Answers on a Postcard: Mobile Citizenship

Lytton Smith on his island.

By Lytton SmithMarch 1, 2014

    Answers on a Postcard: Mobile Citizenship

    1. I-land

    THIS IS AN ISLAND STORY — but perhaps all stories are island stories, taking place on a territory with borders, aware that somewhere other people are doing things differently.

    According to Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, Great Britain is “a small island no one pays attention to.” Over here, the feeling-wounded protest that Britain, far from being small, is in the Top Ten of islands, once you exclude continents that only become islands if you zoom a long, long way out. This island — this set of islands — is great by name, the British insist. We “invented most things worth inventing,” thunders David Cameron. No, not small — although in Andrea Levy’s prize-winning novel, Small Island, we come to the end unsure whether the title refers to the characters’ Caribbean origins, or their new British home.

    It is impossible here in Britain to grow up unaware of coastline, of pier, of ocean-going: booze cruise, regatta, ferry, round-the-world expedition. We celebrate our navy, our explorers, the tunnel that burrows under the ocean to connect us to a place we call Europe, as though Europe was not also here. These are the British Isles, their island-ness slipping off the tongue, into the aisles of our supermarkets, through our poetic idylls. In Grace Nichols’s “Island Man,” the titular character “wakes up / to the sound of blue surf / in his head” but ends in the “dull North Circular roar” that marks “another London day.” Our hero is “island man,” even though the Caribbean of his mind is far-off. At the center of Nichols’s poem, a solitary line —

    of his small emerald island

    — ambiguously refers back to Les Antilles, jewels in the distance, and forward to Britain’s “green and pleasant land,” these green spaces Danny Boyle’s Olympic pageant couldn’t forgo.

    2. Welcome to Nowhereisland

    Imagine a genuinely small island, half the size of a soccer pitch. It is gray, rocky — not dissimilar to one of the islands the medieval seafarer Saint Brendan found on his quest for the site of the earthly Paradise: “small and circular, about a furlong in circumference, and on its summit […] no soil, the rock being quite bare.”

    This small island floats off the coast of the not-small island of Britain. And, in the middle of a torpid summer, a summer that never quite decides to give up on rainfall nor persist with sunshine, a band of swimmers stages a largely unnoticed coup d’état. Raising the Jolly Roger and a flag advertising “Devon and Cornwall Wild Swimming,” 10 wet-suited men and women briefly occupy the island.

    They leave behind a rubber duck as evidence of their presence.

    The coup is as peaceful as it is short-lived, visible only after its conclusion. It helps that the island in question has no occupants, although it boasts 20,003 citizens, all living elsewhere.

    Nowhereisland is — or was; we will get to its fate — a man-made island, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a festival of art and ideas leading up to the 2012 Olympics. It originated in Svalbard, a remote archipelago that constitutes the northernmost part of Norway, pushing up toward the north of Greenland. Googlemap it and you will find yourself perilously close to the gray space where even Google’s map runs out. Here be dragons, the space would once have read, although up by Svalbard it is too frozen for dragons.

    I mean: up by Svalbard, it once was too frozen for dragons. The polar ice is melting, Norwegian glaciers are thinning, and Nowhereisland, half a soccer pitch in area and nearly six tonnes in weight, broke off from a glacier, was hoisted onto a barge and towed into international waters by the artist Alex Hartley, where he then declared it a nation. He then towed it to the less-small islands of Great Britain, where it awaits visitors and insurgents, a provocation: Where do we belong? Who are we? What is it, citizens, we want?

    Nowhereisland: the name itself is a challenge to what we expect from a nation, a country, an island. Now here is land, nowhere is land, nowhere island, no where is land, now here island. And now gone, for the island merely moors at host locations for a night or three then moves on, nowhere to be seen, landed elsewhere.

    The island’s travels happen while the fate of other, better-known islands, are being weighed. All summer, politicians seated inland, within the island the M25 highway creates of London, debate the Falkland Islands, Las Malvinas, a British overseas territory near the foot of South America, an archipelago kept from the hands of the nearby Argentineans in 1982. All summer the question of sovereignty rages, and not just on these islands: on the island of Manhattan, where the United Nations gathers, Falkland Islands legislative members contest Argentinean claims to ownership, insisting, as they sit in a skyscraper on a small island off the coast of a vast continent-island, that their island belongs to them in part because it belongs to a set of great islands in the middle of the Atlantic, which is to say, nowhere near any of this.

