All Not An Alternative Events

This Q&A was conducted following Jonas Staal and Florian Malzacher’s Training for the Future, a utopian training camp held from September 20-22, 2019 at the Ruhrtriennale, Bohum, Germany.

How did you approach the notion of the ‘training’ and what does the term mean to your practice?

Our collective understands training not as the endless rehearsal of a future yet-to-come, but the practical development of competencies that strengthen our collective capacity to make the future through struggle. We train to sharpen our tools, to organize ourselves, and to establish the myths that we need to build and strengthen collectivity. When Not An Alternative was invited to Training for the Future, we focused less on the process of training than on the potential outcomes. What generic tools could we offer that could be conceivably adopted and deployed in struggles around the world, regardless of the objective conditions?

“Inventing the Radical” aimed to train trainees in a way of seeing our collective power, which Not An Alternative argues is inscribed in the “language in common”: the visual and communicative forms through which social movements and other collective formations are made to appear. Before we can effectively contribute to the building of the language in common, we have to be able to see where it already exists, to train our sights on the signs of our power that are already inscribed in the landscape. Our collective’s position is that the capacity to build on the language in common requires, first, that we can identify the signs of collective power that already exist.

Because of the specific setting of the training (a former industrial plaza in a German city we had never been to), we embraced the visual language of the training facility as a resource. We asked trainees to see the neo-constructivist visual language of the training facility (which itself is an iteration on the visual language of Soviet design) as a case study in the practice of iteration. We asked trainees to develop an inventory of the signs and symbols that demarcated the partisan dimensions of the design. We then sent the trainees outside with materials leftover from the installation with the task of iterating on the visual language that was already there, to produce forms of “communist graffiti” beyond the immediate training site. We wanted trainees to take away one central idea: collective power is not built through the production of novel or innovative forms, but through the conscious and unconscious iteration on the language in common we inherit, that we learn to recognize as ours, and that holds us together as a “we.” 

In a time of dystopian normativity, what does the notion of the ‘future’ mean to you?

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock tells us that it is “100 seconds before midnight.” Not only is it easy to imagine the end of the world, but also the end of capitalism. The paralyzing problem is that both ends are imagined to correspond to the termination of humanity as a whole. Convinced by the “dystopian” tendencies in contemporary discourse and climate science, many on the left write off the possibility of egalitarian emancipation, leaving us without firm ground to stand on. But as Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Whyte reminds us, the dispossessed peoples of the world have struggled under apocalyptic conditions for centuriesnot just for survival, but for the collective flourishing of human and more-than-human life. There are reasons to live and reasons to struggle, even and especially when the future is not guaranteed. 

For Not An Alternative, the future is not in the future. It is neither a vision of utopia or dystopia. Rather, it is a horizon for struggle in the here-and-now. We inscribe the future in the present by insisting not on the certainty of planetary collapse, nor on the certainty that communism will follow the death of capitalism, but on the indeterminacy of the future. If the inevitable names the enclosure of the future, the indeterminate points to the common beyond and beneath. When we understand that the future is indeterminate, we do not sit and wait for the opportune moment, but, like Marx’s mole of history, we plot and scheme in order to produce the opportunity to strengthen our side.

What does it mean to reclaim the future’s means of production?

We have been arguing that our collective counterpower grows and develops in a dynamic relation to the counterpower we inherit from our ancestors, from revolutionaries whose struggles have informed our own. By recognizing that our struggles fall within a long tradition of resistance, and iterating on the means of communication that we inherit, we build power and make the future possible. In this sense, we would suggest that the means of the production of the future do not need to be “reclaimed.” They have never been abandoned. Thus, our collective task is less to reclaim the means of producing the future, than to consciously and intentionally build on the means of production we inherit. When we iterate on the work of our ancestors, we produce a gap in the capitalist worldan opening in which to affirm our collective difference and construct an infrastructure to support it.

This Q&A was originally published in Training for the Future Handbook, edited by Florian Malzacher and Jonas Staal (Sternberg Press, 2021), 286-290. 

Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the official National Park Service (NPS) Twitter account was caught retweeting crowd size photos that poked fun at Trump’s poorly attended ceremony. Hours later, the Badlands National Park in western South Dakota began tweeting out facts about human-induced climate change. Then the Death Valley National Park posted tweets about the park’s history as an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.The subsequent days brought more rumblings of dissent. Hundreds of “alternative” NPS social media accounts began to appear, run by anonymous NPS employees upset at the Trump administration’s attempt to obstruct evidence of human-caused climate change. A Rogue EPA popped up, followed by a Rogue NASA, USDA, Forest Service, and so on. Some tweeted climate facts relevant to their particular agency or park. Others took it a step further, highlighting the catastrophic ecological impacts of Trump’s border wall and approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

Last weekend, in a front-page article, the New York Times reported that its interviews with dozens of current and recently departed federal employees “reveal a federal workforce that is more fundamentally shaken than usual by the uncertainties that follow a presidential transition from one party to another.” The subhead inside put it even more starkly: “‘Sense of Dread’ Among Civil Servants Stirs Talk of Resistance to Trump.”

Ideologically fractured, divided, and contested, government agencies in the age of Trump present themselves not just as sites of struggle but as opportunities for real left advances — especially against a president with little knowledge about the workings of the federal bureaucracy.

And the National Park Service — an unlikely agent of rebellion considering its history — has emerged as one of the most prominent figures.


Grand Canyon National Park in October 2016. HarshLight / Flickr

Which People?

US national parks do not have a rosy founding story.

The earliest ones were set up as racist and settler colonialist expressions of the American ruling class. The wealthy hunters, administrators, and scientists responsible for building the network of parks had explicit connections to the burgeoning eugenics movement. They believed that the preservation of natural spaces went hand in hand with the preservation of the white race. Their vision of nature — as purity, retreat, and recreation — served their class position.

In 1872, when the federal government established Yellowstone as the country’s first national park, it did so for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” But the “people” largely meant propertied white men. While the Nez Perce, Crow, Shoshone, and Bannock lived in the region, and though their paths crisscrossed the park, white explorers deemed the land “primeval solitude,” having “never been trodden by human footsteps.”

It wasn’t just indigenous peoples who were scorned by the park’s founders. Eastern conservationists were distraught by the presence of poor white poachers and trappers, who they sometimes referred to as “white Indians.” As the founder of the hunting conservationist Boone and Crockett Club in 1887, a young Teddy Roosevelt and his upper-class hunting partners were increasingly dismayed by those threatening to “waste and destroy” the park. They fought to establish a military presence in the parks to preserve the environment for their exclusive use.

In 1916, at the behest of Stephen Mather, a millionaire who made his money in the Borax industry, Woodrow Wilson established the National Parks Service as a division of the Department of the Interior. Mather would become the first director and greatest champion of the NPS, leveraging his wealth to market the parks while partnering with corporations to promote tourism and travel.

Double Agencies

National parks, then, were not established as oases of socialism. They were created according to a vision of nature as the province of the white and wealthy. But when we reduce the park system to its historic wrongs, we obscure its power and potential in the present. The NPS is not only an agency historically linked to settler colonialism. It is also an emblem of mass desire.

In 2015, over three hundred million people visited US national parks. National parks stand as a reminder that there is more to life than work and consumption. They provide access to a world of beauty and leisure beyond what is given and constrained by capitalism. They stand against the plunder of natural resources for profit, protecting land and water for the future.

Eighty-four million acres of national park territory have been extracted from the property market and secured for public use. With a mission to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations,” the NPS carves out zones of resistance to privatization. As the fossil fuel industry anticipates the opening of millions of acres of federal lands for energy development, national parks and monuments have become central battlegrounds over the future of the commons.

The complicated history and radical potential of the NPS can be seen in the figure of Smokey Bear, who has recently been taken up as a mascot of anti-Trump resistance.

Created by the US Forest Service for a 1944 campaign about the dangers of forest fires, Smokey Bear remains a beloved and nostalgic symbol of Americana, standing for an idealized version of the American past in which the protection of nature was conceived as a priority rather than an obstacle to progress. Yet he can also be viewedas an icon of racism, class hierarchy, and settler colonialism, a border guard of the institutions that prevented indigenous peoples, the poor, immigrants, and most people of color from enjoying natural resources.

