Democracy Flagging: On art, protest, and satire with Alexa Horochowski
Posted November 15th, 2021 by Russ White
Currently on view in a group show at Dreamsong, the artist's hand-sewn banners tackle big, interwoven issues, from George Floyd's murder to the insurrection attempt to climate collapse
Flags are everywhere, when you start to notice them. Flags for countries, states, colleges, candidates, beliefs, and businesses. Flying from poles atop public buildings, hanging limp at 45° angles next to your neighbor's front door, flapping in multitudes above car dealerships. That's not counting the ones printed on shirts and flyers and decals and underwear. There are even flags on the Moon — no fewer than seven, in fact (six planted by America from 1969-72 and the seventh by China just last year).
They've been part of our visual culture for centuries, originating as signals of military allegiance, political fealty, and colonial conquest. Now they have filtered down to the rest of us peasants as individualistic identifiers, symbols of our own personal allegiances. There is a proud defiance built into these pieces of cloth, a certain backbone as strong and straight as the flagpoles themselves, whether they celebrate LGBTQ+ pride, for instance, or a particular NFL team, or, in the case of the increasingly popular Punisher skulls, a white supremacist police state.
That signification has recently worked its way back up the ladder of power, reverse-engineered by demagogues like Donald Trump who realize the potential in crowd-sourcing symbology from the serfs they seek to control. Look no further than the spectacle of an American President standing at a podium backed not by the American flag but by a massive Thin Blue Line banner. At the same time, I can't help but also think of the Black Lives Matter flag I pass by every day, flying high above Holy Trinity Lutheran Church just down the street from our bombed-out Third Precinct.
Waving in the wind, flags conjure drama and stir emotion. Hanging in the still air of an art gallery, they strike a different tone altogether — presented as objects for our consideration. And Alexa Horochowski gives us a lot to consider.
A collection of recent hand-sewn flags hand-sewn. Image courtesy of the artist.
The Minneapolis-based artist, who holds dual citizenship in Argentina and who earned a BA in Journalism prior to her MFA, currently has several hand-sewn flags on view as part of In Search of Lost Time at Dreamsong. Known for her large scale installations, prints, and videos reflecting on climate crisis, Horochowski consistently asks us to widen our lens beyond our own species, to see the truth of how our actions (and inaction) are impacting not just each other but the world in which we live. Speaking of her work as a whole, Horochowski references political theorist Jane Bennett, who "argues that political theory needs to better recognize the active participation of nonhuman forces in events... [Bennett] asks us to consider a ’parliament of things’ in ways that provoke our democratic imaginations and interrupt our anthropocentric hubris."
Given that Horochowski's work spans so many topics, crises, and continents, our conversation could have reached just as far. Instead, I decided to anchor my questions to just one flag in particular — her commemoration of the attempted coup on January 6, 2021 — and delve into its implications on political satire, artistic ownership, and how she thinks about her audience.
To dig into the many other questions with which the flags grapple, I recommend visiting them in person, on view at Dreamsong through December 4th.
Russ White: Your work, to me, is that of a distiller — you boil large, difficult social truths down to succinct visual statements. Pitchforks rendered almost like stick figures; giant messy vortices made by simple styrofoam cups; a grocery cart camouflaged into an idyllic lake-side park. You’ve also been working on a series of hand-sewn flags, dating back to at least 2017 when you co-curated a show of artist-designed flags at the Soap Factory, and currently you have several on view at Dreamsong.
Given that flags have a long history in terms of warfare, conquest, and oppression as well as in protest against those forces, I’m curious what your relationship with flags is. What is it that you are trying to distill with them?
Alexa Horochowski: The flags I have been producing came about after the killing of George Floyd in my South Minneapolis neighborhood. He was killed on my father's 85th birthday, during a pandemic, where I couldn’t travel to Argentina to be with him. I channeled the weight of these synchronous events by making a memorial flag for George Floyd with the date of his death. The act of stitching it and being home-bound during the pandemic prompted me to sew over twenty linen flags representing events between 2019-2021. I am recording and synthesizing issues that came to the fore during the pandemic — an event caused by a novel coronavirus, born of habitat loss and interspecies entanglement — where non-human allyship, systemic racism, climate change, and autocratic politics have become the norm.
