It’s been 30 years since the publication of Paul Gilroy’s aptly named book, 'There Ain't no Black in the Union Jack'. Writing, in September 2017, about flags, and the act of ‘flagging up’ or mapping out symbols that define our identities, home and belonging, I come to think, as Paul Gilroy did, that the assimilation of transnational diasporas and migrants is not a process of acculturation, but of cultural syncretism.
So how can national symbols, such as flags, represent Britain’s cultural syncretism? Can we mash up or remix different heritages in a national flag to make manifest, materially at least, this idea? In fact, the Union Jack has no official status, but has gradually ‘fallen into use’. Gil Mualem-Doron’s proposition of the New Union Flag (NUF) was part of the Who Are We? Tate Exchange programme, which took place from the 14th to 19th of March 2017 at the Tate Modern. The New Union Flag was presented as a modified version of the Union Jack, to include designs of fabrics from formerly colonized communities and various ethnic and national groups that live in the UK.
The Tate Exchange version of the installation was comprised of a market stall split in the middle by two flags, back to back: the New Union Flag and the Union Jack. It aimed to provoke discussion in post-Brexit Britain by inviting visitors to choose one of the two flagsand to pose for selfies. Also part of the installation was a petition to parliament to discuss a the designation of an official flag for the UK (the Union Jack apparently does not have any legal status) – a discussion which hoped to include both the New Union Flag and the Union Jack.
At a time when national identity is being used so divisively in political contexts, can we think of the New Union Flag project as an interesting and participatory alternative?I was intrigued by Gil’s proposals and work, not least because colleagues and I have written about civic cultures and the modalities of place-making, and I also wrote about the ways in which symbols of Afro-Caribbean, South American and British identities can speak of notional combined experiences often as digital and creative citizens.
In a published conversation I had with Gil prior to the Tate Exchange installation, he identified as a socially engaged artist; he strives to create something that will generate debate, a platform for communication, and occasionally activism: “even when I do produce artifacts, such as the New Union Flag, they can be seen as ‘agitprops’ (props that can agitate in order to provoke dialogue), which in turn can be used in social and political events"; they go beyond the symbolic representation of a flag.
So, at a time when national identity is being used so divisively in political contexts, can we think of the New Union Flag project as an interesting and participatory alternative? The answer is far more complex, and here are three points to help us reflect:
- How has the New Union flag been used as an agitprop – shifting from agitation to a communicative platform?
- What may the experience of mashing up the union flag trigger for participants?
- What are the tensions when creative citizenship acts become more institutionalized or institutionally appropriated?
Objects of dissensus
In a recent paper in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, a consortium of scholars published transnational research on the ways in which historical, political and cultural power relations are associated with emotions and perceptions that people resort to in relation to national flags. Taking into account imperial histories and devolving struggles, these range between egalitarianism and dominance, openness and tolerance, nationalism and patriotism, dissensus and collectivism.
For Gil, the aim was to recreate a sense of home and community; while the re-appropriation of the Union Jack in its various popular cultural incarnations (from logos to emblematic LP covers and recently various kitsch paraphernalia) is widespread, Gil was inspired by a doormat which he had initially bought with the intenion of using it as a prop for an exhibition about home, transience and belonging – aptly called Homeland.
“Instead of using flags, I chose artifacts that the relate to everyday life of the communities who reside in this country."
Looking into how he could represent the diversity of Brixton (where he also lived at the time) and Peckham Platform – where the work would originally be staged in 2015 – he was inspired by the variety of textile and dress shops that populated both these neighbourhoods as they had gentrified. The result was to re-use the core structure of the Union Jack, a patchwork-like design comprised of fabrics that promote visual associations to some kind of quotidian and traditional garments: “Instead of using flags, I chose artifacts that the relate to everyday life of the communities who reside in this country" Gil said. "The result is a visually stunning final product which was first displayed in Peckham Platform two years ago."
Its aim was political:
“I reclaim a place from which I have been excluded – this “place” is the Union Jack. In the act of modifying the flag, I am not assigning again minorities into a designated, and, as such, marginal site, but deconstructing a hegemonic site. The New Union Flag isn’t aiming at “giving a voice” or designating a space for “the other”; minorities, migrants, refugees – a place where they can preform their identity… In fact, the flag aims to subvert a hegemonic institution [i.e. national flags], and I would like to see it, in the words of Jacques Rancière, as an object of dissensus.”
It’s therefore not surprising that Gil’s creative provocation has travelled to both high profile events (e.g. the 2016 Turner Contemporary) and demonstrations alike. As I mentioned earlier, the the Tate Exchange version of the installation, consisted of a market stall with the two flags back to back.
Beyond the artifact itself, important elements are is its staging and the invocation for public participation. In addition to mashing up paper flags of the Union Jack, debating which ‘flag they may wave’ (literarily and metaphorically), participants could also pose wearing New Union Flag merchandize (caps, bags, etc). Allured by its cultural symbolism and strong visual message, the New Union Flag was the Tate's image of choice for promoting the Who Are We? project on the of the Tate Exchange website, which left Gil on the one hand elated about its appeal yet somewhat confused by the Tate Shop’s rebuffing his idea of selling the merchandise...
