheh (also known as Levi General), could travel to Geneva and advocate for the acknowledgment of indigenous sovereignty at the League of Nations headquarters. In 2014, [Callum] Clayton-Dixon and a delegation from the APG traveled to Canada on their Aboriginal Nations passports to meet with representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy—and to have their travel documents stamped by the chiefs of the indigenous alliance. The Aboriginal delegation was briefly detained by immigration officials as they entered Canada and then again when they returned to Australia, until their Australian citizenship was independently verified and they were allowed to proceed. Although the members of the APG reject their Australian citizenship and refused to present other forms of identification, the Australian government created a loophole to allow them to use their Aboriginal passports to reenter the country. Nonetheless, the delegation was “very proud” to have their Aboriginal Nations passports recognized by the Iroquois Confederacy.
Passaport and Resistance to Discrimination at Border Crossings
Responding to both the discriminatory practices of border crossing and the human consequences of being “stopped,” Maltese poet Antoine Cassar has created a combined protest poem, art book, and performance project called Passaport (2009). Printed in a small format and bound in red cardboard cover that mimics the Maltese passport, the book was originally published in Maltese; subsequently, it has been reprinted in a series of multilingual editions (English, Spanish, Slovenian, Croatian, twelve languages in all), each bound in one of three colors (“ocean blue, dried blood red, and coal black” like passports from around the world) and embossed with the image of a migratory swan circling the globe. Rather than enclosing a photograph, personal data, and the legalese of the nation-state, Passaport contains approximately 250 lines of verse that proclaim dissent from the wounding force of the international passport system and its often-brutal forms of exclusion and expulsion. . .
Passaport . . . is more properly understood as a kind of “anti-passport,” a document that imagines a world where passports will no longer be labeled “good” or “bad,” ushering some bodies along while waylaying others. It is a radically utopian object that, in the guise of a travel document, dispatches all the assumptions—about nations, about borders, about aliens, immigrants, and others—that have been attached to our passports. It is a document that, as Cassar puts it, imagines “a world without customs and checkpoints, without border police out to snatch away the dawn, without the need for forms, documents, or biometric data . . . A world without the need to cross the desert barefoot, nor to float off on a raft, on an itinerary of hope all too quickly struck out by the realities of blackmail and exploitation.” It is, in other words, a precious object that helps us to envision the “post-frontier.”