Manufactured Britishness

The Life in the United Kingdom test is a computer-based test which must be passed by would-be British citizens to qualify for indefinite leave to remain in Britain or to naturalise as a citizen. It consists of a series questions covering topics such as British society, government, everyday life and employment. The test has received criticisms for its inaccuracies and for being so difficult that most native-born citizens wouldn’t be able to pass it successfully. Some have even compared it to a bad pub quiz.

Kristina Cranfield, a MA (RCA) Design Interactions graduate, had to pass the test a couple of years ago. The experience inspired Manufactured Britishness, a graduation project that looks at the future of citizenship in Britain.

In Kristina’s scenario, prospective citizens might one day be submitted not only to tests that require them to memorize dates and facts but they would also have to go through physical tests. In a further stage, all citizens, no matter where they were born, would have to prove their ‘Britishness’ by passing the test too.

Ultimately, the project asks the questions: At what point does one ‘become’ British? What are the criteria and who makes the final decision?

Kristina Cranfield, Manufactured Britishness, 2013

Kristina illustrated the new test with a series of props and with a film that depicts a fictional system where immigrants must undergo physical assessments to demonstrate their worth as prospective British citizens. Post-industrial locations have been turned into training zones where immigrants go through pre-learned and repetitive tasks in order to pass the new test of citizenship. They sing Messiah by Handel, show appreciation for Newton, and demonstrate a calm demeanour when dealing with social accidents and emergencies – all strictly aligned with Britain’s customs, culture, and values. Are they British now?

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The film is visually stunning and the ideas behind it are provocative but, rather worryingly, not totally implausible. In any case, i asked Kristina to tell us more about Manufactured Britishness.

The project was inspired by your own experience with the Life in the UK test. You passed the test successfully a couple of years ago. Why did you decide to stretch the test to new extremes: physical assessment, citizenship that can be penalized or even revoked, and even a test that has to be passed by all citizens?

By designing this extended regime, the project highlights and criticises the government’s absurdist inventions contrived for acquiring citizenship, where testing goes contrary to common sense, and where Britishness becomes manufactured, scripted and measurable.

The test continues to get harder than when I passed it three years ago. The notion of revoking, penalising and extending the test to all citizens aims to question the fictitious idea of citizenship in the first place. Suggesting new and contentious citizenship rules provokes the attention of existing British citizens, to internalise the problem, enabling one to understand their ideologies and attitudes to immigration, subjectively. Who is a citizen and what makes or defines one?

0behindthescenesMB2.jpgManufactured Britishness, 2013. Behind the scenes

0a0abehindthescenesMB04.jpgManufactured Britishness, 2013. Behind the scenes

Apart from the existence of this test are there other trends, ideas and issues in contemporary Britain that guided some of the directions that the project is taking?

My project cuts through a number of social and political issues in Britain. I’m fascinated by British post-industrial landscapes, for example, which I have visited and researched over the last few years pretty extensively. It’s very sad to see these places, like muted industrial ghosts spread around the country, for sale.

I wanted to question the future of these disused locations that have ceased bringing any value to society or the economy since the end of Britain’s industrial era. In my project, these zones host new detention facilities for immigrants, in a new plan for Britain to generate mass profits.

This is a dark vision, but by forecasting such undesirable possibilities, we are forced to contemplate brighter alternatives. It also attaches a warning sign to the policies we make today, and how they might evolve in the future.

The Life in the UK test has attracted much criticism in the press. Do you want to talk about your own feeling and experience of it? Do you think that the test fulfilled its role? Do you feel more British now that you’ve passed it?

Becoming a citizen is an exceedingly bureaucratic and painstaking experience, which is unbelievable when we live in such a globalised world were we are all in constant motion, no matter what our origin or destination.

The Life in the UK test is only one of many obstacles immigrants face before being allowed to settle down amongst other people. To be honest, it’s just another legal formality one has to go through and tick off their never-ending list.

