Remarks on the “stateless state”

Maria Hlavajova

Dear colleagues and friends,

Thank you for being here, and thank you Jonas Staal and New World Summit (NWS) for both the invitation and, Jonas, your introduction.

It is both an honor and a challenge to chair this last, culminating session of the fourth NWS, and I truly hope we can together take this opportunity for a thorough, in-depth conversation about the many complex cases, presentations, and propositions we have shared with one another here over the course of these past three days. If all preceding sessions have been exceedingly intense and forceful in their content, there is one other characteristic that they have shared: we have continuously run out of time and felt more space is needed for conversation. Thus, I would just like to bring in some off-the-cuff thoughts and introduce our speakers today, so that we can, hopefully, afford enough time for everybody who wants to talk.

I come into these discussions from the space we somewhat non-problematically refer to as “contemporary art.” You might ask, “What on earth do they mean when they say art?” It is an important question that, in a sense, already contains an answer, namely, that different conceptions of art are possible—and perhaps even necessary—to coexist. And this reality persists in spite of the conservative desires that penetrate societies in many so-called democratic countries here in the so-called West, with the aim of preventing art (paradoxically, under the flag propagating its “freedom”) from rolling up its sleeves and getting its hands “dirty” with the real struggles of the real world. Apparently, however, such efforts run amiss of what I consider to be the single most important quality that art has on offer to society. Here, I speak of the faculty of imagination; art’s capacity to imagine—and thus construct—the world, and its future, otherwise. This inevitably involves, on the one hand, an attempt to disclose the world, and with it, that which remains invisible or is forcefully kept invisible by the powers that be. On the other hand, it involves art that enacts a shift from “just” critiquing things to articulating propositions pointing towards a change, and hence towards the “world otherwise”—or perhaps, a “new world,” to employ the imaginary that drives this gathering today.

Few topics seem more significant in this context than the fate and future of democracy. The term proliferates endlessly in multiple debates to the extent that it becomes frighteningly emptied of its content and appears virtually useless. At the same time, it functions as an ideal—the potential of which is not yet realized—and thus remains a powerful horizon to strive towards. It is within this gap between reality and the ideal, in my view, that the NWS operates, turning to those who claim that the ideal of democracy is unrealizable with the response that we must keep trying nonetheless.

Jonas and I began our conversation on these issues some time ago, when I approached him with a question on whether we could try to tackle the complex question of representation together, given the misconceptions surrounding it in the current frame of democratic operation. Indeed, this proposition was born out of the observation that it is precisely the notion of representation that ties art and democracy firmly together. At that time, the project of the NWS was already ongoing; yet to tactically address the present-day ills of both aesthetic and political representation, Jonas proposed to establish New World Academy (NWA) as its educational “department.” Established together with BAK, an art institute I work with in Utrecht that envisions itself as a space of interlocution between art, the sciences, and politics, we have thus far organized three sessions of NWA together with the National Democratic Movement of the Philippines, the Amsterdam-based collective of refugees We Are Here, and advocates of the international Pirate Parties. The fourth session is forthcoming this October and is related to the project currently at BAK, realized by Moussa Ag Assarid and Jonas under the title New World Embassy: Azawad.

When I heard the proposition of a “stateless state,” my immediate reaction was: “It would be a good idea.” The question of whether it is a realizable, practicable option for our world echoes Mahatma Gandhi’s reply to the question of what he thought of Western civilization (“it would be a good idea”) and cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s application of that response onto the problematic of democracy today (indeed, when asked what he thought of democracy today, Hall replied, “it would be a good idea”).

In the course of the last three days, listening to a variety of rich examples and the discourses in which they are embedded—moving us from the oppressive state to the progressive state, global state, new state, and to the stateless state—I was continuously trying to connect these discussions to my work with Roma communities in Europe. (And I speak here of Roma peoples, where Roma is a collective label for the variety of groups known otherwise as Gypsies, Travellers, Gitani, and Sinti, among many others. The plural form of “Rom,” which means “man” or “human” in the Roma tongue—a language commonly known either as Romanes or Romani—was intended as a way of offering a constructive, collective designation that would circumvent the derogatory meanings carried in terms such as “Tzigane.” Roma are the single largest minority group in Europe. They are politically, socially, and economically at the margins of European society, while standing at the center of its oppression, discrimination, criminalization, and various violent exercises of injustice.)

