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Cali Thornhill Dewitt’s 29 Flags
Installation view from the exhibition 29 FLAGS by Cali Thornhill DeWitt at Eighteen in CopenhagenPhotography Jan Søndergaard

Cali Thornhill DeWitt’s new show redesigns the American flag

The artist – best known for his Life of Pablo bootleg merch – opens a new exhibition that uses the famous stars and stripes to comment on the media’s power and its fear mongering

Cali Thornhill DeWitt has built up an underground empire spanning fashion design, radio DJing, photography, writing and a record label. A true polymath, he happily has his attention pulled in several directions, struggling to choose just one outlet, “mostly I don't really discern. I just like to keep moving and I'm attracted to creative activity. It's all just different ways of communication anyway. Language is evolving faster than ever and I like to try and learn it as it happens.”

You probably know him best as the brains behind Kanye West’s Life of Pablo tour merchandise, emblazoned with flocked lettering inspired by t-shirts produced to memorialise the deaths of friends and relatives among the Latino community in LA. It was these garments that earned him mainstream attention, creating the Gothic-font garments and original DONDA t-shirt for West which followed an exhibition of similar designs in LA in 2014 and a collaboration with 032C the year after.

His references, as far-flung as candid moments of teenage emotion, advertising, and the aforementioned memorial t-shirts read as something of a diary of the encounters with and observations of DeWitt’s world, as he puts it, “I don't think it's one thing. References are everywhere. I take a lot of notes.”

To create his most recent project, DeWitt has joined forces with V1 and Copenhagen’s Eighteen Gallery for the exhibition 29 Flags. The work sees DeWitt return once again to the flocked lettering technique that brought him into the mainstream consciousness – a natural choice, and one which DeWitt explains casually, “this happened organically. I initially started heat pressing text on things because the swap meets in Southern California stopped doing it. Technology advanced and then had an easier way to do it. I just wanted to make a few sweatshirts in the beginning. Once I had the equipment I started trying it out on other material - flags, garbage bags, actual garbage. Some worked some didn't.”

“I think other than straight reporting, it’s mostly disposable filler and manipulation” – Cali Thornhill DeWitt

For the exhibition, DeWitt co-opted vintage US flags, detailing on them various points in US history. Using a combination of the languages of haiku poetry, breaking news, text messages and old-school TV shops, we see riddle-like slogans such as “FALL OUT / THE DAY AFTER / FEAR PARANOIA / ARMS RACE / COUNTDOWN / THREADS / RADIATION / TOTAL / ANNIHILATION” (Nuke Threats) and “RETURN / OF / THE / KING / ALL LEATHER / WHEN MY / BLUE MOON / TURNS TO GOLD / AGAIN” (Elvis 68 Comeback). The work, DeWitt explains, plays on events that stand out in recent memory, “it's 29 American flags, each one referencing an important moment in American history. Some very well known, some a little less. They're all events that have held my attention for one reason or another.”

Among the moments chosen, many garnered fear – driven or created by the press. It’s a concept that DeWitt drew upon in his selection, “mostly the fears of what mankind is capable of. How lost you can get. How far off track you can get. Self-obsession. Media assault. When I was 10 the news had me convinced I was going to die by nuke at any moment. And that if I looked at the explosion my eyes would melt!”

What ties all of these moments together, aside from all taking place on US soil, is the significance that they were afforded by mass media outlets and the habitual fear-mongering that created, rightly or wrongly, importance or infamy. The peculiar contrast between Cold War fear and Elvis Presley concerts repeats itself across the 29 events DeWitt chose; from Marilyn Monroe’s death to the Manson family, to the McMartin preschool scandal. DeWitt states that he “chose events that had held me personally in their grip. The list was much longer than 29, but when I researched each thing these are the ones that stuck with me most.”

All are moments that have become monumental in some way, the kind of moment that begs the sort of ubiquitous question posed afterwards, ‘where were you when X died?’, yet when thought about retrospectively, are often only deemed important as a result of sensationalism or celebrity culture. In other words, virtual non-events – interest in which is drummed up by the media. This puppeteering role played by media is, therefore, central to the work, and is something which naturally holds DeWitt’s attention, “I think other than straight reporting it's mostly disposable filler and manipulation. Everyone needs more content than ever to compete with each other. Most news sources and culture sites are lazy, copy/paste and present as your own work. I think it's the same as it's always been, but worse generally. Of course, there are exceptions. Widely available internet has given everyone a voice, and some people are maximising that in the best way possible. I actually really like watching all of this evolve.”

At a time when news is communicated globally, shared instantaneously, and habitually streamed live, the role of the media is both democratic thanks to our power as individuals to break and tell stories, while also, contradictorily, controlling in its influence by mass outlets. As the US election approaches, media corporations are accused of taking sides, social media trends make memes of presidential debates, and questionable campaigns to manipulate the electorate gain worrying traction. On one hand, the conversation couldn’t be greater or more widely had, yet failure to take it seriously or to tell the story neutrally is worrying. A reality TV figure is on the brink of the US presidency, while another is victim blamed during an armed robbery, and both are blown up in the press. What does Cali Thornhill DeWitt find scary about the world today? “Reactionary fear and intolerance and how people with power manipulate those things.” What his work does is make us take a step back and make question how fearful we should be.

29 Flags will open at Copenhagen’s Eighteen Gallery tonight and run until 19 November. More info here