Detainee Wear

Detainee Wear was an exhibition held at the Bluedahlias Gallery and Studios in The Mission. Julie Blankenship, former director of Visual Aid, was the proprietor of the suite of studios. Detention and torture has long been a concern of mine as one of the dark aspects of the American global project. This was not my first attempt addressing the topic in terms of performance, but was my first attempt curating an exhibition with this thematic content.

Max and I sat to each side of a small table with a laptop displaying images from a slideshow. The slides used for the performance were composed of images culled from history, those of Vietnam during the American War against the Vietnamese people from Felix Greene’s Vietnam! Vietnam! (1966), and images from Tom Tierney’s Nancy Reagan Fashion Paper Dolls in Full Color (1983). I was dressed in a two-piece white cotton Pathani suit with a headdress made of cotton gauze, affixed with labels for Bechtel, British Petroleum (bp), Chevron, and Halliburton. Atop the headdress sat a doll of George W. Bush, Jr. in blue suit and black cowboy boots. Two voices served this piece: my voice drove the monotone recitation of a letter extolling the interests of the state, presumably as a detained person, while Max served as the voice of fashion, commenting on Nancy Reagan’s choices superimposed over the images of American dominance. The first voice was lethargic and lifeless, the second exuberant and witty.

Max Davidson, left, and David Duckworth, right. Photograph by Christopher Ambridge. For more images of the event by Ambridge:
This great country could not be what it is today without due respect for our guiding principles. Now, there is much talk about the founding fathers and all that, but, our place in the world today would not be what it is without tribute to the supreme bearer of the values of liberty and free enterprise, Ronald Reagan. Reagan understood that the key to the health of America is its position in the world, something our founding fathers were just too provincial to understand. After all, the most they wanted was to end the tyranny of the British empire, and, incidentally, put enterprise squarely in their own hands. Besides, they had an entire continent to whip. All that free land and those exploitable resources kept us preoccupied for another century. Now, Reagan, the great leader that he was, knew how to position America in the world. His direction of CIA funding to Afghan rebels, through the tactical assistance of our oil ally, Saudi Arabia, ensured that the Soviet Union would suffer just what we did in Vietnam. Better than that, though, the country collapsed — Hoorah! — partly because of an extended war with guerrillas that financially drained them. Hell, throwing $630 million to the future Taliban in 1987 alone was not chump change on our part. Reagan slew Communism, alright. (Image of the Reagans dancing)
Of course, we had some lessons to learn before the great Decider began to direct world affairs. Already established countries can sure be belligerent when an outside force decides to take over. But we found out how easily we could annex foreign land when the original inhabitants were half-wild pagans who knew nothing about governing themselves. Take the case of Hawaii, for example. Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana had it right when he said expansion was as natural as Adam and Eve, and I’ll quote him here when he said expansion was “the disappearance of debased civilizations and decaying races before the higher civilization of the nobler and more virile types of man.” And wasn’t the perfect example of that virile type our own settlers and cowboys marching across the plains? Still, there were those, like that liberal New York Times, that called Hawaii “a business operation purely.” Sure, Sanford Dole was elected President of the new republic. But, you wouldn’t have a revolutionary government without an Annexation Club of the best American sugar growers and shippers right there to upset the apple cart. Besides, we wouldn’t have that great fruit company stocking our pantries today if we had left it to the vagaries of the savage mind. (Image of Queen Liliuokalani)
Philippines was another matter altogether. Our fight was with Spain because what nation did not want a base from which goods could be poured into China? We weren’t the only country with warships waiting in the harbor. The darn natives, though, encircled the Spanish military within Manila, came up with their own constitution, and expected us to recognize their right to govern themselves. We learned to just give them a name to delegitimize their effort, besides, of course, the common name American soldiers were giving them on the street (God bless them, they couldn’t help it if those Filipinos reminded them of African Americans back home). Well, you don’t feel much sorrow for a bunch of dead insurgents, now do you? For those detractors from history we have just the tonic. American goods are the ultimate triumph the world over. History is justified because today we have goods filling up the American home. You can’t have liberty without free enterprise, and you can’t have free enterprise without open markets, plain and simple. (Image of dead insurgents, Philippines, during Spanish American War)
Greeting the landing of the space shuttle Columbia in an Adolfo vivid red sport suit of lightweight worsted wool, accented with a small all-out-patriotic scarf, Nancy should have been a sitting duck target; however, she was missed by a mile. Sunglasses hide the hangover, botched surgery and the “I could care less” glint in her eyes. When asked how she felt about designer labels, she famously replied: “Me? Not wear designer? I’d rather be waterboarded.”
By the time we had Communism as our No. 1 Enemy we could help American businessmen in foreign places by calling foreign leaders Communist. Look at [Jacobo] Árbenz [Guzmán] in Guatemala. United Fruit had it good when the earlier [Jorge] Ubico, the strong arm type we like to work with, gave our American company as much land as they wanted tax free. Where else could you get a 99-year lease on those terms? Árbenz‘s problem was he wanted a democracy that would lift up the Guatemalan people. The Agrarian Reform Law was the last straw. We had the right ingredients for overthrowing the radical: public admen like [Edward] Bernays back home, secret CIA-run locations in Honduras and Nicaragua, and secret tactical military programs with nifty names like Operation Success. If it weren’t for American immigrants making good like Sam Zemurray in Guatemala you wouldn’t have terms like banana republic, would you? And you wouldn’t have popular clothing stores to shop in either. (Image of Guatemala, Fort Matamoros, 1954)