Split between a cherished ideal and a brutal history, Smokey Bear is contradictory. But when Smokey says “resist,” he takes the side of the common and commands others to follow, hailing a collective force against the Trump administration and its racist, anti-science, and ecocidal policies. The new popular meme thus announces a split forming within the NPS itself — a break with its conservative history.

The Resistance

Over 1.4 million people now follow the most popular Rogue NPS page. The page advocates resistance to border walls, privatization of public lands, and suppression of science. Stealing the NPS name and enlisting it in the growing resistance to privatization, resource extraction, climate denial, and racism, the Rogue NPS models a National Park Service that stands up for a concept of nature as common.

The Rogue NPS movement is more than cute memes captured in the circuits of communicative capitalism. It marks a symbolic strike against the Trump administration. It bites the hand that feeds it, refusing the power of the powerful. It also tells us that there are people within government agencies who are eager to fight Trump.

For the Left, the rogue agencies challenge us to rethink our tactics in this convulsive era. They remind us that the people who staff the NPS, EPA, NPS, NOAA, and other public institutions are not merely state functionaries. They are also producers of common knowledge, even potential agents of subversion.

These institutions do not only or always serve the ends of capitalism or the state, but are themselves divided from within. If the kernel of a left vision concentrated within these agencies has been rendered latent and buried in the interest of state and capital, the current moment has brought this vision to the surface.

The interest of the commons is coming into view.

Not An Alternative (est. 2004) is a collective that works at the intersection of art, activism, and theory. The collective’s latest, ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (2014–), a traveling museum that highlights the socio-political forces that shape nature. The Natural History Museum collaborates with Indigenous communities, environmental justice organizations, scientists, and museum workers to create new narratives about our shared history and future, with the goal of educating the public, influencing public opinion, and inspiring collective action.

“The National Park Service Goes Rogue,” was originally published in Jacobin (February 13, 2017).

The planetary scale of anthropogenic climate change poses problems for the Left. How do we identify appropriate targets and build strong alliances? What resources can we use to support this building and targeting? New tactics from an array of art and activist collectives signal that institutions are sites of struggle. Collectives concerned with fossil fuels, labor, and decolonization are deploying institutions as targets and resources for radical political practice.

Multiple reinforcing systems produce climate change—capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, militarism, extractivism. The fossil fuel sector mobilizes to keep on drilling. Dispossessed communities divide within themselves over devastating and hopeless economic alternatives. States push for further exploration and amplified production to preserve their hegemony. Some countries demand the right to develop. Various groups and nonstate actors insist that we “keep it in the ground.” It’s clear that the 1 percent sacrifice the futures of the rest of us for their own economic interest. Yet the complex interworking of multiple systems makes it close to impossible to envision the politics of climate justice.

Time is running out. Climate change is happening now and future warming is locked in. The question is how fast and how much. There are no simple solutions. Food shortages, droughts, rising sea levels, record-breaking temperatures, mass migration, and war force the urgency of organization. Organizing is no longer a choice for the Left. It’s a necessity.

Some on the Left respond with refusal. Advocates of neo-primitivist lifestyle politics retreat to the forests and mountains, to DIY off-the-grid living that abandons the millions in the cities. This “not my problem” individualist survivalism reflects the ideological orientation of neoliberal capitalism. Survival-themed reality television has been big for over a decade. Others on the Left side with the things. They advocate horizontal relationships with rocks and nonlife, shift to deep time, and celebrate the microbes and weeds likely to thrive in a posthuman world. Here the genocidal mindset cultivated in the sixteenth century’s colonization of the Americas expands and turns back in on human life as a whole. The failure to value black and brown life, the inability to conceive living with and in diverse egalitarian communities, becomes the incapacity to value human life at all. 

So long as the Left looks on in despair (or averts its gaze), capitalism determines the horizon of our response to the changing climate. Carbon markets, green technology, and geoengineering appear as the only way forward even as they reinforce the systems of exploitation, dispossession, and domination already dismantling the possibility of a future for the majority of the planet’s inhabitants.

