We went to the conceptual art project that turned into a literal example of nation-building and is now a bizarre international phenomenon.
Last month I found myself sputtering around in the Utah desert, on my way to a place called Zaqistan. After countless hours of driving down a series of disintegrating roads, my friend Scott and I finally hiked two miles through tumbleweeds to make our way to a gate in front of a lonely immigration booth. We took a moment to let it all set in. Inside the booth was Zaq Landsberg, a Brooklyn artist and the 30-year-old founder of the Republic of Zaqistan. He didn't strike us as overly friendly, but that was less surprising than the fact that he was there at all, hours away from running water. He took our passports, scrutinized them, and stared at us suspiciously. After a moment of awkward silence, he apparently was satisfied with the authenticity of our documents, and with a thud, stamped our passports and opened the gate.
"Welcome to Zaqistan," he said approvingly, and lowered the gate behind us. Little did we know that, weeks later, the story of the New Yorker's self-declared sovereign nation inside of Utah would blow up, with stories in the New York Daily News, New York Times, People magazine, and a nod on Conan, along with international coverage in Turkey, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Romania, Iran, Korea, and the United Arab Emirates.
I first met Zaq in 2013, when he and Clark Allen, my old roommate from New Orleans, crashed at my Salt Lake City apartment on a road trip. By many accounts, Zaq is a quiet, somewhat inscrutable person. As the founder of the Republic of Zaqistan, his muted demeanor seems at odds with the aesthetics of his country. The place looks and feels as if it had been created by a modern-day Don Quixote, but in reality it is the product of someone who would have made an adept administrator if he hadn't also been a talented artist. His previous work has consisted of all sorts of large political pieces, from plays on the NYPD's SkyWatch towers to an enormous cowering piñata, and the incredible precision he puts into his sculptures are indicative of the subversive yet playful way his mind works.
"Would you like to take a tour?" Zaq asked, leading us to a small bunker made out of sandbags. He pointed out a small tent city that had sprung up amongst the remains of a decrepit arch monument, explaining as we walked that the desert isn't kind to pretty much anything.
In the distance, the wooden bones of robots he'd constructed on previous expeditions rotted in the sun, and the Zaqistani flag waved in the breeze, a bright red banner emblazoned with a golden squid, symbolizing "the mystery and might" of the small country. We appreciated the slight bump, maybe five feet tall, that he called "Mount Insurmountable," but most of our attention was drawn towards the imposing, robot-adorned metalwork under construction in the middle of what he described as the city center, an area that consisted of sculpture and little else.
"This new piece is a play on a Soviet space monument," Zaq told us. "I'm trying to convey Zaqistan hurtling into the future, like the sun sets in the United States and rises in Zaqistan."
When Zaq originally won his two-acre Utah plot off eBay in 2005, he did so with the minimum bid of $610 dollars. Images of the property came with a bright red disclaimer that read, "This might not actually be your land."
When Zaq originally won his two-acre Utah plot off eBay in July 2005, he did so with the minimum bid of $610 dollars. Images of the property came with a bright red disclaimer that read, "This might not actually be your land," but the lack of any tangible differences from one parcel to the next made it purely incidental. The boundaries from one acre to the next were purely subjective, something that could be written on a map, but had no bearing in the real world.
"I wanted a piece of the American West before it's gone," Zaq related. But, upon his first trip to the property one month later, his goals became increasingly political.
"It was a dark time politically and for America," Zaq said. "Iraq was a mess; New Orleans was underwater. The government was not doing anything. Being the brash 20 year-old that I was, I figured I could run a country better than these clowns. Not only that I could, but that I should also do it. The kernel for Zaqistan was there in the Newspeak and doublespeak in the Bush administration. That whole 'enhanced interrogation' instead of torture, Bush saying Rumsfeld was the best defense secretary we've ever had... The administration deliberately manipulated the English language, and a lot of it went unquestioned. A lot of where Zaqistan started, and even today, [comes from] the government saying one thing [while] the reality was obvious to everybody that it just wasn't true."