“I reclaim a place from which I have been excluded – this “place” is the Union Jack.
But what else is ‘political’ about the New Union Flag? For Gil, it is that it is both an act of provocation and a reminder of Britain’s colonial past. Discussing how these aspects may relate to intersections between digital media, place-making and cultural memory that have repeatedly come up in my research, Gil recalls the staging of the New Union Flag at Margate. Commissioned by Platforma Arts, as part of the Turner Contemporary, it took place over three days after the Brexit results. Gil reflects on its ambiguity:
“It was not only that the flag can be seen as opposing the politics of what Brexit represents, but that the flag can been viewed as a defilement of the Union Jack.
Therefore, I was surprised that only a few people were reluctant to be photographed with the flag… People from different personal backgrounds, ethnicities and socio-political views identified with it… After all, the flag does commemorate the UK’s imperial past and at the same time celebrates the cultural-diversity this past brought… So it may have been that that particularly humorous take (“English Summer”) on the theme of the event that took place within a seaside resort (that was outspoken in its support for the Leave Campaign) helped to diffuse polarization, and open up space for conversation, confrontation and celebration."
I am not sure how these conversations are recorded. A video is occasionally shot, and Gil shares the photos on social media, amounting to a celebration of diversity through the lens of the artist’s or photographers gaze.
Perhaps the more than 5000 visitors in the 6 days of the event at the Tate did not come to such a variety of opinions – one of the visitors posted on our feedback wall: "You are creating yet another echo-chamber". The positioning of the New Union Flag and the artist’s presence on the floor did incite a sense of celebration of diversity and ambiguity which was masterfully illustrated by the artist in Facebook feeds.
What may the experience of mashing up the union flag trigger?
Interestingly then, taking the New Union Flag into a gallery space, as Gil (controversially) has pointed out before, we run the risk of fetishizing it, and muting the possibilities that it can generate in other settings.
Acknowledging this risk, Gil's project aimed to work only through the destruction of artwork. As I mentioned before, the core of the installation was the two flags, the New Union Flag and the Union Jack, hanged so as to divide the market-stall-like structure. People standing on either side wouldn’t be able to see each other.
"For them to be engaged in dialogue they will have to “put down their flags” – they would need to draw the curtain to the side, and open up a space for communication... It is both a symbolic act and a performance that I hope will generate a tangible effect – people face each other – face to face, and talk. To a certain extent, it is an antidote to virtual relations in social media – where online communities are becoming polarized and homogenous…"
What was really interesting is how these aspects were manifested in workshops with primary school children. Based on Gil’s former workshop designs, I and Dijana Rakovic of Counterpoints Arts invited schools to map out diversity that exists in their daily life and community. I have explored similar ideas and used asset-based participatory methodologies in action research projects. Together with Gil, this mapping was explored and represented through creating a flag with stickers designed from textile designs.
Taking the New Union Flag into a gallery space runs the risk of fetishizing it, and muting the possibilities that it can generate in other settings.
We asked the school children to reflect on questions of cultural heritage, identity and belonging as well as intangible ‘assets’ which reflect their living communities, such as solidarity, kindness and respect. All together they then looked at the ways in which these questions and ‘assets’ could be expressed through the art of ‘making’.
Inspired by the popularity of emojis and the act of ‘remixing’ in young people's everyday digital cultures, we invited the children to retell their stories and experiences of identity by drawing their own diverse emojis together in a poster.
To see the full album of "Children's Essays', click here. Credit: Giota Alevizou.
While the processes of cultural evolution and appropriation have existed for millennia, here we deployed a practice commonly called ‘remixing’ which has long played a fundamental role in the development of youth digital culture. This collective focus of co-creating a familiar object unleashed a process-based and creative understanding of identity. Reflecting on the question of 'Who Are 'We'?' in both workshops, and their experience of drawing their own emojis, produced an enlightened picture of what of creative connection, identity through difference and empathy look like.
By acknowledging their identity through the act of remixing with and via the New Union Flag, children were able to enact several dimensions of performativity and cultural citizenship. This reveals that agency can be filtered through other performative forces: stories from people posing in front of the flag reveal that this very act (posing) and comments or discussions about national symbols contribute to the challenging of national stereotypes.
Flagging up tensions in creative citizenship
Both Gil and I have been wary about the ways in which civic art and creative projects may be institutionalized or commodified by public stakeholders; they can often project a sense of “giving” people the opportunity to express their “experiences” or their identity. Elsewhere, I have pointed to several projects in the past that seek to cater to minorities (that do not need to be reminded that they are 'different' from a culturally established norm for the sake of it). Often cultural organizations “give place” to such identity performances in a very defined and delimited space.
In spite of its possible shortcomings, and it’s occasional or (un)intentional fetishization, we must acknowledge how a project like the New Union Flag provides a space for people to express identity by visualizing a network of assets or ‘webs of associations’ that performing belonging & citizenship calls into being.