This stunning Inaugural Ball gown by Bill Blass is classic in every sense of the word: a Grecian one-shoulder strap elongates her petite size-6 form. Of white satin with sheer beaded lace overlay, the effect is head-to-toe glamour. She got lots of mileage from this gown, wearing it to almost every visit to retarded children’s hospitals and homeless shelters. It should be noted that the matching evening wrap of white duchess satin was double-scotch guarded and teflon-coated in case someone actually touched her. Note: I have been an instructor with The Arc San Francisco since December 2013. I have learned that language in use today has moved beyond “retarded” to language such as disability and developmental and/or physical challenge.
Calling out the Communists worked for awhile in many different places in the world. Wasn’t Communism spreading everywhere? Vietnam, though, really threw us for a loop. Here was this tiny backwards country set to become Communist by popular demand. The thing to do there was to root out the insurgents, who were now known as the Viet Cong. Trouble is they were hiding everywhere. All we needed was a large arsenal of think tank-like guys who could dream up solutions like rural pacification programs. They just didn’t think far enough ahead to decide what to do with the homeless peasants being herded into holding pens on the outskirts of larger cities. Our puppet man [Ngo Dinh] Diem’s closest advisor had a wife who said it like it was, “I love power…” Besides, Madame [Ngo Dinh] Nhu was a great dresser, wasn’t she? (Image of Vietnam, interrogatee dragged, circa 1966) Note: Quotation from Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (NY: Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2006), p. 269.
This red wool Adolfo suit and coat were worn for daytime inaugural events. The bodice of the coat is exquisitely pin tucked to the last inch of nano-second perfection. This is quintessential Nancy. The bodice cleverly disguises the sewn-in flack jacket, creating a bullet-proof bustier both she and the Gipper liked to play “night night” games in.
People have done an awful lot of complaining lately about torture. Well, it’s just a word. Torture has been going on since time immemorial. Here’s a fun fact: many techniques of torture used today were perfected by the Catholic Church. So, yes, we torture enemy combatants today. But, we were torturing insurgents in the Philippines and Viet Cong in Vietnam. People from all over Latin America have been coming to our own School of the Americas to learn torture techniques. Hell, [Augusto] Pinochet, our man in Chile, really needed torture to keep those radical socialists in check. Doesn’t 27,255 recipients of torture, according to their National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, tell you how much it was needed there? I say, ask the fashionistas what they think of torture, what with all this torture wear apparatus being so chic these days. (Image of Vietnam, torture, circa 1966)
This Bill Blass green and blue Chinese silk suit-dress was worn on Election Night and features triple-layered underarm dress pads and a clever Valium drip concealed in the belt — the very picture of “grace under pressure.” Frustrated all her life by an early misquote, she still wants to set the record straight to this day: “I did not say, JUST SAY NO…I distinctly said, JUST SAY CLOTHES!”
Torture is a science. And so are all the other innovations war brings. Even though napalm was used at the end of World War II, we really perfected the product for use in Vietnam. See, our soldiers understand the benefits war brings us. I’ll quote this pilot on the matter: “…We sure are pleased with those back room boys at Dow. The original product wasn’t so hot — if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene — now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter (WP – white phosphorous) so’s to make it burn better. It’ll even burn under water now. And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.” We learned all about saturation bombing during World War II. Dresden and Tokyo showed us how effective that could be. And don’t forget the atomic bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were great laboratories for their development. We also learned that you can’t very well talk about military targets when what you need to know is how the power of something on paper translates to its use on a whole population. So consumers, remember that if it weren’t for developments during World War II, you wouldn’t have, for one thing, your microwave oven. (Image of Vietnam, napalm baby, circa 1966). Note: Quotation from Philip Jones Griffiths, Vietnam Inc. (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001; orig. pub. 1971), p. 210.
This ruffled silk organza blouse and A-line skirt by Yves St. Laurent is just about as boring as the event at which it was worn, the first official White House Party. Nancy sleeves and neckline weren’t the only things ruffled that night, finally having to admit to the press that, “Yes! My son is a flaming queen!”
As long as we hold to leading the world in our quest for peace and prosperity, we cannot fail. Failure isn’t even in our vocabulary here in the Executive government. It is especially important that you remember America first. Pull out the bunting, Stars and Stripes Forever! (Image of Vietnam, prisoner on leash, circa 1966)
High brow meets Hee Haw in the frothy, gay, right-out-of-Lawrence Welk confection of a square dance dress. A red, white and blue ribbon clinches in the yards of white crinkly cotton ruffles and flounces. Nancy blithely ignores that old adage, Red shoes are for children and prostitutes. Many fashionistas, myself included, felt that it was not accessorized with a tray of deviled eggs in her lap, or a pan of shoes or pie in the face.
Of course, there will always be flare ups of anti-American sentiment, even sentiment directed against the native leaders we prop up who can be expected to do our bidding. For instance, Diem in South Vietnam. He may not have had the popular support of the people, but he had the support of the right people, businessmen and the Catholic Church. Well, what do you do when Buddhist monks start burning themselves in public? Ignore the sentiment and change your leaders! (Image of Vietnam, monk protesting, circa 1966)
I’ll leave it to Sen. Beveridge to put in a nutshell what we must keep in mind as the days ahead challenge us. Although he was speaking back in the time of Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill, words from a good Protestant brother are as good today as they were then: “…we are a conquering race…we must obey our blood and occupy new markets, and, if necessary, new lands…Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours…American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted, but by those agencies of God henceforth to be made beautiful and bright.” Well, folks, as I sadly leave the Oval Office, keep up the shopping. Note: quotation from Leon Wolff, Little Brown Brother: How the United States Purchased and Pacified the Philippine Islands at the Century’s Turn (NY: History Book Club, 2006; orig. pub. 1961), p. 63.

