A Conversation with Read The Red Flag
by Editors Joyce Chen and Krista Gampper
There were a lot of different reactions to the November election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Some people became news-obsessed — constantly reading articles on their phones at work, on the subway, while eating, instead of sleeping. Other people actively avoided the news and fell into their couches and depression. More people became involved with political protest, started volunteering, donated to nonprofits; sales for George Orwell’s 1984 spiked. On the other end of the political spectrum, there was celebration and perhaps in between, indifference.
As time continues on, so do we, moving away from our initial reactions and into continued action or complacency or acceptance or for some, even joy. (We’d be intrigued to hear from supporters who still feel satisfied with the outcome of the election.)
As a nonprofit arts organization and online literary magazine, the election has certainly brought us to question our own politics and actions in the world and we hope to continue to stir important and necessary conversations.
We recently sat down to chat with the dually anonymous Founder and Co-Founder of Read The Red Flag, an art collective and analog intervention that stemmed from the tangible (and typically liberal) devastation following the election of President Trump.
As implied by their name and outlined in their manifesto, Read The Red Flag is interested in pointing out “red flags” in our current political system that might be masking (or blatantly suggesting) separatism, fascism, xenophobia, self-interest, and fear. Their hope is to create an informed outrage that will ultimately lead to political change. At present, they are working on a sticker campaign that uses real quotes from politicians to point out the many alarming red flags around us.
If you’d like to check out their artwork and action, head over to their Instagram. Illustrators, web designers, writers, and all creative outliers interested in getting involved can also reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s what they had to say about their experience and how they hope to create change through art and action.
The Seventh Wave: Read The Red Flag operates as an anonymous art collective. Can you tell us a bit more about your decision to keep your identities out of the equation?
RTRF Founder: We want to extract our ego from what we do. We all do our own artwork, of course, but it’s not about our egos, and we don’t want to hinder anyone who might be nervous about the current administration from being activists with us.
TSW: And that’s a very real concern.
RTRF F: It’s definitely a conversation that we’re constantly having. We don’t know if it’s going to be a permanent state, but in these burgeoning stages, we think that it might be the best way to go, especially because, at a very minimal level, putting stickers on public property is a light form of vandalism. Anonymity seems to be one wall of defense that we can take, so we’ll take it.
TSW: Can you tell us a little bit about how Read The Red Flag first got started?
RTRF F: The day after the election, I was devastated. This is a bit of an anecdote, but I felt nauseous in the same way that I had felt when, years ago, I was living in Boston and my now ex-boyfriend, who I was with for five years, cheated on me with my roommate, our roommate at the time. There’s a long story about that, but once I decided not to see him again, I started doing guerrilla artwork as a cathartic release. So when I shared the idea with others after the election, we started thinking, Okay, what’s that going to look like in this context? We didn’t want to just act out. We wanted to be strategic about what we were doing. We wanted what we’ve been referring to as an “analog intervention”: Something that’s eye-level, so you have to be confronted with fact. We want things to be fact-based.
TSW: How has the collective changed since you guys began?
RTRF F: In this second phase, we’ve stepped more into the rhetorical, but we still want it to be rooted in facts. For instance, before, we had “You can never be too greedy.” That’s a direct quote from Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. Our first phase was all direct quotes. In the in-between phases, one of our co-founders just threw a design at me that said, “Are we great again yet?” and that was sort of us dipping our toes into the rhetorical situations. But there’s still a base in factual information, things that have actually happened. I think it lends something to our credibility that if someone wanted to, they could Google the quote, find this information and say, this actually happened, and here’s the source. We’re developing our website, but it’s taking a little bit of time. Right now, it’s just our logo on a red background.
TSW: Yeah, it’s super strong.
RTRF F: Thank you! We feel like it’s ominous enough. Eventually, we’d like to have templates up so that you can print your own stickers. We also want, at some point, to have a geomap of where we’re hitting, which can be facilitated in a couple of ways. Us just keeping track of who we’re mailing the stickers out to, but also Instagram as well. We want people to tag us in photos so we can develop some sort of map.
RTRF Co-F: We were really baffled after the election. So many people were like, “Why would so many people in red states vote against their own interests?” But if they’re only watching Fox News and Donald Trump, they’re not realizing that. And whether or not we’re going to reach them, it’s something important to do. It could just be cathartic, but we wanted to really try to send this out to people in other states so that we’re not limited to New York City, where most of the people are on the same page as us — at least, the people that we are around most of the time.