    From its origin among melting ice peaks to its sojourn along the English seaside, Nowhereisland accumulates “citizens” as it travels. Anyone can sign up; no one has to relinquish their citizenship anywhere else. Presence is not a requirement. I sign up online, before the island arrives. A certificate duly arrives by mail, proclaiming my citizenship in neon colors. I prop it up on my office desk, where it brightens the room. I wonder what might happen if I use it to travel between the British Isles and the vast continent-island where I have been both a Non-Resident Alien and a Conditional Permanent Resident, where the fate of the Falkland Islands hangs in the balance.

    3. Who Can Say Who Are Citizens?

    Poet Charles Olson’s book-length serial poem, Maximus, begun in the 1950s, is among other things an attempt to use poetry to understand citizenship. Olson sets his three-volume epic in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts — technically, just about, an island — because it is one of the earliest North American settlements, if by earliest we mean earliest in the time of those who came from Europe. His poem is partly spoken by a larger-than-life, pan-historical orator, Maximus of Gloucester, who at one point inquires of local residents, his crowd:

                                              the island of this city
    is a mainland now of who? who can say who are

    When these questions were written in the 1950s, they were not rhetorical: the United States had recently imprisoned thousands of American citizens in internment camps because of their Japanese-ness, and Senate hearings were given over to interrogating citizens suspected of communist beliefs. C. L. R. James — born on the island of Trinidad, resident for many years on the islands of Britain, recently not-at-home on the tiny island of Ellis — was deported for un-American activities, despite writing the best book about Moby-Dick anyone, even Charles Olson, has written. James’s un-American crime was Communism, and though he protested that, as a Trotskyite, he hated the Communists even more than the capitalists did, the fineries of leftist political critique got lost on the judges and bureaucrats who could “say who are citizens,” and who decided he could not live in America with his American wife and son.

    Maximus, like scores of creative works that have challenged our expectations of citizenship (see, more recently, Electronic Disturbance Theater’s Transborder Immigrant Tool and Erin Moure’s O Cidadán), is a profound argument that what it means to be a citizen cannot be left to government, bureaucrats, and border agencies.

    So too Nowhereisland, an art project and rogue Arctic landmass that saunters past Darmouth, around Bovisand, and approaches Jennycliff, a short bike ride from where I live in Plymouth. I mark my calendar, and when the day comes I bring my parents, my wife. It is the kind of cerulean blue day that only poems are allowed to get away with, and for the umpteenth time someone paraphrases Oscar Wilde’s joke: those clouds look like a Turner painting. (Turner painted this scene in 1811.)

    A sizeable throng has gathered at the Nowhereisland’s mobile embassy (built, RV-like, on a truck chassis), parked on the cliff top; offshore, the island is small enough to miss at first glance. It appears almost flat, though far from smooth; using the zoom function of my father’s camera, I can make out its contours, and some of its boulders are taller than a person. Around me, people are scribbling constitutional wishes on whiteboards, or reading what their fellow citizens have decreed:

    Every child will be read to each night.

    Everybody has to tell the truth on the island.

    Every Nowherian has the Right to be naked in public. The state shall not punish any “indecency” or “obscenity.”

    Spontaneous Dance Parties will occur frequently.

    We will reclaim all COLOURS for all people and discourage the brainwashing “pinkification” of girls. Enjoy all colours.

    Tall people should stand at the back of gatherings.

    Unpaid internships should be considered slavery.

    Several of the items are in tension with one another, and impossible to enforce — though on Nowhereisland, where “war is not an option,” the idea of enforcement is alien. Here, at Jennycliff, oblivious to the wild swimmers’ coup just last night, “Free Ice Cream Friday” is voted as people’s favorite constitutional rule.

    I watch the island tread water, some mosquito-sized boats flickering inquisitively around its borders. A bumpy, empty shape against the teal of the Plymouth Sound. There is something desolate about looking toward it then back to the proposed constitution. Why engage in a dream, a constitution for nowhere, when there is so much to be done on these, British islands?

