Jesse Meredith‘s exhibition “So That We May Fear Not” on display at BasketShop in Cincinnati offers insight into the reality -and psychology- of the citizen militia movement. 

Primarily framed photographs many of the works imply a pastoral landscape, yet are populated with anonymous men wearing camouflage. In some instances, the figures blend with the background while others stand out as recognizable forms, either gesturing expansively as if to encompass the land or in another instance comically curled up. Meredith layers etched text over the framed images, allowing the exhibit to drift into the poetic sculptural, including several prints hanging as curtains.

Grounding the conversation for the exhibit, “soft body” a mottled tactical vest covered in incongruous patchwork phrases (“the winds of change break the old tree, but the grasses bend and grow in the new air”… “believe and fear… or become soft… or embrace softness”) stands vigil at the front of the gallery. The stick dummy on which it is hung announces it as a scare-crow proxy, half desiccated poetic bard and half para-military threat. 

Grounding the conversation for the exhibit, “soft body” a mottled tactical vest covered in incongruous patchwork phrases (“the winds of change break the old tree, but the grasses bend and grow in the new air”… “believe and fear… or become soft… or embrace softness”) stands vigil at the front of the gallery. The stick dummy announces it as a scare-crow proxy: half desiccated bard and half para-military threat. 

This pairing of costumed men in nature authorized by poetic mythos structures much of Meredith’s investigation. The words should promise simplified ideological motivations for the men, a bludgeoning slogan, yet Meredith’s text tends to function as koan-like riddles complicating both the men’s intent and the viewer’s reading into an existential quandary.

In a version of poetic restriction, the exhibit itself is a theater of constraint (nature, men in camo, and phrases) that allows a more nuanced consideration than “war games” typically imply. We are allowed to witness (in a limited way) the replay of a historical cycle: through ritualized repetition under the guise of skill building, the men prepare to manifest a role in the future to come. This prophecy requires sacrifice, preparedness, and violence to guarantee election into a grand American tradition: noble death.

Unfortunately, their belief (sincere or not) provokes the prophesied future. Meredith’s text throughout the exhibit work to gently dissuade the irreversible logic of prophetic manifestation: “what do you lose… when you win” or “so that we may… fear not.”

The text operates ambiguously enough to be taken in: a type of linguistic camouflage getting close enough to become personal, to slide under the alert defenses of ideological triggers. 

Obviously, and for good reason, the motivations of a militia are concerning to the bourgeoisie cultural intelligentsia. But what do militia activities actually look like? Meredith says most of the militia’s training works through tactical scenarios of ambush or complex versions of capture the flag. While the training mimics childhood games, it is not to be taken lightly: the process of working/playing together develops deep communal bonds.

Meredith recognizes the link to lost childhood happiness reclaimed in this process, and it may be a radically vital aspect most conveniently ignored in the flippant dismissal of these men: to monsterize is to miss the fundamental nature of a game being played, a game escalated into salvation.

As with any game aesthetics are vital to demarcating sides: reducing a pluralistic liberal spectrum into binary absolutes helps avoid confusion. Thus camouflage is a very odd choice since its primary purpose is confusion.

Camouflage insinuates desired reunion with the land: an attempt to dissolve and lose one’s self into nature. However, camouflage’s evolutionary role was for survival benefit: a cover for disguise and avoidance as well as a tactic for easier predation. Camouflage’s advantage is to distort the truth, to mislead and dissemble, to obfuscate so as to appear other than what you are. 

Yet, one must consider the current appropriated usage in a split context: in nature, camo offers these militia men the functional utility of mimicry, while in the city it becomes “dazzle camo” announcing a threat without revealing the man underneath. Once worn primarily by hunters, with the return of vets and emboldened militarization of citizens, camo now signals ideology: a commitment to political values that embrace not only the land as a proxy for hereditary power (blood and soil) but the hardness of violence. (Though Meredith also showcases fleece camo in the exhibit: the perfect example of Benjamin Noys phrase “going hard, to go soft.”)

The camo pattern now functions in inverse, as an ominous threat and in-group tribal affiliation: camouflage as war paint.

In terms of social psychology, to wear any costume is to accept the requirements (responsibility) of that role: the general, the priest, the janitor, or the judiciary are shaped into who and what society demands of the role. (See Genet’s “The Balcony.”) To wrap oneself in camouflage is poignantly apropos since the individual must repress their authentic self as a survival strategy of conformity: either in nature or joined to a group by uniform, one must suppress the true self, applying a distorting compression that precipitates explosive release. 

In conversation with Meredith, we discussed the threat aspect inherent to the consumerist signaling of the para-military garb and proliferation of weaponry, which is symptomatic of a troubling demographic trend of extremist identity supported by commodity fetish. While Lukacs would say our society has reified the commodity until all human relations have become object relations (until we only know ourselves through the mirror’s presentation) it bears considering that there is a scale from anodyne to incitement in the commodity self: buying a Hobby Lobby poster of “Live, Laugh, Love” is so banally trite as to be troublesome, while “Come and Take It” issues a threat (or promise) of violence stemming from deep resentment. 

While the work in the exhibition does not explicitly focus on these topics, Meredith’s exhibit employs a delicacy that invokes a deeper consideration of the pathos that motivates the rise in militiamen. 

In the last few years several books and articles track an increasing counter-elite strain, most obvious in Trump’s populism, but building since the 70’s shows the displacing of white males through reduced wages, decreased cultural significance, and loss of jobs to outsourced globalization. Alienated from their country and denied the promises they were raised on, middle-aged white males without college degrees became the largest demographic of “anomic suicides”, also known as “deaths of despair,” which includes suicide through drug and alcohol abuse. (Angus Deaton & Anne Case)

These alienated men are looking for purpose, and the story of our historic past glorifies the protector or defender of justice and rights. This nostalgic fantasy, a cyclic return (the eternal return demanding sacrifice) holds an implied promise to reauthorize biological and hereditary status “for the good of the nation.” The mythic appeal is more subdued and thus more powerful than the desire to be a hero: it is a desire to be part of something meaningful. 

The difficulty of Meredith’s work is asking us to see through the camouflage: to go soft when confronted with hard.

In offering a realistic depiction, the work is dis-simulating the hard rampant provocative image,  the vitriolic mantras wrapped in flags and bullets. It displays a reality that most definitely shelters racism, xenophobia, anti-feminism, and more, but it also shows a group of men so desperate for a community that they play war games in costume. Their loss has transmuted into our loss as their fear has been amplified into our fear: the acceleration of grievance and alienation hastens their dark prophetic vision in which we all lose. 

(On display Jul 9th- Aug 13, 2022)

Images by Fiona Schade: @fionaryanne

Courtesy of the artist and Basketshop Gallery