But Zaqistan isn't only a conceptual project—it's a physical place, and a forbidding one at that. As we made our way around the plot, Zaq explained that the majority of the surrounding ground is made up of cryptobiotic soil, a living crust that takes upwards of ten thousand years to develop but is capable of being completely destroyed by a single misplaced footstep. He advised us to try to stick to the beaten path, but in case we ventured off (there are no bathrooms in Zaqistan), to shuffle our feet wherever we walk. "Rattlesnakes," he explained.
When things go bad in Zaqistan, they have the potential to get worse in a hurry. The fact that the only things that can live there are soil and things that can kill you is nature's joke. Zaqistan is a remarkably remote location in an unforgiving environment, where survival depends upon a mix of luck, planning, and improvisation.
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Everything is amplified in this stretch of the desert. Jackson Chapman, a Salt Lake City resident and recent Zaqistani tourist, had told me before the trip, "Sometimes your ears can ring from the sound of nothing."
A place like Zaqistan could not exist without a healthy dose of insanity. Not only has Zaq dumped thousands of dollars into the whole thing—he estimates costs of five grand for this year's trip and monument, and somewhere between $15,000–20,000 in expenses for the ten years of Zaqistan's existence. But he's somehow managed to convince a handful of others, like me and Scott, to volunteer their labor. In fact, he considers their slightly psychotic mentalities to be the defining characteristic of Zaqistani citizens to begin with. "There definitely is a certain Zaqistani mindset," he solemnly remarked, "in the same sense that there is a Raider Nation."
Perhaps that's why Scott and I had started working on the project without Zaq ever asking. Ever since I first heard about Zaqistan, in 2013, I have identified with it. It's closer to my ideals than the United States is, and a look at my medical bills will confirm that. Zaqistan doesn't have a hospital, but if we did, it would be free. Education would be free, and refugees would be welcome. I'm Zaqistani—Zaqistan is the home I have always wanted, even though I had not been able to go there until now.
And so, despite having had orthopedic surgery less than two weeks before, there I was, slamming screws into steel with a low-powered drill, attaching panels to a metallic skeleton of what would be Zaqistan's newest monument, the Decennial Monument, which was being erected to mark ten years of independence. In addition to the drilling, we gathered rocks for a DIY recipe of what we supposed would create concrete. A local news crew from Salt Lake City was scheduled to check up on the monument's progress by morning—they'd been vaguely curious about Zaqistan after learning about its existence two years before—and we had no intention of giving them the wrong impression.
Zaqistan works best as a probing of what is real. I mean, is Iraq a real country? It is from maps and borders or whatever, but effectively it's way more complicated than that. What about Kurdistan? Is IS a real nation? If not, why not? –Zaq Landsberg
Then again, what impression were we trying to make in the first place? What exactly was the point? Perhaps our capricious dedication summed it up—to us, Zaqistan was not a joke. Or rather, it was one highly serious joke, a place whose existence brought up a slew of line-blurring logical inconsistencies worth taking into consideration.
"Zaqistan works best as a probing of what is real," Zaq explained as he handed me another battery pack for the drill. "I mean, is Iraq a real country? It is from maps and borders or whatever, but effectively it's way more complicated than that. What about Kurdistan? Is IS a real nation? If not, why not?"
Like all conceptual notions, nation states exist as figments of our collective imagination. They are philosophical constructs with real-world implications—imaginary entities that are totally real in their ability to seriously impact your life.
Our discussion bounced between a variety of boundary-related topics, from Kashmir and the Falkland Islands to Juarez. Syrians were piling up on the borders of Europe, willing to risk death in order to find a better life, but a fictional line stood in their way. Greece was apparently owned by German banks, and you couldn't buy a bottle of wine in Utah on a Sunday. The BBC wanted to know who owns outer space.
