All Institutional Liberation Events

Across the United States and around the world, monuments to racists and genocidal colonists are being toppled, thrown into rivers, vandalized, and quietly removed. Responses to these actions vary widely. Some on the left celebrate them as meaningful acts of refusal. Others disregard them as merely symbolic gestures, acts of erasure that obscure the terrain of struggle, making people feel like they’re changing something without changing anything at all. On the other side of the political divide, right-wing conspiracists interpret monument removals, the integration of “critical race theory” into educational curricula, open borders for refugees, and Indigenous land claims over privately-owned and federal lands as part of one coordinated movement to eliminate the white race—a conspiracy that some call “the Great Replacement.” 

If the narrative of a Great Replacement has been a rallying cry for the far right—a highly effective means of driving a division between ethnonationalist patriots and the forces, tendencies, and movements that undermine their “sovereign claim to the land,” the left has thus far not directly answered to the charge. While it may be tempting to disregard the right’s conspiracy as a paranoid fantasy, there is another option. The left can take advantage of it—by defining what it is fighting to replace, and what with. 

This text is the first in a two-part essay series, which enters this ideological struggle from the left. As members of Not An Alternative (NAA), a collective that has spent the past eight years intervening within the sector for science and natural history museums in the United States under the generic name The Natural History Museum, our focus is on the disciplines and institutions broadly associated with natural history. What would it mean to replace the dominant tradition of natural history, which emerged from colonialism and enforces a capitalist relation to the world, and what might such a replacement open up for the left?

Not An Alternative, Mining the HMNS: An Investigation by The Natural History Museum, 2016. The eponymous exhibition, held at Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, interrogated the symbiotic relationship between the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences and its corporate sponsors. The exhibition analyzed key narratives and displays in the Houston museum, highlighting the voices and stories that were excluded – those of the low-income Latinx fence-line communities along the Houston Ship Channel. Photo: Not An Alternative / The Natural History Museum.

As part of this investigation, NAA is working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous theorists, historians, ethnobotanists, geographers, landscape architects, artists, and activists to define and organize around a counter-tradition of natural history, a Red Natural History, which sees the world not as a wealth of natural resources available for possession or profit, but as a world in common that cannot be enclosed. This first text situates this inquiry within NAA’s history of practice, telling the story of how we came to believe it is necessary to name and organize around an alternate tradition of natural history. The second delves into the question at hand, sketching out our collective’s provisional definition of Red Natural History.

The Museum Divide

Established in 2004, NAA is a collective of artists, activists, and theorists with a mission to affect popular understandings of events, symbols, institutions, and history. We have worked shoulder to shoulder with homelessness and anti-eviction activists, Occupy Wall Street organizers, environmental justice advocates, climate scientists, and Indigenous organizers, engaging their struggles not through a typical head-on (or head-butt) approach, but through the occupation and redeployment of popular vernacular, symbols, and institutional forms. Our persistent goal, as much as aiming to challenge the right’s grip on power, has been to challenge the left to step into its own power. We have argued that without a strong organizational infrastructureand a language in common, left counterpower is very difficult to build and sustain. Without these resources, the left finds itself continuously starting from scratch, seemingly building from nothing other than the experience of co-optation and defeat. 

As the right has spent billions of dollars seizing institutions for its ideological agenda—taking over the leadership of everything from public school boards to major museums—much of the radical left has abandoned such spaces, arguing that left counterpower should be built in the streets. For this camp, institutionality is assumed to be inherently conservative. In our collective’s analysis, this position has contributed to a strengthened and emboldened right, which has embedded itself within the concrete structures and infrastructures through which people learn to relate to the world, and a demoralized left, which tends to see its failures at the expense of what it has achieved.

After a decade pushing for the development of a coherent visual language for the left—which NAA saw begin to coalesce, and then saw disappear, in our involvement with the eruption and disintegration of the Occupy movement—we founded The Natural History Museum (NHM), an experiment that aimed to model a left answer to the right’s institutional takeovers. The NHM was founded both as an intervention on the US sector for science and natural history museums and an institution in and of itself, an experiment in enlisting the museum as part of a communicative infrastructure for the climate and environmental justice movements. NAA’s hypothesis was that for museums to help pave the way towards a more just and sustainable future, they would need to not simply represent environmental injustice, but be rebuilt around the movements that are struggling against it.

Not An Alternative/The Natural History Museum, Will the Story of the 6th Mass Extinction Ever Include the Role of its Sponsors? (2015). Diorama installed at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Convention in Atlanta, depicting the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural History in New York several hundred years into a dystopian future. Photo: Not An Alternative/The Natural History Museum.

