New Red Order's planned April opening event for its first solo museum exhibition at Detroit's MOCAD was canceled, like pretty much everything else these days, due to the coronavirus. The exhibition now will now open this week with a film installation in the museum's black box theater on Thursday and a large-scale installation following on July 9, but much has happened in the meantime that gives the work an even more fascinating and urgent context.
In May, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police ignited a new, powerful wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, growing into an Arab Spring-like reckoning with the very soul of the nation. As protesters have toppled Confederate statues and other racist monuments in recent weeks, the City of Detroit preemptively and quietly removed the 110-year-old Christopher Columbus statue located at Jefferson Avenue and Randolph on June 15, anticipating it might be next.
I wasn't even aware that Detroit had a Columbus statue until a 2015 stunt on Columbus Day, where someone vandalized it by making it look like he received a bloody hatchet blow to the head. That's when I learned it was a gift from the Italian newspaper La Tribuna Italiana d'America to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' death. I'm an Italian-American metro Detroiter, and I didn't even know this — that's how invisible and pervasive the power structure of white European colonialism is here. (According to historicdetroit.org, apparently, some local Italians were offended that the statue was merely a bust, and demanded an even bigger statue.)
"Christopher Columbus, a great son of Italy," the plaque reads. "Discovered America."
Of course, this monument ignored the fact that people had been living in the Americas for thousands of years before Columbus wound up here while trying to find Asia. It also whitewashes his legacy of brutality toward Indigenous people.
New Red Order has been exploring these topics formally as a collective since 2016. The group was founded by Adam and Zack Khalil, two Ojibwe brothers from Sault Ste. Marie now based in New York, and Jackson Polys, a member of the Tlingit community of Alaska now also based in New York. The three make up the group's core, but they work with a revolving door of other artistic collaborators.
And they want you to join their ranks.
"We try to pitch it as a 'public secret society,' as opposed to an art collective," Adam says during a recent video conference interview. "And that's for many different reasons, but one of the main reasons is so New Red Order isn't just contained as an art collective. It could be a think tank, a religious group, a cult, a political party."
"More than 'members or 'contributors' to it, we consider ourselves 'informants' in the traditional anthropological ethnographic sense, where an anthropologist relies upon informants to get information about specific ethnic groups," Zack says.
Before they arrived at the name New Red Order, the Khalil brothers collaborated on "INAATE/SE/" (translation: "It shines a certain way. To a certain place./It flies. Falls./"), which premiered in 2016. The gonzo, stylistically experimental documentary examined the past, present, and future of the Ojibwe people of Sault Ste. Marie through the lens of the "Seven Fires Prophecy," an ancient tale that predicted the tribe's first contact with Europeans. Drug and alcohol use in the community was one of the topics explored, and rocker Bret Michaels, who was performing at a casino while the crew was shooting, also makes an appearance.
Even though the brothers are Ojibwe and deliberately attempted to make an inherently Ojibwe form of cinema, the process of creating the film gave them pause.
"We realized that we were sort of having to act as 'informants' in our own community and culture, and how that relationship was often not a reciprocal one," says Zack. "It was a very extractive relationship. Even though we approached the documentary very aware of the history of visual ethnography and anthropology — and how it often has that extractive impulse — we still tried to make it co-authored with our community as much as possible, but we're inevitably acting as informants. And so with the New Red Order we wanted to formalize that relationship and to acknowledge that informant dynamic, and then also to call for new informants, Indigenous and non-Indigenous informants, to try to make that relationship more reciprocal."
In Alaska, Polys began to arrive at a similar line of thinking, having gotten into art by making traditional wood-carving sculptures with his father, "understanding that I was having to perform my own indigeneity for a non-Indigenous public," he says. The thinking intensified as he studied art at Columbia University in New York City.
"That put me in a position to be in a lot of institutional situations where I was recognizing my own complicity as an informant, in a long line of anthropological informants," he says.
