Symbols are generally taken seriously in a country during wartime. In America at the time when this project was being made there was a debate raging about whether or not to build a mosque at “Ground Zero” (though it’s actually an Islamic cultural center a few blocks away from the site of the September 11 attacks). And at the same time there was a small church in Florida threatening to hold a Qur’an burning on the weekend that would mark the 9th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. In response we see television footage of protests in New York City during which so-called “patriots” touting the American flag rail against the “Ground Zero Mosque” and also footage of protests in the Middle East, where the reaction to the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States is quite another treatment of the American flag. So, amidst this war of symbols, what place does the American flag hold? As the symbol of our country, which we are terrified and shocked to see being burned at protests abroad and domestically, how do we treat it on our own streets and in our own homes?
Putting an American flag anywhere in a public space is a way of using that symbol to make some sort of statement. What do the flags in the public space of Norfolk, Virginia say to us (or to me)? Where are they most often, and why? What does this say about our society? These are questions that are (partially) answered in this first part of the “Life in Wartime Project”.
The Life in Wartime Project (the title of which references Todd Solondz’s film “Life During Wartime”, USA, 2009) is an artistic venture, which consists of two parts. The first, which takes place in Norfolk, Virginia, USA in the first half of September 2010, documents life in the United States as the country ends the War in Iraq and continues the War in Afghanistan (but also entering the third year of being ‘at war’ with a deep economic downturn). Since the main issue discussed in the media for the past few years have been, in some form or another has been patriotism, which somehow always contributes to the debate about what it means to be an American for different groups of people at different moments in history, the “Life in Wartime Project” is also an attempt by its author, who is American but has been living outside the United States for the last 5 years, to simultaneously look deeper into ever changing American identity but also to portray a part of the American landscape.
In order to do this the author took snapshots of every American flag she encountered during her trip to Norfolk. The results give an impression of the present moment in a small city in the American South – what life is like during wartime, where civilians are subjected only to the propaganda of constant and distant wars, but not to its actual material effects.
The results of this photo-anthropological survey are indeed surprising. The author discovered that many of the uses of the American flag in public space were in some way linked to consumerism or consumption. Flags in front of every McDonald’s (or every fast food restaurant for that matter), many many flags in front of every car dealership, flags on products to be purchased – as if purchasing them would make one a better, or more patriotic, American? The photographic results of the project are catalogued by date and also by ‘trend’. Additional materials, which were found or made by the author, have also been made available.
The second half of the project will be completed in the first half of November 2010 in Jerusalem.