During the debates preceding the Brexit referendum, a video of a hooded and allegedly British individual attempting to burn the EU flag went viral. Accusing the EU of taking away “our [British] nationality, our identity, our free speech, and our sovereignty,” the man approaches the star-filled blue flag with a cigarette lighter. His action, however, produces no evident result: the piece of fabric — manufactured following EU regulations on flammable materials — does not light. The man gives up after two minutes.
The video exposes the ways ideological constructs like identity and sovereignty are not only shaped by symbols like the EU flag or the burning of one, but are also materially embodied in everyday objects. The fact that the flag literally cannot burn is both a material construction, enacting EU policy against the ignitability of upholstery, and a representational obstacle, denying the possibility of performing certain identities. In their embodiment of regulations, policies, and material traditions, objects perform beyond their symbolic value: as devices upon which new forms of belonging can act.
The event of the failed flag burning refutes the abstraction of national symbols by shedding light on the materiality of objects such as flags. Amidst the current rise of new forms of nationalism, is it possible to achieve alternative constructions of belonging by intervening in the material and phenomenal values of objects by overcoming the abstract symbols of nationalist production? The video shows how traditional nationalist imagery can no longer sustain the idea of belonging with abstract sociopolitical messages, but rather that it needs to consider the materiality of those forms of belonging. Ultimately, in the global flux of commodities and information, material regulations (and their impact in the design and production of objects) are an opportunity for understanding how structures of identity are implanted, contested, or simply bypassed.
* EN 1021-2 is the European Standard for the "Assessment of the Ignitability of Upholstered Furniture; Ignition Source Match Flame Equivalent."