The group got the idea to create New Red Order as sort of a subversive re-appropriation of "the Improved Order of Red Men," a fraternal secret society whose roots trace back to the Boston Tea Party protest, where white colonists disguised themselves as (their idea of) Native Americans. In the ensuing years, white colonists continued "playing Indian," holding secret meetings in wigwams and adopting other bastardized Indigenous symbols. (Both Roosevelts were members. The Tammany Hall political machine has similar roots.)
The New Red Order sees itself as emerging from, and critiquing, that tradition. The way they see it, the wealthy, land-owning white men who formed those secret societies had good, though warped, intentions.
"They really do idolize native culture in some way — a very perverted, weird version of it," Zack says. "They traced the roots of American culture as distinct from British culture, so there is at the same time a real reverence for at least this imaginary idea of native peoples, though not often real native people. So much of the New Red Order comes out of recognizing that desire to be Indigenous, or be for the Indigenous. It's something that is at the very root of this country, both culturally and historically ... it gets sublimated and comes out in strange ways, but then ultimately it seems that desire isn't something that can be avoided over time. And since it can't be avoided, perhaps it needs to be channeled into something more productive than a right-wing fraternal society."
"And before it can be re-channeled, it has to be confronted," Polys says.
The group also riffs on the idea of the "public secret," a concept from the anthropologist and writer Michael Taussig. "It's like these things that we all know to be true but never really discuss, and kind of shape our world," Adam says. "So settler colonialism is like the ultimate public secret in our eyes, because everyone knows that's the case that this is stolen land, but no one ever talks about it."
"There is a desire to acknowledge it, but often the acknowledgment ends up becoming a form of replacement and erasure," Polys says. The group says even well-meaning progressive liberals can express their sympathy in inappropriate ways.
“So much of the New Red Order comes out of recognizing that desire to be Indigenous or be for the Indigenous. It’s something that is at the very root of this country, both culturally and historically.”
One of the first projects the group worked on together was a short film called "The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets," which screened at Sundance in 2018. Also in 2018, the group debuted "The New Red Order Presents: The Savage Philosophy of Endless Acknowledgement" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which they describe as a "feature-length live performance delivered by other collaborators."
"We kind of pitched it as a TED Talk on acid about land acknowledgment," Adam says. "Land acknowledgment" is a concept that's become increasingly popular in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in recent years, with school days, meetings, and even hockey games beginning with a formal statement recognizing the Indigenous people who originally inhabited the land. The practice is catching on in the United States.
Around that time, "there was sort of like an arms race in New York City to be the first institution to adopt a territory or land-management practice or protocol," Adam explains. "That was something that we were interested in as informants, but also really skeptical of ... we were being approached by all these institutions to help them as informants: like, 'What should we do? How should we write this acknowledgment? We don't want to upset anyone.' It's like asking us as individuals to represent an entire people to say what's right and what's wrong, and what's allowed, and what's not allowed, which is kind of an absurd premise to begin with."
In the end, the New Red Order oversaw a land acknowledgment for the Whitney, but the core members of the group largely hung back to let other members lead. "We were thinking people might listen to us more if it's coming from two middle-aged white people, or it might register in a different way," Adam says.
The group says that while land acknowledgments are welcome, it's important for institutions to make sure they're not just "playing Indian" and using them as a way to absolve them from real change.
"Having known a lot of people in Canada and their frustrations with that practice, it can kind of just slide into this symbolic realm where you say it at the beginning of a meal, like saying 'grace' before a meal — like, now that we got that out of the way we can get off of the rest of our lives," Adam says. "It's also not just acknowledging, but also adding a commitment to change, so that way it doesn't just slip into this kind of like magical incantation at the beginning of something to relieve that guilt, but then actually could become a moment to really think through what it would mean to acknowledge the settler-colonial system and what are the responsibilities of people complicit in that."
