Of Passports and Borders

Osman Bozkurt, Counters, 2011. 5 Channel HD video installation wooden counters, waiting room chairs, dimensions variable.

An earlier version of this article was published in ICE. 

The passport has become a ubiquitous symbol of mobility (or lack thereof) in our contemporary age. Passports function as a sophisticated form of identification in an age of constant surveillance, as individuals are tracked across the globe. Passports are also social status symbols that signify the ability to move across national borders. As the contemporary identity becomes more complex, with dissolving national, ethnic, and cultural boundaries, passports become a stand-in for the permeability of identities. For those who hold more than one passport, the question arises—are they citizens of two countries or of neither, as they exist in a state of bureaucracy above/between the two nations whose passports they hold?

Passports are of particular resonance for artists who are increasingly expected to travel around the world in the residency-driven culture of contemporary art. While the merit of artistic work is of utmost importance in enabling artists to reach a wider audience, nationality is still a part of identity that unfortunately sometimes functions at odds with artistic identity. While searching for a cross-cultural and transcendental aesthetic language, artists are inevitably faced with “basic” components of their identity, including their citizenship.

Didem Özbek and Osman Bozkurt’s works exhibited at the Asia Triennial Manchester 2011, Life in the UK / Balance of Probabilities identify and sometimes humorously sometimes directly process what it means to be traveling across boundaries. Moaning Diary is a democratic platform—individuals who were not granted visas were heard through Özbek’s storefront artist book. Furthermore, by subjecting visitors to the very simple yet quite unpleasant experience of a metal detector upon entering the space, Özbek further underscores the absurdity of the security procedures of visa applications. After all, consulates are nothing more than offices that perform specific bureaucratic duties, but the division between the consulate and the specific city that the consulate belongs to, i.e. the imaginary national boundaries between an office and its very surroundings, is artificial and alienating.

Osman Bozkurt, Counters, 2011. 5 Channel HD video installation wooden counters, waiting room chairs, dimensions variable.

Osman Bozkurt’s Counters provides the viewers with a documentary perspective, peering into the careers and daily lives of people who process such applications, namely, officials from consul generals and travel agents. The permeability between the ordinary citizen who has to apply for a visa and the official processing the application again highlights the constructedness of this process. Through displaying and exploring the possibilities of the actual process, Özbek and Bozkurt turn an opaque entity inside out—the viewers are inside the application process and it is a very uncomfortable place to be.

The underlying theme of the works is the artists exhibiting as foreigners in a country with not-so-friendly immigration policies. The artists’ works have traveled to the UK, but how easily can they travel to accompany their works? The strange contradiction between the mobility of art works and the mobility of human beings is explored through the use of photography and archiving via their quotidian use in daily life in an artistic context. The works are functional in their uses of these media, completing the circle of transformation. By exhibiting the gallery space as a small side industry/work space, the artists question the functional role of the artist in society, interrogating the classification of artistic labor.

Taryn Simon, Bird corpse, labeled as home décor, Indonesia to Miami, Florida (prohibited), 2009.

The assessment and re-contextualization of artistic labor is quite conspicuous in Taryn Simon’s work. In her series, Counterfeit, the artist spent a work week (Monday–Friday) at the airport photographing the items that could not “make it” through the border. “Photography in Contraband is used in a machine like form […] to reference the automatic nature of systems. But there is a constant infiltration of the personal through the obsessive arrangements of all the goods within each photograph. There was enormous attention given to the graphic constructions, shapes and color in each arrangement—that only became more surreal as I became more sleep deprived.” The images are sterile and employ the language of catalogues. For the artist, “the images reveal a flattening of desire. Everyone chasing the same escape and identity—from counterfeit viagra, sleeping pills and steroids to counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags, Chanel accessories and Tiffany jewelry. The images represent fragments or remnants of individuals. They are portraits of a system and individuals through the absence of both.” The objects that the artist photographs are stand-ins for both abstract things that cannot go across borders, as well as individuals that fail to enter every single day. By historicizing and making permanent these objects, Simon re-negotiates ideas of privacy, ownership, security, and surveillance.

Simon also emphasizes the economic nature of the seizures. “The primary focus of these seizures represents a new warfare. One anticipates guns, heroin, animals etc. and they were there—but in the minority. The overwhelming majority of seizures were counterfeit items. The infiltration of the copy threatens economies that rely upon the preservation of branding and the original. The relentless influx of counterfeit goods and pharmaceuticals represents a new weapon.” Our culture’s relationship with products is most clinically exposed by Simon’s photographs. After all, her photographs are documents of what people in the US want from the outside world or rather, this is what the “outside” thinks should go through the borders.

Taryn Simon, Steroids, Testosterone & Sustanon, Pakistan (illegal), 2009.

For Simon, the images are only one step in the circulation of the objects that attempted to cross the order. “A photograph is a copy of what is before the camera. In Contraband, when photographing counterfeit goods, I’m producing a copy of a copy. The goods can’t enter into the United States, but the photograph can. This photograph can then be entered into another economy—the art economy. The photographs of the goods are organized in Plexi glass cases, which refers to the display case and commodification and sale of goods.” In a way, Simon serves the alternative economy. She shows us what we want and what we think we want. On the other hand, the circulation of these images as art works is subversive as she creates value for objects that ceased to be valuable the minute they failed to cross the border. By taking on the abject and re-contextualizing what was discarded, Simon transcends national boundaries—the work thus functions as institutional critique. What is rejected becomes the art object of desire, by the sheer conceptual intervention of the artist.

Simon and Özbek&Bozkurt employ documentary forms when dealing with similar subject matter and this is not a coincidence. There is something about the vagueness of the processes that we are subjected to crossing national borders that require artists who deal with this subject matter to leave aside expressive modes in aesthetics and instead resort to the clinical, basic, functional uses of “documentary,” “objective” media such as photography and video. It seems like the only way to overcome the ineptitude that now surrounds basic international traveling, is to once again remember the basics of these processes and re-process what we are doing and why we are doing it. It is only through “organizing” that we can maybe neutralize the impact of such drastic, protective, isolating measures.


Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Passport #II), 1993
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Passport #II) (1993) anchored one of the group exhibitions at the 12th Istanbul Biennial. The original work was an unlimited stack of booklets that mimicked passports. On the cover of each booklet was an image of a bird soaring through a stormy sky. The bird—a commonly used symbol of freedom, both physically and conceptually—is juxtaposed with the ominous storm. The infinitude of the booklets undermines the whole idea of an issued passport while the poetic image becomes a stand-in for the freedom and mobility that the passport should be able to give.

Meriç Algün Ringborg, The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms, 2009–11
Meriç Algün Ringborg’s The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms (2009–11) is anything but concise. By exposing the viewers to the regulations of each country requiring a visa, the artist foregrounds the obvious: everybody is a foreigner somewhere. The process of visa applications, the at times absurd, at times reasonable questions asked, that hinge on the fearful honesty of the applicant, have all been accentuated by the nationalistic hysteria after 9/11.

—Merve Ünsal