We started with a series of campaigns that aimed to split some of the country’s largest natural history museums from the industry interests they served. In the first of these campaigns, we enlisted dozens of the world’s top scientists and Nobel laureates to stand behind an open letter to the museum sector calling on all museums to cut ties with fossil fuel interests. We made a target of fossil fuel oligarch and climate science obfuscator David H. Koch, who for 23 years had held a position on the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, one of the country’s largest natural history museums. Following dozens of news stories and more than 550,000 petition signatures, Koch quietly stepped down from his position at the AMNH—a monument toppled. Koch, in our calculus, was low hanging fruit, a symbolic target that could be leveraged to draw out comrades inside the museum sector with whom we could advance shared aims. In the Koch campaign, as well as other campaigns against corporate sponsors, fossil fuel investments, and right-wing funders of science denial, our aim was not to make museums like the AMNH better, but to activate an internal split—to reveal, in their internal contradictions, a kernel from which to build a left alternative.

Beyond the Museum

It was during the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock that our scope began to expand. When the Dakota Access Pipeline company bulldozed sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, with the suspected aim of obliterating evidence of Traditional Cultural Properties before they could be officially designated by the federal government, it became evident that archeology, oral history, and other building blocks of “natural history” as it was conventionally understood could become crucial components of a pipeline struggle. Asked for support by Native Organizers Alliance, an Indigenous-led community organizing network, we leveraged relationships built over the previous two years to issue a public letter condemning the desecration, which was ultimately signed by more than 1400 archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and museum workers.

If our initial aim was to enter the struggle for environmental justice from the side, through the mediating apparatus of the museum, the conflict over archaeological and cultural resources at Standing Rock made it clear that some of the most consequential struggles over natural history were taking place not in museums, but on the land. Natural history was not just in the museum; it was also in the ground, standing as a bulwark against extraction. 

Out of our collective’s long-term intervention within and beyond the natural history museum, we have come to the analysis that it is not the museum, but natural history itself, that needs to be split—a conceptual shift that allows for a radical reimagination of what institutional forms can best support collective emancipatory struggles. The museum is one apparatus that can be used to teach people to see the world in common that exists beyond and beneath the capitalist world, but there are others: Tribal Historic Preservation Offices, environmental justice think-tanks, progressive science associations, citizen science labs, journals like Society & Space, and so on.

Drawing a Red Line

Since 2017, NAA has been working primarily in solidarity and in collaboration with Indigenous communities in North America, most deeply with the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation. For more than a decade, the House of Tears Carvers has been carving totem poles, putting them on flatbed trailers, and bringing them to communities across North America to build alliances in the struggle to protect the land and water for the generations to come. The totem pole journeys visit Indigenous communities, farmers and ranchers, scientists, and faith-based communities, engaging groups in ceremonies led by Lummi elders. At each ceremony, participants are invited to touch the totem pole—to give it their prayers and power, and to receive its power in turn. The goal of the totem pole journeys is to connect communities on the frontlines of environmental struggle, and to build, through ceremony, a collective that did not previously exist—invoking generations past, present, and future. Lummi councilman Freddie Lane likened the totem poles to batteries: they are charged with the energy of those who touch them, and as they travel, they give the people energy in turn.

Our first projects with our Lummi comrades sought to leverage mainstream museums as communications infrastructures for their campaigns, which we experimented with in special exhibitions at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Our latest collaboration, the Red Road to DC, was a sort of exhibit that traveled across the land—a cross-country totem pole journey that aimed to support local communities’ efforts to protect sacred places threatened by dams, mining, and oil and gas extraction. The journey highlighted the critical importance of Tribal Nations in decisions on land, water and infrastructure projects, and demanded that the U.S. government respects the international legal standard of free, prior, and informed consent in its negotiations with Tribal Nations. 

The Red Road to DC began at the Lummi Nation, where the tribe is fighting to protect the Salish Sea, orcas, and salmon from tanker traffic and pollution. From there, the pole traveled to Nez Perce territory in Idaho, where tribal leaders are fighting for the removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River, which have had devastating effects on the salmon, as well as the people who rely on fishing for their survival and sustenance. It then went to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which was opened to oil and gas extraction by the Trump Administration; and to the Greater Chaco region in New Mexico, where oil companies have been given permits to drill despite the area’s historic cultural importance to the Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo Nations. It then headed north to the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota, where Lakota activists are leading the #Landback campaign with a call to return Mount Rushmore to its original custodians; to the Missouri River and Standing Rock, where the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline remains very much alive; to the rice fields of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, where water protectors are fighting to block the construction of the Line 3 Pipeline, which promises to transport nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta to Wisconsin; and to Mackinaw City, Michigan, where the Bay Mills Indian Community has been fighting the existing Line 5 pipeline, as well as a plan to build a new pipeline tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac. At the end of the journey, the pole was received by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in Washington D.C. It was ultimately installed at the National Conservation Training Center where it stands as a symbol of Indigenous movements for life against extraction. 