Because they are stitched, they take time to produce, so they don't have the immediacy of the news or infotainment media. I am interested in handmade flags that are used by small entities such as union groups and social clubs. They exist somewhere between a banner and a flag. Though I use symbols that are meaningful, the flags aren't tied to ritual in the way real flags are. I don't consider the George Floyd memorial flag as part of this body of work, because it does have a clear function as memorial. There is a contradiction in calling these objects flags because they are not meant to be unfurled outside the gallery. I think of them as marking time and serving as artifacts that remember what is so quickly consumed and forgotten in the news feed.
Top: Flag made to memorialize George Floyd's murder. Bottom: A few of the patches made for Horochowski's Jan. 6 Co-Conspirators flag, some of which are available to buy in Dreamsong's online shop. Images courtesy of the artist.
RW: One of the most recent flags is a dark commemoration of the attempted coup on January 6th, 2021. For that flag, you created a series of faux far-right patches — not dissimilar from ones you might see sewn on a Proud Boy’s sleeve, but pushing those ideologies to their ridiculous, illogical conclusions. When you teased the series on Instagram, you said “Because imagery can be readily co-opted, and the meaning distorted, I won’t share all the patches outside of their context as a group.”
When working against such extreme political ideologies — beliefs so wild that they already seem self-satirizing — do you see any limitations or shortcomings to satire? Is irony losing its power?
AH: Yes, I do believe irony is losing power, but I'm attempting something which I think is a bit more complex, not a one-off joke such as we hear on late-night comedy shows. The flags are tangible objects that get presented and displayed in a particular context. Instagram is not their ultimate platform. I was recently at MOMA and saw a film/performance by Öyvind Falhström, Mao-Hope March, 1966, where he had seven people march down New York's Fifth Avenue carrying placards with photos of Mao Tse Tung and Bob Hope (America's foremost comedian at the time). In the audio, we hear a recording of viewer's comments and the answers to the question "Are you happy?" One can interpret this piece as being completely irreverent, a joke, and it was likely infuriating to some when he made it. But it can also be seen as an allusion to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and a critique of how the political is mixing with entertainment, a sentiment that continues to be relevant today. I was surprised by how much it resonated in 2021. Like many artworks, it likely had some notoriety in its time, then faded, and now the content is once again activated by current events. An astute curator noticed this aspect of the artwork and has once again deployed it for consumption.
Öyvind Falhström, Mao-Hope March, still from film of performance, 0:04:30, 1966.
My stance with the flags is critical of a range of political events that have taken place during the era of climate change known as the Anthropocene, and Late Capitalism. For example, one of the earlier flags I made in 2019 deployed the German word "Schadenfreude," which means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. I made this flag when Trump announced he was positive for Covid-19. Trump's illness materialized on the heels of a concerted campaign by the president and his White House to downplay the Covid-19 pandemic, potentially resulting in the death of thousands of people. Just because we can't quantify the number of people who died because of Trump's negligence, nor punish him for his actions, it doesn't mean it didn't happen. "Schadenfreude" is a word that is poignant to many people around the world but wasn't completely understood in the United States until the election of Donald Trump. This is a word that requires the experience of collective pain, and the crumbling of ideology such as manifest destiny, to be fully understood.
RW: As you mention in the Instagram post I referenced, those patches could easily be recontextualized and co-opted, similar to what happened with Pepe the frog or the phrases “Fake news” and "deplorables," for instance. A disturbing number of people are proud of what happened on January 6th, and I could see some of them even flying this flag proudly (or the Stop the Steal or Hoax flags, for that matter). Does an artist maintain ownership of their intent once a work enters the world?
AH: I may have overstated my point, in that the Jan. 6 flag is not vague about its politics and the group of 6 patches include opposing viewpoints between various right-wing groups, including the GOP. I don't think a Q-Anon believer, 3 Percenter, Anti-vaxxer, or GOP congressperson would dare fly this flag without altering it by removing or covering some aspects of it. If someone steals from my studio the "Stop the Steal" flag — a hand-sewn copy of an amateur sign done in felt pen that was at the Jan. 6 insurrection — they very well could take it home and feel they scored a wonderful reusable flag...or because it looks amateurish, they may prefer to print one that looks professional at the local Kinko's.
