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Brexit Selfie

(Interactive Installation, Milton Keynes Museum, March 2019) mannequins, projected film, mirror, England flag

A very irritating 3 minute video projected onto mannequins.

Please join in with the crowd, drape yourself in the flag, let cultural identity be projected upon you, and don’t forget to take a selfie in the mirror.

This piece, created in the context of Brexit, reflects on how our sense of identity can create borders, psychologically, physically, and politically.

Images loosely related to national identity, collective fears, and the physical and psychological wounds we create from our attachment to identity, are projected onto blank figures. Nationalistic music, stirring and emotional, is disrupted by abruptly cutting to 8-bit slightly-comedic versions. The result is grating, irritating, and slightly amusing.

Participants are asked to drape themselves in the flag, and have National Identity projected upon them.

Please take a selfie in the mirror.

(Further details under the gallery and video)

 

This is just the video, without people interacting:

 

People interacting with the piece:

 

When given the ‘Borderlands’ brief for the show, I got to thinking about psychological borders, the divisions and wounds in our society post-Brexit-vote, and how identity is something that can build walls between us. I am interested in the divisions and wounds caused by the Brexit vote.

 

My starting place was the music. I find the emotion attached to things like national identity really interesting. I was always fascinated with the Last Night of the Proms phenomenon – all those flags and stirring music – it’s the UK version of Americans putting their hands on their hearts for the national anthem. There is something in many of us that is stirred emotionally by such music, and evokes in us a sense of pride in our country and nationality.

 

On the other hand I’m someone who’s always stood outside of that – I’ve never quite understood pride in one’s country as a virtue or even something that makes sense – the arbitrary section of the earth we happened to be born onto, and the cultural heritage it has that preceded our birth.

 

However, I have also more lately come to appreciate that one’s feeling about something such as this is based on all sorts of things like personality, value-system, cognitive style, and class. David Goodhart’s work on ‘Somewheres vs Anywheres’ is really interesting on this. Pointing out that to feel one’s national identity and culture are faintly arbitrary – one-worldism in general – is a very middle-class thing. Working class people are more likely to feel rooted and connected to those around them, as opposed to strangers – and  that doesn’t make a person less enlightened. I think this is at the crux of the ‘liberal elite’ accusation often levelled at the middle-class.

 

Then there are the blurred lines around the things we associate with our national identity. Take tea – what could be more British? It came to us from China, via colonial imposition in India to break Chinese markets. We absorb aspects of other cultures and they become our own. I don’t find that to be as inherently problematic as some do in our current political climate – but it’s important to be aware of. This ‘cultural identity’ is a narrative; it is something that created, and is very much part of a network, drawing on strands from all sorts of other people’s cultures.

 

Being wedded to cultural identity, and taking it into your self and your heart as something ‘intrinsic’ to your very ‘self’ is, I think, possibly a dangerous thing.  I have included lots of rather clichéd images of Britishness,

 

In the case of Brexit, our embedded senses of identity were manipulated by both sides. Brexit is, and should have remained, a parochial in-fight between factions of the Tory party, that somehow got foisted upon the nation. What are the motivations? There are those who mistakenly contend that economic growth continues to be necessary and desirable, and seek greater access to what are termed growing economies. This is classic pro-deregulation race-to-bottom economics – more manufacturing, more materialism, more devouring of the planet; less protection for workers, animals, and the environment.  To be continuing to make this argument in late-stage capitalism, after the economic collapse, and in the current climate emergency is more than foolish – it is egregious and catastrophic. The continuation of this kind of neoliberal market-fundamentalism only results in more inequality, more wealth concentrated in the 1%,  and impending global environmental catastrophe.

 

This kind of consumer capitalism is also extremely invested in affecting our sense of identity, in order to manipulate us into being compliant consumers. I would argue that most of what we buy comes from a motivation to reinforce our self-identity – because almost all of what we buy is unnecessary. Why else do we want it? How have we been shaped to want all these things? The inclusion of images of industrialization, destroyed environment, trading floors, and words from contemporary business jargon, is to reflect how intrinsic capitalism is to this whole situation – powering all of this dissent insidiously behind the scenes.

 

In short: our sense of identity is rather arbitrary, thrust upon us, and constantly manipulated by forces in the contemporary world around us, to further agendas that we come to believe are our own.