While the communities brought together through the totem pole journey are held in common by a shared history of settler-colonial dispossession, forced assimilation, and exploitation, the Red Road to DC foregrounded not the violent conditions they endure, but the sacred world they live to protect. Instead of drawing a black line between oil pipelines, colonial monuments, dams, and other monuments to extraction, the journey traced a red line between sacred sites, insisting on a relationship between people and place that cannot be seen from the capitalist point of view. 

Our collective co-produced the Red Road to DC because we imagined it could model a response to the struggles over colonial monuments that have been erupting over the past several years, specifically by building power around a different kind of monument—one that reveals a way of seeing and relating to the world that is fundamentally irreconcilable with capitalism. Situated within a wider landscape of activist mobilization that includes struggles to change place names, to remove colonial monuments, to integrate anti-racist narratives into school curricula, to decolonize museums and repatriate stolen objects, and to return land to Tribal Nations, the Red Road to DC could be seen to be part of the Great Replacement that the right-wing conspiracists fear: a movement to destroy the myth of settler indigeneity that the United States was built on—of the “natural” right of the property-owning class of white settlers to the land and everything that can be extracted from it—and with it, the capitalist system that this myth enshrines.

For NAA, the Red Road to DC modeled a non-capitalist and anti-colonial practice of natural history, a natural history that gets its energy from the movements to support collective life and gives these movements energy in turn; a natural history that points to the world beyond capitalism and takes the side of the common. As a first step toward building out and organizing around this alternative, our collective has given it a name: Red Natural History. 

Defining Red Natural History

After spending eight years organizing within and against the institutions of natural history, we are convinced of the need for a name that defines a partisan project of natural history—a name in common that can hold together the insurgent work of scientists, social scientists, conservationists, communities, and others who are struggling to transform the fields and disciplines broadly associated with natural history. 

As we will elaborate in the next essay in this series, our collective defines “natural history” as the ever-unfolding history of life and land. While the dominant, institutionalized tradition of natural history is informed by a colonial logic of extraction, enclosure, and exploitation, we argue that there is another tradition of natural history, built not on colonial or capitalist relations, but on a comradely and reciprocal relation to land, life, and labor.

For us, the “Red” of Red Natural History does not only suggest a relationship to the history of Indigenous struggle, but also to the “red threat” that terrifies the right, the red flags that have been waived by revolutionaries around the world for centuries, and the red alerts issued by climate scientists to warn of the storms to come. In our interpretation, Red Natural History is not just a proposal for charting alternate histories of natural history, but also for embracing the right’s fantasy of left power. It is also a call for the left to search for the ancestors, irrespective of their identities, whose emancipatory struggles live on in the contemporary movements to remake the world as a world in common.

Our collective’s perspective on Red Natural History is one of many that will be shared over the next year, as we have been working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists, scholars, and practitioners to publish a dossier of speculative essays that give meaning to the term. The point of this collaborative investigation is not to reach consensus, but to create energy around the term Red Natural History, to signal a gravitational pull from the critique of the imperialist tradition of natural history to the positive articulation of another—a tradition of natural history that can rise to the challenges of today’s overlapping and intensifying social, climate, and extinction emergencies. 

Our hope is that Red Natural History does not remain an abstract concept, but that it has an effect on practice—that it provides a framework that insurgents from fields associated with natural history (including archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, ecology, and so on) can use to articulate what they share in common as they struggle to leverage their institutions’ resources to support the communities that are leading efforts to protect natural and cultural heritage, block extractivist projects, and point the way to a just and livable future for all.

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.

“Coming Out the Other Side: Notes on an Eight-Year Expedition into Natural History” was originally published in Society & Space (May 9, 2022).

As part of the group exhibition “Overground Resistance” curated by Oliver Ressler at frei_raum Q21 exhibition space, the artist collective Not An Alternative present their project The Natural History Museum.This conversation between Steve Lyons and Oliver Ressler presented here in shortened and edited form, took place around the conference “Barricading the Ice Sheets” at Camera Austria in Graz in February 2020.

Oliver Ressler: Can you talk about the most important aspects of your artistic praxis? How did it develop?

Steve Lyons: I work with Not An Alternative, a collective of artists, theorists, and activists in the United States. Our current and ongoing project is The Natural History Museum (NHM). The NHM is both an officially accredited museum of natural history and an activist organization, which we founded in 2014 as an experiment on the U.S. sector for science and natural history museums. Our idea was to occupy the museum form in order to enter the museum sector as a kind of Trojan horse. Building on the work of our comrades at Liberate Tate, our first projects and campaigns used the museum as a platform to get climate change obfuscationists and fossil fuel oligarchs dropped from the boards of trustees of some of the largest science museums in the country. Since 2017, we have developed ongoing collaborations with Indigenous communities and organizations that are working on the frontlines of the climate crisis, with the aim of leveraging museums as communications platforms for their struggles and campaigns.

