Unbeknown to many Utahns is another country in their backyard. After recently celebrating its 10th year since its founding in 2005, the nation, known as the Republic of Zaqistan, is located in the desert, just west of the Great Salt Lake. This year, Zaqistan is opening up its doors to tourism and partnering with CUAC to host expeditions into the desolate nation as well as an exhibition on the country. In addition to being able to apply for citizenship and obtain a Zaqistani passport, tourists will now be able to apply for a visa to visit the micronation in Utah.
Artist and founder Zaq Landsberg purchased the land, now known as Zaqistan, back in 2005 in response to the political climate at the time. “The original impetus was really the Bush Administration,” he says. “I was about 20—it was 2005. The levees had broken in New Orleans; the Hurricane Katrina debacle was all over … It was a pretty dark time politically, and I was watching it all play out. This interest all snowballed into, ‘Well, what if I could do it myself?’” While also playing host to a number of odd, robotic sculptures, a garden of plastic flowers acclimated to the desert climate and a small “Welcome to Zaqistan” booth where visitors can get their passports stamped, Zaqistan represents a realm of possibility, where one is allowed to question the legitimacy of the nation and what makes it different from our own.
Nearly 11 years later, Zaqistan remains conceptually tied to current events. Landsberg has personally received a slew of emails from people, mainly from Pakistan, looking to immigrate to Zaqistan to start a new life for reasons that range from concerns for safety to lack of opportunity. “They’re just looking for the next thing or the next place to go—it’s pretty dark,” Landsberg says. Having traveled around Pakistan and India himself, Landsberg recalls giving Zaqistani citizenship papers to Tibetan exiles in India. “They thought it was the funniest thing they’ve ever heard and thanked me, saying Zaqistan was the only country that [they held] citizenship to,” Landsberg says. What started as only a semi-serious project has evolved into something more complex for Landsberg, as Zaqistan has touched on and collided with both national and international events.
Of course, Zaqistan is not an official sovereignty, though Zaqistani citizenship is available for those who want it, and very convincing passports can be obtained on zaqistan.com for $40. The seeming legitimacy of such objects was something that Landsberg wanted to emphasize. “I’m interested in the questioning of what’s going on and who’s in charge and why,” he says. “Part of what I’ve discovered is that things that look legitimate don’t get questioned.” This touches on the state of U.S. politics in general, especially regarding the upcoming election. “You get a guy who sits in front of a podium, and people generally don’t question the validity of what he has to say, even though he can speak total nonsense,” Landsberg says. For Landsberg, creating Zaqistan restores a sense of agency in the political process. “You come up with the flag, determine what the colors are and what they mean,” says Landsberg. “What do you want your country to be? What is your vision for the way things should be?”
For Landsberg, the opportunity to host an expedition out to Zaqistan through CUAC will be an opportunity to show likeminded people the land and have them question concepts like the legitimacy of sovereignty while also helping to fund the project. “The project is pretty good at not running a profit,” says Landsberg, noting that with a severe lack of natural resources or infrastructure, tourism is often the best angle to generate revenue. As a potentially dangerous place to visit, Landsberg hopes to be a part of the expedition so that tourists can enjoy Zaqistan in the safest way possible while also addressing the concept of Zaqistan. “It is a place of natural beauty and some weird sculptures,” says Landsberg, “a remote patch of desert that now has some meaning to it.”
Claiming Zaqistan as a republic, while initially done to lend legitimacy to the fledgling country, also reflects on Landsberg’s ideas about what starting a “micronation” means to him. “I’m not into the idea of monarchy,” he says. “A lot of micronations are dudes who want to wear a costume and want to be king of something—which seems a little odd. If you’re going to set up anything, why set up this kind of archaic, nonsensical system of governance?” Having never been able (nor willing) to venture out to Zaqistan without help from friends, Landsberg says that the more communal nature of Zaqistan has been one of the more important takeaways from the project for him. “Honestly, I can’t go out there alone—it’s too dangerous,” he says. “Zaqistan is about Zaqistanis—other people. Even though it’s named after me, I’m not the only one who contributes to it. [I’ve had] an enormous amount of help from my friends and people who have been interested in it.”
In addition to the exhibition, which will transform the gallery into a Zaqistan Tourism Office, CUAC will host an expedition into Zaqistan, with Landsberg in attendance, around mid-September. Find more details at cuartcenter.org and zaqistan.com.