TSW: I want to ask a little more about this idea of red states and how to reach people. Your manifesto talks about this “underserved” demographic that’s maybe voting against themselves and part of this is wanting to reach those people. But you’re also saying that maybe it’s just cathartic in the end — who are you mailing these stickers to and how do you guys talk about or negotiate how to reach people that see differently?
RTRF F: So to answer the first part of the question, we see it as a little ecosystem. With liberals, they need to get it out of their system. It’s some light vandalism you probably won’t get arrested for. There’s a lot of anxiety right now, and pent-up anger. We’re also mailing sticker packets to friends or acquaintances who are liberal but happen to live in red states. So there’s that.
The second part of the question is how do we reach people who are different from ourselves? I think that sort of lies in us being fact-based, first and foremost. And I know that “fact” is sort of a debatable thing nowadays, but there’s this idea of an “illuminated manuscript”: The perfect ripe intersection between copy and visuals. And if we hit that sweet spot and also have a compelling fact, I think we might just have the ability to reach people. With the “I’m going to marry her in 10 years” sticker, everyone cringes. I think there’s something to that, and I think, for instance, the quote that we got from Steve Bannon is outrageous. It’s completely outrageous and it’s real. It’s there.
RTRF Co-F: A lot of people already have their minds set and can be very defensive when they see this and not have an open mind to consider the information. One thing we really wanted to do is find those hidden issues that a lot of people don’t know about.
RTRF F: We want to stay relevant and on the edge of the news. I mean, Russia’s always sort of been in the ether, but I think when we did that Putin sticker, the shit hadn’t hit the fan as much as it has now. The words on the sticker say, “The borders to Russia don’t end anywhere.” And this is in reference to the United States. So Vladimir Putin said that around August or September, at this Russian national geography event, where they had a bunch of children there. He took it as an opportunity to display nationalism to this child, by asking that weird question basically about invasion or a coup, right? Or, he asked the question and then made light of it and then sort of laughed it off a little bit. Cut to now, and we’re deep in it. Timing is everything. I don’t think we would do a Russia sticker right now. If anyone read the word Russia and it was pertaining to Trump at all, I think they would dismiss it if they were someone who was supporting him. So we think pretty long and hard about what we tackle.
RTRF F: For the second phase, we tried to talk out what the effectiveness of these images and this copy would be. One instance of that was with the Kellyanne Conway sticker. We had that quote from her: “Women, if you want to get ahead in the workplace, you need to try to look more feminine.” I think we got it from Samantha Bee, who had rolled footage of Kellyanne as part of this “Women Across History” bit, which is purposely ironic because it’s women who have done things that are detrimental to feminism. This quote was from the ‘80s. I found that outrageous. But someone who watches Fox News and voted for Trump isn’t watching Samantha Bee, and they need to know that information. But what was problematic about that was what would that relation be if it was coming from Kellyanne Conway? Is that effective?
RTRF Co-F: We didn’t want to just be mean. We didn’t want to talk about the way that she looks. We didn’t want to make it us being mean because you support Trump. A lot of the stickers in the last phase focused on women’s issues and feminist issues and we really didn’t want to be ironic and put her down because she’s a woman.
RTRF F: It’s a fine line. Our first angle was to draw her like the Crypt Keeper because she’s suggesting that women need to look feminine and she’s looking like death, but that ends up being misogynistic. We meditated on that for about an hour and figured out that it would be better if we put Trump there in her place. So, Trump is the face of Kellyanne Conway sitting on the couch, and he’s retweeting her direct quote.
TSW: I’m trying to remember what the phrase is that you used in your manifesto — “informed outrage”?
RTRF F: Right. We want to invoke an informed outrage. For someone to actually see something and think, “Whoa, what is that?” and want to look into it. We want people to be stunned, so they can’t just ignore it.
TSW: There were so many think pieces that came after the election that were about the “silent majority” and these people who were ignored or felt like Hillary couldn’t talk to them because she was too elitist, and Trump’s their man because X, Y, and Z. In terms of how people have reacted to your stickers in those red states — do you have any gauge of that yet?
RTRF F: It’s too early to gauge that at all. And I don’t even know if we’re going to get a bunch of feedback from the people that we’re confronting. I don’t know how realistic that is. But as long as we have a presence, that’s a start.
RTRF Co-F: There’s definitely a challenge in rural areas.If you’re living on a farm and you’re driving everywhere, where would you see stickers? We live in an urban environment and we’re on the subway, so that’s something that we’re exploring.
