The Business of Art: A Conversation with Allison Smith

The Business of Art: A Conversation with Allison Smith

Allison Smith’s The Muster

Without much doubt, Allison Smith’s The Muster is one of the most evocative, earnest, and ambitious public art projects to emerge over the last two years. According to the artist and self-appointed “Mustering Officer,” The Muster is a polyphonic marshaling of voices—a gathering of the troops in her artistic, intellectual, activist, and queer communities—generated by the fundamental question: “What are you fighting for?” Loosely mimicking the form of a Civil War re-enactment, the most recent incarnation of The Muster took place on Governors Island, the former US Army and Coast Guard base in New York harbor. The event was sponsored by the Public Art Fund and drew over 1,500 spectators.

Smith’s practice doesn’t end with her public projects, however. Victory Hall, her recently-opened solo show at Bellwether in New York City combines life-size porcelain dolls, gouaches, framed Civil War-era songs penned in calligraphy, and a massive installation of non-functional weaponry crafted by the artist. Smith and NYFA Current editor Nick Stillman recently caught up in Smith’s Brooklyn studio.

Nick Stillman: I’d like to start by talking specifically about The Muster. First of all, do you refer to it as a performance, a spectacle…?

Allison Smith: Mmm…it’s a muster. (laughter)There’s really no better word for it. A muster is a military term meaning a gathering of the troops for the purposes of inspection, critique, exercise, and display.

NS: With The Muster, you’re encouraging a dialogue among creative people to pinpoint what they’re interested in and are fighting for. Do you consider The Muster a form of consciousness-raising? Activism?

AS: That’s definitely there. The Muster is a project that oscillates around a question: “What are you fighting for?” That can be interpreted in a political way, in a personal way…I’m interested in all the different interpretations of the question and in having all of the responses being declared at once. By creating a context around what seems like a very chaotic and unfocused group of concerns, by giving it a militaristic bent and creating a literal platform for it, you start to get a sense of something that’s maybe indefinable or too big to identify, but nevertheless the attempt and the desire is there to see what shape it could take.

NS: You obviously act as the organizer of the event, but when it actually happens, of course you can’t maintain total control. Is it a dilemma or a pleasure for you that the group assumes a personality of its own?

AS: That’s one of the most gratifying aspects of the project; that it gains momentum and takes on a life of its own. I occupy the role of “mustering” people—encouraging reflection, gathering people together, and providing a context for expression where almost anything can happen. Then I get to watch it unfold, to be the witness, to affirm.

NS: During The Muster, you act as the “Mustering Officer.” Obviously, when you do this, you’re stepping outside of your personality as Allison Smith. In your mind, what’s the function of role-playing in The Muster?

AS: As far as the participant’s response to the “call to arms” I’m issuing, I think the ideal scenario is when someone takes something that they genuinely care about and theatricalizes it as an aspect of themselves, using The Muster to act out their “cause” through art. I’m borrowing a lot of cues for role-playing from my investigation of Civil War re-enactors—what they do and why they do it. A lot of re-enactors think of themselves as ambassadors of history or living memorials. For many re-enactors it also becomes an obsession or a lifestyle. It’s clearly fun for them, there’s a cathartic reward, and I can’t really think of other art experiences to compare that to. For a long time I’ve been curious about what it would mean to do a project that allowed people, myself included, to have a cathartic, collective art experience on that scale, but changing the narrative or opening it up somehow. I’m interested in looking at art through the lens of civil conflicts and looking at the performance and props of re-enactment through the lens of art.

NS: With all of the exhorting that you undertake in The Muster, I’m still not totally sure what you’re fighting for.

AS: A lot of people have asked me that along the way and I’ve been hesitant to answer because I didn’t want to pre-determine what The Muster was before it happened. I think what I’m fighting for is asking the question in the first place. I’m also fighting for sincerity, for a recognition of the social histories around craft, and for the politicization of craft. I’m exploring what it means to be political and what it means to be a sculptor, and seeking some reconciliation there. I’m fighting for a fighting spirit in art that I haven’t seen in a long time, and it’s something that was definitely there when I first came to New York in the early ’90s. I never thought that would go away, and I guess I’ve lived through several years quietly hoping and waiting for that to come back. So this project is about seeing if there is any of that fighting spirit left in artists. I’m fighting for a dialogue that’s truly meaningful.

NS: Let’s talk specifically about your current show at Bellwether and about making objects in general. It seems as if the objects in the show represent a more personal engagement, whereas The Muster engages a public.

AS: Absolutely. For me, it’s important that The Muster sheds light on my sculptures and installations and vice versa. In connection to The Muster, the Bellwether show is about the notion of the amateur citizen soldier. 


The work references Zouaves and Vivandières, obscure historical figures who invented their own eccentric uniforms and fought voluntarily during the Civil War. There are five life-size porcelain dolls and a series of gouaches in which I take on the roles of these characters, as well as a series of song fragments and an installation of over 100 rifles arranged in a decorative pattern on the wall.

NS: I’m specifically referring to the kind of polysexuality conveyed by the dolls and the gouaches, both of which are quasi-self portraits but often with a gender that’s ambiguous and fluid. Can you talk a bit about how sexuality informs the figures in the show?

AS: The idea of the performativity of identity is important to my work. I look to Civil War re-enactors to help me understand this. They’re performing whiteness, masculinity, and nationalism. With my dolls, and by performing as “Mustering Officer,” I’m trying to think through the spectrum of identities that I’m performing. The dolls are a representation of a gender and sexual spectrum—and a racial one, too, given my identity as gay, as white, and as coming from a very historically influenced upbringing in Manassas, VA. The wooden rifles and porcelain dolls refer to toys typically associated with boys and girls, respectively, so I’m pointing to processes of socialization and identity formation. But in my version of these objects, their potential function as agents, trophies, or toys is left open. The dolls inherently suggest sex and violence, but also the notion of a studio muse or mirror. The objects proliferate in all directions, providing the contents of a reverie through which the viewer navigates.

NS: Obviously, you’re referencing conflict and identity through the grandiose Civil War metaphor that you work through. Does it worry you that such a metaphor, which is so internalized and sophisticated for you at this point, may not transcend its status as a personal obsession and won’t connect in a meaningful way with viewers?

AS: I think artists should “make” their worlds, but what’s important is how an artist’s perspective on the world is elaborated or materialized for others to engage with. My work is about living in a time of division and defeat. It’s a very specific metaphor that I’m trying to create…the recent presidential election, the red and blue states as analogous to the blue and gray states, the Union-Secession conflict as a metaphor for mainstream values versus counter-cultural allegiances, the issue of same-sex civil unions as the lynchpin of a civil war-like ethos in the United States. I’m trying to point to these things, and using the language of Civil War history is a way to engage people and to lend historical importance to current events. It just feels like the right thing to do, and it’s not something that I see other people doing, really. But I don’t think of myself as moralizing to the viewer. It’s not like I have a big torch that I carry around—and I never said I was a general! Mustering is sculpting a dialogue; gathering and pulling it together, even though it’s very unwieldy.

Victory Hall is on view at Bellwether until June 25.

For more information on Allison Smith, visit:

Images, from top: Allison Smith, The Muster (2005). Photo: Amy Elliott; Allison Smith, An Officer of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry, Duryèe’s Zouaves (2005). Mixed media. Courtesy Bellwether. 
Amy Aronoff
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