"Shit's all fucked up and crazy," Scott yelled from the other side of the robot. "If it's all arbitrary in the first place, who's to say that this is any less real than anywhere else?"
"But that's the point!" Zaq said, driving the point home. "Zaqistan is real. These are real monuments, even if they're completely ridiculous. Zaqistani passports are real. They're not fake or counterfeit. They exist. They're simply not-quite-legitimate things existing in a legitimate space."
The passports I could vouch for. I'd had a Zaqistani passport since 2013, which Zaq given me for my enthusiasm in the project. Since then, no matter how many times I'd used the passport, to my surprise, not a single person had ever questioned its validity. The bodega, the bar, the airport—not once had anyone stopped me. If they had, it wouldn't matter, as it had all my legitimate information on it and wasn't fake, just like a student ID. I had my "real" ID on me in case it was needed, but what was real seemed to be based mostly on what people considered legitimate.
"Passports, merchandise, our Argentinian consulate—those are the currency of legitimacy," Zaq explained. "It's the perception of legitimacy that makes them legitimate, not the other way around."
It was around that point that Scott declared himself legitimately tired. Zaq agreed that the final touches could wait until morning, so we took a few minutes firing a flare gun at the moon before unrolling our sleeping bags next to the monolith we'd created and watched the flames from the fire reflect across the desert. Above us rose the blood moon, a lunar eclipse that once was thought to have divine meaning. "Welcome to Zaqistan," a sign read in the dark.
The next morning, the local newscaster from Salt Lake arrived, genuinely thrilled to be there. He told us the report would be up sometime in the next few weeks. On the day the brief report went up, I held a screening at a local SLC bar. Everybody there laughed at how silly the whole thing seemed, but I was proud that we'd brought a little attention to our little nation in the desert.
One week later, Zaqistan went viral.
Articles from all over the world began to flood my Facebook page. Zaq was getting asked to do an interview with WGN, and I was apparently a star in Korea. The Zaqistani email account blew up with messages from people of all kinds, from passport applications (suggested donation $40) to inquiries about if he had jobs for them. Syrian refugees were asking for help. Conan O'Brien was joking about Zaqistan, and some of my mom's friends wanted to know if they could visit the place.
Many reporters who talked to Zaq were surprised to find out that he lived in Brooklyn, not in Zaqistan. Information about the country started to change as the story went further, with photos that weren't even of Zaqistan included in articles.
Before this, the only blip of media coverage since Zaqistan's inception had been for a three-week-long "embassy," in 2012, housed at a contemporary art museum in Buenos Aires. It was clear the local news spot had helped, but what explained the virality that happened next? Was there something larger about nations and their porous, shifting borders that made this a story people suddenly wanted to hear?
The official flag of Zaqistan. The squid represents "the mystery and the might of Zaqistan"
"If anyone asks me about it, I can explain it all," Zaq said. "Nobody is fooled when we talk about it. But when I'm not there, the facade has no explanation, and people start to believe the wildest shit. Many people get excited about Zaqistan and project their thoughts onto it. It exists as this hope space."
"I think this has only proved my point—as a society, we don't look at things too closely," Zaq said. "They misspelled it, used photographs from other places. How could they do that when they were just copy-and-pasting from an AP article? What they're doing is buttressing the facade and there's nothing I can do to explain the backend. The fact that people aren't questioning it kind of scares me even more."
Ana Fisyak, Zaq's girlfriend, who had visited Zaqistan from New York in mid-September, agreed with that sentiment. "People don't seem to be looking further than the veneer. They're not researching what the whole thing is really about, and they might not understand that there are thoughtful elements to it."
Still, we'd achieved part of what we set out to do, which was to turn Zaqistan into an actual place. By talking about Zaqistan, the internet legitimized it. And even if few seemed to understand what the hell was going on, our republic had achieved a form of international validation.
I asked Zaq what we should do next. "I guess we continue pursing international recognition, build up more infrastructure, and see if we can get funding," he said. "We'll probably need to put up a souvenir shop."
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