Not An Alternative, Mining the HMNS: An Investigation by The Natural History Museum, 2016. © The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: How would you describe the role of artists within the climate justice movement? How do you see them and how do you wish it would be? 

Steve Lyons: We think it’s important to make a distinction between artists and cultural producers. One of the challenges of thinking about how artists can engage within the culture of social movements is that the concept of art comes with a lot of baggage. The dominant tradition of contemporary art is entirely compatible with the ideology of bourgeois individualism. In this tradition, art is largely imagined to transcend the everyday, valuing novelty and creativity over political efficacy. And we see this within the structure of the art world, not only in the United States, but globally. A few members of Not An Alternative went to art school, but not the majority. We see ourselves as cultural producers, and see the broader framework of cultural production to be a more generative framework to think about the kind of work that we do, as well as the kind of creative political work that people do within the context of social movements.

As a collective, we have historically avoided attributing our individual names to any given project. We are organized as a collective – so we work together, as a group – but, more importantly, our work is geared toward the production of collectivity. It’s worth emphasizing that culture, in the anthropological sense of the term, has always been central to the formation of collectives. Cultural forms and practices produce social bonds, allowing people to distinguish their comrades from their enemies. They are also the means by which collectives express counterpower. As cultural producers, we work on the terrain of culture (again, in the anthropological sense) to build, expand, and sharpen the language in common that holds us together as a “we.”

TEJAS “Toxic Tour” Hologram Mini-Diorama, HD, 6 min, 2016 © The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: Jay Jordan in the abstract for his talk for the conference “Barricading the Ice Sheets” uses the term of “extractivist art”. Is an activist art “extractivist”, if it takes place in an art institutional context? 

Steve Lyons: That’s a loaded question! Of course I can think of numerous examples of artists who have a parasitic relationship to social movements, who are more invested in trading on political righteousness than with the building of collective power. But does every practice that locates itself within cultural institutions need to be extractivist? I don’t think so. The history of creative activism within museums that we associate with the tradition of institutional critique – the Art Workers’ Coalition in New York comes to mind – runs against the grain of what JJ is calling “extractivist.” In this tradition, art institutions are taken as backdrops and sites from which people have come together to engage in anti-imperialist, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist struggle. Since the 1960s, there have been numerous instances, including some that JJ has been involved in, where artists have seized cultural infrastructures as resources and platforms for political struggle.

Does the activist intervention offer credibility to the institution, giving it a veneer of authenticity? Or does it add value to a social movement or campaign? Does it activate the institution as a site of political struggle or force a decision? Of course, some projects do all of these things, since working within and against is always, necessarily, contradictory. But I think, for example, that the groups associated with BP or Not BP and Liberate Tate in the UK, who are working on fossil fuel divestment and sponsorship campaigns in London, are doing a really great job of working within museums, but against the interest that these museums were built to serve. Not An Alternative is also working between social movements and museums. We are not satisfied with our work unless it is adding to the movement or campaign we’re contributing to. We are constantly asking ourselves if we are contributing to the building of collectivity, strengthening the operative divisions, or producing concrete change that puts our comrades in a better position.

Personally, I don’t think there are any uncomplicated sites of struggle. Whether we’re in a museum or a public square, we’re struggling within and against capitalism. And given the state of the world, I think it’s important that we’re not only working at the margins.

Oliver Ressler: The enormity of the challenge of the climate crisis requires that also the wider art world needs to transform radically. What are central aspects of this transformation from your point of view?

Steve Lyons: Some people would argue that the art world is simply an infrastructure for the production of capital. The art world, in this view, is a complex of art fairs, commercial galleries, and museums, which articulate to produce capital, both through the trade of assets and the production of prestige. Financiers get social benefits from the art world, and artists get symbolic and cultural capital, both of which are at some point, and continually, parlayed into money. One problem with this account is that it doesn’t help us understand what Greg Sholette calls the art world’s “dark matter”: the glut of surplus labor that this complex produces. I think it’s more generative to see the art world from the perspective of contradiction – to see it as an infrastructure that produces class divisions, and which thus creates the conditions for antagonism and struggle. From this vantage, the art world is an infrastructure in which money and power circulate, but also an infrastructure that can be seized.

Take art magazines, for example. Big art magazines like Artforum are currently distributed in ways that represent ruling class tastes while contributing to the value of ruling class collections. But this function is historical and contingent. Art magazines do not need to contribute to the reproduction of ruling class power, and there are plenty of examples of art magazines that don’t. One of the benefits of understanding the art world as something that is internally divided, as a sort of split subject that can be struggled over, is that you can see the means of production and distribution as potential resources for left struggle. This isn’t just hypothetical. It’s happening.

