Pau Waelder


Citizens of Nowhere (for Chameleon by Varvara and Mar)

[Text written for the catalogue of the exhibition Camaleón by Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet at Rambleta art center (Valencia) in Fall 2016]

Citizens of nowhere

“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May uttered this clear-cut statement on the 2nd October 2016, in defence of her government carrying out the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, well-known as Brexit and confirmed by the referendum on 23rd June 2016 with 51.9% votes in favour (Bearak, 2006). The tight margin has given legitimacy to the promoters of a process that could lead to the breaking-off of the United Kingdom, which is already showing a policy of protectionism. Through her statement, May directly attacked the cosmopolitanism assumed in a globalized society. If nowadays we are attentive to what is happening in different parts of the planet, either the war in Syria or the presidential elections in the USA, if we consume and publish contents on the Internet without worrying about where they come from or where they will be stored and if we, those who live in the European Union, can travel from country to country without passports nor visas, are we not citizens of the world?

Patriotism and cosmopolitanism

Brexit has seriously injured the dream of a united Europe without boundaries and at once it has revived an aggressive patriotic feeling among many British. If we understand, as proposed by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, that patriotism and cosmopolitanism are opposite ideas, not surprisingly May shows contempt to those who consider themselves as kosmou politês, as Diogenes the Cynic defined himself. The cosmopolitan feels that oneself is a part of a community formed by all the inhabitants of the planet and therefore does not give great importance to nationalities, nor to States, even though he or she does not reject them. This position usually finds the opposition of those who consider themselves as patriots. Observing the reactions of North Americans after the attacks of the 11th September 2001, Nussbaum (2002) affirms that patriotic pride can be “morally dangerous” and can encourage hatred towards those seen as foreigners. As a matter of fact, this is starting to happen in the United Kingdom with the rise of xenophobic crimes, as was reported last September by the organization Human Rights Watch (Ward, 2016). Facing the danger of a discriminatory form of patriotism, the philosopher suggests applying the principles of cosmopolitanism in education to teach citizens how to look beyond the limits of their own country.

Nussbaum’s proposal was contested by experts who pose different perspectives about cosmopolitanism. The main critique to the concept of “citizen of the world” is based on the difficulty of the individual to feel close to humanity as a whole when one builds one’s own identity from the relationships with his or her closest circles (family, local community, city, region, country). In the opinion of political analyst Benjamin Barber, to bypass these links in favour of cosmopolitanism is “to risk ending up nowhere –feeling at home neither at home nor in the world.” (Nussbaum, 2002, p.34). Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb adopts a more critical position when affirming that the values considered as “universal” by the cosmopolitan, such as justice, right or reason, are not respected (and not even considered as values) by a large part of humanity. They are mainly Western values. In line with what was said by Theresa May, she points out that it is not possible to conceive the idea of citizenship without a State and therefore, it is non-sensical to consider oneself “A citizen of the world” ignoring the political structures of nations. Finally, and in a direct opposite position to Nussbaum, she concludes “Cosmopolitanism has a nice, high-minded ring to it, but it is an illusion, and, like all illusions, perilous.” (Nussbaum, 2002, p.77). Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein equilibrates both positions and affirms that we must assume that we occupy specific places in an unequal world and therefore it is necessary to combine our own personal and local interests with a disinterested feeling towards the global community. (Nussbaum, 2002, p.124). The divergent views of the experts provide a context for the words of the British Prime Minister at a moment in which the world is increasingly more connected and, at the same time, increasingly more divided.

Hardly two months before the Brexit referendum took place, a report from GlobeScan consultancy revealed that over half of the inhabitants of industrialized countries consider themselves as “world citizens” (GlobeScan, 2016). This perception, which can be linked to the effects of globalization, contrasts with the evident “return of borders”, as described by geographer Michel Foucher (2016). Foucher points out that at present States are reaffirming their borders by introducing new controls in free movement areas (such as the Schengen area in the EU) and by erecting walls (as done in the USA and Israel) either in response to terrorists’ threats or to the influx of immigrants and refugees (p.14-17). In addition, the existing tensions remain because of the delineation of borders, as those drafted in the agreements of Sykes-Picot in 1916, which, one hundred years later, have caused the instability in the Middle East. All in all, Foucher considers that this “return” of borders is a positive fact in the sense that “the borders are symbolic markers that nations need to define an interior, with the aim of interacting with the exterior” (p.7). Likewise Barber and Himmelfarb, the geographer criticizes the “non-borderism” that, in his opinion, aims at nullifying borders and in the end, provokes that “humanism serves as a façade to annihilate political values in favour of economic values” (p.10). Certainly, the ideal of free movement of people has become the free transit of products and the unstoppable expansion of corporations. Thus, big cities have become shopping centres in which we always find the same stores.