    Perhaps for the process. The chance to say, somewhere, who gets to be a citizen, and what that might mean, is compelling. The opening poem of Carrie Etter’s debut collection, The Tethers (2009), titled “Citizenship,” begins:

    If not the cheese festival, an open air concert
    by the village’s has-been rockers;
    if not the May Day Dance, an impromptu wine tasting
    on Murphy’s return from Calais —

    Amid the potential markers of British life — “I have become a global-warming adept, / an amateur meteorologist looking to” — we find that constructions of citizenship are not straightforward. The Irish Murphy reminds us of the dynamics of imposed citizenship that split Ireland during the 20th century — and continue to in the 21st. A British wine tasting relies on French vineyards — and wine is a Sumerian invention, as David Cameron likely knows. “Everyone’s favourite mayor” pens woeful verse, and it’s “O’Hara-derived,” another borrowing. In Etter’s poem, citizenship is a conditional “not,” defined by what it isn’t as much as what it is.

    I am assuming US-born, UK-based Etter is writing about British citizenship, though “Citizenship” refrains from asserting as much. With its allusions to the prophet Cassandra and the novels of Dostoevsky (abandoned by the bureaucrat, “the man at his desk”), this version of the citizen “I” is more wide-ranging than a national adjective. Etter’s poem ends with a moment of fraught reconciliation:

                        I only want to believe in karma
    in spite of the temperate spring,
    in spite of his new wife
    and the modesty of her pale blue shoes.

    Constructed both through familiar rituals which allow us to come together as a group and through painful separations — divorce, death, deportation — citizenship is a desire that carries with it its own obstacles, the everyday obstacles we have to confront when living among others.

    4. An Embassy for Nowhereisland 

    On these green cliff tops, we citizens are at a strange remove from our new island, which might as well be an island of the mind, escaped from a Wallace Stevens poem. Having brought my family to Nowhereisland, my wife and I its citizens, my parents our dependents, are not allowed to trespass on the island itself, but need to make do with the embassy, which looks to have escaped from a 1970s camping park, a wayward trailer home gone political. Block red serif letters, like something from a low-wattage traveling fair, proclaim NOWHEREISLAND, a reassurance to all who might otherwise mistake it as someone’s caravan. Join Us, Sign Up, beckon bold white letters on colorful backgrounds. “A NEW ISLAND NATION,” hawks a placard.

    The space of the embassy represents a conundrum for the limits of national power. Embassies are places to which we appeal when, stranded abroad by theft, acts of God, and lost passports, we need support from the state which grants us citizenship. Back in our home country, we walk past embassies flying radically patterned flags. The rooms behind their walls — walls like the walls of all the other British buildings around — operate according to quite different rules and customs. American laws govern a building in Grosvenor Square, just a Jessica Ennis javelin-throw from Buckingham Palace, where the US Embassy sits. Even today, Julian Assange keeps his refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, testing the United Kindom’s power as much as its patience: the Embassy, sited on UK soil, is outside its governance.

    Nowhereisland’s mobile embassy has a primarily cultural function. Like the small-town museums of your childhood, it hosts unlikely curios in nonmatching glass-fronted wooden cabinets. In one, shards of rock; in another, timepieces, measuring devices, and obsolete gadgetry: a floppy disk, a film reel. Visitors flip through posters in wooden presentation cases: a cartoon polar bear on a less-than-polar-bear-sized piece of ice giving way to explorers crossing an arctic landscape like so many penguins. To browse its artifacts is to consider the island’s ideas, to try to discover where “nowhere” shades into “now here.” At knee height, between the vehicle’s tires, a series of drawers contain a copy of Grace Jones’s album, Island Life; Danny Wallace’s video, How to Start Your Own Country; the score for the tune “In the Middle of Nowhere”; a couple of toy plastic palm trees placed either side of three plastic rocks. What makes Nowhereisland culture, it seems, is whatever can be recontextualized from elsewhere. Each object in this cabinet of curiosities begs a question as to where it belongs.

