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Today we visit artist Allison Smith in her Oakland, California studio. Her work focuses on historical reenactment and how the past influences the present -- and now she wants to know what YOU are fighting for.

Sarah discusses how there is a long history of art intersecting with activism and how it has evolved over time.

1. Answer the question, "What are you fighting for?"
2. Fashion your own uniform that declares your cause out of materials you have around
3. Take a picture of yourself in uniform in front of a neutral background
4. Create a declaration of your cause
5. Upload your photo and declaration with #theartassignment

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
Sarah: Today we're in Oakland, California in the studio of Allison Smith. She makes performative sculptures and public events that look into historical re-enactment and the ways that the past can inform the present. And past works have seen her create and tour around a life size sculpture of herself as a nineteenth century notion nanny doll, and more recently apprentice herself to a traditional rope tension drum company to explore its history and present as a communication device. She also created a remarkable series of public events from 2004-2006, inspired by the tradition of Civil War re-enactments, called The Muster, for which she put out a call for participants to declare their causes and provided a platform for them to do so. Allison harnesses the skills of the many artisans she works with to think about the connections between craft and war, and the way nationalism is performed and made visible.

Allison: Hi, I'm Allison Smith and this is your Art Assignment.

(The Art Assignment intro)

Allison: I think my practice sort of ebbs and flows from really public participatory projects to very private kind of studio work, and most recently I've been in a phase of kind of quiet, private studio practice.

In 2004 I had this idea to organize my own version of a large scale Civil War battle, um, of sorts, but instead of re-enacting a battle that had already taken place or pitting two sides against each other, I decided to organize it as a muster. It's a military term meaning a gathering of troops for the purposes of inspection, critique, exercise and display, and I loved the idea that I could try to do a project that could be all of those things. I decided to organize the muster around a question, which is 'What are you fighting for?'.

Around the time of this project, I was really inspired by an exhibition I had seen at Sotheby's of early American militia gear. And I was so surprised at the uniforms in this exhibition, it was, you know, pink flamingo plumes and beaver hats and cheetah skin saddles and just this really eccentric stuff that was the utter opposite of camouflage. And I got really interested in this idea of the amateur citizen soldier, kind of, eccentrically, you know, getting up and proclaiming something that they were fighting for, which is very different that this idea of a uniform signifying something that unifies everyone into a single identity. So I would say I'm more interested in that kind of personal flair or, you know, flamboyance, that one might have to express their cause.

What are you fighting for? Your assignment is to fashion your own uniform out of whatever materials you have at hand and to take a picture of yourself in front of a neutral background, and to send that in along with a declaration of your cause, which can be as simple as one line, or one sentence, and as elaborate as a full on manifesto.

Sarah: John, I loved Allison's original Muster project, but I'm really curious to see how it's going to work now, 10 years later, within the context of the internet.

John: Yeah, now, the internet is so reactionary a lot of times in its opinions, like, it's a reaction to a celebrity downfall or you have an opinion that's a reaction to a news story. What I really love about this assignment is that it makes you declare what you're for instead of just what you're against.

Sarah: Right. Which is difficult for people on the internet sometimes.

John: Yeah.

Sarah: But there's a long history of art intersecting with activism. You can think all the way back to, say, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People.

John: Yes, in which Liberty led the people right back to tyranny in the form of Napoleon, but, but go on.

Sarah: Well, but they were for the French Revolution at the time.

John: Didn't work out.

Sarah: Or you can think of more recent examples like The Guerrilla Girls celebrating feminist causes and arguing for the better representation of female artists in museums. But I think that Allison's project, what makes it different is that she is not necessarily declaring her cause, I mean she's participating in this but she has created this platform for other people to declare their causes. And that has its roots in the 60s, but it's a pretty recent movement.

Artist and educator Pablo Helguera wrote a book in 2011 called Education for Socially-Engaged Art, which he defines as a hybrid multidisciplinary activity that exists somewhere between art and non-art, and its state may be permanently unresolved. Socially-engaged art depends on actual, not imagined or hypothetical social action.

Helguera lays out some categories for how participation can be evoked in this kind of art. There's nominal participation, where the viewer contemplates the work in a reflective, passive manner. Directed participation, where the visitor completes a simple task to contribute to the work. Then there's creative participation, and for this he uses Allison's 2005 Muster project as an example, where the visitor provides the content for a component of the work within a structure established by the artist. And then finally collaborative participation, where the visitor shares responsibility for developing a structure and content of the work in direct conversation with the artist. He points out that more involved participation doesn't necessarily mean more successful work, but it's a useful framework for how we can think about the centrality of participation in Allison's work, and how we are being called to action in this particular case.

Allison: One thing that I think about a lot is the importance of participation in historical processes. What I've learned from the Civil War re-enactment world or the, you know, living history world in general is that these are processes that are happening all the time, and you know, if we don't participate in the writing of history or histories plural, then other people will be doing that work for us. So I'm attracted to these sites even though they can be very conservative because this idea of kind of history in the making is very powerful to me, and I think that is so relevant to art and artists.

This is a call to art. Whereas the issues before us rapidly assuming a portentous magnitude deserve formal acknowledgement, I hereby proclaim that the means which conduce to a desirable result are now in your hands. Are you ready to devote your time, energies, blood, and treasure to the declaration of your cause? For the opportunity is now at hand, not only to make your voice be heard, but to receive ample reward from your comrades for the services you render in the field. We need volunteers to march immediately and report for duty to the muster, an assembly of troops for the purposes of inspection, critique, exercise, and display. Engaging in a collective spirit that aims to proclaim rather than protest, we will form a diverse regiment of our own design.

(The Art Assignment outro)

Allison: (Inaudible)

Michael: It's full HD.

Allison: I have been completely... There's going to be like, dog fur floating in the air. Wow. Thanks guys, appreciate that!