Published in Flag New York City (Performa, NYC and Entrée, Bergen, Norway), November 2013.

Without Justification

Jacques Derrida argues that in order to have a political order premised on an idea as abstract and empirically unfounded as “the people” - citizens of a nation - there must be a space in which anything can be said, a space that demands no verification. “No democracy without literature; no literature without democracy. [… i]n no case can one dissociate one from the other. No analysis would be equal to it.” He is quite emphatic. In his view, there is something that remains unrevealed in every instance of power’s manifestation. This something cannot be told directly, it cannot be related with recourse to thematic analysis. This thing, which Derrida calls a secret, can only be articulated as narrative, or as that which has an unstable relationship to truth. This is the case because democratic power itself has an unstable relationship to its subjects; it also has an unverifiable origin.

Flag New York City is a project initiated by Entrée, which has invited sixty artists to propose flag designs. These will be flown throughout public space in New York and they are largely images; their structure is not exactly narrative. Their invitation recalls that of literature as Derrida describes it, however: say anything about the nation-state that a flag emblematizes. Picture it in any way, without justification. Let the images’ relationship to truth remain partial, subject to misinterpretation as the flag is encountered fluttering before a storefront in SoHo or Midtown, on a flagpole outside the Bankruptcy Court at Bowling Green, outside what was once a school, or at the seaport. On the flagpole, in the place where we usually find emblems whose meaning is rigorously policed by state and military force, we find instead a collection of absurd counter-representations. Perhaps they are not novels, but they are nonetheless acts of literature.

Ulrika Gomm’s flag reads: “We have come to restore democracy” in script scrawled across a white background. The statement was originally made by the US military forces invading the Caribbean island of Granada in 1983, under the auspices of “Operation Urgent Fury”. Gomm’s statement leaves the viewer to wonder: Who is we? Who assumes that they understand democracy such that they could restore it to us, to New York, to Americans? How can democracy be restored from without when it is located in the people that it represents?

David Horvitz wants the night sky returned. His flag reads, “Give us Back our Stars,” which assumes that these have been stolen from the city-dweller by the street lights. There is also the assumption, latent, that there is something civic about the freedom to imagine, to dream, and to wish. What is a citizen, as emblematized by a flag, if they have no relationship to the night sky?

The flag of the UN, rather than make demands about democracy, takes an omniscient view. It is, officially, "a map of the world representing an azimuthal equidistant projection centered on the North Pole.” Anna Lundh strips the emblem of everything except its continents, which float aimlessly in a sea of blue, splayed out without their grid to contain them or their laurels to hem them in. Toril Johannessen takes the same gesture of deconstruction a step further – she keeps on the colors of the UN’s flag and replaces the continents with the words UNSEE, suggesting that even the omniscient point of view is structured by some regime of recognisability.

André Tehrani’s gesture is not to reduce, but rather to inscribe history on the surface of the flag, as his title states: “From Wounded Knee to North Korea: A Graphic History of US Military Interventions.” All the US’s transgressions against the sovereignty of others are lined up in neat rows, which mock the blank rows of red and white composing the US’s own sovereign flag. Jumana Manna takes a slightly more myopic look at the phenomenon of obliging people “for-their-own-safety”: the proliferation of seat-belts and seat-belt legislation. Her flag is made from bands of these vehicle safety devices sewn together but only partially, with their ends left to flap freely. What is protection? What is disobedience? These questions, she suggests, apply at every scale of the democratic body politic.