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18 November - 18 December 2010

Miles Collyer

A flag is a curious venerated object. Beyond its use as a signaling device, it denotes common societal or political values and stipulates a specific etiquette of waving, saluting, and burning. The rich symbolism of flags is thoroughly tracked and decoded by vexillologists: self-described and strictly apolitical scholars of their history and semiotics.

Miles Collyer likely won’t admit to being a vexillologist, but as a manufacturer of specific flags he takes this sub-branch of heraldry into political territory. Seeking out his subjects in photographs and video stills the artist has found online, on television or in other video-based sources, Collyer copies and sews by hand the flags of certain groups or factions involved in litigious international politics.

Access to the Internet and global media has opened up the field of scholarly flag research, but for the vexillologist it remains a vexing problem to identify and catalogue flags from a vast archive where only bad copies proliferate. Filmmaker and theorist Hito Steyerl calls these bad copies “poor images,” that, even in their poverty, actively work in opposition to the fetishization of image resolution in 35mm photography, cinema, and more recently, HDTV. In the context of the web or low-grade broadcasts, the poor image is revalued as a commodity where quality is swapped for speed, thus becoming “a copy in motion.”

Flags flash quickly in the background of Collyer’s sources, where they operate as identifying markers but register as anticipated clichés: hung behind a spokesperson as a backdrop, draped over a coffin, carried high in a protest march, or tacked to a barricade. As a copy in motion, the image of a flag in these contexts is rasterized, blurred and abstracted. It’s useless to a vexillologist but valuable to mainstream media, where, as Steyerl notes, the poverty of the image underscores the sense of urgency and disaster it is meant to depict.

Reworked in felt according to a pattern in Collyer’s hands, the eight flags he has completed to date verge on camouflage patterning—making visual links to both landscape and combat—in their posterized banding of pixilated values. Their vague appearance emphasizes their status as representations of representations, similar to their originals but twice removed. Each of Collyer’s finished flags undergo several stages of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call deterritorialization from their native cultural domain: first from their place of origin and then from their wider, global domain among distributed media. Removed from its previous context, each iteration of a flag is stripped of its previous meaning (or deterritorialized) and then reterritorialized. From a political standpoint, these twinned concepts hold a deeper meaning here. Collyer has chosen flags from specific groups that cannot establish sovereignty, such as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, currently in exile by the Russian government; or are contesting a land claim, such as the Haudenosaunee’s involvement in the recent Caledonia land dispute, or Hamas’ opposition to Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. Steyerl’s observation that the reappearance of key examples of avant-garde cinema on the Internet in a degraded form is an indication of their cultural marginalization has relevance here, as it suggests another hypothesis: that the abundance of low resolution images of these groups emphasizes their sense of displacement or ‘statelessness’.

Whether Collyer’s m.o. is political is left to be decided, though “blanketing” the white walls of a gallery with objects is in itself a certain type of invasion. His display of flags is not meant to encourage extremism, nor are his illegible, bastard forms a critique. As fuzzy semblances of their originals, do Collyer’s flags insist on the same sacred treatment in their material state? Does Collyer’s investment of care in these handcrafted objects convey solidarity with the groups they represent? Do they carry on the charged discussions of the events from which they are derived? Or could this overall blurring be a sly comment on how Western perceptions conflate foreign yet distinct socio-political groups into one vague terrorist threat? If anything, Collyer’s faithful copies address a symptom of globalization, where both the circulation of images and political upheaval deterritorialize cultural artifacts like flags into evolving entities. Sewn by hand, Collyer’s flags draw a contemplative pause in the blur of circulating images. Here, it’s interesting to reflect that these persisting heraldic objects—in their original, portable forms as simple pieces of cloth—have only become more fluid and more loaded in the digital age.

— Jen Hutton

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. Anti-Oedipus, trans. by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Steyerl, Hito. In Defense of the Poor Image. e-flux Journal no. 10 (November 2009).

Canadian Art review by Rosemary Heather

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