When Pixels Become Nations*


Put a map on the desk or in your browser and watch carefully the limits. This bright combination of colors and visualizations suggest the idea of different coexisting units. But, how are those borders defined? Is there only one way to measure them? The limits show states and some of those states embrace nations. A nation is a political-cultural entity, which identifies the collective rights of a large group of people who share a common language, culture and ethnicity. A state for instance is a politico-judicial entity, a patch of land with a sovereign government. And the limits of the latter are not always the same; but are in constant transformation.

So, as we write this, some states’ borders are disappearing, others are being created and the rest are under constant territorial changes, due to geological and climate flows as wisely shown in the Italian Limes project at Monditalia. Other flows include military and economic conflicts, such as the recent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia or the colonial interventions in Palestine, which have reduced its territory with Israeli settlements reclaiming ownership of these lands.

At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, Antarctopia —the presence of the Antarctic pavilion for the first time— provoked the discussion of what is a nation and how it can be represented at an event like this. Its starting point is that Antarctica has no government, although various countries claim sovereignty in certain regions, and that it’s considered politically neutral —in territorial terms Antarctica is defined as all land and ice shelves south of 60° S for the purposes of the Antarctic Treaty System. But the Treaty was signed in 1959 and climate change has widely affected the surface of what we consider the Antarctic territory. Then how can a nation like this can be represented? What defines the nation-state? Perhaps it’s community of foreign researchers? Could these researchers and their common set of values represent a nation? By proposing an expanded Antarctic imaginary, Antarctopia circumscribes man’s relationship with the continent, and poses the question of how can architecture offer an alternative to scientific stations mostly developed by engineers responding to climatic and logistical realities.

Folder, “Italian Limes”, Arsenale. Photo: Francesco Galli. Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

Antarctopia, 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo: James Morris

Nations’ limits are more complex to draw, and they are subject to cultural and ethnic flows. And it’s harder to represent but easier to manipulate them, as not being determined by a physical border. As examples take the rise of nationalisms in Europe fed by the manipulation of angst derived from tough economic situations. Other nuances could be the rise of independence claims as in Catalonia with politicians setting up a smokescreen of nationalism to distract people form disturbing cases of political corruption. Subjects of these nations still believe in a most profound idea rooted in their cultural and ethnic heritage, beyond the economic manipulation of borders. But surprisingly they easily accept the creation of new borders as a means to define something which is essentially movable.

On the other hand, networked communication has aided the emergence of collective conceptions of what could be a new model of a nation. As a reaction to the excess of control and different kinds of government violence of the past years [1], a new geography of insurrection achieved its tipping point and somehow connected the Arab Spring, the 15M movement, Occupy Wall Street and most recently, the movements in Brazil against the World Cup and the Ferguson conflict in the US. Understanding the contagion of tactics, and the emergence of a collective attitude questioning the prevalence of the capitalist system, the first question that arises is: are we facing an outbreak of nations without a physical territory?

Certainly it is possible to think that the internet could be this new territory. Among the different types of transnational communities that already exist on the web and the kind of infrastructure they deploy to enhance their identity, it’s possible to see that the new tendency is to reinforce the cultural links and diversity between the inhabitants of these delocalized nation-like structures, aside from any geographical borders, origin, or race; thus the concept of ‘citizenship’ is also under transformation from the perspective of these new systems. This generates a new concept of nation, outlined by Marco Ferrari’s phrase “The internet is our country.”

Poster reading “Facebook, #jan25, The Egyptian Social Network” during the 2011 protests. Source: wikipedia

Architecture to reinforce the notion of nation

According to Hardt and Negri in Empire, the concept of nation in Europe developed on the terrain of the patrimonial and absolutist state, where the physical territory and population were conceived as the extension of the transcendent essence of the nation —a cultural, integrating identity, founded on a biological continuity of blood relations. But Matteo Pasquinelli [2] goes further and explains that “a new technological nomos is shaped at a planetary scale, where the powers of traditional nation-states are interwoven with the global corporations of the internet.” Interestingly, it is possible to find some case studies of nation-like projects created from scratch, without the background of the mentioned transcendent essence but reinforcing a corporate presence on the internet.

The Aga Khan Development Network is a good example. AKDN is a contemporary endeavor of the Ismaili Imamat to realize the social conscience of Islam through institutional action, as they define themselves. By focusing their work in forming intellectual and financial partnerships with organizations that share the same objectives, they have created a physical network of partners in different countries and cleverly use architecture to reinforce their presence, such as the building designed by Fumihiko Maki in Toronto that serves as a de facto embassy in Canada, or expanding this nation-like network by using the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, established in 1977, focusing on the architectural practice as a means to identify and reward building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies. The award is aimed at societies in which Muslims have a significant presence, but with a wider international participation, which allows the AKDN to spread their message.

Until now, more than 7,500 buildings have participated in the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, mostly all of the architects don’t know each other but they have the common link of being part of the same network:

They have constructed a set of buildings that constitute a physical manifestation of the Ismali, who are scattered around the world. This award also recognizes teams and stakeholders in addition to buildings and architects; and all in all we have a set of buildings housing the activities of around 25,000 users. Whatever number we get, it is more than the population of Antarctica, which varies from about 1,000 in winter to about 5,000 in the summer. Accordingly, the Ismaili reinforce the value system that in turn reinforces the notion of an Ismaili nation, with the aid of architecture.

