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Unequal journeys: exploring the contradictions of citizenship and asylum regimes

While governments tighten asylum and citizenship for the poor and persecuted, they sell it at ever higher costs for the rich.

Who are we banner_0.jpglead In March 2017, Nele Vos, a narrative experience designer living and working in Berlin, participated in the Who Are We? Tate Exchange project with an installation titled, Citizenshop/Citizenship. In the midst of the ‘refugee crisis’, Brexit, and the increasing salience of xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments in both Europe and the UK, the installation drew attention to the less visible processes by which the wealthiest of individuals can acquire citizenship(s) by investment. Effectively, as Nele’s installation explored, citizenship(s) can be ‘bought’, with many European countries, including the UK, ‘selling’ visas, residence permits and citizenships to those who can afford to invest large sums of money in the country.

The installation drew attention to the less visible processes by which the wealthiest of individuals can acquire citizenship by investment. 

As the citizenship by investment industry grows, the lack of transparency and oversight over who can ‘buy’ citizenship is starting to raise questions. Yet little has been done to explore the citizenship by investment industry in the context of broader, contemporary debates on migration and asylum. Following the success of the Tate Exchange project and the interest generated by Nele’s installation, Nele and her design partner at Goller&Vos, Alexander Goller, began collaborating with Agnes Czajka and the Open University (OU) to develop an interactive, e-learning module designed to explore some of the inequalities inherent in access to citizenship and freedom of movement. Focusing on the UK, the module, which will be freely available on the OU’s OpenLean platform, will explore some of the contradictions and fundamental inequalities of citizenship and asylum regimes.

In the interview below, Nele and Alex preview the module, and discuss some of the challenges associated with exploring controversial political issues in an e-learning format.

Agnes Czajka (AC): The e-learning module that Goller&Vos is developing has its origins in your Citizenshop/Citizenship installation at Tate Exchange. Tell me a bit about that installation.  

Nele Vos (NV): The installation was meant to both bring to light, but also critically interrogate the increasingly prevalent neoliberal practice of, basically, ‘selling’ citizenship to those who could afford it. Citizenship by investment programmes are offered by an increasing number of governments around the world, and increasing numbers of wealthy individuals are acquiring what are seen as ‘desirable’ citizenships in this manner. By desirable I mean citizenship and passports that are highly ranked, meaning that they enable easy, visa free travel, or come with other benefits such as favourable tax policies and so on.

AC: What inspired you to address the issue of citizenship by investment? And why did you choose to address in this particular way?

NV: I thought it was interesting, but also very telling, that even though citizenship, migration and asylum were hotly debated topics, and governments, media and individuals were becoming increasingly concerned about numbers of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, about issues of integration, and about what it means to be a ‘good citizen’, very little attention was being paid to the fact that while governments were tightening access to citizenship and asylum for some populations, they were expanding their citizenship by investment programmes, effectively ‘selling’ their citizenships and passports to those who could afford it.

While governments were tightening access to citizenship and asylum for some populations, they were expanding their citizenship by investment programmes, effectively ‘selling’ their citizenships and passports to those who could afford it.

The installation was interactive, and set up like an online shopping website. The format was meant to convey the commodification of citizenship and to encourage the audience to rethink the connection between citizenship and nationality. Though I did not conceive of the installation as an art piece for a particular gallery space, the space and ethos of the Tate Exchange was particularly suited to the installation, creating something of a transnational zone that enabled the audience to reflect on the outside world.

I should add that the audience at the Tate Exchange was largely unaware of the existence of citizenship by investment programmes, and many were shocked that residence and citizenship could in fact be acquired in this way. Through the installation, I wanted to shed light on these practices, and raise some difficult questions about the meaning of citizenship in neoliberal economies.

AC: How did the idea of the e-leaning module arise? Tell me a bit about the module, the process and what you’ve done so far.

Alexander Goller (AG): We wanted to make Nele’s work on citizenship by investment accessible to a broader, international audience. We also wanted to carry the element of learning through – to make more people aware of these programmes and the questions they raised about the commodification of, and unequal access to citizenship. So, to go online to address a transnational audience through an e-learning module was a logical choice. As narrative is the key principle of our design strategy, creating an interactive ‘game’ also made sense to us. Once the idea was in place, it was about finding the best and most instructive way of communicating it.

We can all try to envision these journeys separately, but only by showing them side-by-side can one really see the inequality of their situations and the possibilities open to them.