I keep wondering whether the concept of the stateless state would be applicable to the plight of Roma in Europe. The project We Roma[1], the name of which deliberately echoes Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben’s individual texts that share the title “We Refugees” and departs from Arendt’s 1943 claim that “refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples”[2], brought together a number of artists, intellectuals, and activists—both Roma and non-Roma. The idea was to challenge the contemporary condition through the prism of what we called “Roma knowledges”—pockets of critical thinking and acting potentiated by Roma, yet barricaded deep inside the corporeality of the European continent. These knowledges are determinedly ignored and compromised by majority society, if not deliberately made inaccessible by the thick and toxic layers of structural xenophobia, racialization, stigmatization, discrimination, harassment, securitization, exclusion, mistrust, exploitation, and abuse of the dispersed Roma minority communities in our midst as this prejudicial condition persists, in the past and present.

We manifestly made a call under the banner “we Roma,” (again) involving both Roma and non-Roma in such a proclamation, and thus implicating society at large. In other words, we were not (just) speaking on behalf of the ethnic Roma community, but—if you remember the meaning of the singular “Rom” as “human”—we were rather making the claim to “we,” the people. Knowing that such an all-encompassing proclamation as “we” can never fully and satisfactory explain itself, we opted for a spontaneous, untaught version of (imagined) radical “togetherness” among all of us who are disenchanted, and yet continue to desire no less than a better world.

If the space of art is where such imaginative intellectual and political work can and must take place, where another world—composed of democratic intuitions—appears possible, wherein everybody’s right to both speak and be heard is assured, then it is also the space where the world imagined through this negotiation can be prefigured and pre-enacted. This does not mean, however, that it can ever circumvent the many risks and contradictions—a fact that mirrors the fault lines of a society built on oppression and fear, and that produces fear and oppression in turn in an endless vicious merry-go-round, aiming at occulting the structural flaws inherent to how our democracies have been instituted.

The question thus is: can possibilities for equality and solidarity be envisioned differently? For we might have reached a point in the former West, when the abject conditions of poverty, social exclusion, securitization, discrimination, and criminalization, traditionally assigned to the periphery of established societal vision, have migrated to the center and come to define our common, shared experience. We see existent hegemonies collapsing and social and economic injustice spreading from the historically marginalized to the “99 percent,” in both a symbolic and real sense. Despite the particularities of various struggles, there is a shared systemic, political logic that penetrates each of their respective causes. And as we acknowledge that the ideas of progress and logos of the western modernist mise-en-scène are now exhausted, that which appeared to concern the few now openly confronts us all. Such a moment presents us with perhaps an opportunity to express ourselves collectively and envision a new, common world built from heterogeneous yet equal parts. Is this a place from which we can construct a creative state of shared alterity, and, in so doing, invoke alternative common futures?

Can such a proposition of a narrative reversal, by rephrasing Roma ways of understanding the world from being “problems” into “potential solutions,” aid us in thinking and building our current and future societies? As Roma philosopher Albert Atkin has noted, “our world is in a state of flux and old capitalist notions [such as those] of ‘nationhood’ and ‘national identity’ mean less and less. As the fugacity of our current order becomes apparent, and conflict grows through resistance, now is the time to see that the world has as much to gain from recognizing Roma, as Roma have to gain from being recognized by the world.”[3]

This is a move away from “victimization” and towards seeking ways of building new collective social articulations: cross-community, transnational, cross-class, gender-equal solidarities within what appears as a new composition of the “we”: of radically differentiated yet fundamentally equal peoples.


[1] The project manifested itself in the form of a publication, We Roma: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art , edited by Daniel Baker and Maria Hlavajova (Utrecht and Amsterdam: BAK and Valiz, 2013). The reader was an extension of a project of the Roma Pavilion organized by Maria Hlavajova at the 54th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2011, which aimed at thinking through the proposition of a transnational—or perhaps stateless—condition that Roma represent in Europe, and was further intended as a critique of the notion of national representation in which the project of Venice Biennale is embedded. A makeshift exhibition evolved through the three-day flux of testimonies, works of art, performances, talks, and conversations by and with artists, thinkers, and politicians, and can be viewed online at:

[2] Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” [1943], in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, ed. Marc Robinson (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 119.

[3] Albert Atkin, “Reconstruction, Recognition, and Roma,” in We Roma: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, ed. Daniel Baker and Maria Hlavajova (Utrecht and Amsterdam: BAK and Valiz, 2013), p. 41.

“Remarks on the ‘stateless state’” formed the introduction to the concluding session of New World Summit #4, titled Stateless State, which took place on 21 September 2014 at the Royal Flemish Theater (KVS) in Brussels and was moderated by Maria Hlavajova. For more information and filmed contributions to the NWS, please see here.