I encountered Dread Scott‘s curious flag project, “Flags Are Very Popular These Days” (2011), on Facebook and was fascinated by its simplicity. Last month, the artist placed the flags of four nations (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan) on overpasses in upstate New York. These symbols of four Muslim-majority countries— two of which America is currently (and officially) at war with — must have felt jarring to passersby who may not have been able to recognize their meaning or discerned their origins but probably sensed they were symbols of foreign nations.
Placing a American flag on a highway overpass is something that so commonly happens across America that most of us almost forget it is steeped in patriotism and can feel odd to outsiders. At its essence, it represents a way of marking space in public.
When we discuss the four nations that are the subject of Scott’s project it is almost always a conversation — when it is something as generous as a conversation — that takes place in virtual space or the media (social media, TV, newspapers … ). Yet these nations are so removed from our daily lives that their populations, who endure daily terror by military and civilian violence, are easy to shut out or ignore. This art project felt like an attempt to make these places that are only abstractions to many of us, feel real, even ominous in their lonely silence. In the photos the flags resemble the vestiges of a parade. Is it a truism to suggest that how you react to symbols is more about you than them?
Scott is no stranger to exploring the depths of American anxieties, he has “desecrated” American flags in previous projects and burned US money in front of the New York Stock Exchange, but this project intrigued me as a quiet visual question about the nature of power, patriotism and empire in the world’s most powerful nation.
I asked him a few questions about the work.
* * *
Hrag Vartanian: Do you think most people knew what they were looking at when they saw the flags you placed on bridges?
Dread Scott: I don’t know. I think that some people would have and others would not have. But everyone would know that it is not an American flag. And with the Iraqi flag having Arabic text, the Pakistani flag having a crescent moon and the Afghan flag having a mosque with minarets, even people who didn’t know what flags they were would have known that not only were they not American flags, they were flags of countries with significant Arabic speaking and/or Muslim populations.
HV: What was your objective with this work?
DS: I wanted to make a work that posed questions about patriotism, and the in your face everywhere nature of the American flag. Also in a time that America is waging an ongoing open-ended war for empire, I wanted to “raise the flag of the enemy” in some of the heartland of America. “Flags Are Very Popular These Days” (2011) is a somewhat odd conceptual artwork. People would see the non-American flags left in spaces where American flags are frequently found and it would be a disjunctive absence as well as an odd curiosity. What does it mean to have an Iraqi or Iranian flag flying above a highway in upstate New York? What do you think about when you see that? Does it imply that there are Iraqis are patriotic for their country living in the US and what does that mean when America is occupying Iraq? What does it mean when America has a history of unleashing a virulent US patriotism — is patriotism what is expected or only US patriotism? Why are there US flags everywhere? If you travel to other countries, you don’t bump into their flags on highways, gas stations, mud-flaps, t-shirts, etc. The rampant and often unquestioning US patriotism is everywhere. People who care about humanity should really think about the implications of what it means for a country that is waging unjust war on three countries, torturing and spying and gutting rights here to have a significant section of the population conditioned to think that there is something special about America. For me much of art is about ideas and ideas that are non-linear. And in some ways I was returning to some roots of earlier work that enabled people to consider flags and patriotism.
HV: Is there a specific reason you chose upstate New York for the project?
DS: The project had to be done in an area where it was more rural and where “spontaneously” people have placed American flags on bridges and overpasses on highways. I live in NYC and so I did it in upstate New York, but it could have been done in rural Kentucky, Florida, California, Maine or almost anywhere else in America.
HV: What is your perception of the situation in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan?
DS: They are very different countries with different histories and I am an artist and not an expert on the situation there. But from what I know, in each country the masses who live there are caught in a vice between US imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism. Both imperialism and religious fundamentalism are outmoded ideologies and neither is good for humanity. While the US is causing a great deal more harm and suffering in the world, it is not good that there is a generation of youth that are willing to blow themselves up in civilian populations to enforce ideas from the 11th century. One reason that Islamic fundamentalism seems attractive to some in that part of the world is that it appears to fight the domination and occupation by US imperialism. In light of this, it is imperative that people here oppose America’s war for empire. And more than resistance to this people need to make advances in real revolutionary alternatives to both of these outmoded worldviews.
HV: I have to admit to being somewhat surprised that more Americans aren’t outraged that the country is still at war and there’s no clear end in sight. Why do you think that is?
DS: A part of the answer is that way too many progressive people have far too many illusions about Obama and the Democrats and are much too willing to believe that the people who run this country want to or can end wars and occupations. And based on this illusion, rather than building a powerful anti-war movement, many people who should know better, spent tremendous energy, time and money campaigning for this or that Democrat. And now people’s sights are lowered to think that voting for some liberal is all that is possible, rather dreaming about and fighting to build a world a world without exploitation and the wars needed enforce this.
For more in depth thinking about this, I’d encourage people to look at an essay by Bob Avakian, “Making Revolution And Emancipating Humanity.” The sections on the “spontaneous striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie” and on “the continuing urgent need for mass political resistance” are particularly relevant.
HV: If you had to characterize American foreign policy towards these countries with an emotion, what would it be?
DS: It would be comforting to believe that American foreign policy is based on emotion. Rather I think that the people who run this country are calculatingly bloodthirsty and intent on continuing to dominate the planet. They are ruthless, but their actions don’t flow from hatred, fear or much less some perversion of love for freedom.
HV: What do you think the role of the artist is during political conflict?
DS: I think that all people are responsible for fighting for the direction of society. If you see the wars, suffering and oppression that is caused by this society and don’t act to stop this then you are complicit with these crimes. If you can see that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is you should act on this understanding. If you are an artist and have the freedom to wrangle with ideas and are communicating your worldview for a living, your work can enable people to grapple with and engage some of the big ideas before humanity. As intellectuals, we have disproportionate influence on society and have a capacity to help people confront the world as it is and see how the would could be radically different. How could you not take that opportunity to help humanity emancipate itself?
* * *
Dread Scott’s “Flags Are Very Popular These Days” (2011) took place in July 2011 across upstate New York.