The supposition that climate solutions can only be market solutions is afforded by the infrastructures and institutions that reproduce capitalist class power. The last forty years of neoliberalism hollowed out our public institutions. From the corporate capture of the legislative process, to the evisceration of schools and universities, to the widespread selling off of public land, assets, and services to the highest bidder, neoliberal capitalism sucked the life out of those components of the state that promised to serve the people. It reinforced strategies for private capital accumulation, socializing risk and privatizing reward to produce new forms of extreme inequality. At the same time, neoliberal governance intensified the coercive power of the state, amping up the police, the military, and the apparatuses of surveillance.

Neoliberal ideology rose to hegemony by seizing and repurposing existing institutions. Public institutions—such as museums, libraries, parliaments, parks, and schools—supply an infrastructure for creating and communicating common understandings of the world. They offer perspectives on politics, culture, nature, and society, delineating the limits of thought and action. Because these perspectives are essential to the maintenance of power, institutions are sites of ideological struggle.

The capitalist class relies on ideological apparatuses like museums to produce and reproduce the subjects it needs. Such subjects are classed, sexed, raced, and gendered. They are configured as primitive or civilized, exotic or everyday, foreign or “like us.” Underlying the complex of state projects that establish some as backwards and others as advanced are political and economic assumptions regarding natural development and balanced systems. Fossils elide with fuel; some people are treated as nature; extractivism signifies progress; and even systems driven by crisis and exploitation are described in terms of equilibrium. Neoliberal capitalism’s intensified competition pushes the corporate sector to ratchet up this war for hearts and minds. Museums and other public institutions become little more than apparatuses for public relations, resources for reshaping common sense according to capitalist values and priorities.

Institutions have been starved into submission by private interests. No wonder much of the Left does not recognize itself within them. But the practice deployed by neoliberals to seize institutions is now being deployed against neoliberal purposes. Co-optation goes both ways. This is the wager of the insurgent movement to liberate institutions from the grip of capitalism.

Decolonize This Place, Anti-Columbus Day Tour: Decolonize This Museum, 2016. Radical tour guides with the Decolonize This Place collective led hundreds of people through a tour of New York’s American Museum of Natural History with the goal of undermining colonialist narratives of conquest, disrupting Eurocentric depictions of “prehistorical” communities, and enabling communities to generate their own “history of the present.” Photo: Lyra Monteiro.

From Tactics to Movement

The cultural commons institutionalized in museums, libraries, parliaments, and universities as well as in social forms, practices, images, and ideas is collective. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Commonwealth, the third volume of their influential Empire trilogy, “institutions consolidate collective habits, practices, and capacities that designate a form of life.” This consolidation is not without division. Hardt and Negri point out that “institutions are based on conflict.” They are sites of struggle over who and what counts, over the ways we see and understand our collective being together. Dominant forms of power try to ensure that we see the way they want us to see. Just as the settler colonialism and chattel slavery at the heart of the United States gets pushed aside in celebratory depictions of the American experience, so too does the capitalist class power operative in museums. Since the nineteenth century, robber barons, financiers, oil magnates, and fossil fuel oligarchs have weaponized cultural institutions, presenting exploitation, hierarchy, and dispossession as if they were natural. An array of artists and activists are refusing to cede the cultural commons to the capitalist class. Their tactics suggest an insurgent movement to liberate institutions.

Institutional liberation emerges from the recognition of the collective power already concentrated into institutions. The cultural commons is created by all of us in our conflictual diversity. We make it. Cultural knowledges, symbols, images, and practices are social products, not property belonging to the 1 percent. Rather than overburdening ourselves with the overwhelming task of inventing entirely new political and social forms, contemporary artists and activists are reclaiming the cultural commons. Engaging with existing institutional forms, they fight on, through, and for the terrain of the common.

