My Own Private Guantanamo

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Drone Ask, Drone Tell

December 12, 2012

This past September, for my annual pilgrimage to the Folsom Street Fair, I produced two pieces of street art. First, a revival of my Obey Obama poster from 2008. When I made this image four years ago, it was embraced by many as an endorsement of candidate Obama. The posters sold quickly at the festival and even found their way into BDSM and leather stores in the queer community.

But some fairgoers were suspicious of the poster’s meaning. Was I a right winger equating Obama with Hitler? A passerby at the festival remarked on the poster,”He (Obama) looks like a fascist.” At the time, I simply motioned to the many people dressed in military and police uniforms, and replied “Look around you.” I also concluded that if all it took to transform Shepard Fairey’s mock socialist aesthetic to a fascist one was to add a leather hat, then surely that revealed something about the nature of propaganda.

At the time, I was already deeply skeptical of Obama, whose campaign promises were far more modest than many remember, and who promised to do things like expand the war in Afghanistan and step up an undeclared one in Pakistan. This Obama had already reversed his position on immunity for the telecoms who had illegally spied on us. He had already raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history.

Fairey’s ubiquitous Hope poster came to define Obama’s uncritical embrace by liberals, and the messianic tone adopted by many of his supporters. It was this uncritical worship of Obama that I intended to spoof in my poster.  The ambivalence I felt toward Obama was also tempered with a note of optimism. That’s why he wears the Leather Pride flag heart on his sleeve.

Four years later, my Obey Obama poster has a different resonance for me, and I suspect for many others. In 2012, the image reads to me like a rather direct criticism of what Obama would become– a symbol of unlimited state power and US military might. Sure, I’ve sold some posters and stickers this year. But many people have been wary, rightly identifying the image as a critique of Obama, rather than an irreverent signifier of support.

My other poster at this year’s Folsom Street Fair coincides with the one year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I offer the Prideator Drone as an ambivalent comment on gay assimilation and as a warning about the anticipated pinkwashing of US war crimes. (Pinkwashing already has a long history in Israeli propaganda.) As always, I owe thanks to the brilliant illustrator and designer Dave Coscia, who helped create the image.


The Prideator Drone poster wasn’t very popular at the fair this year. Many people confessed that they did not recognize the design of the drone. Drones aren’t very iconic in the Western imagination, perhaps because we don’t look at them. They “look” at the enemy, extending our predatory gaze to the corners of the globe. Appropriately, the key image from “the greatest manhunt in history” is not the rumored photo of bin Laden’s corpse, but a picture of the most powerful people in the world, huddled around a television, watching his killing unfold in real time, as if at a 24 viewing party.

Drones embody two things that have come to define the post-9/11 era: unlimited surveillance and a war without borders. When I saw the Camo Snuggie in a drugstore the other day, I took it as an accidental visual metaphor for modern warfare. Here is a white man, wearing the camouflage of a soldier but far from a battlefield, swaddled and safe from harm, pushing buttons on a remote control.

The Camo Snuggie may be more iconic and more resonant than my Prideator Drone, and I’m OK with that. But I have a lot of posters left over. If you would like one (or many), please contact me at matt at mattcornell dot org. If you’ll cover shipping, I’ll send you some.

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