We could consider the recent controversy around Warren Kanders, owner of the weapons manufacturer Safariland and until recently, trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art. During the last Whitney Biennial, community members and artists mobilized to get Kanders kicked off the board of the museum, seizing the museum and the Biennial as a platform to not only draw attention to Kanders and the brutality his wealth is built on, but also to underscore the complicity of the museum. At a pivotal moment in the campaign, Artforum published an article titled “The Teargas Biennial,” which effectively subordinated the story of the Biennial to the story of the Kanders campaign, making the campaign impossible for the institution to ignore. While there were other factors, including internal divisions within the museum itself, it was only after the bad press that Kanders quickly and quietly stepped down from the board. In this case, we can see that Artforum, the iconic ruling class art magazine, was taken as a platform for a movement’s cause. The Whitney Museum, too, became a site for opposition, collectivization, and renewed politicization among and beyond New York’s art community. This is just one example of how ruling class infrastructures can be hijacked.

© The Natural History Museum

Oliver Ressler: I have a question on the use of language: In the northern countries, where winters are cold, for some people the term “global warming” may sound like a reference to something pleasant and desirable. Are there any suggestions concerning the replacement of this term or about the power of language in relation to climate disruption in general?

Steve Lyons: Not An Alternative is invested in using the language that is out there, the language that is being used and that has power. For us it is not a question of substituting one term for another because it is purer or clearer in its descriptive or explanatory capacity. It’s a question of using the term that works. What term is more useful in building collectivity? What are people mobilizing around? Are people rallying around the term “global warming”? Does the term clarify the terrain of struggle? Is it an effective term? If it is, then we use that term, we commit to it and build our work around it.

A good example of how this was active in our practice is when we were working within the Occupy milieu, specifically within Occupy Wall Street. In Oakland, California, there was a major division, pretty quickly after Occupy Oakland began, where a whole subset of the movement came out against the term “Occupy.” “Occupation is the language of the colonizer; we want to Decolonize Oakland!” The movement split in two. For us, while the choice to mobilize around “Occupy” or “Decolonize” opens onto a set of important theoretical questions, from the point of view of practice, the question should actually be much simpler: “What is the term around which counterpower is being built, and in what ways can we build on that?” The point is to expand the collective power that is already there. So that’s a non-answer to your question.

Oliver Ressler: Well, you described quite well why you don’t answer directly.

Where can we glimpse potential futures and new worlds grounded in social justice and ecological flourishing, and how can these be cultivated through creative aesthetic practices?

Steve Lyons: This brings me back to the point where we started, where I wanted to make a distinction between a framework that is organized around art and a framework that is organized around cultural production. The term cultural production includes the production of food, rituals, aesthetic practices, and forms of resistance. From the vantage of cultural production, it becomes easier to see what is actually happening within the movements. Where are we beginning to see the production, or at least the prefiguration, of a more livable world? For several years, Not An Alternative has been admiring the work of Indigenous water protectors and land defenders. And one of the things that has really struck us about the struggles against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock or against the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline at Unist’ot’en Camp on Wetʼsuwetʼen territory in the northwestern part of Canada, for example, is that they are both strongly oppositional – building blockades, holding their ground, and claiming sovereignty of the place against the pipeline company – and also affirmative. Behind the barricades there are camps which operate like training grounds for non-capitalist modes of life, places where people are collectively developing new ways of living and rediscovering old ones, establishing relations to the land and each other that are incommensurate with the extractivist reasoning that has led to the climate crisis. We cannot survive without a thriving world and the world will not survive unless we respect it. And the political and ethical obligation to the land that arises from this way of seeing and relating is not only inspiring. When it’s instituted at the barricades and cultural camps, it also establishes, here and now, a relation to the land and political horizon that points toward a world beyond capitalism.

Oliver Ressler is an artist and filmmaker who produces installations, projects in public space, and films on issues such as economics, democracy, migration, the climate crisis, forms of resistance and social alternatives.

Steve Lyons is Research Director at the Natural History Museum and a core member of Not An Alternative since 2014.

This interview was originally published in MQ Journal (October 10, 2021).

Museums are in crisis, facing escalating pressure to drop fossil fuel sponsors, remove robber barons and war criminals from their boards, repatriate stolen objects, and topple racist monuments, dioramas, and displays. Formed from the extractivist reasoning that fuels climate chaos, museums are grounded in an unfolding history of oppression from which they cannot be extricated. They are complicit in the twin projects of capitalism and settler colonialism, caught in a web of colonialist and capitalist relations whose dynamics disproportionately immiserate the lives of poor Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. While museums monumentalize and objectify the historical violence of capitalism and settler colonialism, they are not only keepers of the dead. They are haunted by a specter—the specter of primitive communism, a collective mode of life that neither capitalism nor settler colonialism could fully manage, contain, or eradicate. This mode of life sustains a relation to the land that is fundamentally incompatible with the capitalist world.