Activist art collectives such as Art Not Oil, BP or Not BP, Gulf Labor, Liberate Tate, The Natural History Museum, Occupy Museums, Decolonize This Place, and others deploy a common tactic: commandeering museums. Strategically intervening in major museums that have been captured by capitalist interests, these groups reclaim the cultural commons. They treat the names, symbols, perspectives, and ideals of institutions like the Tate Galleries, Guggenheim Museums, and the American Museum of Natural History as sites of political struggle. While some engage institutions in the service of climate justice, others use them as platforms for anticapitalist mobilization. Despite their differing objectives, rhetoric, and strategic positioning, their strength comes from their common practice of treating the museum as a site of insurgency. Institutions’ names, symbols, perspectives, and ideals become objects of political struggle. Whether a group engages institutions as a front in anticapitalist struggle, in order to create a counterpower infrastructure, or in the service of climate justice, what is noteworthy in the practice of contemporary activist art collectives is the emergence of the museum as a terrain of insurgency.

Institutions are not monolithic unities. They are complex multiplicities, split within themselves and between themselves and their settings. Museums have custodial staff, administrators, curators, IT personnel, fundraisers, directors, donors, trustees, and visitors. They also have their broader cultural position, their reputation as sites of authoritative knowledge. This makes them sites worth seizing. When art activists commandeer a museum, they split it from within. The already existent divisions within the institution are activated. Anyone affiliated with the museum is forced to take a side: few or many, rich or poor, past or future? By occupying institutions, identifying allies on the inside, empowering employees, working with whistle-blowers, leveraging legal grey zones, and strategically mobilizing the symbolic power of key constituencies, activist art collectives redeploy the arsenals of power that have already been stored. The institution is liberated.

The insurgent movement for institutional liberation generates counterpower by strategically mobilizing the power institutions already have. Major cultural institutions exert large-scale political, economic, and cultural influence. They influence how we see. They legitimate particular players. They have the power to influence popular values and ideals, but they refuse to use this power on behalf of the people. When artists and activists target these institutions, they take advantage of their scale. Museums’ concentrations of cultural capital are seized and redistributed back into the common. No longer can museums function to legitimate corporations, the fossil fuel sector, or particular colonial projects. They are demarcated as battle zones.

Institutional liberation extends beyond museums. It is part of a broader insurgency to capture and retake the common. The Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s projects seize and stretch the forms of the university, the parliament, the summit, and the (non)state. Staal pulls out the scripts and symbols constitutive of these forms, redeploying them in people’s struggle. The Undercommoning project, put together by a semi-anonymous alliance of fugitive knowledge workers, seizes the means of knowledge production, urging revolution “within, against, and beyond the university.” Drawing from traditions of militant inquiry, the project recognizes the university as “a key institution of globalized racial capitalism” that “therefore cannot be ignored or conceded as a field of struggle.”

Liberate Tate, Time Piece, 2015. Time Piece was a durational performance inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall using words, bodies, charcoal, and sustenance. The performance took place from High Tide on 6/13/15 (11:53am) until High Tide on 6/14/15 (12:55pm). It explored lunar time, tidal time, ecological time, geological time, and all the ways in which we are running out of time: from climate change to gallery opening hours; from the anthropocene to the beginning of the end of oil sponsorship of the arts. Photo: Martin LeSanto Smith.

Free the Institutions!

Refusal and subtraction have been disastrous as Left political tactics. They have surrendered the power aggregated in institutions to capital and the state. The tactics of institutional liberation treat institutions as tools, weapons, and bases of political struggle. They take on and over the institution’s radical premise: the collectivity and futurity that underpins any collection. The force that comes from organization, collectivity, and institutionality, the symbolic power that accompanies and exceeds aggregation, becomes a resource for the Left, a resource that enables us to combine and scale.

Many can be more powerful than few, but only when they are organized. Contemporary capitalism relies on dispersing us into powerlessness. It celebrates individualism and uniqueness, as if one person alone could bring down the fossil fuel economy. This individualist dream entraps us in the nightmare of accelerating inequality and ecological devastation. Institutional liberation claims the power of collectivity, the necessity of alliance, combination, and commonality in struggle. This is why we see today the appearance and reappearance of common images, names, and tactics.

