New Red Order Built a Fake World’s Fair in Queens to Make a Very Real Demand: Give Back All Native Stolen Lands Now
The wit of the Creative Time-commissioned project makes its earnest message hit even harder.
Queens, New York has hosted the World’s Fair twice: once in 1939, and then again in 1964. Now the borough is home to something else: “The World’s UnFair,” a feverish carnival of attractions that evoke the look of those old 20th-century expos—but not their nationalistic aims. New Red Order, the group of Native artists behind the public art project, has an altogether different agenda in mind: the return of all Indigenous land.
The Creative Time-presented exhibition opened this month in a raw, half-block lot that is owned by a developer, but not yet developed. In theory, that sense of provisionality teases the possibility that the site could be restituted. For now, it feels like it’s been hijacked. Wheatpaste posters styled like men’s magazine ads tote “rematriation services” on the lot’s walls. So do sandwich boards inside. Tribal flags are staked in Home Depot buckets and strung like banners at a car lot. A film, pitched like a corporate commercial, reminds us to “Never Settle.” It plays inside a sculpture that is half cheval de frise, half white picket fence, while an animatronic beaver and tree chat about settler colonialism nearby.
This is a body of work that is not afraid to hit you over the head with what it has to say, even if that means mocking pockets of its audience along the way. But the cumulative effect is powerful. It’s the most essential show in New York right now.
New Red Order defines itself as a “public secret society composed of networks of informants and accomplices dedicated to rechanneling desires for indigeneity towards the expansion of Indigenous futures.” If that description sounds elaborate, it’s because it was designed that way. “We don’t want to be contained to just being an art collective,” New Red Order said in a recent interview. (The three founding founders interviewed for this article—Adam and Zack Khalil, both of the Ojibway, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and Jackson Polys, of Tlingit heritage—prefer to be identified under the collective banner of the group.)
The language of the mission statement is also coded with New Red Order’s argot. By “informants,” it means people who share knowledge of their own communities and cultures. “Accomplices” are those who support informants. The shadowy tone of it all echoes, with knowing irony, the group’s namesake, a 19th-century white fraternity called the “Improved Order of Red Men.” (The organization, which once counted Presidents Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt as members, often used Native designs and rituals.)
But not all of New Red Order’s messaging is that complicated. The group’s central refrain—and the title of its main, ongoing body of work—leaves little room for misinterpretation: “Give it back.” It is both a provocation and a demand: Give back all land to the peoples who were forcibly displaced from it by colonialists. Give it back now.
Throughout “The World’s UnFair,” you’ll find variations of that message presented through the visual language of agitprop, infographics, recruitment videos, real estate placards, and other pieces of media that, in their ordinary states, are used to sell the idea of a better life. Many of these works also feature the same recurring character, played by veteran actor—and frequent New Red Order collaborator—Jim Fletcher. He is the apparent ringmaster of this weird pageant, but also something of a mascot. The group first met the white actor after he donned Native American garb in a 2014 stage Wooster Group play called “CRY, TROJANS!” The incident stoked backlash among Native communities.
Regretful of the decision, Fletcher—who now identifies as an “accomplice” and a “Native American impersonator”—has since given himself over to a number of New Red Order projects. For a 2017 Artists Space performance conceived by the group, he stripped naked, put on a department store “Indian” costume, and apologized for his role in “CRY, TROJANS!” Even when the joke is on him, Fletcher, to his credit, is game.
“It’s Jim Fletcher playing Jim Fletcher,” New Red Order said of the layers to the actor’s performance in “The World’s UnFair,” referring to him as a proxy. “If we say ‘Give it Back,’ I worry that it gets dismissed by many people. But if a successful middle-aged non-Native performance artist says it, maybe it has a chance of making it out of the echo chamber.”
With its puppets and punny riffs on self-help speak and jingoistic lingo (one banner reads “Mission Accomplice,” referencing the infamous George W. Bush proclamation), “The World’s UnFair” is very funny. The tone is a welcome twist on the solemnity that typically categorizes projects about indigeneity or repatriation, though it has its risks as well.
“At times, humor has been a roadblock for some people to engage, because they don’t want to be made fun of,” said the group. “We find it’s a necessary way to engage, to crack open really uncomfortable conversations in ways that don’t lead to the expected places, to keep people on their toes… so they can’t easily categorize it in ways that they already understand.”
But in putting together “The World’s UnFair,” New Red Order’s members also found themselves drawn to an earnestness that hasn’t always been present in their past work. Playing on several screens throughout the show are examples from their ongoing Give It Back series of documentary-style films highlighting people who have voluntarily repatriated land to Indigenous communities, tribes, or non-profits. Surrounded by works barbed with wit, these clips have a refreshing sincerity.
“We found a need to [lean] a little bit more toward sincerity and transparency,” New Red Order explained. “That way, the real, powerful actions that real people are taking to address settler colonialization and the ongoing occupation of Indigenous land isn’t disregarded as a fantasy or as a joke, but seen as something real.”
“New Red Order: The World’s UnFair” is on view now through October 15, 2023 at 24-17 Jackson Ave. in Long Island City, Queens.
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