Capitalism relates to the natural world as a frontier for growth, as raw material to be extracted and turned into profit or waste. The alternative, as Glen Sean Coulthard articulately suggests, is “for land in the material sense, but also deeply informed by what the land as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in non-dominating and non-exploitative terms.”[1] This non-capitalist relation to the land persists despite a centuries-long war against it precisely because it cannot be accommodated by capital. It constitutes the impossibility at the core of the capitalist world, existing and insisting as a specter that haunts its institutions and infrastructures. 

Jodi Dean has argued for the need to develop a partisan politics of climate change: “Rather than trapped by our fascination with an (always illusory) anthropocenic whole, we cut across and through, finding and creating openings. We gain possibilities for collective action and strategic engagement.”[2] We see the museum as one apparatus in which such a partisan politics can be grounded. This is possible only if we begin with the stance that the museum is split, not equivalent to the capitalist and colonial practices and values on which it was founded. The split institution is not determined by capitalism. It is struggled over. This struggle sets the stage for institutional liberation, which we have described as a practice of institutional seizure that generates counterpower by strategically mobilizing the power institutions already have.[3] This chapter proposes a political theory for institutional liberation in the terminal crisis of climate change. If museums take the side of the spectral threat to capitalist and settler-colonial domination, then they can be established as sites for thinking beyond the capitalist enclosure. This requires, first, that we refuse the lure of holism driving dominant fractions of environmental thought.

There Is a Gap in the Oikeios

Responding to the failure of the concept of the Anthropocene to accurately assign the primary agent of planetary change, Jason W. Moore has argued that we talk about our era as the Capitalocene, where capitalism, not humanity, is the driving force of ecological change. Moore argues that by seeing the entanglement of capitalism and nature, we can attend to its dynamic relation to the oikeios—his term for “the creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment” that makes up the planetary home.[4] Just as nature provides the raw material for capitalist accumulation, capitalism produces nature as a real abstraction: nature as an extractable, commodifiable, manageable raw material that can be bought, sold, represented, destroyed, or protected. Arguing that the Cartesian dualism of Nature/Society is “directly implicated in the colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world”[5] by virtue of its capacity to externalize nature as an object to be extracted and turned into profit and waste, Moore proposes an alternate concept of nature, which he terms the “web of life”: “the ‘web of life’ is nature as a whole: nature with an emphatically lowercase n. This is nature as us, as inside us, as around us. It is nature as a flow of flows.”[6] Moore’s theoretical distinction between Nature and the web of life helps to explain the decisive shift in liberal environmentalism over the course of the past several decades. For most environmentalists today, nature is not simply understood as the dominion of the non-human. It is an ecology to which we contribute, and to which we can hold our impacts accountable. If capital N Nature demands an ethics of protection and conservation, the web of life demands our contribution. Our capacity to contribute to nature’s ecological balance requires that we reduce our individual and institutional carbon footprints.

In conceptualizing capitalism as a world-ecology, Moore reflects a broader ecological turn in the environmental humanities, which finds in ecology an antidote to dualism. The concepts of the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, or Chthulucene all follow from the same idea: that, whatever its origins, and whatever forces prevail, there is no outside to the oikeios.

Wrestling with the connectedness of people and things, thinkers in this paradigm seek to acknowledge the existence of human, non-human, and inhuman feedback loops at a planetary scale, to establish connections that make porous the capitalist world’s operative divisions. Frédéric Neyrat traces the principle at the root of this theoretical tendency—that everything is connected to everything else—to Barry Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle. Informed by cybernetics, this hugely influential book “shows that feedback loops connect each part to the totality of the system (what affects one part affects the other).”[7] As an attempt to overturn colonial science’s traditional prioritization of substances over relations, this project is viewed by its advocates as a means of bringing critical theory in line with Indigenous ways of knowing—a distinct mode of thought that constituted colonial science’s historical other. However, a brief examination of the history of ecological thought reveals that ecology is no less bound up in the project of colonial expansion and capital accumulation than was its dualist precursor.