RTRF F: Right, we’ve had to think about that. We don’t want people vandalizing community centers. There’s a fine line. If you’re in the suburbs, and you’re driving everywhere, what does that mean?
TSW: Right, unless the sticker’s smack in front of you on the windshield.
RTRF F: We talked about bumper stickers. Our two best solutions at one point were bumper stickers and bathroom stalls. They’re both at eye-level and have captive audiences. We want to be respectful, but we also want it to be at eye-level when you least expect it.
TSW: Have you guys thought about reaching out to universities in red states?
RTRF F: We have had some conversations with some friends and fellow collective members about what we could do before we came up with this solution [of stickers], and one of them was to get universities maybe here in New York and universities in red states to have a discourse, like a public panel discussion, supported by the presidents and boards of both universities.
RTRF Co-F: But not just universities in red states, also conservative universities in general.
RTRF F: There is a distinction, that’s right. That was an adjacent idea that hasn’t yet been executed, but tell me more specifically what you’re suggesting.
TSW: Well, we’ve talked about this a lot, too: how to create conversation. You can’t tell people what to do with information, but maybe with time, if they see these things around, they can come to their own understanding. They don’t have to look at it immediately and like it or be interested, but maybe the idea is that it would stay with them and still be a voice.
RTRF F: Right. And supposedly, universities are a place where dissent is welcomed whether you’re conservative or not. I think we’re going to have to look into that.
TSW: In terms of the content of the stickers, is there anything you guys won’t touch, or is there a certain way that you approach topics when you’re thinking about stickers?
RTRF F: We want to speak up to our audience, whoever they are. We want to challenge people, we don’t want to insult them. We try to stay current, too, so I’m watching things, reading things, and collecting quotes as the sort of resident writer on the team. It’s important to me to pick something that’s poignant and edgy. And unambiguous.
RTRF Co-F: And we’re definitely curating our content. We’ve had meetings between phase one and phase two, and we’ll think about a general theme and direction before bringing everyone into the discussion and seeing if we need to change it slightly. Like, we’ll say there’s six stickers this time and at the end of the meeting, we’ll know OK, we’re using this quote and we’ll let this illustrator handle it and we’ll wait for them to give us a few options, see how they interpret it. We definitely go through an approval process with everyone so that people get a chance to see things and it’s not just any one person going rogue.
TSW: You guys are still in the early phases of this project. Do you have an idea of how to communicate these moral rules — like this idea of “not being mean”?
RTRF F: It starts with the manifesto, and we’re building a press release that’s based off that. The way we’ve been soliciting artists thus far is by friend-to-friend connections. In the beginning, it was just us. It’s been steadily growing, which is encouraging to us. We have had to turn away some artists. One was more on the satanic end, and everybody he depicted was a demon. He was so excited, but we’re not trying to scare people. If we scare people, it’s because the information is scary, not the aesthetic. With the Trump one, one particular artist came back to us with a couple different versions. At one point it was a thought bubble, at another point it was a word bubble, and then he came back with the baby carriage. Even though that isn’t the exact context in which the original quote happened, the quote is still actual. And whether it’s a 10-year-old or a baby, that’s still gross.
RTRF Co-F: At the Women’s March, when we were giving out stickers and people saw the Steve Bannon sticker, they didn’t even realize that’s a real quote. People were like, “Wow, this is dark.” When I told them that it was a real quote, they asked, “Are you serious?” So there are instances where it may look like we’re being mean or exaggerating the way SNL does with Steve Bannon, but this was accurate. This was really a quote where he said, “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”
TSW: I have one last question. I know that you both spoke about personal experiences and why you’re doing this, but are there certain people out there now who are inspiring you?
RTRF F: Definitely Guerrilla Girls. They’re everywhere. And I think aesthetically, just because of the elements that go into what we do, I think Barbara Kruger, too. We have a commitment both to illustration and to graphics.
RTRF Co-F: I agree. There are so many people who are out there doing things right now, and so many people are involved. What’s unique about this is, it’s not just activism, it’s applying our talents and skills. Which, for me, is the way I can be most effective.
RTRF F: I was thinking earlier that the sum is greater than the parts. Everyone’s doing a little bit of something. There are people who have done just one sticker, but they are part of the collective now. Even if they never do another one again, they are part of the collective. They’re going to be on our emails and be hip to what we’re doing, and whenever they want to step back in, they can feel free to do so. Also, that way, we don’t feel overwhelmed, because we’re all holding this up.