Cali Thornhill DeWitt is a multidisciplinary creative mastermind, with his work spanning photography, art, writing, running a record label, hosting a radio show and fashion design. He gained broader public attention through the latter, when he designed the tour merch for Kanye West’s Pablo tour. The clothes emblazoned with flocked lettering were inspired by t-shirts produced to memorialise the deaths of friends and relatives among the Latino community in LA. This process of heat pressing text onto fabric inspired Cali to experiment with other materials, which led to this exhibition titled 29 Flags now showing at V1’s new gallery, Eighteen in Copenhagen.
The series consists of 29 vintage US flags with heat pressed text, commenting on events in recent American history using a combination of the languages of haiku poetry, breaking news, text messages and old-school TV shops. The events emblazoned on each flag refer to infamous moments in the country’s history that were particularly violent or inspired widespread public fear, such as the assassination of JFK, the Manson family murder and the LA riots just to name a few. DeWitt aims to highlight the current state of news and ask if more can be done by the media to create awareness that leads to change.
We had a chat with Cali about his fascination with death, feeling terrorized by the news as a kid and his relationship with fashion.
You’ve said that you felt terrorized by the news as a kid. How do you feel about the news now?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: Probably the same. Terror and horror and scandal get eyes. The news is always pushing something on us that’s coming to destroy our way of life. krokodil was a recent one. Killer bees were big when I was younger. KILLER BEES ARE ON THEIR WAY TO CALIFORNIA TO STING YOU TO DEATH.
The news is also becoming lazier and lazier. So much reporting is just copy/pasted from other sources. Everyone needs content everyday. So much of it is disposable an hour later.
All of the flags refer to a specific event in American history. How would the flag look for the (hopefully im)possible event of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: I don’t really know and I am both surprised and not surprised that it’s gone this far. Really though, I wouldn’t make anything about Donald Trump. He isn’t interesting to me. He’s nothing. He won’t really exist to me no matter what happens.
How did you decide which events to comment on?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: I made flags about people and events that captured my imagination in one way or another. About the wild places that human behavior can go.
What does the American flag symbolize for you?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: In elementary school we would do the pledge of allegiance every morning. You stand and look at the flag, put your hand over your heart and pledge your life to a flag and to God. You’re 7 years old and you don’t even know what you’re doing or saying.
I like the power other people give flags, but I’ve never felt that connection. I like symbols as a means of communication, but I can’t think of any symbol I would stand and salute.
Your work has been described as Gangster Holzer. How do you feel about that?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: I can hardly figure out what that means. I am not and have never been a gangster. I love the work of Jenny Holzer but I think comparing her and I would be kind of lazy and based on our use of words.
A lot of your work deals with death and murder. Where does that come from?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: It’s back to the messages you receive. Death is to be feared. I was afraid to die when I was a little kid, when I figured out that you do die, that everyone dies. It’s also a fascination with people, where their brains can take them. How lost a person can become. Death is often treated as bigger than life.
Why do you often use clothes in your artworks?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: Because I like clothes, because I need something to wear. Because clothing is one of the first things you can use to define yourself, and one of the first ways you can communicate to the outside world. I have friends I’ve known for 30 years and we met because of how we were dressed. We signaled each other with the way we pegged our pants or whatever.
What draws the line between the commercial clothes you do and the clothes that’s used in your artworks?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: Commercial clothing is for sale in stores. Clothing used in artworks are not. The line isn’t always that clear but I’m also not really thinking about that line or worrying about that line.
Can fashion be art?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: Yes. Great designers are changing landscape all the time. Changing the language. I’ve seen runway shows that are as exciting and stimulating as my favorite artworks.
How do you feel about getting so much attention from your work with Kanye West?
Cali Thornhill DeWitt: I’m not crazy about attention. I enjoy seeing that style of design get bootlegged and return to its proper home, which is swap meets and flea markets. As far as attention though, I’m not that interested. It was up to me how much attention I wanted. I turned down most interview requests. I didn’t see the point. But on a personal level I enjoyed the process of making the Pablo gear and seeing it spread.
The exhibition 29 Flags runs until November 19th at Eighteen Gallery.
Interview and portrait by Carl-Emil Storm Gabrielsen
Installation view images by Jan Søndergaard.