False Flags

Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image

Pelican Bomb Gallery X

Curated by Noah Simblist

Produced by Amanda Brinkman

New Orleans, LA
2016

“False Flags,” featured nine artists from around the world whose practices investigate contemporary notions of nationalism and the representation of imagined communities in the Middle East and the Americas. The term “false flag” is derived from a historical practice of naval warfare by which nations would fly colors other than their own to deceive an enemy. In modern times, the term has been used to describe a covert military operation designed to appear as if carried out by another entity. But a false flag assumes that a true flag is, in fact, real—more than a symbolic object or set of abstract signs.

Most often we think of flags in relation to nations. Political scientist Benedict Anderson famously called a nation an “imagined community,” a concept that is complicated when we think of states in waiting, like the Palestinian Authority, or refugee camps that exist outside of nationalism entirely. Flags can signal territorial and extraterritorial conditions, but they can also signal revolutionary struggles and their failures. The artists in “False Flags” probe these multiple meanings through a range of media including painting, sculpture, video, and performance.

In his painting Conquest (Ice Shelf), 2012, William Binnie depicts an arctic vista, questioning the perception of landscapes as virgin territories and the use of flags as a mechanism to assert ownership. This practice of physically and culturally staking claim to the natural world is echoed in Israeli artist Ariel Reichman’s installation Blowing in the Wind, 2009. The artist reimagines the colonizing gesture as a pathetic act (Reichman’s makeshift flag waves in the light of a slide projector). Rona Yefman’s video 2 Flags, The last battle of the Stripes and the Hoods, 2004-06, envisions a game of Capture the Flag as an allegory for the gamesmanship of warfare. This sardonic sense of play is echoed in a video work by Nicolás Guagnini, which documents a performative walk through New York City with a large transparent flag.

Other artists in “False Flags” use their practices to subvert the very idea of nationalities and borders. Exterritory Project’s video Flag of Convenience, 2016, commissioned by Pelican Bomb for this exhibition, points to practices of transnational corporations that use national flags to evade legal frameworks for both taxes and human rights. Tania Bruguera’s The Francis Effect, which debuted at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2014, a performance in the guise of a political campaign, requests that the Pope grant Vatican citizenship to all immigrants and refugees and uses Pangea—a prehistoric supercontinent—as its logo. Together, these two works demand that stateless peoples also have the rights that transnational corporations enjoy. In a newly commissioned work, Minerva Cuevas riffs on the symbolism of the Olympics, examining the ways in which Mexico City became a site for both pageantry and protest during the 1968 games.

Both Public Movement and Jamal Cyrus question how we collectively imagine communities and public histories. Public Movement’s Debriefing Session I—first performed in the 2012 New Museum Triennial—maps out the complexities of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, as alternately defined by Palestinian solidarity and the Jewish diaspora. In two works on view, Cyrus investigates the relationship between individuals and cultures at large, drawing from an archive of African-American political and cultural history that includes abolitionist John Brown, the Black Panthers, and Blaxploitation films.

In presenting “False Flags” in New Orleans, Pelican Bomb aims to situate the city’s contemporary negotiations around ownership, contested lands, and cultural identity within global conversations surrounding nationalism and representation. At Pelican Bomb Gallery X, the works on view carry additional resonance with the city’s distinct pageantry traditions and its unique position at the historic intersection of Europe and the Global South. Over the course of the exhibition, Pelican Bomb’s online Art Review will publish essays, interviews, and artist projects, adding additional voices and points of reference beyond the gallery walls.

On Saturday, April 2, Noah Simblist led a public discussion with Maayan Amir and Ruti Sela of Exterritory Project as well as Nir Shauloff and Alhena Katsof of Public Movement at Tulane University's Woldenberg Art Center.

Pelican Bomb brought Simblist to New Orleans as part of the organization’s Critic-in-Residence program.

Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image
Random image

False Flags Curatorial Essay

“False Flags” investigates contemporary notions of nationalism and the representation of imagined communities in the Middle East and the Americas. The term “false flag” is derived from a practice of naval warfare by which nations would fly colors other than their own to deceive the enemy. In modern times, the term has been used to describe a covert military operation by a nation, designed to appear as if someone else carried it out. But a false flag assumes that a true flag is in fact real, rather than a symbolic object or set of abstract signs.

