Role Call

New York

Left: Allison Smith. Right: The crowd during the “Declaration of Principles.” (Photos: Sam Gordon)

My favorite thing about the Armory Show this year was the zone of discomfort surrounding the Bellwether booth. It was a sturdy little pale-wood room stocked with clunky, brightly painted fake carbines, and sabers. Behind the counter stood artist Allison Smith, looking earnest and a little awkward, wearing a hat out of a Mathew Brady portrait and a homemade uniform of off-white cloth with brass buttons: A general’s pajamas? Smith’s work treats Americana with a combination of critique and fetishization, and while I’ve preferred other examples—her creepy Zouave doll at “Greater New York 2005,” for example—I appreciated how out of place her armory at the Armory was, how unfashionable.

Turns out that project was a teaser for “The Muster,” held last Saturday under the aegis of the Public Art Fund on the usually closed-to-the-public Governor’s Island. Inspired by “the aesthetic and performative qualities of American Civil War reenactments,” as the announcement card put it, the event enjoined artist-participants to install tent stations on the demobilized military base’s former golf course. Each centered on a cause or activity, to be articulated during a “Declaration of Principles” under a big camp-meeting tent. Costumes were mandated for participants and suggested for the roughly 1,500 looky-loos, a detail that seemed to have encouraged many to bring their children.

The first installation I encountered, halfway down the fairway, was probably the best. Under a splayed agglomeration of stakes and fabric, half a dozen grumpy young women in repurposed nurse’s uniforms and crocheted white fishnets worked hand looms that collectively disgorged a giant American flag. Meanwhile a woman wearing an extravagantly deconstructed Stars and Stripes declaimed a combination of eighteenth-century exhortation and anti-corporatist, anti-globalization rhetoric. Designer and RISD professor Liz Collins had pitched her “Knitting Nation” tent perfectly, on a play/politics knife-edge; but most of the Muster fell into one camp or the other. There was an information booth for the conservation group called the Blue Ocean Institute; there was a trampoline; there was something called a “Failure Tent” where a woman in a donkey suit offered dunce caps to visitors; there was a place to make felt flags, partisan or otherwise.

A bugle cry rallied us to the big tent for the “Declaration of Principles.” The gently serious tone set by Smith’s introductory speech was immediately undermined by the first person named in the “roll call,” the bugler herself, who happened to be Smith’s teenage sister.

“Kathleen Smith, what are you fighting for?”

The younger Smith rolled her eyes to the sky, and said in the straight-from-the-Valley intonation that has become idiomatically American: “I’m fighting, for, the band? Like, marching bands have a long history, and I’m in a marching band, and, I’m sick of marching bands not getting the respect they deserve?”

This exchange elucidated the real conflict at hand: A Civil War of the Left: a house divided between those seeking action and those promoting their own half-considered position, political or otherwise. For every AIDS activist there was an acoustic guitar number by a woman with a vegetable steamer on her head.

For their contribution, photographer/video artist A. L. Steiner and painter Nicole Eisenmann had built a kind of masochism station featuring a high-backed wooden chair draped with black leather scourges for use on the willing. When Steiner took the stage, she looked deceptively normal—except for the heavy flashlight she carried.

Left: Becky Smith. Middle: Rachel Eccles. Right: Malik Gaines and Sam Gordon.

“Opposite Day is over,” she declared. “Let me ask you all something: Is this anger, or is this entertainment?”

People mumbled and stared at their feet; a couple of them offered, “Entertainment?”

This was the wrong answer. An ungentle correction culminated in Steiner’s calling the crowd “liars” and one man in particular a “motherfucker.” Smith, nearby, flinched visibly; I later learned that the authorities had asked that tents with “adult content” put up a sign to that effect, which had laid the groundwork for Steiner’s tirade.

Afterward I watched an old man approach Steiner. He was carrying his own lawn chair and wore a floppy blue fisherman’s hat.

“Excuse me, were you the one just up onstage there?”

“Yes, that was me.”

“You should be in jail. Using that kind of language in front of all these children. I think you’re disgusting.”

“Well thank you. Hey guys,” Steiner said to a bunch of passersby, “Hey guys, this guy thinks I’m disgusting.”

At this point I turned away and headed toward the Failure Tent, where the obliging woman in the donkey suit strapped a dunce’s cap under my chin and wrote F+ on my cheeks with grease paint.

Left: Liz Collins's tent. Right: Directions.

Left: Ben Kress and Eliza Jane Curtis. (Photo: Sam Gordon) Right: The artists who campaigned for “Savior Scraps.”