I certainly do not feel more British after passing the test. I’m dubious whether a first generation immigrant can ever be compelled to feel that way. I think the test is more of a political tool designed to curb immigrant naturalization and to maintain the status quo attached to the whole idea of citizenship. I see this as a grossly inhumane notion and ask what’s the limit – today we have detention centres tomorrow these could be akin to concentration camps.

Could you describe the scene we see in the film and in the stills of the project? The tests that candidates to citizenship have to pass?

The film features three training zones where immigrants engage in pre-learned and repetitive tasks, which are largely based on questions from both editions* of the Life in the UK test.

The scene outside the factory is designed to enforce patriotism for British culture and traditions, which immigrants must embrace and exaggerate. Surrounded by a line of imposing chimneys, they are being tested on singing Messiah by Handel and correctly flying the Union Jack. In the scene with red apples, immigrants are dropping and picking up apples to show their knowledge and appreciation of Newton, thus becoming a vehicle for national aspiration.

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The scenes from the white quarry are cruel and take the concept of monitoring behaviours and reactions to the extreme. Clothed in clinically white uniforms, immigrants must uphold a pleasant and calm demeanour during social accidents and emergencies. They blend into their sterile environment, becoming part of a lifeless, dry landscape. Hot tea is being poured slowly over the immigrant, can he remain polite?

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The scene with an emergency situation is based on a real question from the Life in the UK test. According to the test, the correct behaviour during emergencies is first to establish the name and address of the injured person and then to call an ambulance.

The blue zone tests immigrants on being neighbourly. Don’t make noise; do not wear heels upstairs, wear soft slippers; identify weeds that can damage your garden; stay tidy etc.

For every action, there is a set protocol for what to do and how to live, supposedly like a Brit.

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In my film, I wanted to create an inescapable feeling of torment when going through the processes of becoming a citizen. It’s like giving evidence from the witness stand at trial, where you are put on the spot, with a pair of eyes intensely fixated on you, there is no escape and no dark corners to hide.

So, to create this vision through film, the aesthetical choices were very carefully considered at each stage. The colours, lighting, locations, characters and props were all cautiously selected to communicate the pointless ‘official’ scheme of the future.

The films of Roy Andersson, and in particular Songs from the Second Floor, especially inspired the final cinematographic decisions in Manufactured Britishness.

0songs-from-the-second-floor-1.jpgRoy Andersson, Still from the film Songs from the Second Floor, 2000

Could you explain one of the sentences in the description of the work: “In this future, we see immigrants as an exploitable material, a living currency, compelled to sustain national identity in order to maximise capitalistic agendas.”? Where is capitalism in this new, extended set of Life in the UK tests?

I see British traditions and culture as having already very much exploited by commercial agendas. Sadly, almost everything in Britain seems to be assigned a price tag. Manufactured Britishness takes this perception to new extremes, extending this trend to every aspect of the nation. All aspect of Britishness, including behaviour, activities and manners will start having a pure commercial value that will then influence people’s everyday lives. And this is to some extent already happening. It predicts a Britain where national identity is forcefully upheld by immigrants, in a new sort of slavery, so that it can stay a perfect and prosperous society, a spectacle to the entire world.

The project is quite provocative and I suspect that a few people might have been offended by it. What was the reactions of the visitors of the show? Both British and immigrants?

The piece was created to confront the audience with a politically contentious issues, which has seen my work met with varied reaction, and sometimes the odd raised eyebrow. On the whole, however, my audiences were exceptionally receptive to the film and I have received a great deal of interest in seeing the film extended into a full feature. I also would like to use this project as a forum for policy-orientated ideas and initiations, to challenge aspects of citizenship and its possible course in the future.

0mbclapping.jpgThanks Kristina!

*The 2nd and 3rd editions of The Life in the UK tests. The 3rd edition was published in April 2013, it is the most updated version.
Zoe Hough was the Editor of Kristina’s answers.