When a sufficient crowd had gathered at the Judson Gallery on the night of October 19, 1967, Lil Picard began setting things on fire. At the core of the first movement of her multi-person performance work Creation-Destruction-Creation was the transformation of Associated Press news clippings on the Vietnam War into ashes. She ironed and grilled them, gathered them into bags, sealed these with green paint, then secured her packages beneath transparent domes in a repository “for the future.” The event built to a “climax of […] destruction, when [Ralph] Ortiz smashed the [inverted] dummies and enclosed the audience in the chicken wire, [while] I blew a whistle.” As the music in the speakers was replaced by abstract electronics a “peace transformation” was initiated as Picard covered audience members in pink cotton sheets and sprayed pigment on her collaborators before slashing open a bag that hung from the ceiling, letting the “colored pieces of the shiny material [fall] all over the floor.” Finally, the “Happeners perform a peace ritual with bells and flowers while I wash the flag quilt with clear water.”

Fig. 21. (above) Lil Picard at the Judson Church, 1967, and Fig. 22. Manuscript of A Flag Story (below), both images courtesy of the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art

On the following afternoon 30,000 people marched on the Pentagon, which Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, and Abbie Hoffman then sought to exorcise and levitate. It was that kind of week. “I worked like a sorceress” Picard later said of her performance. 174 protestors were arrested in D.C. and the war went on for another eight years.

During the intervening period of destruction Picard started to type a story about flags. She began a few days after the midterm elections of 1970. Richard Nixon, the first president to place a call to the nation’s “silent majority,” had been recirculating the call again while campaigning for fellow Republicans. At the outset of a speech in Kansas City he accidentally invoked Ronald Reagan, who would beckon to that supposed majority during his own presidential campaign a generation later. “That” Nixon quipped in response to his gaffe, “is one way to get on television.” The other future president who would draw out the vague sanctimony of the phrase had spent the springtime of 1970 making an investment in the theater. The play flopped, but so what. You move on to the next thing, wending your way into the broader achievements of your life. You demonstrate that the deeper secret of a televised campaign is to make everything you do indistinguishable from a gaffe. You pursue the definitive obliteration of any distinction between tragedy and farce. 

Picard begins A Flag Story at the close of the nineteenth century, with her birth in Alsace. “The flag had been at this time the German one: black, white and red.  On the Emperor’s birthday my mother bought [a] black, white, and red ribbon and braided it in my pigtails.” After the Great War, sailors arrived from Hamburg, destroyed flags, and “planted the red flag of the Revolution on the steeple of the Gothic Cathedral. For a few days I looked at a the red flag, then the French soldiers came over the frontier,” replacing the red flag with the Tricolor, and insisting on the singing of the “Marseillaise” rather than the “Internationale.” 

Meanwhile, “I had fallen in love, in the last year of the war, with a German soldier, whose political beliefs were anti-war and socialistic.” Even as she follows him to Berlin, Picard allows that this “constant changing of flags […] is a very upsetting thing for a young person.  I started to become very unbelieving.” She fled to the United States after Swastikas replaced the black, gold and red of Weimar Republic. 

How do muteness and belief reinforce one another in a flag? While a phrase like the “silent majority” extends the prospect of stoic dignity to the recipient (“you are not one of these grandstanding, self-righteous children out on the streets disgracing yourself with rage and grief, making impossible demands”) it also works as a piece of theatrical instruction. Affirm your position by remaining taciturn, keeping our candidate in office, and letting the grown-ups continue with their work. Doing so, you affirm how you belong to its colors. A flag will always keep you company in your silence. That the phrase somehow retained these meanings and incorporated their opposite during its most recent revival has not gone unnoticed. “‘It’s a feeling of dispossession,’” offers the historian Richard Perlstein. “‘And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when things seem to be changing, when all that’s solid melts into air.’”

This flailing to name the time you are living through means Marx might arrive, uncited, for the span of a sentence on public radio.  Let’s step back into the current that delivers us to this other often-repeated phrase: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”

The flag that Picard washed was “not really a flag” and it was not simply hers. “In 1966, I spent a summer in an artist colony, and one day I visited an

A flag might find itself becoming something new as it becomes more worn out, joining into what resembles and differentiates it, not seeking to be subsumed into a concept but simply to be slept on, shedded on, grubbed up, shivered into, and held close enough for love. For this reason, we can nearly believe in the reversible fate of made things.

Fig. 23. Picard, Lil, American Flag (descriptive title), relic from the performance Construction-Destruction-Construction, 1967-1968, cotton, 129.54 x 68.58, Lil Picard Collection

It wouldn’t have been lost on Picard that the color green, which she explicitly links with peace in the chants and performance notes of Construction-Destruction-Construction, is nowhere to be found in the palettes of the flags she lived under. Regarding the woven and unraveling threads of Flag-quilt, it might be useful to see green as the color of the hyphen or connective (Verbindingung); to see how the wear, decay, and clinging of the world has tried to save it. I mean the world as it is, as it shows through in grass stains, smears of mucus, mold, or some remnant of living that allows the flag to remember itself as material, to become just deflated enough from its task of embracing a national imaginary to hold a body, any body, in need.