In the book Imperial Ecology, Peder Anker charts the development of ecological discourse as it emerged as a privileged framework to not only address questions in the natural sciences, but also address the social, economic, and political problems confronting the British Empire since the late nineteenth century. The term “ecosystem” was coined by Arthur George Tansley, a British botanist and Oxford University professor whose own research and editing in the early twentieth century were crucial to the expansion of ecological methodology into the fields of sociology and psychology. The research of Tansley and his Oxford colleagues was born from a conservationist ideal that served to justify and legitimize British expansion in the colonies:

The aim of their research was to empower the social order of their patrons in various colonial agencies or commercial companies by ordering the economy of nature so that it could serve the social economy of British imperialism. This was achieved by rendering the ecological order of nature into an order of knowledge suitable for managerial overview. This aerial view on nature, society, and knowledge—the master perspective from above—was at the very core of British ecological reasoning.[8]

For the Oxford ecologists, the discipline of ecology was thus not only a means to map and classify relations between organisms in the interest of objective scientific inquiry. It was also a means to manage nature’s economy according to the interest of the imperialist state. As a systematic methodology for mapping the relation between organisms, ecology was central to the economization of nature. Guided by both colonialist and capitalist imperatives, ecology was also wielded as a tool to control nature by pacifying traditional Indigenous practices that the imperial power could not understand.[9]

Anker is not alone in drawing connections between ecology and capitalist political economy. Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper have suggested how more recent advances in complex systems theory, most notably the influential work of ecologist C.S. Holling, have marched in lockstep with neoliberal economic thought. Charting the structural compatibility of Holling’s complex systems theory and Friedrich Hayek’s late theory of spontaneous market order, they argue that the holism of contemporary ecology, as well as its insistence on the inherent instability of ecosystems, is only a step away from neoliberal capitalism’s dominant conceptualization of resilience, risk management and crisis adaptation.[10]

The question is not whether or not the theory adequately breaks from the inheritance of capitalist or colonial thought—ecology, like Nature, has its dark side—but how it orients our perspective on the terrain of struggle. In its drive to subsume and manage antagonistic forces, much ecological thought gives form to what Alberto Toscano calls the “logic of pacification,” a structural capacity to “shift from external-contradictory differences to internal and harmonized ones.”[11] Oil companies operationalize this logic when they factor the costs of public pushback into their infrastructure development plans, mobilizing “risk mitigation” strategies to neutralize Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure.[12]

In contrast to the revolutionary traditions of Marxism and anarchism, which recognize antagonism and class struggle as motors for political change, ecological thought frequently envisions politics as network management.[13] It is not surprising that ecology emerged as a dominant metaphor for thinking relations under capitalism in the neoliberal era. It pictures a world in which there is no gap, no other—the very world invoked by Margaret Thatcher’s routine claim that there was no alternative to economic liberalism. The supposition that “Capitalism makes nature. Nature makes capitalism”[14] results in a naturalization of capitalist domination, strengthening the dominant ideology that makes it, as the common saying goes, “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” The oikeios is the capitalist world. Ecology offers a framework to interpret relations between capitalism and nature, allowing us to make sense of climate change as a project of capital. The problem is that while ecology can picture the capitalist world, it also participates in the active repression of the gap in it. Our premise is that there remains a gap in the capitalist world that the framework of ecology cannot recognize. Non-capitalist modes of life persist and insist, within and against.

Haunting the Individual

The answer to the problem of the gap is not to disregard the web of life in favour of its precursor. There is no dispute that the enlightenment concept of Nature was complicit in capitalist and colonial violence, and to return to it would be to disregard decades of critique from within the environmental movement. As Andreas Malm points out, “[t]he prototypical wilderness subject is a white male bourgeois individual,” whose identification with wild nature “symbolically reenacts his conquest of the world.[15] Malm’s perspective is provocative because, despite his targeted critique of the concept of wilderness, he is not prepared to completely disregard it: “The fact that the ruling ideas about wilderness are the ideas of the ruling class is no more reason to dispense with that category than the same fact about democracy or freedom or justice for that matter.”[16] For him, the concept points beyond the anthropocentric fantasy of a constructed world, acknowledging how the supreme power of nature dwarfs that of capitalism. If nothing else, the focus on wilderness renders the capitalist system contingent and vulnerable: “[P]laces with a high degree of wildness still hint at the possibility of life beyond capital.”[17]

Malm refuses a central tendency in contemporary ecological thought, which he has characterized as its “dissolutionism”: the erasure of the boundary between nature and society. For him, binaries are “analytical equipment,” and the binary of Nature/Society retains both analytical and political utility in the context of the climate crisis.[18] In arguing for a concept of nature as other, Malm invokes Immanuel Kant’s analytic of the sublime, which, for both radical and liberal critics, has been roundly critiqued for reinforcing the very ideological foundations of capitalism’s extractivist reasoning. Kant argues that the terrifying, overwhelming, disorienting experience of sublime nature produces not only fright, but also a moment of transcendence that results in the ultimate validation of the individual. Sightings of the sublime “raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.”[19] The encounter with nature’s incalculable power produces the omnipotent individual subject precisely by threatening its obliteration. From the perspective of capitalism, the sublime will always reinforce capitalist relations of domination—a logical reason why scholars in the environmental humanities have persistently steered clear of it.[20] However, the sublime also names the otherness that the individual is recruited to manage, identifying in nature a profound threat to bourgeois individualism.

