Art

How I Learned to Love the New Red Order and Stop Worrying About The Apocalypse

One reporter goes deep undercover into an unsettling cult which is either the beginning of a new movement for Indigenous futures or an elaborate prank to destroy the art world.

Emily Allan

1 – ROCK PORTRAIT
Members of NRO captured by their own.

Two summers ago, on the steps of the exquisitely sinister and definitely haunted Park Avenue Armory, the Ojibway filmmaker and artist Adam Khalil invited me to join the New Red Order. “It’s a public secret society dedicated to channeling the desire for Indigeneity towards indigenous futures,” he explained. “Do you want to become an accomplice?” “Yes,” I immediately replied, “Yes, definitely. I’ll join.” I had no idea what he was talking about.

The New Red Order (NRO) is a public secret society composed of diverse networks of informants and accomplices working to channel complicity towards Indigenous futures. The NRO emerges in contradistinction from the Improved Order of Red Men, an American organization revived in 1834 as a whites-only fraternity, whose redface rituals and regalia are inspired by the country’s most famous, foundational act of Indigenous appropriation: the donning of Mohawk disguises by the Sons of Liberty during the Boston Tea Party. If the foundation of settler society rests both on desires for Indigeneity and the violent displacement of Indigenous land and life, the NRO asks whether—and how—those desires could be routed into something productive and perhaps even sustainable.

The above statement is cribbed together from various NRO communiqués sprinkled across the internet; the same mysterious and compelling language can be found over and over on the websites of famous museums, high-profile arts institutions and A-list art publications. If you’re looking for it, information about NRO is everywhere, but actual knowledge is harder to ascertain, emerging gradually through experience and proximity as prospective initiates or curious ethnographers edge closer to the group’s shadowy center. So, it’s some kind of futurist-style art collective? Or is it really a cult? One guerrilla cell in a militant mass movement? Are they just trolling? And whose project is this? 

I can tell you that my conscripter, Adam Khalil, is one third of the core vanguard, along with his frequent collaborator and younger brother, filmmaker Zack Khalil, and the artist Jackson Polys. A cursory Google search will yield multiple conflicting origin stories: some sources list the Khalils (Ojibway) and Polys (Tlingit) as co-founders, while others date the first NRO appearance to a performance directed solely by Polys in 2015. (Polys himself has publicly described being inducted into the organization as if it were a mystery cult.) Adam writes to me in an email that there are many invisible hands behind the scenes and “it really is a communal family dynamic across multiple projects and collaborative constellations.” When I ask Adam to tell me something no one’s ever heard about how NRO works, he sends me a Google doc containing field notes from an anonymous anthropologist who appears to have discovered that NRO has been around for decades, pulling strings at famous historical events and slowly growing its ranks behind a veil of secrecy. The document seems entirely, even obviously, fabricated, but I can’t be sure.

new red order

Emily Allan in a still from New Red Order recruitment film Never Settle.

If the layered para-fictional narratives behind NRO work to draw our attention to the fiction of our own inherited origin story and the “public secret” in which we all exist (we are living on stolen land), the effects of NRO on the institutions it encounters have been undeniably, materially real. Before Polys and the Khalil brothers joined (or “joined”) NRO, they recall feeling frustrated and trapped in an age-old cycle that mirrored the relationship between the anthropologist and the informant; as Indigenous artists, every time they showed work, they were being called upon to “inform” on their own communities and cultures in a nauseating and non-reciprocal cycle of extraction. Since working with and as NRO, the artists routinely publicly acknowledge their complicity as informants, leveraging their status to broker power and effect institutional change that goes beyond symbolic platitude. In recent years, it’s become increasingly in vogue for curators and directors to open arts events with a public acknowledgment that the event is taking place on unceded Indigenous land; NRO utilizes their position as informants to push institutions to broaden their land acknowledgments to include commitments to support Indigenous communities materially and to work to dismantle the ongoing effects of settler colonialism. 

One of NRO’s most provocative tactics is its use of non-Native accomplices as the forward-facing representatives of the organization. If you attend an NRO event, you will most likely be treated to a performance by the ever-ubiquitous downtown actor Jim Fletcher, who appears in the artists’ stead, noting that institutions often call on Native artists to do the work of teaching audiences about settler colonialism, and offering himself as a proxy educator in a technique cheekily referred to as the “reverse Brando” (a reference to Sacheen Littlefeather declining the Oscar on behalf of the acclaimed Godfather actor).

