I am an American who has lived in the UK for the last 20 years, which has granted me a strange insider/outsider double vision. I was devastated by the results of the UK General Election in 2015, & the outcome of the Brexit referendum – I felt completely flattened & embittered – while the US was starting to ramp up the rhetoric in preparation for its hideous 2 year long election cycle. It was 360 degrees of awful. I started making banners for anti-austerity marches & marches against Trident against this background of nationalistic fervor that felt calculated & manipulative, and the work evolved from there.
The flags themselves are 92 cm x 152 cm (3ft x 5 ft) and made of cheap printed material, & the lettering is something shiny & probably quite flammable. Flags are, by their very nature, performative; they hang in public places, they are waved at marches and rallies, they claim space & allegiance, they declare a territorial belonging, or they challenge it. Does a flag belong to us, or do we belong to it? The first flag I made was an American one. Americans are taught that the flag is sacred – we learn about not defacing the flag, that the flag can never touch the ground, etc… before we can tie our own shoes, and it is still a felony to deface an American flag in America. Flag burning as a form of political protest that is covered under the First Amendment went all the way to the Supreme Court in the 60s, and it was decided that it was included in our right to free speech & freedom of political expression. It remains a powerful symbol, resistant to unpacking, & vulnerable to hijacking. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Somebody give that man a medal. David Cameron pulled a similar trick, basking in that warm, post-Olympic Union Jack glow & telling us “We’re all in this together,” while selling the Post Office & the NHS out the back door. The Brexit referendum ended in a crescendo of thinly veiled xenophobia & nationalist dog whistles about “sovereignty” & “taking our country back” that played on the frustrations and fears of neglected constituencies, all claimed in the name of the Union Jack – the irony being that its success may be the end of the Union as we know it. To date, Brexit has given us nothing but acrimony, uncertainty, & a far right government.
We are witnessing a mind-boggling collapse in discourse, as politicians no longer engage in discussion & debate, preferring to throw catchphrases at each other under the unblinking eye of a 24 hour news cycle. “Make America Great Again”! What does that even mean? “Strivers and skivers”? This feels like the run out groove of the democratic era, as we descend into the language of reality tv and advertising.