Event Announcement

Fashion Runway Event and Exhibition

A fashion runway event to commemorate the George W. Bush presidential legacy: the end of United States participation in treaties and laws governing habeas corpus, detention, and torture; the exploitation of inhumane interrogation and treatment, even death, to prisoners held without due process of law; and the establishment of penal institutions and secret prison sites for these purposes by the United States.

Artists Christopher Ambridge, Philippe Barnoud, Doug Beube, Max Davidson, Chanel Eddines, David Faulk, Michael Johnstone, Peter Max Lawrence, Doug Minkler, Rat Company, Nicole Repack, Ethan Shoshan, Acrylic Waxx, Max Yawney.  Sound composition by Patrick Todd.  Performance by emcee David Duckworth with Max Davidson.

Event to be held at Bluedahlias Gallery and Studios, San Francisco, in the Sears Building, 3435 Cesar Chavez (Army), between Mission and Valencia, on Saturday, January 17, 2009, from 2:00 to 7:00 p.m.  Live performance begins at 3:00 p.m.  Exhibition on view, Saturdays and Sundays, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., January 17 through March 1st.

This performance was built upon the examples of earlier artists addressing and protesting the unconscionable silence of the majority of Americans during times when war or other major concerns dominated the American psyche. From 1969 to 1972, Martha Rosler created photo montages for rallies and protests which visually brought the war into the American living room. This work has been an influential agent on the choices I make as an artist. You can read about this series of graphics here: Alina Cohen, “Martha Rosler’s Powerful Collages Are a Wake-Up Call to America,” Artsy, June 28, 2018; Hunter Reynolds brought AIDS to the attention of the art world and beyond through performative work. Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress (1993) is an example show here.

Postcard. Hunter Reynolds “Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress” 1993. Painted with 25,000 names of men, women and children who have died of AIDS. Photograph by Maxine Henryson copyright 1993. Fivefinger & Co. Collection of the author.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt, which I had traveled from New York to Washington, D.C. to view, was also an important influence on my creative direction. You can read about the history of the quilt here:

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