JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2018 (here). Saddle stitch bound with thread, unpaginated, with 20 color images. With a printed paper envelope, enclosed by a sticker printed with the artist’s name and the book title. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 200 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The instantly recognizable stars and stripes of the American flag are an undeniable icon of graphic design, a symbol of a nation filled with different meanings and associations for different people. To those at home, the flag is largely the physical embodiment of patriotism, national pride, and the best of the individual values held dear since the country’s founding; for those abroad, it holds out the promise of the shining American dream of freedom, equality, and opportunity (that has lured so many immigrants to leave their homes and come to the United States in search of a better life in the past two centuries), and simultaneously stands as a potent symbol of the nation’s influence on the world stage, which, of course, is not always entirely benevolent or welcome.
The many symbolic associations of the American flag make it a particularly rich visual motif for artistic experimentation. It is at once the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, held up with solemn reverence and simultaneously printed on every commercial object imaginable, from beer cans to bikinis. And as we might have imagined, artists have pushed and pulled the flag in countless creative ways across the history of the nation – celebrating it with massive scale, tearing at its fabric, changing its colors and textures, juxtaposing it with conflicting surroundings, wearing it, making it sculptural, and even debasing and destroying it to challenge its authority. Given the intensity of its presence (and of the emotions it evokes), it never seems to wane as a subject for polarizing artistic use.
While the independent-minded swagger of America has always been an easy target for those who harbor all kinds of dissatisfactions, with the election of of our most recent president and the drastic reversals in the nation’s approach to countless topics of critical importance, many have seen these wholesale changes (and the brusque attitudes that have come with them) as hard evidence of the inevitable decline of America. The Swiss photographer Corinne Vionnet’s self-published photobook Total Flag is in many ways an artistic representation of this creeping process of decay, and while the humble volume is conceptually simple in its execution, its visuals make its point about the gradual disappearance of the America we once knew with stark resonance.
Vionnet is likely best known for her recent series “Photo Opportunities” where she gathered together photographs made at various world tourist landmarks (the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, etc.) and aggregated thousands of these amateur pictures into single composite images that showed us just how unoriginal our vision of these places really is. At their root, Vionnet’s methods led to a process of large number convergence, and by taking massive piles of visual data and collapsing them down into single instances, she ultimately reduced differences to peripheral noise.
In Total Flag, she’s in a sense gone the other way, using a single image as her subject and allowing its iterative evolutions to wander. Vionnet began the series with a straightforward digital photograph of an American flag displayed on a computer screen. She took a photograph of this setup, and then fed the resulting new image back into the computer to be displayed once again. Using this simple circular repetition as her framework (not unlike a looped fragment of computer code), she iteratively generated a metamorphosis of the image. The photobook reduces the process to 20 images placed in succession, following from the first source image to the final nearly all black result.
Along the way, we are shown a step-by-step case study of the decay, corruption, and ultimate disappearance of an image (with ominous parallels for the state of America in decline). Small imperfections in the first image, created perhaps by a small darkening shadow in the lower left as well as by the inevitable pixelization of the colors on the screen, slowly morph and expand, the white stars breaking down into shifted arrangements of red, white, and blue, the center shrinking just a bit, and the colors tweaking toward extremes. As we step a few images down the cycle further, real disharmony has set in, with confused doubling effects in the stars, wavering colors where white once provided a backdrop, and further twisting of the originally straight angles of the stripes. Soon the rectangular structure of the flag starts to truly break down, washing out into hazy nearly indecipherable echoes and drastically elongated and distorted shapes, and eventually the process runs its inevitable course, the slow encroachment of the black blob at the bottom overtaking everything.
Of course, the conceptual idea that underlies this formal exercise in iteration is that this very same doward dissolving effect that we see occuring in the image can be metaphorically applied to the political and social circumstances in contemporary America – in Vionnet’s experiment, we watch as order systematically breaks down, chaos incrementally takes over, and complete destruction ultimately prevails, and it’s a quick step to applying these same visual learnings to what many see starting now in the United States. Vionnet’s indirect point is crystal clear – deliberately heading down this path of decay this doesn’t end well.
Using risograph printing and bound with simple saddle stitching, Total Flag doesn’t try to be a precious photobook object. Instead it embraces the cycle of photocopy-style degradation as a way for the construction materials to match the message, almost like a zine. One benefit to this simplicity is that the book flips extremely easily, allowing us to watch the quick transformation from one image of the flag to the next as the pages zoom by. Given the single subject nature of the project, the self-published artist’s book approach and the small print run seem intuitively appropriate.
The durably exciting thing about Vionnet’s Total Flag is that it can be read equally well on two distinct levels. It is both a meticulous artistic study of the effects of iterative image recursion and an archly biting roadmap of the where America might be heading, its abstractions just open-ended enough to allow us to extend the visual evidence of the experiment into a searing visual metaphor for national degradation. Constructing such smart artistic duality isn’t easy, especially using such a simple organizing device. Total Flag is just what it needs to be and no more – an incisive mixture of technology and artistic thought that alternately delivers both beauty and horror.
Collector’s POV: Corinne Vionnet is represented by Danziger Gallery in New York (here) and East Wing in Dubai (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.