AC: Why did you think it was important to juxtapose the journey of someone who acquires citizenship by investment with those of a skilled worker and a refugee?

NV: We wanted to situate all of this in the context of broader debates about migration and asylum, particularly given the current ‘refugee crisis’. We wanted to make sure that the person playing the game could see the inequality of the citizenship and asylum regimes. We wanted them to see the ease with which someone wealthy enough could ‘buy’ British citizenship, and contrast it to the journey of a refugee trying to escape war, find safe haven, and start a new life in safety and security. So we came up with the idea of narrating (in a fairly abstract way) the journey of a refugee, and juxtaposing it with that of a skilled migrant and investor. We can all try to envision these journeys separately, but only by showing them side-by-side can one really see the inequality of their situations and the possibilities open to them.

Images from game prototype.AC: Tell me a bit about the ‘game’ itself. How will it work?

AG: The main storyline is build around a refugee fleeing from Syria, and trying to get to the UK to seek asylum and eventually start a new life. The game combines strategy, balancing skills and invites players to explore information through an interactive maze. As players – put in the position of the refugee – navigate the borders, territories and other obstacles en route, they gain insight into the difficulties of the journey. Simultaneously, through additional information available to the players, they can compare and contrast the refugee’s journey with that of a skilled migrant or investor.

The design is fairly abstract, though the information that is offered as part of the game is very real – we did a lot of research into the routes refugees take and the obstacles they face, and even talked to some of the people who facilitate their journey. Although we do use some documentary imagery and footage, we knew that we didn’t want to try to convey the harrowing nature of a refugee’s journey in a ‘game’ – it would have been impossible to try to, and we didn’t want to sensationalise the situation. So we tried to strike a good balance though a level of abstraction. As a refugee’s journey is uncertain and unstable, and we thought something abstract, like a ball, controlled only by the angle of the playing area was a good metaphor for this situation.

AC: What do you think people will learn, or should learn, from playing the game? And why try to achieve some of these learning outcomes and address very controversial political issues through engagement with games, art and design?

NV: We're very well aware that addressing sensitive topics through the mode of ‘entertainment’ is controversial. We’re also aware that juxtaposing the journey in the way we did is controversial, and we’re certainly open to critical feedback and exchange around these issues. But in the end, we did feel very strongly that attention needed to be paid to the inequalities of citizenship and asylum regimes, the commodification of citizenship, the unequal opportunities afforded the rich and the poor, and the incredible risks some people must take and the hardships they must endure to try to escape conflict and war and rebuild their lives. In the end, we thought that this was an accessible way of drawing attention to issues that deserve attention, and that's what was most important for us. But it was also important for us that the game appear in an environment (that is, on the Open University’s OpenLearn platform) where users have the opportunity to dig deeper into some of these issues by engaging with some of the other material that is available there.   

AC: Nele and Alex, thank you for your time and reflections.

The module is currently in production, and should be available on the OpenLearn platform at the beginning of 2018. 

Goller and Vos. All rights reserved.Goller&Vos is an experience design agency applying narrative and spatial theory as the core foundation of its practice. In specially designed dramaturgies the visitor becomes the protagonist of a scene, which vividly conveys its interwoven contents. In transdisciplinary teams G&V creates experience for all the senses - that's narrative experience design.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy, The Open University and Counterpoints Arts to reanimate the Tate Exchange project in which academics and artists together ask who – during a time when the lines marking out citizens, borders and nations are being redrawn, or drawn more starkly – 'we' are, and who gets to decide.
About the authors

Agnes Czajka is a lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the Open University. Her research interests include contemporary social and political thought, continental political philosophy, democracy, citizenship, contentious politics, migrant and refugee politics, and European and Mediterranean politics. Her most recent book is titled, Democracy and Justice: Reading Derrida in Istanbul (Routledge, 2016).

Alexander Goller is a transdisciplinary designer living and working in Berlin. In 2012 he completed an M.A. in Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins with distinction and works now as co-founding partner at Goller&Vos. Montessorian by DNA and escaped from the corporate laboratory, he combines narrative and spatial theory with graphic design skills to create immersive products and environments.

Nele Vos is a narrative experience designer living and working in Berlin. In 2016 she completed an M.A. in Narrative Environments, Central Saint Martins with distinction and works now as co-founding partner at Goller&Vos. In addition to her applied design projects she combines her conceptual and graphic design skills to create politically and participatory driven installations against the backdrop of migration and globalization. 


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