According to local lore, the Dutch sweet-talked the Lenape Indians out of Manhattan Island with $24 worth of Netherlandish knick-knacks – the first recorded real estate swindle in New York history. Roughly 400 years later, the City of New York bought Governors Island, a former Naval and Coast Guard base 800 meters off Manhattan, from the government for one dollar. The city has since been paralyzed as to what to actually do with the 18th century fort and rolling meadows that have remained out of sight and off-limits to the public for centuries.
What better place to declare your own republic? That’s what artist Allison Smith did in May when, under the auspices of the Public Art Fund, she mounted The Muster, a encampment of nearly 100 ‘enlisted’ artists prepared to defend their free state sovereignty with vigorous faux-militancy. Taking her cue from the quizzical populist subculture of Civil War re-enactment, the impassioned rhetoric of abolitionists and suffragettes and the lost arts of public speechifying, volunteerism and ceremonious assembly, Smith invited artists to pitch a tent for the weekend and proclaim what, if anything, they were fighting for.
Arriving by special ferry, spectators were encouraged to judge for themselves the worthiness of the positions being staked out. While some enlistees got busy asserting such causes as ‘the right to be scared’ or ‘the right to sing sentimental songs in full’, others heeded the call with a precise wit commensurate with Smith’s concept. Led by a young woman dressed as a beaux-arts personification of Liberty, exhorting her squad of diligent loom-tenders to work faster and ‘Knit! Knit! Knit! For the Boys at the Front!’ the art collective Knitting Nation produced a 15 metre version of the Stars and Stripes. Reading aloud from historical treatises on ‘how to knit socks for soldiers’ and reciting mad lyrics from little known Civil War needlework ballads the workers embodied a time of war when orgies of domestic needlecraft became metaphors for stitching the divided country back together again.
While Allison Smith, like a matronly field commander, presided over a formal ‘declaration of causes’, Kathleen Smith, dressed as a bugle-blowing majorette, made convincing arguments for the renewed legitimacy of marching bands, and the theatrical art rock troupe My Barbarian (critic-curator Malik Gaines and musician Alex Segade) sang sad folk songs about Iraq-bound Marines in love with one another. Painter Nicole Eisenman claimed to be fighting for ‘rigorous communication’ without quite articulating what she meant and Marie Lorenz and Duke Riley, decked out as dapper Zouaves, championed ‘a return to chivalrous battle techniques’, arguing that high-tech weaponry have taken all the fun out of armed conflict. Nearby, Fabienne Lasserre was hard at work running his ‘Failure’ camp, where visitors were coaxed to fess up to their greatest shortcomings wear them like badges of honour: failure as liberation.
If last autumn’s Liberty Fair was a last ditch effort to rally New York’s art world and help trounce George Bush at the polls, The Muster could be seen as its post-defeat coda; a call to arms but also a convivial withdrawal behind the barricades. In the context of the current political situation, the autonomous zones, micro-nations, and imaginary territories created by artists and non-artists alike could either constitute a new reality or an abdication from the old one. One can’t help wonder if such good intentions don’t also mirror the inability of the American Left to form a more perfect union of opposition to the powers that be. But, as Tom Lehrer once sang about Franco’s fascists and the artists, writers and poets who volunteered to fight against them, ‘They may have won all the battles/but we had all the good songs’.