Consumers of the world

In international airports, places of movement from one country to another, there are no flags signalling the different destinations: the idea that prevails is that of a movement without borders, between cities that are nodes open to a global network. The national identity is usually found in a souvenirs store, in which the flag is a brand, embedded in the design of hundreds of different products. These souvenirs are often the only aspect that differentiates one airport from another, while the rest of terminal’s space in under the dominion of multinational companies that mark their territory with clearly recognisable shops and brands. The national identity gives way to corporative identities. Passengers are cosmopolitan to the extent that they participate, as consumers, in this global market. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Benjamin Barber (1992) criticized this globalization dominated by economic interests, which he defined as “McWorld”, a common market that demands “a common language, as well as a common currency” and produces “common behaviors”. The relative stability of industrialized countries (and the cosmopolitan perception of their citizens) is mostly due to the imperatives of this international economy. All in all, economic globalization also affects the identity of countries: according to Richard Falk, a professor in international rights, governments are dominated by the pressures of regional and global economic structures (EU, NAFTA, World Trade Organization, World Bank), which leads to the situation of “neurotic States”, where the demands of society and the requirements of the international market contradict each other (Nussbaum, 2002, p.56). Falk posits that this “globalization from above” is opposed to the “globalization from below” of the non-governmental organizations, through which people put into practise what can be called “neo-cosmopolitanism” (Nussbaum, 2002, p.58). Information technologies have made it possible that these two globalizations develop more rapidly and more effectively.

Despite that, the Internet is not simply a global communication channel. It cannot be considered any more as a “cyberspace” separated from the “real world” and alien to the dynamics of world politics, but rather participates directly in them. A good example of this is the fact that the essential elements of its infrastructure, as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), is based in the US and is under the protection of the US government. Other governments, such as the Popular Republic of China, have tried to change this on recurrent occasions. As pointed out by researcher and activist Rebecca MacKinnon (2012): “Digital real estate is turning out to be as political as physical real estate, with the added complication that the network is borderless and global, which means that the politics of digital domains are waged simultaneously within countries and across many borders.” In fact, the government of Beijing is among those that exert a tighter control over the contents available to its citizens on the Internet: The Chinese do not have access to Western social networks. On the contrary, they have their own servers, obviously controlled by the State (Lovink, 2011, p.20). However, it is not only in China or Iran where citizens find limited access to the Internet. There are more countries that practise different levels of censorship and the discrimination of contents available to the user depending on the country where the user is. This also happens even in paid services, due to the different agreements on the commercial exploitation of contents and copyright laws. In this way, the World Wide Web is becoming smaller and smaller in a reduced global space and more demarcated by geographical areas.


Global art

The world of contemporary art also participates in this cosmopolitanism that Gertrude Himmelfarb sees as an illusion since works of art are conceived as the cultural heritage of humanity and take part in a global discourse on aesthetics. Nevertheless, the apparent globalization of the art world also hides a reality influenced by the specific weight of some western countries, where the market, as well as the institutions that award the recognition of the artists’ work, are based. Sociologist Alain Quemin affirms that the art world mainly focuses on the US and Western Europe (Lind and Velthuis, 2012, p.71). This can be seen on the list of the most reputed artists, most of whom were born or live in New York, London or Berlin. Quemin (2013) concludes that the globalization of the art world is an illusion because the highest levels of notoriety are reserved for those who in live in a few countries (p.397). Therefore, artists find themselves in a similar situation to that of the “neurotic States”, since they are identified by their countries of birth (and, eventually, supported by the public institutions of those countries) while att the same time, they must be present at the most prominent spaces in the international art scene.

True cosmopolitans, Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet have developed their career in many countries, by means of artist in residence programs, exhibitions and workshops that have taken them to work in Austria, Spain, Netherland, United Kingdom, Belgium, Brazil, South Korea, Poland, France and Estonia, where they are currently living. This nomadism and Canet’s expatriate situation are some of the factors that inspire the works now being presented at Rambleta. Their works explore the contradictory identity of the countries in a globalized world, as well as the tension between patriotism and cosmopolitism experienced by its citizens. Notably, it is about three forms of representing nations, not as an affirmation, but as a constant questioning by means of a fluid and continuous process that denies them any authority.

