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A New Experiment in Open-Source Citizenship

By Peter Certo Created: October 9, 2011 Last Updated: October 9, 2011
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Ice boulders left behind after a flood in 2007 in Greenland. Greenlands melting ice caps and disappearing glaciers have become a symbol of climate change. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Ice boulders left behind after a flood in 2007 in Greenland. Greenlands melting ice caps and disappearing glaciers have become a symbol of climate change. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Not long ago I received in the mail a slender envelope with international postage on the front. Inside was a small card-paper placard bearing my name, handwritten, confirming my citizenship in what is apparently the world’s newest nation—neither South Sudan nor Kosovo, of course, nor even a nascent Palestine, but rather nowhereisland. This decidedly more post-materialist undertaking is the brainchild of British artist Alex Hartley.

While traipsing about the Arctic seas on a 2004 expedition with Cape Farewell, a group that works to forge a “cultural response” to climate change through various artistic endeavors, Hartley discovered what is now called Nyskjaeret, a soccer field-sized island of frozen rock and grit. Previously uncharted, the island was only recently revealed in the wake of receding glaciers around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. In accordance with his stated desire of “taking everything through to a ridiculous level,” Hartley eventually managed to register his newfound island with the Norwegian Polar Institute, ensuring its inclusion on all subsequent surveys and maps of the area.

Over 2,500 people have become citizens of nowhereisland, considerably surpassing the 829-strong population of Vatican City

However, with a generous (and not altogether uncontroversial) grant of some half-a-million pounds from the British Treasury, Hartley has been able to extrapolate the absurdity of his discovery to an altogether new level as part of the U.K.’s Cultural Olympiad, a state-financed series of artistic projects designed to accompany the 2012 summer Olympics in London. With the rare permission of the governor of Svalbard, Hartley and a team of academics, artists, and fellow travelers returned to Nyskjaeret this past September to unearth some six tons of material from the island. On Sept. 20, the crew dragged their cargo into international waters and declared it the independent microstate of nowhereisland.

In the coming months the already eroding material will be sculpted into a work of art and towed to various ports in southwest England, engaging some 250,000 people through exhibitions, workshops, and discussions hosted at the country’s land-based “embassy”—presumably some kind of truck. In so doing it will gain the unusual distinction of being a country that travels to its visitors rather than vice versa, “an island journeying south in search of its people.”

Citizens of Nowhere

More intriguing than the country’s Arctic origins, however, is its nascent experiment in open-source citizenship. Any visitor to the nowhereisland website can register as a citizen in mere seconds. “The point of becoming a citizen,” explains Hartley, “is that you can influence the direction, the politics, the bill of rights, the constitution, everything that is decided [about] how the island forms, … what we do with the island, what it becomes, what political standpoints it takes, and everything. … We really need this to be a project about as much inclusion as possible.”

At the time of this writing, over 2,500 people have become citizens of nowhereisland, considerably surpassing the 829-strong population of Vatican City (though admittedly the latter’s natural growth rate is somewhat constrained). Hartley has expressed ambitions of someday surpassing the Mediterranean microstate of Monaco and the alpine enclave of Liechtenstein, each hovering around 35,000 residents.

This means that long after Hartley and his crew have returned their rubble sculpture to its home on Nyskjaeret, and perhaps even after their Treasury funding has dried up, the real experiment of nowhereisland will be the work of its citizens to project their imagined futures upon this symbolic bit of rock.

The precise contours of this imaginary society have yet to take shape, as the website has yet to open its forum for direct citizen input. Inherently, however, the project entails a critique of the prevailing international system and the inadequately democratic structures that purport to govern it. Nowhereisland owes its physical existence, after all, to the failure of the international system to halt the environmental degradation unleashed by the carbon-intensive proclivities of its leaders.

These critiques are spelled out more explicitly in the diaries of the crewmembers and by a series of “resident thinkers” who send letters to nowhereisland offering advice or reflections. “For me, this trip was partly about what can and should be salvaged from the liberal project, as it rummages through what's left of its selfhood after decades of neo-liberal capitulation,” writes Laurie Penny, a journalist who accompanied Hartley to the Arctic. In response to the U.K. critics who have scratched their heads over the project’s cost, Penny replies, “The question is not whether we can afford to imagine a culture beyond the control of capital and the nation state, but whether we can afford not to.”

Simon Anholt, a resident thinker, crewmember, and expert in “nation branding,” similarly frames nowhereisland (which he spells “Now-Here-Is-Land”) as a response to the inanity of a world plagued by transnational problems yet governed by merely national entities. “We live in a world of nations, so it’s not surprising if you see the world as something that’s made up of nations. But it’s not. … Countries are an invention, unlike most of the challenges we face today, which are very real indeed,” he writes. “These myriad challenges, are simply symptoms of one much deeper problem: the fact that we still haven’t learned how to run ourselves like a planet,” he concludes.

Virtual and Actual Self-Governance

The inadequacy of national responses, or rather the lack thereof, to transnational problems is by now a familiar trope. Indeed, it conjures up images of staid U.N. functionaries delivering platitudes to a sleeping General Assembly. And certainly, in the case of nowhereisland, it is also difficult to miss the irony of a state-funded broadside against the state-based international system, particularly in light of the U.K.’s historic role in shaping it.

But nowhereisland appears to be less a plea for international cooperation than it is for international, even postnational, citizenship. In this it somewhat resembles the decidedly more abstract John Lennon-Yoko Ono project of Nutopia, or even the open-source religion of Yoism.

What these projects have in common is their effort to dress democratic, people-driven enterprises in the language of state or religion, two of the most important yet historically top-down enterprises in human social organization. By imbuing such stale constructs with the vitality of human creativity, they are designed to help people claim ownership over the institutions that organize their lives and environment.

It would be easy enough to dismiss these ventures as the playthings of bourgeois intellectuals, as certainly they sometimes are. But the open-source model occasionally finds a home in actual institutions and democratic processes; evidenced most recently by Iceland’s decision to crowdsource the creation of its new constitution. Like its imaginary northern neighbor, Iceland too is emerging from the rubble of an unfortunate neoliberal folly—in its case a catastrophic financial collapse. But also like Hartley and his fellow open-source travelers, Iceland has recognized that the political world’s current malaise calls for more democracy, not less.

Whether Hartley’s unusual project will ultimately rise above the level of spectacle (or taxpayer boondoggle) remains to be seen. Nowhereisland’s open-source experiment has yet to actually begin, after all, and press curiosity about the matter has largely focused on either its novelty or cost. But at its best, by encouraging would-be activists to act as though they have the power to shape an imaginary community, such a project can show people that they can reshape their own real societies—simply by acting out, in sufficient numbers, the behavior of those whose actions matter. Activists in Greece, in Spain, on Wall Street, and throughout the Arab world have already discovered this hidden truth, sometimes at tremendous sacrifice.

Compared to the petty corruptions of the world’s assorted governing classes, the problems facing the planet are more daunting, and the poles of power that must be bent to address them are more diffuse. But for those who haven’t taken to the streets already, nowhereisland just might offer the chance to start imagining.

Peter Certo is an editorial assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies (http://ips-dc.org). Foreign Policy in Focus, www.fpif.org.




   

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