AN INTERVIEW WITH PERFORMANCE ARTIST AND WRITER PATRICK BELLA GONE, #THEFLAGWELOVE
by Leah St. Lawrence
Patrick was one of the first artists i curated for this project. Their performance #TheFlagWeLove, performed at Glassbox Gallery all the way back in December of 2016, perfectly combined politics, nationalism, historical research, and ambiguity. This performance marked my jumping off point for the curation of the rest of the works in "One Year Later" and has continued to be the center point of the collection. #TheFlagWeLove explores the commonly accepted practice of the pledge of allegiance in schools and uncovers the pledge's founding as a gimmick to increase flag sales. Throughout the performance, they explore the evolution of the symbolism of the flag from inception to it's widespread use as a print pattern for underwear, table cloths, posters, music videos, stickers, and 'kitch' items. The many utilizations of the flag imagery is presented factually and without interjections of opinion, allowing the contradictions around 'respect for the flag' and the reprinting of the image for capitalistic gain to sneak up on you and leave you seeing this dichotomy everywhere.
It has been over a year since i saw the performance and i still find it to be one of the more important pieces exploring how we have accepted nationalistic symbolism into our every day lives. One of the fundamental concepts fueling the "One Year Later" curation project is the idea that all political art has propagandistic qualities, or does it? #TheFlagWeLove dives right past this concern and instead questions accepted propaganda in everyday symbolism, whether supporting nationalism or capitalism.
Patrick's current and past projects often focus on similar juxtapositions within common subjects; exploring budget gaps between blockbuster films and stage productions in "Fast Five", and the theatrics of the news cycle in "Today". Their recent publication, The Impersonators is described as "a collection of prose pieces troubling the lines between audience and celebrity" and is available for purchase through Factory Hollow Press. Patrick's writing has been featured in Hyperallergic and Howlround (just to name a few) and they are also a lecturer at Smith College and co-curate the P L A T F O R M lecture series alongside poet Jon Ruseski.
Can you talk a little bit about your background in performance art?
I’d say I’m trans-genre: performance, experimental essay, video, but my work’s all kinda about communities that form around cultural objects, from daytime soaps to the MAGAgain hat. I’m interested in the fictions people tell themselves via what they like. For instance, the community who loves the American flag, the community who loves The Fast & The Furious, the community who loves Kristen Stewart: they almost exist in parallel worlds. Yet, I’d count myself a member of all these communities (with gradations of irony and sincerity). To me, #TheFlagWeLove had to be a live performance because I wanted to create an alternative community around the flag. That’s a hard sell, so I had to be in the room to physically bring people together, to charm them into thinking deeply about this weird-ass nylon rectangle, to rally an art audience around the same object the military uses, the Super Bowl uses, by dressing it in drag.
Describe your inspiration for The Flag We Love.
Noticing the flag, like, everywhere: on cement mixers, pizza boxes, swim trunks, tiki torches, beer cans, shower curtains. For instance, the flag flown above the Nissan dealership along Interstate 91 near Hartford, CT might be the biggest flag I’ve ever seen. Nissan! In CONNECTICUT! Why? So I would take a photo, like I was collecting them, and it became a game, and I’d post them to Instagram and slowly, that was the lens. When traveling, or anywhere in public, the next flag was never far: rest stops, bars, malls, this ongoing fucked up hide&seek. Friends started sending me their own pics and odd occurrences of the flag (community, yah?), until it felt like one big object: that paper plate, that decal on a police car, that bikini bottom: all parts of a whole, this semiotic Medusa. This collage of photos is the performance’s prologue. But it didn’t have a shape until I came across the children’s book, The Flag We Love.
Is that children's book what motivated the instagram into the performance piece?
Yah! It walks the reader through the major ways Americans have deployed the flag, each with a corresponding illustration and four line poem. There’s one about the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, the moon landing, Betsy Ross, etc. I structured the performance around my interpretations of six sections from the book, each in a different style: one simulates a classroom setting, one is more like stand-up comedy, one is my attempt at a sermon, some are wordless tableaus.
The Flag We Love seems to be a historical commentary rather than a partisan commentary. Do you see any benefits to addressing political issues in this way rather than taking more of a red/blue stance like we are seeing in a lot of politicized expressions these days?
I grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day of my life, putting my hand on my heart and reciting words at a little cloth on a stick hanging at the front of the room, and by high school, I’d stand there and think “This is hilarious.” I rebelled passively though; I didn’t do anything about it.
But in my research, I found that the pledge was devised in the 1890s by James Upham, a marketing director, as a gimmick to sell flags to schools and it worked: his company sold 25,000 flags in the first 3 months alone. And, the pledge included a Heil-style hand gesture for the first 50 years of its existence. So knowing the origins changed my thinking from “This is hilarious” to “This is insidious.” And millions of young people are still regurgitating this hundred-year-old commercial jingle everyday. As part of their education! To me, historical context is a way to give the left more incentive to put out the fire.
Can you elaborate a little bit about historical context giving the left incentive?
The daughter of a friend of mine was almost kicked out of school for refusing to participate in the pledge. If 51% of the population really tried to change this, it would change, but it’s next to impossible to galvanize enough liberals to repeal ingrained patriotic traditions. Can you imagine outlawing The Star Spangled Banner at football games? Or even making it OPTIONAL? We need to imagine it first or it'll never happen.