Fletcher also appears as spokesman in NRO’s recruitment films, NRO: Calling In and NRO: Never Settle, exaggeratedly rendered in the style of corporate headhunting videos in which a cartoonishly positive Fletcher enjoins potential accomplices to “Experience clarity… Attract abundance… Realize your truest self… Never settle.” The informant dynamic is turned on its head as NRO (through Fletcher) invites people grappling with their settler inheritance to report on their own desires to claim Indigeneity. Shocking footage from within the NRO offices demonstrates how the organization offers non-Indigenous people a safe space to explore their most taboo and inappropriate Native cosplay desires by providing them with individualized silicone masks which protect their identities as they work out their relationship with “the imaginary Indian that exists in a lot of people’s heads.” One scene shows willing informants being fitted with their anonymizing silicone masks, losing themselves in an ecstatic dissolution of ego as a similarly masked attendant lulls them into a trance state, quoting the Indigenious Action Media article “Accomplices Not Allies” in a lilting, singsong voice: “The work of an accomplice in anti-colonial struggle is to reconfigure colonial structures, to reconfigure oneself. At some point there will have to be a We and We will have to work together—this means, at the very least, formulating mutual understandings which are not entirely antagonistic …”

NRO’s provocations are not simply cancel-courting attempts to troll well-meaning but buffoonish progressive activists; their sly use of humor and double entendre transcend the woke/edgelord dichotomy in which so much of contemporary discourse gets trapped and silenced before it even starts. Their radical and half-parodic techniques are escape routes out of the guilt, shame and uncertainty that so often lead even the most well-meaning allies to disinterested silence or despondent nihilism. NRO suggests that although settler guilt and shame may never be eliminated completely, it can be worked through, made useful, and eventually overcome. At the heart of NRO’s visions for catalyzed Indigenous access and Indigenous futures is the idea that, for better or for worse, at some point there will have to be a We and We will have to work together.

NRO’s films continually reference the 2012 essay “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” in which Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang insist that true decolonization calls for the repatriation of all Indigenous land and life, a claim which, when taken at face value, is almost unimaginably ludicrous, profoundly unrealistic and fundamentally unsettling. NRO adopts this position as its own; it makes the distinction between allies and accomplices, insisting that any true decolonial act is inherently against the law and encouraging willing NRO accomplices to commit “crimes against reality.” Without revealing too much, I can tell you that NRO is currently developing and refining speculative technology for committing crimes against the settler-colonial state, including “Culture Capture,” wherein accomplices infiltrate museums and use film and photography techniques to both spectrally liberate and repatriate stolen Indigenous objects from museums, and to virtually capture, distort and destroy monuments to colonial violence. 

In preparation for writing this piece, I rewatched NRO: Never Settle and had an interestingly reality-altering experience. Participating in the making of Never Settle was one of my first acts as an accomplice; I “played” a version of myself, giving an interview in which I claimed that I didn’t worry about the end of the world anymore, the NRO had taught me that an apocalypse was just a paradigm shift—Indigenous people lived through one, and we can too. At the time, I was at a stage in my initiation in which I believed the work was mostly humorous, and fictional; I believed I was parodying the tone-deaf settler activist who labors to extract knowledge from Indigenous communities as if it were a natural resource. I recall laughing the first time I saw the film. Maybe it’s just because, these days, I’m on more familiar terms with the apocalypse, locked inside my apartment with my paranoia and despair like everyone else, but when Jim Fletcher cartoonishly ran in place in front of garish green-screen disaster graphics, yelling, “If we don’t make revolutionary changes at a radical pace, we are all a people without a future,” I felt like I was going to burst into tears. I was recruited all over again. I knew that pandering to apocalypse fears was a Trojan horse recruitment tool, I knew I was being motivated by a self-interested survival instinct, I suspected that NRO might just be an art collective existing mostly in the realm of speculative fiction; it didn’t matter. I was recruited for real.

You can join the informants by going to www.newredorder.com or calling 1-888-NEWRED1.