Niger Stamps Aga Khan Award For Architecture. Source: Stamps treasures

When pixels become territories

When the limits between the physical and the virtual become blurred and diffuse, and we start inhabiting the screens of our devices, is the moment when pixels become territories, as Metahaven recently stated. But the impossibility to envision how a new nation in these territories can be formed comes from the fact that the traditional notion of nation is all that we know. Following the ideas of Krzysztof Nawratek, if we understand the
concept of nation as a combination of incorporeal factors [law, regulations and symbolism] and material factors [spatial structure, infrastructure, and buildings] which shape human behavior and sustain interpersonal relationships, we can see how this combination is what shapes a certain type of human being as a citizen. In this regard, Irina Ulrike Andel wrote in 2010 [3], “In the mid-1990s, the growing popularity of the World Wide Web made it possible to form state-like entities with little time and effort and with the aid of a purely electronic medium. More and more, purely online, fantasy, or simulation based micronations appeared. The network relations that result are by no means cold and sterile, and do not exclude strong feelings.”

In this context it’s possible to talk about totally virtual or digital communities that are the nation-states of our current times. If now there are nations without territory, it’s fair to question what is a trans-national narrative, how do we define membership, and what can it produce in architectural terms. The common link between them is that they don’t have a physical network of places but citizens from any place in the world. All the exchanges of ideas, decision-making meetings and constitutional resolutions take place via the internet; and their ‘physical’ presence is constructed by the collective imaginary of the people who join or follow their activities. Perhaps it is wise to think that architecture can play a role in building, not the nation, but our current fantasies of a nation, and its own representation of the complex notion of nation.

Nowhereisland. Citizenship certificate

In September 2011, we had the experience of becoming citizens of Nowhereisland. It was the same day that Nowhereisland was declared a nation by artist Alex Hartley and the expedition team. And some months later, we were able to participate in the writing of the on-line constitution. In September 2012, at the end of the project, 23,003 people from 135 countries had signed up as ‘citizens of Nowhereisland’. Renato Constantino, citizen of Nowhereisland and originally from the Philippines, stated: “We are not so different, you and I, not as distant from one another as the water that separates us.” This quote reflects the main motivation to request the citizenship: the idea of a nation for everybody, beyond gender, race, or culture. The final gesture of the project was when the island was physically broken up in tiny pieces and distributed via conventional postal service amongst its citizens; a gesture that is deeply related to architecture, because it gives materiality, a physical sense to all the ideas and commitments behind the project.

Architecture as nation-builder?

In the history of nation-building, it was architecture that worked, because it provided what the inhabitants needed: the notion of place, as Bart Lootsma refers to in this issue [4] when discussing identity formation in the case of the Tyrolean house. Therefore, if the notion of place is so important to define a nation-state, it is at least thought-provoking to think of what the role of architecture can be in projects that only exist on the cloud. Launched in Malta in 2009, the Passport Project intends to give visibility to the long list of human rights crushed by the consequences of the discriminatory immigration policy of several governments. In this project, ‘passport’ becomes an ‘anti-passport’ —no visa required— for a world without borders. Anyone can order a passport; thus it gives physicality to the act of becoming a citizen of this on-line nation.

In the same way, the State of Sabotage — So9 was born from the formation of ‘Sabotage’ by artist Robert Jelinek in June 1992. It constituted the first sovereign cultural state according to international law. A priori it did not have a defined territory, and was intended to emerge anywhere geographically. With the aim of breaking conventions, and the artistic interruption of thought processes, the project has evolved from performative and artistic actions to the creation of their own territory called ‘Despatialization – Territorial Phantoms’. They state that “a landless people cannot succumb to the same fallacy that has imposed itself on almost every settled people throughout history: to understand the land itself as the container of the people and their own land as the a-priori of their life meaning or identity.” With these conditions, by understanding the idea that the state can emerge anywhere geographically, we should rethink if architecture can play a role in the process of new nation-building.

SoS passport application

By viewing architecture in the context of political history and cultural production, we see that it has been one of the most powerful tools to build the symbols of democratic governments, especially in periods of rapid political and economic change, such as the current one. But we can’t forget that architects have been trained to produce object-form, and should speak in the language of spatial variables, as Keller Easterling proposes. Then, how do we use this training to represent one of these novel nations in a biennale context? Architecture is also a matter of representation, and the Venice Biennale has served until now as one of the best grounds for architecture to build national representations and, consequently, the perfect foundation for architects to create a specific figure of national identity. However, any form of representation is partial, because it is based on certain elements, and it reproduces them depending on its own capabilities, and the time has come to question not only if all new kinds of nations [trans-national communities, micronations, online states, etc.] need to be represented in a physical way, but also to critically question if events based on national definitions still have relevance today.


* Title taken from Metahaven’s tweet.
This article was commissioned and published in Volume #41 ‘How to build a nation?.’ We want to thank Brendan Cormier for inviting us to contribute to his last issue on Volume Magazine.

Header image: Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.

[1] In the past years, especially with the financial crisis from 2008, the peak of violence has reached different fields, from the physical violence to stop the struggles in several cities around the world, to the economic and emotional violence implicit of the act of evictions, that leaves people without shelter and food.
[2] Matteo Pasquinelli (ed.) Gli algoritmi del capitale. Accelerazionismo, macchine della conoscenza e autonomia del comune. (Ombrecorte, 2014).
[3] Irina Andel, Micronations in Space and Time, Form and Flux. 2010. Excerpts from the master’s thesis: Irina Ulrike Andel, 2010: MICRONATIONS. Konstituierte Staaten in konstruierten
Welten. Zur historischen Entwicklung von Mikronationen und ihren gegenwärtigen Ausprägungen
. Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology, Vienna.
[4] Volume #41 ‘How to build a nation?’ Archis, 2014


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