Most often we think of flags in relation to nations. Political scientist Benedict Anderson famously called a nation an “imagined community,” a group of people who most probably will never meet but imagine themselves as a part of one collective. This community is brought together through a shared value system, codified through the laws of that nation, which protect the rights of its citizens. The definition of a nation in terms of its laws emphasizes the ways that citizens govern themselves. Beyond the binding principles of a shared ideology, the law governs our actions and our property. This aspect of an imagined community is what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism,” which is “not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed in the public building.” In this sense nationalism is something that is found through unconscious habits and everyday actions rather than the dramatic pageantry found on the battlefield, at state ceremonies, or during international gatherings like the Olympics.

But beyond the ways that nations are defined in terms of their internal working, nations are also described in terms of territorial sovereignty. A nation’s space is circumscribed by borders, which we encounter by either looking at a map or by crossing from one nation to another at an airport or checkpoint. This notion of a nation is what Donald Trump invokes when he talks about building a wall between the US and Mexico. But this idea of a nation with defined physical borders also implies a specific image of the internal makeup of the nation as a community. The physical border is also an ideological border, a division between “us” and “them.” In this sense borders flag not only territory but also identity.

The topic of nation states has garnered a great deal of discussion over the last twenty years as it has become clear that we live in an increasingly globalized world. In terms of economies, the WTO, the IMF or the World Bank signal a world in which transnational corporations and multi-national trade deals unsettle the idea that nations are autonomous socio-economic entities. In the contemporary neoliberal paradigm of capital fluidity, national borders have become blurred. For some, a globalized condition is a good thing. It’s about engagement, partnership and coming together. But for others, the slippage between nation states signals the growth of capitalist forces and their transcendence over concerns about human rights, labor practices or the environment. These concerns lead to the Zapatista movement, which emerged in 1994 in protest against the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the 1999 Seattle Protests against the WTO.

In addition to the challenges posed to the nation state, as a singular autonomous community with fixed borders, by neoliberal capitalism, nation states are also troubled by immigration and refugees. Today Syrian refugees make up huge proportions of the inhabitants of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and thousands have traveled by boat and by land to find safe haven in Western Europe and elsewhere. There have been a wide range of reactions to this including both compassionate gestures and xenophobia. President Obama said that the US would admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, prompting the protest of a number of politicians including Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal who issued an executive order banning resettlement of Syrian refugees in Louisiana. Jindal cited the potential danger of these “others” and his duty to protect his citizens.

The artists in False Flags probe these multiple meanings of nations, borders, and imagined communities through a wide range of media. As a site for this exhibition, New Orleans has great resonance with both the pageantry of the flag and the problems of fixed identity, being a city with a long history of Creolization at the post-colonial intersection between Europe and the Global South.

William Binnie’s painting Conquest is an image of a small pink flag planted on an immense ice shelf. There is no hint of civilization and as a result Binnie conjures up the imaginary sublime - landscape as a barren frontier and a flag as a mechanism to claim territorial ownership. This gesture is where it all starts, perhaps the most basic way in which a community sites itself.

This colonial use of the flag, one that is deeply troubling, is echoed in Ariel Reichman’s Blowing in the Wind. Reichman’s work includes a small wooden stand that holds a small white piece of fabric and a projector that throws its shadow onto the wall. Reichman, an Israeli born in South Africa, references the colonial gesture as a pathetic act, one that often involves the smallest of means to plant the seeds of occupation. This work signals the practice, used by many settlers in Israel-Palestine, to set up a simple makeshift camp on a hilltop that then gets tied into grids of electricity, water and roads, and eventually grows into a town and then a city. The transition from a small improvisational action to one that acquires state authority, makes us question the seemingly benign nature of a small flag.

Building on the DIY nature of occupation, Rona Yefman’s video 2 Flags, The last battle of the Stripes and the Hoods, imagines a game of capture the flag as an allegory for the gamesmanship of warfare. Two groups, one dressed in black and wearing hoodies, and another wearing striped shirts, roam a city’s streets in search of the other team’s flag. These teams seem like gangs, evoking images from Clockwork Orange or West Side Story. In particular, the Hoods look like the Black Bloc, an anarchist group that played a major role in the Seattle WTO protests. At times their battles become violent and through these encounters we can see the roots of national struggle.

Following this sense of play and the politics of roaming through an urban wilderness, Nicolas Guagnini’s video Clear Allegiance documents a performative walk through New York City with a clear flag, referencing the protests of political movements and the history of their failures. This use of the flag brings up a whole set of counter-national examples, from guerilla groups to unions. Guagnini starts walking in the poorest parts of Harlem and moves his way up to Columbia University, a space of privilege where he is a professor. This movement through the city references a Situationist dérive, a journey through an urban space in which a participant tracks its aesthetic and social contours with the goal of arriving at a new state of consciousness. This abstract optimism was tied to the revolutionary spirit of May 1968 in Paris, and Guagnini sees himself as an inheritor of this spirit but is disenchanted by its failed promises.

