I am wandering outside Manhattan’s Federal Hall, which is covered in scaffolding due to “falling materials” on its facade, trying to locate its Grand Rotunda exhibition Shall Make, Shall Be. Tourists on Wall Street look as confused as I am, and no one out here knows where to go. Eventually, I locate a side entrance and encounter, almost immediately, a gift shop selling souvenirs. My little detour has unknowingly primed me for this group show, in which artists have gamified the 10 amendments comprising the Bill of Rights.
From the get-go, it becomes clear that these site-specific installations were not built to last. Four of the 10 artworks, which are all meant to be interactive, are largely non-functioning. This is particularly glaring with the First Amendment piece. A large sample pad designed by Lexa Walsh once allowed visitors to create rhythmic loops out of various soundbites, including Brett Kavanaugh’s blubbering, bizarre Fox News monologues, and chants from Black Lives Matter protests. As none of the buttons worked, I could not participate. What does that say about freedom of speech?
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The Second Amendment, which established the need for a “well-regulated militia,” is represented by a puzzling war game called “Standoff” (2022). Players shuffle wood finger-gun pieces until they reach the correct position. Although the contraption only marginally functions, it’s obvious that a lot of money went into it. Nearby, the work representing the Fourth Amendment on unreasonable searches and seizures, originally created by Latoya Peterson and Cherisse Santa Cruz Datu, is now just an iPad switched off with a sign that says “Out of Order.” Because this is housed in a building surrounded by New York Police Department officers, the level of irony is almost too much to bear.
That said, the works that do function are pretty engaging. For the Third Amendment, Vi Trinh designed an “I Spy” video game in which players locate “bugs” that appear as shapes and numbers in increasingly disorienting settings, beginning with an average living room and devolving into psychedelic seascapes. Vinh adeptly makes the point that “quartering troops” is irrelevant to us yet manifests in subtler ways through surveillance capitalism. Another video game by Peter Bradley shows an InkBall encountering roadblocks while rolling toward a courthouse, requiring players to think of synonyms, antonyms, and categories based on the words given. It quickly becomes frustrating and futile, exemplifying the Sixth Amendment’s illusion of justice.
The main highlight here is an Eighth Amendment maze created by Danielle Isadora Butler, titled “Evolving Standards of Decency” (2022). Butler wisely eschews electronics in favor of an analog board that tilts to move a silver ball through the labyrinthian history of gradual reform. The length of this process is evoked through the woodgrain and the spiraling timeline from the 1980s to now; yet as the ball nears the center, tiny gaps prevent it from reaching the final destination. True enough, the corrupt criminal justice system endures through legal loopholes, which likewise ensured that slavery transferred from the plantation to the prison.
On paper, Shall Make, Shall Be is an attempt to come to terms with our harsh reality; it’s one of those exhibitions that give us a chance to find out what it “really means” to be American, without saying it outright. Such coy provocation of course places the onus on the visitor to define it. While I appreciate that the educational works are geared toward younger audiences, it feels somewhat difficult to make a true assessment given the defunct circumstances. What may have started as a noble effort has devolved into a grim final run with little to no oversight. At the same time, this feels like a perfect example of what it’s like to live in the United States today — people in power are making light of public suffering as institutions crumble under excess bureaucracy and nakedly capitalistic governing.
On the way out, I notice a peculiar paper sign: “This art does not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring of the permit holder or any related entities by the Department of Interior nor the National Park Service.” Such a resounding endorsement reinforces the contradictions of playing nice with the powers that be — anything that even mildly resembles critique will always receive a legal disclaimer of disapproval. Meanwhile, a solitary young gallery worker recounted their persistent efforts to get management to repair the non-functioning pieces but that prolonged delays stalled any progress, seemingly without reason. That certainly sums it all up, doesn’t it?
Shall Make, Shall Be: The Bill of Rights at Play continues at Federal Hall (26 Wall Street, Financial District, Manhattan) through August 30. The exhibition was curated by John Sharp.