It is true that in the era of fake news, memes, and so many far-fetched conspiracy theories irony has lost a lot of its bite. However, I am arguing that what I am doing with the patches and the flags goes beyond meme-able propaganda. The risks I (and you) pointed out have to do with the problem of the internet and platforms such as IG and Facebook. The flags exist as handmade, material objects, stitched of linen and felt. They are unlikely to get co-opted unless I make a concerted effort to make them go viral. My concern was that if I posted a detail shot that isolated one patch from the others, it could be misused, because it is easy to copy and paste things on the internet. The object itself is harder to manipulate.
I don't have ownership over the flags once they are out in the world. So far, only two groups of three have been shown. In my studio, one of the flags I made includes platform icons for Whatsapp, YouTube, and Twitter, combined with the phrase "pan y circo", a term that is casually used in South America to refer to situations where politicians give away palliative perks to generate public approval. In ancient Rome, the poet Juvenal coined this term to critique the politicians who gave away bread and circus games to the poor, a practice that guaranteed a quick rise to power and was an early version of voter suppression. In 2020, Facebook has promoted the dissemination of a range of fake news and conspiracy theories that threaten Democratic transfer of power. Aside from making flags that comment on the pitfalls of the internet, writing is another way that I can attempt to make the ideas in my work resonate beyond my lifetime and Instagram.
Schadenfreude flag, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.
RW: You also write, “I made this flag as a record of these events because there is a concerted effort to rewrite history and downplay the harm done by this coup attempt.” It’s tempting to think of explicitly political art as preaching to the choir, throwing bombs safely from inside friendly territory, but it is important to remember, as viewers, both that we also need reminding of the dangers we face and that we are complicit as well — art spaces are anything but neutral.
First, I’m curious, did you consider making a patch for the centrists and moderate left as enablers/co-conspirators, and more generally, how do you think about audience when making your work?
AH: I love the idea of a flag/patch that implicates the centrists and moderate left as co-conspirators. Everything you say, I agree with. I am essentially preaching to the choir, especially on IG, and I often question whether I should even be using the app. However, it is a simple way to communicate with artists who are far away or I may not see regularly. Artist Leslie Fernandez recently posted an image of graffiti on the walls of Concepción, Chile. It is a drawing of an alien head (as in an extraterrestrial being) with the word "Dignidad" (Dignity) below it. She cleverly invented the term "Dignidad Alienígena" or Aliendigenous Dignity, a play on words commingling indigenous with alien. Her invention takes on more complexity as we consider the status of the illegal alien in North America.
I have found that when making these flags I was thinking of both a South American audience and an American audience, translating back and forth from Spanish to English, trying to reconcile language and words and how meaning is formed. An early flag I embroidered in black, spells out, "Negro Matapacos," the name of the riot dog that allied himself with humans during uprisings in Chile and became the mascot of recent protests in 2019-2020. I have returned regularly to Concepción, Chile, since directing a study abroad program in 2005. I think of Concepción and Minneapolis as sister cities within my intimate world view. By some fated, cosmic simultaneity, I landed first in Chile videotaping stray dogs during the "Estallido Social" of 2020 and two months later in Minneapolis protesting on the streets of South Minneapolis.
I have spent most of my career as an artist working with not-for-profit art centers creating ambitious installations that have a one- to three-month lifespan. When the exhibition comes down, most of the work goes into storage or gets disassembled if it's temporary. I have had the honor of having a few works collected by museums who are able to protect the work and even display it occasionally. I can sustain my practice by teaching at a university. As new commercial galleries open, I am having to re-evaluate my relationship with the exhibition space. ◼︎
Bananacene patch, 2021.Image courtesy of the artist.
Horochowski's flags are currently on display as part of the group exhibition In Search of Lost Time at DREAMSONG gallery in Northeast Minneapolis, through December 4th. Open Wed - Thurs 11am - 5pm , Fri - Sat 12 - 6pm, and by appointment.
Banner image: Negro Matapacos flag. Image courtesy of the artist.