Camaléon (Chameleon) is a white flag made of a fabric with embeded LEDs that allow it to become the flag of any country. Attached to the wall by a flagpole and a rod that keeps it spread out, the piece reacts to the people’s presence by showing in a compulsive way the flags of different countries, chosen at random from a database. The design of each flag is never completed, but mutates constantly from one nation to another, blending colours and shapes in such way that it becomes an amalgam of all flags and none of them at once. Like a scared animal who tries to adapt to its environment, the flag is immersed in a never-ending process that reminds one of the critique of cosmopolitanism by Barber: trying to represent all the nations on the planet, it ends up becoming a foreign or even alien flag. Observed from the expectation of a final shape, from the strong statement that a national flag represents, this modest cloth seems doomed to failure, since its design will never be completed. Therefore, it can be interpreted in terms of those opposing cosmopolitanism, as something merely illusory and devoid of substance. Nevertheless, if it is looked at as a living process, the flag tells us about a continuous exchange in which the different countries meet and blend without hierarchies. In this way, it echoes Nussbaum’s proposal and the conciliating view of Wallerstein, who reminds us that we are living in an unequal world, subjected to constant changes.

Paradoxically, both possibilities in Camaleón (the unique flag and the continuous process of fusion) are simultaneously present in One Flag Every Day. This piece consists of a software that collects data from Google News and, by using an analysis tool based on the artificial intelligence Watson by IBM, determines which countries are most referred to in mass media every day. Based on this information, the software generates a new flag, which is the combination of the elements of the flags whose countries are more present in the news of the day. The resulting composition is automatically posted on the Twitter account @oneflageveryday, emphasising the importance of this social network in the activities of citizens that question State authority. The hybrid flag also materializes in the exhibition space, joining every day other paper flags that progressively occupyi the room. As in Camaleón, this work suggests a reflection on the possible interconnections between countries that control the attention of the media, as it is currently happening with the US, Syria and Russia, whose flags nourish the compositions that were posted on Twitter during the last two months. The succession of mixed flags can also be related to the concept of “Neurotic States” proposed by Falk, since many countries see their destiny devised by the pressure from the most powerful nations and their organizations.

The tension between nations and regional and global economic infrastructures inspire the last piece, Who is Next? which is about the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. A device randomly shows randomly the two-letter codes (ISO 3166-1 alfa-2) of the EU countries next to a luminous sign displaying the word “EXIT”. This way, it speculates about which nation could be the next one to leave the European Union (or to be expelled from it). The piece does not sort out this by means of any data analysis, but it is shown as something completely accidental. After the result of the referendum on Brexit, which came as a shock even to the British and even more, to its promoters, the future evolution of the EU and the European Economic Area is uncertain. The codes of the member countries follow one another on a panel whose moveable parts clatter as the information panels at international airports used to do in the old times. Each time these parts stop, a new border emerges in our imagination, changing the lives of millions of citizens.

A few days after knowing the result of the referendum on Brexit, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, as well as several political analysts, pointed out the citizens’ discontentment about globalization and international structures, both political and economic, that it has generated (Tharoor, 2016). Some people consider that the cost of living and the options to find a steady job are determined by the decisions of bureaucrats who are sitting at offices located far away from their district, their city or their country. From the perspective of somebody who feels identified with his or her more immediate territory and does not have any interest or the means to travel around the world, globalization is perceived as a threat: not as an opening to the world but as the entrance of a foreigner and the loss of their own sovereignty. Considering the inequalities that the global economy is generating, it is not shocking to see the rise of patriotism, particularly that of a most aggressive character. Doubtlessly there will flutter many flags, some rescued from the past, others employed as a sign of separation between an “us” and a “they”, either dictated or imagined. In this context, it is increasingly more necessary to maintain a critical position on the flags that flutter over our heads and accept that they are more flexible and ephemeral than they look.

The future exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union has led some citizens (among them some artists who live in other countries) to apply for a new nationality, in order not to lose the privileges of belonging to the EU. People will go on moving from one place to another in the world, but in some cases, they will lose the right to do it. Citizens from a country that is collapsing, from a country that has expelled them, from another that accepts them, or from nowhere, are part of the community of the inhabitants of the planet. As such, their lives and their actions will carry on being what marks the evolution of nations, either when the State recognises their existence or when it does not.

Pau Waelder
October, 2016


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Read the catalogue online here