I know you started drafting and performing this before Donald Trump was elected, did it change for you at all after the election? Do you feel as though the meaning has shifted?
When I first arranged the piece in August 2016, I chose to close the show by singing Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue,” which, in January 2017, Keith sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the closing number of the inauguration. I was no longer the Ghost of Christmas Future warning Scrooge about what might happen.
Later that winter, I had this residency in rural Maine. My friend Delaney and I would drive to the venue, town blanketed in snow, and again, the only color came from flags on porches. Maybe ten people showed up to the performance, but they kept me onstage for forty-five minutes of Q&A, which is as long as the show itself. I was moderating post-election group therapy, and that night I felt we really achieved the new community I mentioned earlier.
I have experienced a fair amount of misunderstanding regarding my curation for this project, because when you go into the realm of politics and patriotism (especially the flag) it can tend to ruffle feathers. Have you had any reactions to the work that surprised you or challenged your continued performance?
Yah, I hear that. After a September 2016 performance of #TheFlagWeLove, a man walking by the gallery saw the flag debris on the floor (a beach towel, stickers, t-shirts, no actual flags) and threatened me, demanding I pick it up, that I was desecrating what his forefathers fought for. He got right in my face, cursing me out, and refused to leave, so I coalesced so the situation wouldn’t escalate. I had spent the last six months of my life researching his perspective and trying to understand and respect it, yet he still perceived me as the enemy.
You have a military family/background, how has this influenced the performance/your work?
My mom spent her whole working life, from age 18-56, as a civilian employee of the navy. She worked for the Fleet Material Support Office, so she helped create systems that moved the navy’s objects around the world, from AK-47s to air conditioners to mayonnaise. I try to parallel her job with how I move and manipulate objects during the performance. She and I get along great - she certainly voted for Hillary, but it’s also true that the most nurturing person in my life (she fits the archetype of a caring, supportive mom) is a card-carrying member of the military industrial complex. So it makes everything a little gray, yah?
It was important to me that #TheFlagWeLove didn’t become Look at What Rednecks Believe. In some ways, I’m intellectually protecting my family from being misinterpreted by a bourgy, leftie audience. I want you to see them through my lens, because they can’t speak for themselves within an art context. I’m currently working on a project about how I used to watch soap operas with my grandmother.
Personally, what do you believe the responsibility of artists is in this moment in U.S. history? Do they have to go political?
I don’t wanna be prescriptive. If people feel more urgency and want to express it in art, that’s great. But I think ‘being political’ can get confused with preaching to the woke choir and using art to achieve a sense of moral superiority, just as conservatives use the flag. Molly Fischer wrote a good piece about this, arguing for nuance. If my audience is mostly people like me, then I have to go outside what they know and come back and report. I try to be an ambassador of another world.
I have to ask this because i know we were both...dare i say 'excited' by the performance "Angel Mom" from Milo Yianniopoulos (also in the collection). Can you talk a little about your initial reaction to this performance?
Ha yah, you and I were talking about this over email a few months ago. Milo seems to be into chaos for chaos’s sake, but that doesn’t make him not an artist. I’ve seen a lot of mutilation in galleries that’s intended to symbolize trauma. For instance, a year ago I watched someone cut through massive slabs of raw meat and their own high heels with a saw for thirty minutes. I was so caught up in the grotesqueness of the action that I didn’t think about what the performer wanted me to consider: a friend’s death and its consequences. To me, Milo is pointing at that gap between action and intention. I used to equate conservatism with sincere, blind adherence to tradition, but that show, to me, is a warning sign that the tables have turned. Trump doesn’t use the sincere and the traditional as his weapons of choice, which means the left gets cast as the sincere side, allowing the right to use the ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ defense. That’s the vortex of Milo’s power. He’s a conservative who gets to play the jokester, the Duchamp.
Jerry Saltz posted to instagram that he finds conservatives and art to be fundamentally contradictory in response to SABO's street art (also in the collection). Do you think there is an inherent paradox between 'the conservative' and 'the artist'?
Hmm, like what if I walked by the local branch of the American Legion and a conservative artist left a pile of pussy hats on the floor? Or the transgender flag, since I’ve embraced my gender nonconformity in the last year or so? I don’t think there’s an equivalent. As much as I love objects, I can separate my identity from them. To nationalists, the American flag has a static, completely sincere meaning in every situation. Look how prideful these flagmakers are!
But when I show a scene from this Betsy Ross and George Washington film from the 1930s during #TheFlagWeLove, it always gets a laugh. The ‘meaning’ of American written on the sky reads as total camp, though the Fox&Friends audience would likely take it sincerely. The whole concept of desecration rests on the fact that the flag can only mean one thing: “Freedom.” Or does it mean “The US is awesome?” Or does it mean “If you think the military is in any way questionable, get the fuck out?” Already, those are totally different things. Conservatism is The War on Ambiguity. I’m totally cool with red, white, and blue paper plates at your cookout, but you can’t make me turn around and salute the polyester/cotton blend dangling above your patio.
"For one year, Gone took a photo of every flag they saw - every ad, every mural, every t-shirt. Drawing on figures from Buzz Aldrin to Colin Kaepernick, the performance/installation collages recordings of national anthems, the children's book "The Flag We Love," and historical research to explore what is essentially America’s logo, in all its forms, examining how all of these nationalist reminders signify tentative community & aestheticize control." -courtesy of the artist
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