    Nowhereisland’s embassy cannot offer its citizens refuge or a new passport. Julian Assange could not hide out here. Yet, removed from its metonymic function as national space in miniature, this embassy has become a meeting point, a place for thinking and talking. Rather than policing borders, maintaining their logic, securing their existence, Nowhereisland’s embassy is aptly open: at the back, the lowered ramp allows one to walk right inside, while the sides, decked with artifacts, turn the interior space of the museum inside out. “There will be an annual Festival of Fools during which everything, including the constitution, is turned on its head” runs one of the citizens’ constitutional rules. The embassy is the marker of this topsy-turvy space, an anti-Embassy.

    Yet one might bear in mind what critics have said of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, his understanding of the social logic of Festivals of Fools: licensing one day of anarchy merely legitimates governance for the remaining 364. Elsewhere — always elsewhere — our politicians are still debating the ownership of the Falkland Islands; war is being muttered. Residents have their say on radio phone-ins. In a year’s time, “Go Home” vans will start patrolling London, warning immigrants that they do not belong on this great not-small island, even though it is made from immigration, has built itself through enticing, forcibly or under false pretences more often than not, labor (read: people) from elsewhere.

    But today, this lovely summer day on these pleasant green cliffs under Turner’s sky, we are blissfully unaware.

    5. Thinking Citizens

    I have a Jekyll and Hyde relationship to Nowhereisland. I, citizen, wish to quarrel.

    As an art project, Nowhereisland borrows political vocabulary — embassy, citizen, nation — from existing discourses of citizenship, and grafts them onto a new space in a way that might be transformative, the way a René Magritte image that replaces a man’s face with an apple makes us reconsider our investment in appearance more than our love of apples. But it might render the vital functions of such terms merely metaphorical, and so useless. Does “citizen” have any meaning when planted on the rocky terrain of Nowhereisland, where we cannot actually go, which cannot protect us? Nowhereisland wants to have it both ways: to engage with a political structure — citizenship — and to be “only” an art exhibit, not subject to the political needs of citizens. Viz. “Free Ice Cream Friday.”

    Down the road from Jennycliff’s sunny afternoon, in the economically depressed city of Plymouth, the local art gallery has been transformed into a “Citizens Advice Bureau,” where the curious might engage with the ideas of the project. Another grafted phrase: a network of actual Citizens Advice Bureaus dots Great Britain. I walked past one in the parking lot of the discount furniture store on my way to and from high school. Run by an independent charity, the Citizens Advice Bureau is a place to go for free advice when you have problems legal or bureaucratic. Bewildered by tax forms, immigrant status, tenancy rules, I came to miss such bureaus in my decade living in the United States. For Nowhereisland to pretend to be a Citizens Advice Bureau is no small thing: it is to appropriate a service many rely on, and to do so for artistic ends. What advice might we find here?

    This borrowing strikes me as careless, especially given that the coalition government has recently changed the UK Citizenship Test, removed its focus on the practicalities of life in the United Kingdom and centered the questions around would-be citizens’ national allegiance, their awareness of “our” history. “Our” means, as it always does, of the “victors,” the current political incumbents: Charles I is a villain who could not negotiate with Parliament; Elizabeth I is a heroine because she would. End of story. For the purposes of this text, citizens are not participants in a society, allowed to be uncertain, inaccurate, wrong, or contradictory. Define citizen as those able to assent to an agreed, agreeable version of the national story, and you will pass the Test. Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony would have failed it, gloriously.

    Poet Ruth Padel, musing on Nowhereisland as one of a number of commissioned “resident thinkers,” writes of hope, enthusing:

    This is our exodus: cliffs of fall
    on a floating island. Here is our constitution.
    Look, here are the moon and sun
    in never-before-seen positions, struggling to be heard.

    There’s freedom in such fall, and in the disorientation of new cosmographies. But is it true “the task / is to assimilate — to move between / the languages?” Padel’s poem shimmers with myth, with a phoenixlike image of rebirth in which the bird-immigrants of her poem “drop the mask / and translate old words / into new.” Poet Myung Mi Kim, by contrast, writes of the difficulty posed when others won’t let you translate; citizenship isn’t a happy escape into a new world where, after difficulty, you complete your journey and are welcomed. “Everyone’s crossing is a pilgrimage,” Padel writes. Mecca, I think, Lourdes, and how we’ve fought battles over whether one group of pilgrims should be allowed their pilgrimage. I think of how pilgrims travel to Glastonbury for reasons both heathen and ecumenical. I think of my own pilgrimages, to a church behind a fluorescent superstore, which I visit each time I go home, not for prayer, but because it has one wooden beam that is over 1,200 years old. We can’t talk of “everyone’s crossing” without talking of difference, of discrepancy.

