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

A very irritating 3 minute video projected onto mannequins. Participants are invited to join in with the crowd, adorn a the flag, and let cultural identity be projected upon them, and reminded 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. It is not pro- or anti- Brexit, but about the relationship between self and identity.

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, have National Identity projected upon them, and prompted to take a selfie in the mirror.

This is just the video (without participation):

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 facilitate misunderstanding and build walls between us.

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 was someone who had 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 that preceded our birth.

However, I have also more lately come to appreciate my previous perspective as one grounded in a very middle-class point of view. The wisdom is to understand that one’s feeling about such things are underpinned by 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 point. 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 treating somebody who feels that way as less enlightened is, ironically, unenlightened.

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 that ‘cultural identity’ is a collective narrative; it is something that created, and is very much part of a network, drawing on strands from all sorts of other 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, a dangerous thing. In the case of Brexit, our embedded senses of identity were manipulated by both sides. Brexit aside, we are encouraged by both Right and Left to shrink ourselves into prescriptive silo-ed identities. We must realise, 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. Identity is not self.