MOCAD announced its official reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic just last week. Pat Elifritz, the museum's Curator of New Media and Technology, says the show has been rescheduled at least four times. Naturally, the exhibition will include a land acknowledgment.
MOCAD's executive director and chief curator, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, says that the museum is considering looking for guidance from Dylan Miner, who leads the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at Michigan State University, and that the museum is also considering making the land acknowledgment a permanent part of the museum, perhaps as a sign or something that is said at the beginning of events.
"That's really why I feel that it's critical for this kind of work to be presented in a contemporary art museum," Elifritz says. "With a non-collection museum, I think often you assume that they get a free pass with its kind of engagement with history, but contemporary venues are really important for offering a kind of speculative potential for the future. And within museum culture to see Indigenous ideas only represented in a historical context is something that's really, um, built within the DNA of museum practices. So from the museum's side, being able to prioritize future projection and thinking, and the role of digital media and technology within that is really the motivation to present this at MOCAD."
Last year, New Red Order launched "a large recruitment campaign" that began at the Toronto Biennial of Art. The campaign has a website, newredorder.org, a phone hotline, and even an infomercial-like video calling for new recruits for the group to eventually ascend to the level of "accomplice." To become an accomplice, new recruits have to follow the "three C's": "contract," "concealment," and "capture."
The contract is self-explanatory. "Like any stable relationship, you start off with a contract or a treaty that kind of lays out your terms of engagement with New Red Order," Adam says. "And then 'concealment' is the opportunity to be able to conceal yourself in order to perform your desire for indigeneity, without fear of reprimand. Which means you could potentially ... well, let's not go there," he says, coyly.
"One of the aims of the New Red Order is to repatriate all Indigenous land and life," he explains later. "To do anything anti-colonial would inherently have to be against the law under a settler-colonial regime."
"'Capture' is where it gets really juicy," Zack explains.
The concept riffs on the "additive" approach officials took to a Teddy Roosevelt monument in New York City. The statue depicts Roosevelt riding on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African-American on foot, which has drawn criticisms for being a monument to racism. After it was defaced in recent years, the city launched a commission that concluded they would not take the statue down, but add a plaque that acknowledged the controversy. In recent weeks, officials, including those at the nearby American Museum of Natural History, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, and even Roosevelt's descendants have called for the statue to be removed.
"I forget who said it, but the only thing more invisible than a monument is the plaque next to it," Zack says.
"It's like the John Carpenter movie They Live, where the main character puts on the sunglasses and sees that all the advertisements say 'obey,'" he says. "You put the glasses on, and you see the world in a totally different way, and you recognize all these monuments have these invisible symbols sort of built into them. So what 'capture' kind of really started was a way for people to look up familiar symbols for these monuments in different ways and see them with fresh eyes."
The "capture" step of the program asks recruits to photograph monuments, to then be translated into a 3-D computer model, which can then be digitally altered.
"Essentially, we're defacing the monuments in an 'additive' sense," Zack says.
When it comes from this reckoning with offensive Native American iconography, it's a fine line. "This is kind of like a dumb anecdote, but it's like with the Land of Lakes butter, where they got rid of the Indian on the box," Zack says. "It's like a funny form of removal again."
"Or like the Cleveland Indians, where now the logo is just a 'C,'" Polys says.
"It's just funny, because it mirrors the removal of actual Indigenous people," Adam says.
"It's not that we don't appreciate the removal of stereotypes that do harm, but we also recognize that it's in the long line of removal of Indigenous people and representations from history or reality," Polys says.
The New Red Order comes to Detroit just as our culture is heading into uncharted territory. Navigating this reckoning is bound to get messy at times, as well as uncomfortable. New Red Order wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's like, OK, we all know things and we all don't know things," Adam says. "We're going to figure this out together."
New Red Order: Crimes Against Reality opens with a film installation on Thursday, July 2 and follows with a larger installation on Thursday, July 9 at MOCAD, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622; mocadetroit.org. Exhibition runs through Jan. 10.
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