The various projects we see combining into an emergent movement for institutional liberation do not value critique qua critique. They turn the institution against itself, side with its better nature, and force others to take a side. They look for allies, “double agents” already working within the institution, reinforce them, and in so doing activate the power that is already there. Institutional liberation is not reformist. It does not simply expose our complicities with state and capital. It directs its critical perspective in the service of a broader political movement, treating institutions as forms to be seized and connected into a counterpower infrastructure.

The liberation of institutions will not result from any singular procedure. It depends on sustained pressure, a commitment to long-term struggle. More than a critique of institutions—because, face it, at this point the inequality, oppression, and violence of the capitalist state is not a mystery to be solved but a system to be abolished—institutional liberation affirms the productive and creative dimension of collective struggle. Our actions are not simply against. They are for: for emancipation, equality, collectivity, and the commons.

Institutional liberation is not a messianic event. It is the building of counterpower infrastructure. Once they take the side of the common, institutions liberate themselves from capitalist interests endeavoring to control and exploit them. So institutional liberation isn’t about making institutions better, more inclusive, more participatory. It’s about establishing politicized base camps from which ever more coordinated, elaborate, and effective campaigns against the capitalist state in all its racist, exploitative, extractivist, and colonizing dimensions can be carried out. This takeover will not happen overnight. But it is happening now at an international scale, accumulating force and momentum with every repetition of a common name and image, every iteration of associated acts: red lines, red squares, arrayed tents, money drops, blockades, occupations.

Not An Alternative (est. 2004) is a collective that works at the intersection of art, activism, and theory. The collective’s latest, ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (2014–), a traveling museum that highlights the socio-political forces that shape nature. The Natural History Museum collaborates with Indigenous communities, environmental justice organizations, scientists, and museum workers to create new narratives about our shared history and future, with the goal of educating the public, influencing public opinion, and inspiring collective action.

This text was originally published in e-flux journal #77 (November 2016).

The People’s Climate March, organized by Bill McKibben’s 350.org and nearly 1,000 partner groups, is slated to be one of the largest climate justice demonstrations in history. On September 21, the protest will snake through the streets of Manhattan as Ban Ki-Moon convenes world leaders for a climate summit at the United Nations headquarters. McKibben and other organizers have not hidden their pessimism about the capacity or willingness of these “leaders” to shift course and reverse our already harrowing path toward irreparable environmental degradation. But those partaking in the march, despite their representatives’ feeble responses to a deluge of scientific evidence over the past 25 years, see this moment as critical—a time to demonstrate that there’s no turning back.

Underscoring this urgency, the artist collective Not An Alternative has just launched the Natural History Museum, a pop-up museum that draws inspiration from artist Andrea Fraser’s essay “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” to call into question accepted museological methods and institutional sponsors. These financial ties, Not an Alternative argues, often result in the censorship of crucial facts—for example, that global warming is a man-made phenomenon—which would threaten the ideologies of lead sponsors. As Not An Alternative approached the project, the billionaire industrialist David Koch, a board member of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, thus became something of muse. For this month’s Editor’s Letter, I speak with members of Not An Alternative about their museum-within-a-museum and what they hope audiences will rediscover when encountering their take on a national institution.

Marisa Mazria Katz: How did the Natural History Museum (NHM) project develop? Why do you feel like this is the right moment to do this project?

Not An Alternative: A year ago we learned that David Koch sits on the board of the American Museum of Natural History. That rubbed us the wrong way. Koch Industries is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and the Koch brothers fund a large network of organizations that obfuscate climate science.

At the same time that the far right and the 1 percent expand their influence in cultural institutions, they are also undermining our political process and lobbying for budget cuts in the same institutions, thus concentrating cultural power into fewer and fewer hands. These cultural institutions are civic treasures, close to the hearts of generations of Americans. They have a tremendous influence on our culture, defining values, transmitting information and conveying norms. Yet they are increasingly subject to self-censorship.

Natural History Museum
Workshop with New York Arts Practicum students in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by the Natural History Museum, July 2014.

MMK: Was there a specific project or person that inspired the endeavor?

