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OSAYCANYOUSEE the War of 1812 a little differently?

A new show at the Windup Space mines the meaning in the anthem and the war that inspired it.

1812 American_Expansionism-001

“American Expansionism”

Photo by: Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals

Cannons will boom, American flags will flutter and re-enactors will sweat in cotton and wool on Saturday, when Baltimore again marks the best-known moment in the War of 1812 – the booting out of the British.

But a new show at the Wind-up Space, “OSAYCANYOUSEE,” asks us to look beyond the standard rockets-red-glare iconography being presented at Fort McHenry on “Defenders Day” this weekend and across Baltimore, in this War of 1812 bicentennial year:

There’s a photo of the business end of a baseball bat with the image of the grinning Cleveland Indians mascot lasered into it.

There’s a pyramidal stack of cannonballs topped with the “eye of providence,” evoking war and the dollar bill.

And there are a lot of letters – the lyrics of the National Anthem produced in run-on fashion, just the way it feels sometimes when we mindlessly sing the familiar song while our minds are on the imminent kick-off or first pitch.

“It was really our first American war, the first war we declared as a nation, it set up a lot of themes that recur up to today – the idea of Manifest Destiny, of American expansionism,” said Nolen Strals, who created the work along with fellow artist and graphic designer Bruce Willen.

"Through the Perilous Fight," by Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals

“Through the Perilous Fight,” by Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals.

“One reason we got into the war was to take over land the British were controlling, to expand into Indian territory, into Canada,” Willen said. “Those weren’t perhaps the main reason for the war but they were definitely a part of it.”

Words and Letters and Meaning

As it turns out, the starting point for the show (running from Sept. 8 through Oct. 27) was not the need to set that history straight but the allure of “some cool old type.”

Given the chance by Mary Mashburn of the Globe Poster Collection to use the legendary Baltimore print shop’s antique wood type – “it was beat up and not taken care of but had this gorgeous patina” – Strals and Willen looked for some words that were hoary and heavy enough to deserve it.

The National Anthem came to mind.

“It’s a really intense and violent song about war. You don’t even really think about that a lot of times,” Willen said.

Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals demonstrating the correct pronunciation of the O's fans' "O" in the National Anthem. "Aaay-o!"

Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals demonstrating the correct pronunciation of the O’s fans’ “O” in the National Anthem. “Aaay-o!”

Thinking about fonts is an average day at the office for Strals and Willen, who head the art and design firm Post Typography in lower Charles Village and teach at Maryland Institute College of Art.

In four hand-printed serigraphs (produced with printers Kim Bentley and Kyle Van Horn, of Baltimore Print Studios) they re-conceive “The Star-Spangled Banner” in fields of abstract typography, running the letters together. (Look for the piece with a special nod to the Baltimore Orioles, an orange “O” – a reference to the way the crowd at O’s games yells a locally-accented “O” in the middle of the song.)

Running all those letters together simultaneously, Willen said, underlines their intended meaning “and creates interesting new words, possible new meanings.”

Where Enduring Symbols Started

Moving from the song to the war that inspired it, the artists produced other images and objects “touching on themes of baseball, capitalism and violence” as they say in the their printed descriptions of the show.

They layer the work with the imagery of pop culture, patriotism and American history. Each piece in the show takes its title from lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

"Bombs Bursting in Air," by Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals

“Bombs Bursting in Air,” by Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals.

“Bombs Bursting in Air,” for instance, is an explosion of modern pop-culture images inside that all-seeing eye.

The piece is conveying how the psychedelic image of fireworks exploding has its origins in that celebrated moment of violence, Strals said, “and how it’s seen now as an almost commercial image.”

OSAYCANYOUSEE also reminds viewers that the war included fronts besides Baltimore’s harbor – the attack on Canada and the invasion of native peoples’ homelands throughout the interior of the continent.

Images of “Indians” recur in the work. Native peoples generally sided with the British, thinking it would halt American expansionism but the war, by its end, proved devastating for them. “The Home of the Brave” depicts a page of Star Spangled Banner sheet music formed into a cone-shaped tipi.

Willen says they’re not forgetting the British warships impressing American sailors at sea, or the the torching of Washington, D.C., but they’re hoping to get people to think more deeply about other aspects of the war and the way it shaped American cultural values and national identity.

“We just want to see that some essential parts don’t get swept under the rug.”

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  • Unellu

    I love that the stripes of the US flag have been unwound into a chaotic mess–that is a great modern metaphor for the current condition of the US–the financial meltdown, the loss of jobs, the foreclosures, the loss of identity of the swarming labor forces slaving for better times but not finding those better times, the jingoism of the political class swamping the despondent scene, sowing confusion not clarification of where we are headed and what the future holds for those of us who are not the oligarchs. 

    We are at war within in the US and the bombs bursting in the air are the fireworks between labor and management, citizens and politicians, the numerous sick and stressed folks and the few well ones, the ones tumbling down the ladder of upward mobility and the ones sitting at the top of that ladder shielded by clouds of greed and callousness–we are at war within, not as patently bloody or as brutal as the one in Syria but definitely bloody because the carcasses of those without jobs, retirement, health insurance and homes litter the country and definitely brutal because the opportunists, the speculators and the vulture capitalists circle those carcasses to eke out maximum profit. 

    Yes, there is profit in war but what is cynical is that entire wars have been planned, launched, soldiers conscripted and patriotic songs sung in praise of war when land grab and power mongering were the only motives from the outset.  There are hardly any good wars or holy wars or heroic wars.  Most wars exemplify man’s inhumanity to man.  We now romanticize the Indian of yesterday, making him a tragic figure, chased from pillar to post by the white man, eventually dispossessed, marginalized and cheated of the land he revered but didn’t care to turn into property with sale deeds and seals of ownership. 

    But the Indian too was savage in war, he too fought to the bitter end, making and undoing alliances, shifting sides, signing and breaking pacts and bartering for weapons.  The Indian lost because he lived in divided tribes with differing values, cultures, languages and war skills.  The Indian lost because he lacked the man power and modern weapons manufacturing sites and abilities. 

    As then today.  The West, for better or for worse, has barreled in with nuclear weapons and drones, with hollow point bullets, stinger missiles, RPGs and numerous other killing devices.  The mad scramble to keep inventing newer and more efficient decimation machines is a losing proposition.  The enemies answer with IEDs.  Improvised they may be, but they are just as lethal as the sophisticated weapons into which the West pours its precious resources.

    We are at the cross roads but we’ll continue to glorify war.  The ones who dodged the draft will make heroes out of the ones who volunteer to fight.  But the ones who fight, often do so, because, for them,  the army is the only way out of poverty, or misery or the Navy or the Air force are the only cost effective routes to an education. 

    The ones who will never don a war uniform will write the war anthems, invest in the weapons factories, invent cutting edge murder machines and build and work in labs to study the science of war.  And the ones who do the warring will for ever wear the scars of the trauma. 

    The artist may mock the futility of war in poems and pictures but he is forced to grin and bear like the Cleveland Indian mascot on the baseball bat depicted here.  The artist’s anti war sentiments are hollow screams in a wild world of warring factions.                 

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