Art

Rituals of Liberation Intended to Unsettle at the Whitney Museum

Last night’s performance at the Whitney Museum reminded the audience that they are all on unceded indigenous land, while exploring the implication of settler colonialism.

From the June 14 performance of The New Red Order’s The Savage Philosophy of Endless Acknowledgement at the Whitney Museum (all photos by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The rituals of liberation can be unsettling. Or at least they should be, even if they’re often formalized into holidays that are quite distant from their revolutionary origins (Labor Day and MLK Day, to name a few), offering local elites a way to feel good about their oppressive system — it’s getting better, right? Right?!

The dilemma of contemporary liberation is compounded by its historical reliance on grand narratives often formulated during the European colonial era. Those histories have largely been dismantled during our own age as exclusionary and limited — often erasing whole groups in favor of a version of history written by the victors. It begs the question, how can we liberate ourselves today?

Performer Laura Ortman plays in front of an upside down US flag, which is a symbol of distress, according to the US flag code.

The New Red Order is a new artists’ initiative and, by its own description, it is made up of “a rotating and expanding cast of Informants including Ashley Byler, Jim Fletcher, Tali Keren, Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, Kite, Erica Lord, Noelle Mason, Del Montgomery, Laura Ortman, Tony Oursler, Jeremy Pheiffer, Jackson Polys, and Kate Valk.” The group’s performance last night at the Whitney Museum was as wide-ranging and nebulous as the group’s name and cast of participants may suggest. The presentation touched on a variety of topics, including settler colonial guilt, the origins of American national myths, the invisibility of Native Americans in Euro-American culture, and “savage philosophy,” which the group dissected throughout the event. Their focus was on the word “savage,” which they seem to interpret much in the same way that James Baldwin explained the n-word:

… if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? … Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back: You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.

Throughout the performance, two white actors (Jim Fletcher and Kate Valk) served as proxies for the “artists” and staged guilt-inflected positions as settler colonialists. The event was rather unique for a New York museum; the city’s institutions have lagged far behind museums elsewhere regarding indigenous land acknowledgement  — a practice prevalent in other settler states, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Taiwan. The Whitney Museum even posted a land acknowledgment on the event page, stating that:

… its building at 99 Gansevoort Street is built on unceded Indigenous lands, specifically the territory of the Lenape. As a museum of American art, the Whitney recognizes the continual displacement of Native people by the United States and is committed to working to dismantle the ongoing effects of this colonial legacy.

That admission is a rarity — if not a first — for a major New York museum. The symbolic power of land acknowledgments was discussed in the performance itself, which included footage of a Native American woman recounting how hearing a land acknowledgment at an event in Minneapolis made her feel more welcome in the space. The role of language is central to liberation, and another performer, Suzanne Kite, took the stage to share what we are told to be her findings. Presented in a largely didactic manner, Kite, who is Oglala Lakota, taught the audience various phrases in the Lakota language, including “Manifest Destiny” — the poisonous phrase introduced in the 1840s and used to justify the raping and pillaging of Native Americans and their lands by theist white American settlers. It made it clear how little of the conversation on issues of colonialism and its impact in the US are two way.

Suzanne Kite teaching the audience Lakota phrases. (photo by Paula Court and courtesy the Whitney Museum)

Artist Tali Keren’s presentation was one of the more controversial elements of the evening. She dissected Benjamin Franklin’s 1776 Great Seal Design for the United States, which depicts an Egyptian Pharaoh and his troops being overcome by the waters of the Red Sea after the fleeing Israelites passed through safely. The story is one of the most dramatic from the Old Testament, but also one that has no grounding in history, as no archeological evidence exists to suggest that such a mass migration ever took place. Keren’s work has long explored this fiction in relation to the state of Israel and its commonalities with the United States. During a 2017 exhibition at CCA-Tel Aviv, she paired the same seal with choreographed speeches that concentrated on the divisive ideology of Christian Zionism today. Her presentation also pointed to the new coalitions being formed by contemporary liberation movements among Native Americans, Palestinians, and groups that haven’t traditionally aligned their struggles. She also highlighted the extent to which fiction is central to modern nation states. Fictions like white supremacy have long wielded power over the public imagination and divided us all into winners and losers.

Interpretation of the first committee’s seal proposal for the United States. Created by Benson Lossing in 1856, it is based on Benjamin Franklin’s proposed idea. (via Wikipedia)

The performance was a moving exploration of the contours of settler colonial ideology and its ubiquity. However, the performance’s emotional power, which peaked early on, sputtered by the evening’s end. The performance’s twists and turns — which included video interludes, masked performers that slowly crawl into frame, and moments of white settler guilt — never quite congealed, instead shattering the issues into many disparate pieces. These problems seemed to reflect the intellectual challenges of the decolonization movement in general, as there’s yet no agreed-upon roadmap toward one unified goal since it is a process, one that is continuous and grapples with the systems of power. Centralized goals, it reminds us, are part of a different type of thought.

A reminder

I left the performance pondering the circuitous route of liberation today. Rather than cling to the old ideologies that no longer reflect our new realities, the state of struggle continually demands new paths as the existing ones are blockaded by state, institutional, and corporate players that benefit from the status quo. The fact that artists continue to play vital roles in envisioning these new routes to liberation is no coincidence — their participation feels essential.

At one point in last night’s performance, a large figure on the screen standing against a backdrop of a traditional landscape painting of what looked like the American West started to whisper to the audience: “give it back.” It was such an absurd attempt at subliminal messaging that you couldn’t help but laugh. Yet maybe it’s not so outlandish when we remember that the idea of America, like the idea of Israel and other modern settler colonial states, started from something that seemed impossible.

The New Red Order Presents: The Savage Philosophy of Endless Acknowledgement took place at the Whitney Museum (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) on Wednesday, June 13 at 7pm.

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