NAA: We’ve been inspired by and involved with Liberate Tate, a collective in the United Kingdom that aims to liberate cultural institutions from ties to the oil industry—specifically the Tate from BP. Liberate Tate uses the methodologies of institutional critique, a tradition in contemporary art that we’ve long been influenced by. At the same time, we believe that there are serious flaws with institutional critique as a means of effecting change, insofar as institutional critique projects are easily absorbed back into the very institutions they critique. Liberate Tate was a real advance here because it exposed a limit to what the institution can absorb. We saw an opportunity to echo and internationalize the efforts of Liberate Tate in museums of science and natural history, spaces that shape our most basic understandings of nature.

MMK: How will the NHM function?

NAA: By offering a critical perspective on museums of natural history, the NHM activates fundamental principles on which museums are based and makes visible repressed truths. At the same time, it doesn’t treat the institution as an enemy. The NHM promotes the idea that the critical space of possibility that we aim to open up in institutions is in fact already inherent in those institutions.

In the long term, this project aims to model the museum of the future. A “pop-up” museum of sorts, it will appear in existing institutions, speaking earnestly to the ideals and values of natural history museums, appealing to those who love such museums and creating space for champions inside the institutions to make change. Wouldn’t it be great if the institutions that provide us with our basic perspective on nature weren’t hamstrung by the threat of self-censorship that comes with accepting corporate cash? And what if they actively championed a version of nature capable of sustaining life for generations to come?

As we dug into the project, we saw the opportunity to move beyond critique to build counter-power—that is, to build an institution with the capacity to impact other institutions. So with the NHM we are borrowing from the aesthetics, pedagogical models and presentation forms of natural history museums in order to support a perspective that regards nature as a commons.

Natural History Museum
Rockaway Pipeline Expedition in Queens, NY. Photo by the Natural History Museum, August 2014.

MMK: How do you see nature and natural history being represented in media and museums now? And how do you see the social or political forces that are currently shaping our natural environment being excluded from these institutions?

NAA: The variety of content presented at natural history museums is impossibly enormous. It’s natural history, after all. Museum directors and curators have no choice but to be selective about what they feature. So much more of the natural world is necessarily excluded than included. The history of natural history museums is really a history of the social and political forces that have shaped and determined that filtering process.

Our project considers natural history museums in these terms. We are not particularly interested in the fact that exclusions exist or in the infinite alternative articulations of natural history that could possibly exist. Our interest is in making visible that which is actively repressed in natural history museums, for political reasons, and in forcing those exclusions into the open. In this sense we are less interested in articulating what a museum fails to say and more interested in communicating what it refuses to say or can’t say.

For example, natural history museums typically represent climate change as a confluence of forces, with an emphasis on counting carbon. But it’s not enough to say that climate change is happening and humans are responsible. Climate change is not just anthropogenic; it’s also political. Just as wealth, resources and power aren’t distributed equally, the burden of responsibility and the burden of the impacts are not evenly distributed across all humans.

When the fossil fuel industry and the funders of front groups that misrepresent climate science are increasingly embedded in museums of science and natural history, those museums are less and less likely to communicate this critical story.

Natural History Museum
A diorama in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Photo by the Natural History Museum, June 2014.

MMK: What are the consequences of a society lacking a critical understanding of representations of natural history?

NAA: A society that doesn’t approach representations of natural history and science critically and knowledgeably can be easily manipulated by power. When we don’t understand how science is generated and used, we lose an important weapon in the battle against special interests: scientific knowledge as verifiable facts and testable hypotheses. So, for example, powerful interests might try to convince us that natural gas provides clean energy, thereby deflecting our attention away from the environmental costs of fracking. Or they might try to get us to think that tar sands are good sources of fossil fuels, again obscuring from view the actual environmental costs. These are not just matters of preference and opinion. Science can give us measurable indicators of the effects of particular courses of action.

