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Off-Campus: Faded Symbols

From September 27th through October 1st artist Aaron Fein, Vassar College class of 1993, will be on campus as part of the Vassar Artist in Residence Program, funded by the Mellon Foundation. We asked him a few questions about his work and how the community will be involved in his ongoing White Flags project.

Aaron Fein’s White Flags project. The completed project will premiere at Vassar in spring 2011.

What inspired you to create the White Flags project?
After September 11th the whole nation rallied around the flag as a symbol of permanence and solace. “These colors don’t run,” was the refrain of the day. As time went on I was struck by the irony of watching all these American flag bumper stickers fade in color towards white. I pondered what an all white flag might look like. It was a sculptural problem, really. And my solution of joining white stripes to white stripes and embroidering upon them white stars just happened to create a flag with varying opacity that allowed for an entirely different reading in silhouette than in direct light.

Has the project or your perception of it shifted in the nine years since the events of 9/11?
Yes, however I would assert that the project has changed me. In essence it’s an expression of what I believe to be a deeper truth, that we are all one human family. Over this post 9/11 decade, the reality on the ground is that we’ve only grown farther apart. Because my belief in the vision of the project hasn’t changed, I have become more civically aware and active over the years to do my part in making this vision a reality. About four years ago I began standing in public with a small grouping of flags to share the project’s peaceful message with passers by. And just the other day I rallied people to stand with, what are now, 80 completed flags at a peace vigil on 9/11, to stand-up against the rising tide of Islamophobia. I never would have seen myself doing that nine years ago.

The flags have been on view in other locations. How have people responded to them? Have there been any surprising responses?
The overwhelming majority of responses I receive from people of many ages, nationalities, and faiths (when people do respond) has been an instinctual understanding of the project’s message – that we are more similar than we are different. Once, while in public, a local police officer struggled with the concept of political surrender signified to him by the white flags. However upon further explanation he seemed convinced that there was more power in the unity that I was advocating.

The reaction that sticks most with me ‘till this day, however, is one of an older African American gentleman for whom the flags evoked Klan imagery. After a lengthy discussion I still could not persuade him otherwise, nor did I deny him his interpretation whatsoever.

The positive side of the situation is that he and I could discuss our differing viewpoints peacefully, even if we couldn’t come to an agreement. It’s this ‘civil’ discourse that seems to be continually eroding in our country. How we might preserve civil discourse is the larger framework for the White Flags project at Vassar.

The artist at work.

How will Vassar students and faculty be contributing to the project this fall?
During the fall they will have an opportunity to contribute hands-on to the making of actual flags for the final work. I will be set-up in the college center throughout the week of September 27th-October 1st to work with anyone in the community that would like to have a hand in making the work. In addition I will be working with some specific sculpture classes and also one of Professor Jill Schneiderman’s Earth Science classes where we will merge art and science in a broader discussion of cyclic change.

Other events include a community discussion regarding the siting of the final work, and a public event in which my wife Dahlia Lithwick, legal correspondent for Slate and Newsweek will discuss the large and small ways in which we try to advance a more civil society for our children while we struggle with the realities of simply getting them to school on time.

What is one lesson from your time at Vassar as a student that continues to influence your work or artistic practice?
The Studio Art department was phenomenal at encouraging individual majors to develop singular ideas throughout their work at Vassar. In many ways I’m still developing the ideas I first brought to our Departmental critiques all those years ago. Issues of temporality and provisionality guided my earliest works inspired by architectural scaffolding – which in my time at Vassar I came to see as the architectural common denominator unifying the urban fabric of my native New York City. With the flags I’m still seeking common ground through provisional objects only on a larger scale.

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