Interviewee: Shireen Liane
Interviewer: Marta Santambrogio
MS: What about your work - Pretend I didn’t see the show, what is your work about?
SL: The Altered States series was looking at flags which are very much branding, the symbol which we are supposed to be marching underneath, but the general election in 2015 and this Brexit circus... I see people wrapping themselves up in the flag and talking about 'Americanness', ' Britishness' and yet selling us something that is not... wholesome, to use an old-fashioned word. Something that is not good for civilians, good for the populace. You know, a real bait and switch, using nationalism to sell corporatism. Particularly in America a lot of the show was around Donald Trump. I haven't lived in America for 20 years, which gives me a very strange view of it - I kinda go back and think, “What fresh hell is this?” ...but “Make America Great Again”, what does that even mean? I don't know what that means! It's selling the notion of 'exceptionalism' but the people that it's selling it to are the most disenfranchised people, the people who actually have never got - or at least not since the 1980s, with the battering of the unions [...] The decimation of what Welfare State we had - which was never that great... These are the people that are being wound-up with this notion of the 'American Dream' that has never matched their reality!
And again the same thing happening here, especially with the way the Brexiters wrapped themselves up in the flag and talked about Britishness, what were they selling? What. Were. They. Selling?
SL: Yeah, which is from India or Sri Lanka!
As I worked on the flags for this project, one of my pieces of research is that the design of the American flag - the nine bars with the little logo in the top left corner - is actually from the East India Trading Company. So when we accuse America of being a corporate whore or whatever... it was always thus! It was set up as a corporate exercise. So expecting it to behave differently is probably delusional. It breaks my heart for the people, say, in the North East of Britain, which was gutted by Thatcher and never got back on its feet again.
I used to live in Liverpool and at that time in the 90s it had like 60% unemployment! It was just absolutely decimated between the miners, the dockworkers, unions being smashed up... they were economically destroyed. And for those people to be manipulated to think that the EU is the bad guy.... is horrific!
I believe Nissan and Toyota both have factories in the North East. Those cars will now have extra tariffs in Europe, become more expensive to sell and manufactures will probably up-sticks and move to continental Europe... and leave more unemployment... for the very same people who voted Leave.
I have a very good friend and she has her industry wage undermined by foreign workers and I do understand that. But the next day she called me up and apologised - and I would admit I was kind of hysterical, I was in tears and she called me and said, "I am really sorry, I just didn't think this went through" and... what are you gonna do?
MS: Why do people say 'America' and not call it "The United States?'
SL: I wouldn’t be able to tell you really. Why Italians refer to 'Italia' but we call it 'Italy'? Or 'Deutschland' we are calling it 'Germany'? I don't know!
MS: That's a translation... but 'America' means the continent. You have North America, South America. Canada is America. Colombia is America....
SL: Yeah... I don't know. The way 'America' came about was an Italian mapmaker, Amerigo Vespucci, who essentially branded his maps in Amerigo's Land. So it just rolled off of that, so pretty random.
MS: I think he was an explorer, not really a mapmaker.
SL: I don't know really much about it, but no I do not have the answer. But one part of this project started to lead me into colonialism and how that works. It occurred to me that in school we learn about dinosaurs and the name of Greek Gods... Did we learn a lot about Empire? How it was built? What went into it? Even a glossed-over kiddy version of it... We are not really taught any of that.
It was one of those things on the Life in the UK Test which is a multiple choice. It was something like, "How many Ugandans came to the UK in 1971?" And it would be like 2000, 25000, 28000, 30000. I happened to know it's 28,000. But the important part of that question should have been why did 28,000 Ugandans feel the need to up-sticks and get out of Uganda at high speed in 1971? How is this the fallout of Empire? And that's where it gets 'lalala we can't hear you'.
MS: Isn't it the same about Syrians?
SL: Exactly! These things have consequences and nothing just happens in a vacuum. And so the project that I was doing underneath the American flag - you might have seen the table and the sewing machine - I was taught nothing about the British Empire expect something like, "England had an empire and then it lost it"... So I thought with the help of Wikipedia (because of course Colonial Studies is a four-year degree in itself) I am going to sit here with my sewing machine; I have got a bunch of cheap Made-In-China flags (which is not irrelevant!) and I am going to try and sew together the British Empire, just as a giant stitch-up. But of course the first people that are thrown under the bus are the native Americans and they don't have flags. So I thought, “Right I'll get some stamps and stamp the names of the tribes of native Americans.” Six days later I thought I would be buried under this pile of flammable Chinese flags. But six days later I am still stamping the names of native American tribes. Many of them were just wiped out by the American Genocide. And that's a moment of clarity. A moment when you try to acknowledge and embody how these things happen.
In the wake of this Brexit nonsense I am thinking of doing a piece. I live in Holloway and I have lived in Holloway for almost 19 years now. It's great and so far it's been pretty good in rejecting gentrification. It's still beautifully unfashionable. I am thinking of setting up a table, an English flag, a stamp kit and a little sandwich board that says 'Come tell me where you, your parents and your grandparents are from.' Let's see the makeup of the glamorous Holloway Road. Because I know some people that are English or British going back few generations, but most of the people I know - when I start to think about it - you know... the very least is gonna be an Irish granny. And if not, people from Jamaica, Africa or India. American is privileged, but is an eeky kind of privilege, because I am a white native English speaker. People would come up to me and feel free to bitch about those god-damn-immigrants and I kinda wanna say, “You haven't noticed my accent?!” So if you are complaining to me about immigrants, it's kind of obvious that your problem is a little bit deeper than immigrants. I am invisible to you because I am white, English speaker and what you are really talking about is something entirely different.
I am an immigrant so of course I am a big fan of immigration...
...and I am American. We are a nation of immigrants!
MS: ...which is what I find hilarious in the whole "Make America Great Again" thing! The 'Greatness' of America was build off of the backs and blood sweat and tears of 50-60% of the world, so it's like...?!
SL: [Knowing laugh] Yes, we have been the largest recipient of the largest immigration around the world. Whether is a forced immigration of slavery or... you know - when I got myself prepared to explain why America is so full of crazy loud mouths: we are the sons and daughters of the people who looked at their situation in Italy, in Germany, wherever - and decided to take a chance jumping on a ship. We are the crazy uncle that ran away, we are the sons and daughters of them. In all the arrogance. There are some beautiful things about the American character – that we can be stupidly optimistic and that can do things like put a man on the Moon, but it can also do things like completely destroy the stock market. It's the crazy arrogance - let's put it this way: I love visiting America, I have no desire to go back. No way.