Gimme Back My Flags

Macreedy: Oh, I’ll only be here twenty-four hours.
Conductor: In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.

I credit mPowers, who had earlier suggested that the flag installation did not qualify as art, for noticing the two guys on the ATV running through the flags with something other than boundless joy. They were definitely trying, unlike everyone else who drove through the flags (on bikes, on scooters dressed up as rabbits, on foot, on x), to accomplish something. Sure enough, the sky hitched up with the sight of a couple flags torn from their roots and tucked under the arm of the guy riding on the back. Off they went.

Proof I’m not so bad off as I thought: I was completely galvanized with What To Do Next. First: Run After Them Now. Second: Wave Arms and Yell Imperatives. It was really quite a good thing that they noticed me at all, and really even better that they stopped, circled, and drove back to me as I pounded toward them with an unrelenting speed.

The Driver launched into a defense: He thought the flags were up for grabs. It was the day after the Burn and what hadn’t been nailed down or closely guarded had in many cases been destroyed more or less on purpose. The boundary between the right of a thing to exist and the right of a person to interact with it had been made very complicated, drawn by a machine with four pen points and a progressive circular motion. The old rules of public art had been, in a quaint way, sidestepped by the special circumstances of Black Rock City, with its one beautiful rule of never interfering with the immediate experience of another. I set my work out there and walked gingerly away from it, the years of cranky letters and indignant phonecalls to the beleaguered public art coordinator ringing in my ears, my jejeune thesis on the response to a work of art actually contributing to its meaning over time, and the sinking feeling I get when I ponder my own factual weakness around art: I feel faint, as if my eyes are seeing just a bit too much, and my heart is bursting just a bit too wide. One time I couldn’t hide it, and was escorted to a room, quite uninteresting, where I found about a dozen people like me, completely played out by the ceiling frescos. The museum guards had seen it all before, and caught me even before I realized I was falling.

Which is to say, and is pretty much what the attorney said that night as we tried to convince her that Nile Spice soups were good meals for vegetarians, destructive responses to art are nonetheless flattering. Scout said: I am now aware I have a fan of my art, and it’s a pity my fan is also a thief. Sadly, I spent the next few days making minor adjustments to my perch on the fence of this issue without ever falling off or dying of dissonance, and ended my grief when no one was around by looking at the picture of the installation that Z took until the tears came.

It really was beautiful, and I was so undeserving. Yaven said I had to make things up about my art: why the saturated yellow? Why the lean right triangles? Why metal conduit instead of pvc? What was the meaning of the sound of the flags? What was the key to their number and arrangement? But I can tell you it went like this: Wake up one day. Say half aloud “Flags. Must make flags for desert. Yes. Make flags now.” then more or less make them, but not until you really have to a few days before you leave. Finally, walk out to a spot and install the flags. Upon your return, sit on the couch and look at them in the distance. Say half aloud “Flags. Flags done. Next.” The next thing was dinner, I swear. Over the next few days, I was corrected by more experienced public artists, especially the conceptual environmental kinetic ones. I invented a story for the flags that truly satisfied the inquiries, and, naturally, couldn’t keep track of it because it was such a big fat lie.

But not once were my flags up for grabs. When the Driver asked if they were, I said No. I took the flags from them, without rancor, turned and walked away. It seemed to me they were calling to me with increasing frustration. Usually ethical discussions broke out over scenes like this, and, for a time, you relish the opportunity to hash it all out. But it was all so completely over for me, and the only thing the Driver and his Man needed to know was my one word. It might have been provocative, it might have robbed them of their process, it might have ended my opportunity to proselytize my point of view, or hear with antenna up a new point of view entirely. I accepted this, and trudged back to the camp. The only thought of any substance in my head was that I had certainly run a long way, and it was going to take me quite a while to get back.

Z came out with me to deinstall the remaining flags. I feared the return of the philosophically unrequited atv guys, or some unassuming oaf to take their place. The wind picked up in harshness and the wet came out of the sky. We worked without regard to it, and with each step gained another half inch in height as the muddied alkali crust adhered to our shoes: signature Playa Platforms. By the time we reached the road in front of our camp we were approaching the Giant section of the actuarial table, and were basically soaked to the skin. mPowers was waiting with his polaroid.

Is it art yet? I asked him. It’s definitely art, he said.

If I’m crafty, I can reinstall the flags in my neighborhood so that their eventual removal by the authorities provokes a great shaming action on the part of the community. Now they lean inert against the wall in an incomprehensible bundle. The cat considered their wind-frayed edges for a moment, then moved on. We’ve received word that they were powerful anchors for many citizens, highly photogenic, filled with just the right amount of strange light and sound, a simple and satisfying surprise. I wondered if I should have let them go, and created a story of my own renunciation of fetishism to go with it.

But it was all so truly me: to make them, to show them, to fight for them, to keep them; each act an assertion of the unadorned self, without premeditation or compensating strategy. This was a completely unexpected experience of authenticity. Honestly. I thought I was too far gone for that.

But there you have it all flapping in the wind.

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