MMK: But science can’t tell us what to do…

NAA: It can’t tell us whether we should take one course rather than another; that’s a political question. And we need to be able to ask what’s left out of any presentation of nature. Science museums tell us about carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. But often they present our planet as a global whole in which everyone is uniformly implicated in and impacted by the state of our atmosphere. The economic system doesn’t appear at all; it is necessarily excluded from view because to include it would turn the discussion to the inequalities of production, distribution and consumption that capitalism relies on and generates. These inequalities directly contribute to climate change—they are at the basis of capitalism, particularly commodity production and the carbon-based energy that drives it. And once you look at climate change from this perspective, the discussion becomes completely different. The subject turns to power, particularly the capitalist power that prevents the rest of us from dealing with the very real changes to the climate that are already happening.

Margaret Mead once said that people who enter natural history museums do so with the faith that they won’t be tricked or deceived, that no one will try to make the facts other than they are. We agree. The NHM takes science seriously. We affirm the truth of science: it provides a method by which to test and retest, prove and disprove, claims about the world. Beginning from the fact of science’s radical cut through opinion, preference and belief, we then add in an understanding of nature that includes the social, political and economic systems that are changing the climate.

Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum Summer Camp in Millerton, NY. Photo by the Natural History Museum, July 2014.

MMK: The NHM project will be inaugurated within days of the People’s Climate March, which is taking place on September 21. How do you see it aligning with the march?

NAA: The NHM and the People’s Climate March reinforce each other. The march is an exciting event, the kind of collective expression of hope and will that can really draw attention to the issues. The NHM gives the event of the march an institutional, performative frame, one that is longer-term. As a museum, we have the space to reinforce the perspective that the march opens up. We aim to provide the counter-power infrastructure that curates and lifts up these longer-term aspects of the climate justice movement, supporting them narratively, factually and institutionally. There are some ways of life that are killing the planet; there are other ways of life that sustain it. Because it provides a critical perspective on natural history, the NHM can assert this division over and against the kind of “whole earth-ism” that has hindered climate politics up till now.

MMK: How will the project, and the speakers you have chosen to participate in its launch, contribute to the climate change discussion happening both at that time and in the long run?

NAA: We’ve selected speakers who are contributing to the work that needs to be done in important ways. By bringing them together under the auspices of the NHM, we highlight the connections between them—the way that they express various components of a shared perspective. Christian Parenti explores the violence that climate change is already causing as it interacts with the legacies of economic neoliberalism and Cold War militarism. Alice Bell interrogates corporate sponsorship of science communication, especially “green-washing” and the “sponsorship chill,” wherein researchers reliant on corporate cash practice a kind of self-censorship and don’t speak out on controversial issues. Gopal Dayaneni promotes the idea that social inequality is a form of ecological imbalance that leads necessarily to the erosion of ecosystems, to another mass extinction. These and other speakers are on a series of panels that together articulate different elements of the climate politics of the commons.

The reality is that climate change is happening. Now we have to figure out how we respond to it, navigate the changes already in motion and continue to participate in life on earth. The private vision offered by neoliberal capitalism is to let the market decide, which really means to allow those who have accumulated the most capital to continue to hoard resources that belong to all of us and build enclaves that exclude most of us. The common vision is the one to which collective institutions like natural history museums should bear witness. Against the inequality and ownership of the private vision, the common vision draws a line, saying that the earth is not yours to exploit and destroy—it is the common environment of the people. In fact, no one can be excluded from the earth.

 

Marisa Mazria Katz is a New York-based writer who has covered culture and politics in cities that include Casablanca, Kabul, Port-au-Prince and Istanbul. Her work has been featured in several publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Time, Vogue and the New York Times. In addition to her writing, she runs a U.S. State Department-sponsored program in Casablanca that teaches journalism and blogging to marginalized youth. Marisa graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1998 with a BFA in Film and Television and in Drama. She has worked on several documentaries and television shows, including Channel 4’s The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall, a docudrama that detailed the killing of a peace activist by an Israeli army sniper; HBO’s By The People: The Election of Barack Obama; and DreamWorks’ Spin City.

Not An Alternative is an arts collective and non-profit organization with a mission to affect popular understandings of events, symbols, and history. Through engaged critical research and design, we curate and produce interventions on material and immaterial space, bringing together tools from architecture, theory, exhibition design, and political organizing.