Behind the Passport Privilege

To the bearer of this passport,

to the privileged, is an artwork consisting of four equally important aspects. Firstly, it’s vital to mention the location of the exhibition as it’s the vessel that carries the artwork. The exhibition took place outside the Giardini in Venice, one of the main locations of the Venice Biennale. Then the passport book itself that consists of a piece of text explaining passport privilege and the rest of the pages include 15 countries represented at the Venice Biennale along with their passport rank, a stamp dated back to 1414, when the first passport was issued by King Henry V in England, and a washed out image of the country’s artistic representation in their national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This is important because pavilions housed at the Giardini are owned by the exhibiting country and stepping into the pavilion would essentially mean stepping into that country’s border.

The Venice Biennale plays an important role in this artwork as it is where the thought process of this exhibition began. The biennale brings together 89 nations on one land, breaking national artistic borders for those who need to go through rigorous visa processes to achieve that. And to translate this to an object, the passport, that is a universal symbol of hierarchy as if it’s common sense, is an intimate piece of artwork that is activated by the viewers touch. Placing this outside the Giardini with the artist present acts as a gate keeper or perhaps border control restrictions that are required before entering the Giardini, as if it’s a site of protest.

A direct exchange takes place between the artist and the viewer in the form of conversations and data. The viewer is asked to fill a card that questions if they needed a visa to be in Venice and where does their passport belong to. In return they would get their hand or exhibition hand-out that is the front page of the passport stamped by the artist as if she is someone of authority at border control. It is a change of hierarchy for a European person to have their exhibition hand-out which is the front page of the passport stamped by someone of color & owner of ‘lower passport rank’.

‘Artworks at their best, define positions that can contribute to, as much as remotely resist the exhibition frames within which we place them.’ (Filipovic, Hal and Øvstebø, 2010, pg. 17) This artwork contributes to the Venice Biennale being a place of inclusion in the art world as well as resisting the European worldview and privilege.

'An artwork conveys the poetic power of the particular in our understanding of the universal'

Passport privilege is something I’ve personally been affected by at many instances; hence I feel the need to talk about it and I acknowledge the fact that holding an Indian passport means being more privileged than some at the bottom of the global passport power rank like Afghanistan. Having chosen Venice as a location for this exhibition very much adds to the piece while taking away from it too. Venice is a tourist destination, especially when the biennale is on and that makes the audience either passport privileged or those who had their visa accepted, me being one of them. There is no doubt that a certain level of privilege is attached to having been accepted a visa but the reason why I made this piece is to draw attention of those who have never needed one, those who can just walk in to a country without ‘proof of decency’ and reason, those who have never had to take the lane called ‘others’ at immigration cause their country is acknowledged at airports.

Passport privilege is a consistently overlooked inequality that exists on a global level, dictating every immigration and migration debate. From my experience of the exhibition, I think it was successful in changing the perspective of the viewer and providing a perspective on this inequality in the first place with a little object imitating the ‘Passport’ that is usually hidden away, like every discriminating debate that comes with it.

Global Passport Power Rank:

Filipovic, E., Hal, M. and Ovstebo, S. (2010). The Biennial Reader. p.17.