    In Plymouth, Devon, the metaphorical Citizens Advice Bureau sits several hundred yards from the Devon & Cornwall Refugee Support Centre: more visible, and quite possibly better funded. There are 350 asylum seekers in Plymouth today, most of them under 18. The next day, I watch some of them play in a soccer tournament featuring Plymouth Hope FC, a team of refugees, and a Nowhereisland team. Hope FC wins, happily for the narrative.

    As I smile at the gangly Hope FC striker raising his face to the skies after scoring what turns out to be the vital goal, I wonder what is being won. We know more about citizenship today than yesterday; the asylum seekers and refugees invisible in our streets or visible only as the monsters in newspaper stories have come among us. In some cases, they have become citizens of Nowhereisland. But we do not yet know whether they will become citizens of these great not-small islands. The success of Nowhereisland lies in the ways it allows citizens to think about and engage playfully with ideas of citizenship. To play with citizenship allows us to alter it. To equate it with play risks trivializing it.

    6. Citizenship on the Move 

    Like Robert Smithson’s earthworks, Nowhereisland involves a complex interaction between the site we encounter as would-be citizens or gawping viewers — if not the island then at least its traveling embassy — and the site to which the island might be said to “belong,” of which it is a fragment: the Svalbard peninsula. Or, to paraphrase Theodor Adorno, the fragment is that part of the totality which reveals the existence of the totality.

    But what is that whole when it comes to citizenship? Citizenship is often articulated in terms of belonging: whether a certain person (or type of person) has a right to live their life within a designated geographical sphere, subject to a given sovereignty. Popular feelings may not match administrative rules: take the cases of Lily Mosini and David MacIsaac. Mosini is an Iranian poet who sought asylum in the United Kingdom and for whom British poets fought a campaign against deportation. (Successfully? Her WordPress has gone dark; I do not know where in the world she is.) MacIsaac is an American who fell in love with the idea of Scotland as a boy, and who moved to these islands to answer a need for skilled teachers on remote Scottish islands. He is married to a Scottish woman, Susan, and is the official carer for her elderly parents. He has recently been denied leave to remain, told that, since he and his wife speak English well, “language is not considered to be an insurmountable obstacle to your partner accompanying you to the United States.” Where, of course, the same logic might apply to her chances of gaining permission to stay — supposing, in the first place, that she could leave her ailing parents, or that he wanted to abandon the children and school he is needed to teach at. There has, of course, been popular uproar, newspaper articles — but who can say who are citizens? The Home Office, the Border Agency, the Immigration Removal Centres.

    Here, on Jennycliff, a woman asks the embassy staff what will happen to Nowhereisland at the end of its journey. (In the undercommons of that question, another: what will happen to its citizens?) Norway won’t take it back, now that it is infected with microbes that would be dangerous to the Svalbard peninsula. Instead, Nowhereisland will be broken into pieces, each citizen entitled to a claim, like some kind of miniaturized land grant system.

    To have a piece of Nowhereisland is surely to be complicit in its destruction, to be party to its end rather than demanding it fulfill its artistic and political ends. The problem with citizenship on Nowhereisland turns out to be one of longevity. Whatever frustrations we might have with citizen status — fears of inefficacy when it comes to the political system, unhappiness over the reasons others are excluded from (or included in) citizenship — we seek its protections and opportunities on an almost daily basis. Foreseeing its own conclusion, its obsolescence, Nowhereisland resigns itself to a temporary realm of art rather than an ongoing site of politics.

