The following is one of several extended looks into figures and institutions selected for “The Deciders,” a list of art-world figures pointing the way forward developed by ARTnews and special guest editor Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. See the full list in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine and online here.
During the first Toronto Biennial of Art this fall, there was only one room I really wanted to be in: the New Red Order’s farcical and fantastical installation Never Settle. Something like a stoner’s bedroom, a reeducation chamber, and a fun house all mixed together, the space revolved around a giant throw rug that looked like a bull’s-eye surrounded by video monitors and strange sculptural vitrines. Light came in through windows covered in a red plastic film and decals in the shapes of masks and an inverted maple leaf, as well as evocative phrases ranging from “Give it back” to “What is savage philosophy?” On one side was a large animatronic bobblehead standing in for Jim Fletcher, the actor and performance artist—and one of many New Red Order “informants”—who also appeared on screens playing instructional videos on a loop. When I walked by, the bobblehead’s mouth jerked open like a vision in a nightmare at Chuck E. Cheese.
The installation commissioned for the Biennial was a staging ground for the New Red Order, a collaborative collective led by three Indigenous artists currently based in New York: brothers Zack and Adam Khalil, who are Ojibway and were born in northern Michigan, and Jackson Polys, who is Tlingit from Alaska. When I joked to the artists in Toronto that all their installation needed to complete the surreal rec-room vibe was some big red beanbags, Adam Khalil, looking out wryly from under his ever-present baseball cap, rejoined that such comfy seating would countermand the installation’s title. Never Settle, indeed.
The serious joke is a New Red Order specialty. It also follows in a long tradition of sly Indigenous critique. The group uses humor not to put people down but to build up new ways of relating between Natives and non-Natives. And because they do not appear in their own recruitment videos or even in their own performances, the leaders’ collective presence is like that of a savvy class clown who evades expulsion while securing notoriety. But even as their messaging takes the form of a practical joke—what Adam Khalil called the “Bart Simpson effect”—the work shows a genuine impulse toward collaboration and solidarity. The New Red Order is at all times questioning how the general public views Indigenous peoples and showing how that public might be transformed by engaging different thoughts and practices on Indigenous terms.
I first saw work by the Khalils and Polys at New York’s Artists Space in 2017 in “Unholding.” (They will stage another performance at Artists Space on January 23.) As part of a performance they staged, I saw the naked body of Fletcher, a non-Indigenous figure atoning for past work as an Indian impersonator during his time with avant-garde theater company the Wooster Group. The provocation of that performance, which ended with Fletcher’s microwaving sage, excited me as a Diné writer who has felt pressured to present my indigeneity in the expected registers of trauma and traditionalism. These guys were turning “playing Indian” on its head, enacting a kind of freedom through playfulness. I was also drawn to the rigor of their research and their surreal visual vocabulary, as demonstrated by two short films: Culture Capture (2017), a creepy atmospheric video set in the American Museum of Natural History, and The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets (2018), on the history of mapping human remains to construct models of human migration that delegitimize indigenous claims to land.
As part of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 2019, the New Red Order distributed a publication titled Special Future Recruits Issue with a graphic illustration of a towering long-haired man carrying a glowing tomahawk on the cover. It was like an activity book designed for elementary school students to provide edutainment in the form of puzzles, coloring pages, and comics. A “Spot the Difference” game, for example, shows a pair of images: one illustrating a world without settlers, and the other, the same world without Indians. The workbook, which includes contributions from friends of New Red Order, is an introduction to an interest the collective has developed in so-called “savage philosophy.”
The term originated in a 2007 book titled Magical Criticism: The Recourse of Savage Philosophy by Christopher Bracken, a non-Indigenous scholar at the University of Alberta in Canada who is interested in how supposedly irrational Indigenous theories of animism have influenced Western thinkers. Bracken is now part of what Adam Khalil describes as the “evolving and rotating cast” of the New Red Order as the group turns toward an outward-facing research-based series of engagements. Khalil said he envisions a sort of “TED Talk on acid” where people from party scenes and philosophy circles can create experimental spaces to produce new ideas and relationships.
One of the group’s slogans, pasted on the Never Settle window and published in their Special Future Recruits Issue, commands followers to “commit crimes against reality.” Taking inspiration from the work of frequent New Red Order collaborator Suzanne Kite, who stares down connections between conspiracy theories and the perception of “Indians” in American consciousness, the New Red Order now looks to make the conspiracy real. Can that change the rules of perception? I want to believe.