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Con(foederatio) artist Why the Swiss feds are OK with these fake passports

man questioning woman next to Swiss flag

The “applicants” had to answer some cheeky questions from artist Tom Sachs.

(Reuters/Toby Melville)

Talk about artistic license. With his installation called “Swiss Passport Office”, a New York sculptor has put his own stamp on one of the world’s most coveted travel documents. The Swiss authorities don’t mind.

It’s the kind of thing you’d normally get into big trouble for: producing and selling counterfeit IDs. At first glance, the handiwork of artist Tom Sachsexternal link looks almost legit, but the Swiss federal police are taking a relaxed view.

“It is a rough representation of an official document, presented as such during an artistic event,” Federal Office of Policeexternal link spokeswoman Anne-Florence Débois told “This means it takes place in a special and artistic context. This rough representation can absolutely not be mistaken with a real passport.”

+ Here’s how to get a real Swiss passport

Indeed, the four and a half million Swiss passportsexternal link in circulation are loaded with security features like watermarks, security threads, perforation and ultraviolet fibres, not to mention the embedded microchip.

Nevertheless, Sachs told journalists that his 14-year-old nephew had managed to use the fake Swiss ID to get a tattoo.

close-ups of a passport

At first glance, the fake passports look pretty good.

(Tom Sachs Studio 2018)

After making appearances in Brooklyn and San Francisco, Tom Sachs has taken his Swiss passport show to Ely House in Londonexternal link. As part of this past weekend’s Frieze art fairexternal link, there was a 24-hour period when visitors could line up and pay €20 (CHF23) to be questioned and issued one of the little red booklets. 

“An installation of international significance, Swiss Passport Office encompasses contemporary concerns relating to Brexit, Syria and Trump’s immigration policies and their challenge to the notion of global citizenship,” explains a release from host Galerie Thaddaeus Ropacexternal link. For his part, Sachs has described the Swiss passport as the “most prestigious brand name in international identity”. 

As shown in the Instagram accountexternal link created especially for the installation, gallery-goers were keen to get their hands on the fake passport labelled “Confoederatio Helvetica” – the official Latin name of Switzerland, abbreviated as “CH” on vehicle number plates and in postal codes. 

The Sachs version, however, is both tongue-in-cheek and critical: For example, it includes references Switzerland’s tarnished reputation in the aftermath of the Second World War. Note the quote from Elie Wiesel about neutrality printed above the Matterhorn, pictured below.

According to Passport Indexexternal link, a Swiss passport will get you into 122 countries visa-free, 41 upon arrival, and 35 upon application. Mind you, Switzerland shares its third-place ranking in the 2018 Global Passport Power Ranking with eight other countries, which only very narrowly missed the first and second slots occupied by 13 other nations. Topping the list are Singapore and Germany. 

The installation in London will be on display until November 10.

You can contact the author on Twitter @SMisickaexternal link.

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