Other artists in this exhibition present the ways in which nationality is subverted. Exterritory Project’s video Flag of Convenience, examines the practices of transnational corporations that use national flags on shipping vessels to circumvent legal requirements for human rights. Shipping businesses often register their ships in countries other than their own to avoid regulations and reduce operating costs. Exterritory Project, which includes Maayan Amir and Ruti Sela, shot this video in Panama, where the practice began in the 1920s.

Tania Bruguera’s The Frances Effect, a performance in the guise of a political campaign that requests that the Pope grant Vatican City citizenship to all immigrants and refugees, uses the Pangea - an image of all nations converging into a single unit - as its logo, combined with the phrase “dignity has no nationality.” Like Exterritory Project, Bruguera points to the fluidity of borders but asks that stateless peoples also have the rights to the protection of nation states that transnational corporations enjoy. She also shows us that refugees and immigrants suffer from a global system in which human rights are largely protected only through national citizenship. Aside from the instance of Syrian refugees being given safe harbor, refugee camps in places like Palestine or Africa exist as exceptional spaces, in a nation but outside of the protections of national law. Because of the ubiquity of the Catholic church around the world, Bruguera’s project suggests that the church, a quasi nation state, can take over from humanitarian non governmental organizations like the UN or the Red Cross, and give refugees national status and thus irrevocable rights such as housing, healthcare, education, and the freedom of movement.

Both Minerva Cuevas and Public Movement examine the choreography of rituals that highlight nationalism. In her project for this exhibition, Cuevas plays with the symbolism of the Olympics, specifically the ways in which the 1968 event in Mexico City became a site for the pageantry of nation states, declaring both their sovereignty and cooperation. The 1968 Olympics were especially notable because they occurred at the same time as when global social movements, like the student protests in Mexico, were emerging as a formidable force. In this sense her piece echoes the revolutionary struggles that Guagnini’s video does but it is in tandem with national heraldry.

Public Movement’s performance Debriefing Session I, maps out the interwoven nature of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism as defined by the state of Israel, Palestinian solidarity activism and the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas. These one-on-one sessions occur in a secret location and tell the story of a project called SALONS: Birthright Palestine. This project was about Birthright Israel, a program run by the Israeli government and American Jewish philanthropists. Birthright Israel is a free civil pilgrimage that aims to strengthen the bonds between diasporic Jews and the State of Israel. Public Movement asked what it might look like to have a Birthright Palestine and held five salons in New York to discuss the possibility in conjunction with the New Museum. These discussions raised a backlash including anger and concern from both Jewish funders and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Jewish American funders were worried that the project was critical of Israel and that by funding the project they were complicit. While Palestinians and those in solidarity with their plight were worried that Jewish and Israeli funding violated BDS and therefore made them complicit with the occupation. Debriefing Session I lays out the complexity of nationalism and its relationship to cultural discourse and Public Movement performs these tensions in a manner that mimics the militarism of Israeli nationalism.

Public Movement proposed a way to imagine both Zionist and Palestinian communities. Similarly, Jamal Cyrus questions the ways that communities are imagined. Cyrus draws from an archive of African American political and cultural history, including Blaxploitation, John Brown, and Black Nationalism, and underlines how culture identifies individuals as part of an imagined community. Major and Minor is a sculpture by Cyrus that includes a long spear with a flag at the end of it. The spear is meant as a reference to John Brown’s pike, designed by the abolitionist to fight an insurrection against slavery in the early nineteenth century. The flag is an image from a 1971 photograph of the Memphis chapter of the Black Panthers in a courtroom awaiting trial. Put together these images create a composite of revolutionary struggles in support of African American civil rights, a structure that flags the cause of freedom.

The notion of a nation as an imagined community has particular resonance for artists, who use imagination to create a believable reality that has resonance with our own. The artists in this exhibition interrogate the systems through which communities signal to one another. They replicate and mutate these signals to create alternative patterns. These signals, which can include literal flags, are the forms through which we imagine both ourselves and others. They are the forms through which we reinforce nationalism or subvert it. Flags are the discursive spaces through which we declare our belonging or our separateness. My hope for this exhibition, which includes a range of dialogical practices, is that it opens up the discourse around both the communities that we live in and the ones that we aspire to.