    Looking out over the island, the light catching the water of Plymouth Sound as though the sightseers on boats are taking memorial photographs, I know that we, its citizens, are merely rhetorical. Yet people keep coming to the embassy, choosing to sign up or opting not to. Taking part in the conversations and choices that are meant to constitute citizenship. “Free Ice Cream Friday” might be a frivolous desire in a world where “Freedom from chemical weapon attacks” isn’t a given, in a world when NSA surveillance isn’t distinguishable enough from the personally targeted advertising my credit card data and email messages allow. And yet. And yet: citizenship has often become rote rather than thoughtful: fill in this form; have this background; admit only to this experience, these views. As part of Nowhereisland, people are electing views rather than ticking boxes. They are coming face to face with others’ desires for a space they might also like to share, realizing they might have to agree to a combination of the right to nudity and spontaneous dance parties. It is a scary thought.

    7. Rest 

    In music, a rest is a pause: less a silence than a reminder that we are moving from sound to sound, that something is coming next, and that what comes next can be anticipated but is not inevitable.

    The goal of art, surely, is to arrest: to stop us in our tracks, make us think differently, give us pause for thought.

    Perhaps Hartley’s project has taken citizenship too lightly, seen it as too simplistically elective, open to all. Think of Nâzim Hikmet, exiled from Turkey for his modernist poems. For one British politician, the Nowhereisland project is nothing more than an “astonishing folly.” A folly is also: an architectural structure built on a country estate, a sign of wealth, a desire for status. Art for art’s sake.

    Striking things take place at a folly: lovers meet, people are murdered, sunsets are witnessed, proposals are made. Critics query the £500,000 price tag for Hartley’s project, engaging in the national sport of complaining that money could always be better spent on other things. Would the figure sit better if thought about as £22 per citizen (not counting those who have engaged with the project without becoming citizens), roughly the price of a visit to the London Zoo? But debating the economics of art is the wrong response, not because art should lie outside economic critique, but because it matters more that we debate the economics of citizenship. Most of us are born into citizenship; for others, it is a status acquired at the cost of thousands of pounds. To gain citizenship, even in the straits of life-threatening situations, involves an exchange of money: pounds sterling are required of the applicant at each stage — residency, leave to remain, full citizenship — and she must stump up or see her citizenship application denied.

    The summer of Nowhereisland is also the summer of boat after boat after boat of refugees capsizing and drowning off the coasts of Lampedusa, Malta, Cuba, Haiti, Gibraltar. The cost of citizenship is often death.

    In the wake of Warhol (not to mention Duchamp), any object can become an art object: re-contextualized, re-interpreted, re-investigated, re-contemplated. If, after the breakup of Nowhereisland, we return to familiar models of citizenship, we have turned the potentially radical site of art into a fleeting entertainment, a summer afternoon’s pastime on the softly named Jennycliff. The failure of citizenship will be ours, not Nowhereisland’s. Citizenship imagined is not citizenship enacted.

    My self-addressed, stamped envelope comes back to me, safely housing my piece of the island, secured to an elegant piece of off-white card stock, and bearing an explanatory message:

    This small rock formed part of an island discovered by artist Alex Hartley in the High Arctic on the 19th of September 2004. Seven years and one day later, the island was sailed into international waters where it was declared a new nation, Nowhereisland. During the summer of 2012, the island journeyed south 2,500 miles to the south west coast of England. On the 9th September 2012, Nowhereisland’s journey came to an end. The island was broken into pieces and this territory was distributed amongst the 23,0003 people from 135 countries across the world who had become citizens of Nowhereisland.

    Nation declared in international waters at
    90˚ 14N 10˚ 30E

    I move houses once, twice, three times. I move jobs, offices. The card travels with me, never quite making it into a frame. My daughter is born; our house fills with unlikely paraphernalia, the things three people need to live. My island-fragment finds itself displaced, variously buried under onesies, unread newspapers, student writing. I tell myself to buy a frame, that the island will get damaged otherwise. I tell myself I’m too busy to buy a frame, that money is better spent on other things. That I’ll do it next week.

    Perhaps, though, I don’t really want to frame this thumbnail-sized piece of island. Perhaps to put this fragment of citizenship behind glass would be to make it static, like the photograph in my passport which someone in an office somewhere has had to seal behind plastic, for we can no longer be trusted with our own images. Besides, it is not, I realize, the kind of art one frames.


    Lytton Smith is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and has translated two novels from the Icelandic.

    image: Nowhereisland at Ringstead Bay, Dorset, England. Via Wikimedia Commons.

    LARB Contributor

    Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.


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