The world’s greatest arts show takes place every two years in Venice. The Biennale was in full flow last weekend, with many palaces filled with national art ranging from paintings to photographs to installations. One place, the Palazzo Ca’ Tron, was occupied by a group that did not represent a country, but rather the idea of a country.
The installation is the brainchild of NSK, Neue Slowenische Kunst, a group of artists that was set up in the 1980s in the former Yugoslavia. They have created a virtual state, even issuing their own passports. Originally conceived as an arts project, the passports assumed a life of their own, with many people, particularly from Africa, applying for one in the hope of using them as travel permits.
The experience at the Palazzo Ca’Tron is designed to emulate the experience of a refugee seeking asylum. You enter a white cube with a black sloping floor that produces an effect akin to vertigo. If you can manoeuvre through this – and many cannot – you then go downstairs to where a group of actual asylum seekers are acting as bureaucrats. The tables are turned.
“They are getting to grips with the technology,” Petra Radoja, a 32-year-old from Slovenia, told me. “Some people get angry with the delay, but we think this just adds to the experience.”
I applied for my NSK passport, handed over €24, and had my photo taken. After a delay, I then had to climb up a ladder to where Mercy, a young Nigerian lady suspended on a platform, handed over the document.
There are now more than 15,000 NSK passport holders. I am not sure I agree with everything NSK is doing; it is quite aggressively anti-establishment and very critical of the behaviour of many Western governments. However, I applaud anything that highlights the plight of refugees. In all the deliberations we make, we should not forget that we are dealing with people, not statistics. It is often young children who just want a peaceful life free from war or famine. They seek opportunities, not handouts.