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Tom Sachs, Swiss Passport Office
via @tomsachs

Artist Tom Sachs is issuing Swiss ‘passports’ at London gallery

The sculptor on how his 24-hour installation critiques the world’s borders and offers art as a solution

I’m sat across a desk at the @swisspassportoffice as Tom Sachs eyes my personal information on a form I’ve been asked to fill out in order to have the document printed. There are three cameras surveilling me and Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You” is blaring on a stereo nearby, designed by the artist himself. It’s one of the more pleasant experiences I’ve had while trying to gain acknowledgement from a country. There’s just one minor obstacle: this isn’t the actual Swiss passport office, it’s London’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. According to Sachs, that doesn’t matter. “It worked for my 14-year-old nephew when he wanted to get his first tattoo.” He pulls down his bottom lip to reveal a series of black numbers that have been inked in solidarity: “They wouldn’t let him (get tattooed), so we typed up a passport and it worked.”

Sachs is celebrated for his bricolage. From a Chanel guillotine to a NASA space station with fully stocked vodka bar, he simply creates his own. But this motto of “making it is a way of having it” has never been as urgent as it is with Swiss Passport Office. Since its inception in 2014, Sachs and his studio have issued more than 1,000 passports – mine being 1,319. Speaking with him, it’s easy to be drawn into this vision. While sceptics might call it utopian fluff – that our borders fall and we become one in currencies and countries – Sachs is deadly serious. “I would argue that these are real passports; they’re made of paper, they say Swiss passports. It’s just that one is authorised by the Swiss government and the other is authorised by the studio,” he explains. “If you think about other things, like dub music, it’s not the original version, it’s the ‘fake’ version, but sometimes it’s better. If you think about the Gucci sunglasses that you buy for $5 on the street, if you leave them in a restaurant, you just get on with your day. But the $300 ones, they own your ass. You’re beholden to some object and it’s controlling your actions.” He motions to my shiny new red passport, “There’s a freedom in this.”

Swiss citizenship is a value that Sachs considers “the ultimate status nationality, representing wealth, neutrality, and freedom”. Naturally, it’s something he believes should be accessible to everyone.

Sachs is reluctant to speak about politicians – referring only to Trump as “the bad guy” and Hillary Clinton as “the less bad woman” – and it’s important to note that this installation pre-dates the 2016 US election and the Brexit vote. The first passport was stamped four years ago, so while the project feels newly urgent now, it would be wrong to depict it as a response to the shitshows of our current moment. “We were just getting warmed up then. Now, we’ve gone full-blown bad,” he says. “Trump and Brexit are all just chickens coming home to roost. They’re not new problems, they’re just trendy problems. The pendulum swings both ways, but the people are always there.” He speaks of the momentum that the Black Lives Matter movement and #MeToo have gained recently. “We’ve always been concerned with this stuff, they’re just being acted on now.”

“The idea with the Passport Office is that we don’t make the world the way it is, we make it the way we want it to be” – Tom Sachs

The heart of Swiss Passport Office lies in a desire for unity and the idea that we are of the same world – that governments and corporations construct these boundaries which separate us. “The idea with the Passport Office is that we don’t make the world the way it is, we make it the way we want it to be,” he explains. “By making passports that anyone can have, we start to break down those barriers, conceptually, in an art piece. But that’s how it starts. Some guy once said, ‘hey, let’s go to the moon’, and then we worked on it for a long time and we got there. You can do the impossible.”

Sachs breaks his gaze and points at a panther-shaped cuckoo clock hanging on the wall, which he later tells me was the hardest thing he’s ever had to make. “Look. This happens only once an hour.” We watch in anticipation as the beast opens its mouth and a little yellow chicken escapes momentarily to signal that it’s 11 am. “There’s a myth of a panther that was on the loose in Switzerland and it killed all these people. It was wild over a summer and eventually, a hunter killed it and ate it.” I suggest that it could be emblematic of a revolution coming. He looks at me from across his desk and nods, “I hope so.”

From 6pm on 5th October 2018, Sachs’ studio will be stamping Swiss passports for 24 hours at London’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Passports cost 20 euros, no other currency is accepted. Following this period, the Swiss Passport Office installation will remain on view at the gallery until 10th November, but closed for the issuing of passports. Click here for more details