If for Kant, the sublime power of nature constituted the other to the rational individual, for Sigmund Freud, it was the unruly crowd. Jodi Dean reveals how Freud’s work in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), as well as in his primary interlocutor Gustave Le Bon, pit the individual against the crowd. Le Bon’s influential 1895 study The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind shaped the modern discourse on crowd psychology, arguing that when absorbed by the crowd, the individual loses control of his reason, forgets his individuality, and reverts to his most primitive state. For Le Bon, the revolutionary uprising of the crowd was approaching:

The claims of the masses are becoming more and more sharply defined, and amount to nothing less than a determination to destroy utterly society as it now exists, with a view to making it hark back to that primitive communism which was the normal condition of all human groups before the dawn of civilization. The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.[21]

Le Bon points to the “primitive communism” imagined to have preceded Western civilization, aligning with Marx’s own diagnosis of a communitarian ontology, which interprets the human as a social animal [22] In Group Psychology, Freud builds on Le Bon to ask both what unites people in a crowd and what holds them together. Freud’s answer, as Dean puts it, follows from his interpretation that the unconscious is a crowd: “Moving from many to one, Freud’s explanation encloses the directed intensities of Le Bon’s crowd into an individual unconscious. Collective desire is reduced to an amplification of frustrated individual desire.”[23] From this perspective, it is the leader who assembles and directs the crowd according to his individual desires. Against Le Bon, Freud writes that man is “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief.”[24] He defends the ground on which the politics of liberalism were established.

For Freud, there is no such thing as collective desire, only the desire of individuals. Consequently, for him, the crowd is competitive by nature. In the absence of collective desire, a charismatic “chief ” must necessarily impose his desires on the crowd. Freud’s invocation of the language of tribal governance points to the work of ideological enclosure on Freud’s own thought. Constructing the chief as individual, Freud actively disavows the threat of primitive communism that was revealing its force both in the streets and in the colonies at his time of writing, while reflecting an alignment with the project of settler colonialism, which recognized individuation as a weapon against the collective and communal modes of life supporting Indigenous Nations before and during colonization. 

Unearthing the long tradition of resistance to settler colonialism within the territorial boundaries of the United States, Nick Estes offers insight on the perspective from which the settler saw both Indigenous people and Indigenous land. Settler colonialism was not only a project of dispossessing Indigenous peoples of common land, but also an assault on the collective bonds that held Indigenous Nations together in their relation to the slivers of land which they continued to inhabit. The process of allotment provides an example of the settler-colonial project of individuation. Allotment was the process of breaking up collectively inhabited reservation land into plots of private property. These parcels were “given” to individual Natives, while “surplus” was auctioned at dirt cheap prices to settlers. Estes writes of the effect of allotment on the national unity of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, or Great Sioux Nation: “Allotment emphasized individualism, breaking up the tightly knit family units of direct kin and extended relations called the tiospaye, isolating them on different plots of land in distant parts of the reservation.”[25] Routine violence against Indigenous women was also part of this project of individuation: “White traders and trappers appropriated Indigenous women’s bodies as much as they had appropriated the wealth of the land by harvesting and selling the skins of animals. The two practices went hand in hand.”[26] The degrading material and psychological toll of individuation was built into the settler-colonial project of enclosure.

Freud’s claim that man is “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief ” represses the violence of individuation. When understood as an assemblage of individuals, a crowd can be broken up, disciplined, managed, or eradicated by force. A culture can also be exterminated. However, as Dean makes clear, when we disidentify with the individual enclosure, we can see that the leader does not speak on behalf of the collective but posits a gap that is struggled over: “The crowd doesn’t desire the leader; the leader incites and directs the desire of the crowd.”[27] The leader is not a hypnotist, but is “hypnotized by the idea”—an idea that always exceeds the person who believes it.[28] The leader can be substituted for another person, or even a common name, icon, or flag. The idea, rather than the charismatic leader, is what governs the crowd. And the idea cannot be killed.

What is Inalienable?

Kant’s analytic of the sublime and Freud’s theory of crowd dynamics are two sides of the same coin. They construct the individual as a bulwark against a threatening collective other. The story of capitalism and settler colonialism’s attempt to eradicate this abject other—be it Indigenous or communist, human or non-human—is not only the history of the capitalist world, but also the history of the gap in it. To speak of the gap in the capitalist world is to insist on a common that has not been enclosed by capitalism, a suggestion that notably breaks from Marx’s thesis on primitive accumulation, which took the “violent transformation of noncapitalist forms of life into capitalist ones” as a historical phase in the development of capitalism.[29] What remains following primitive accumulation is a world ravaged by capitalism, turned into pro!t and waste. Numerous challenges to this thesis have emerged in feminist and decolonial Marxist traditions, where, building on David Harvey’s reading of Rosa Luxemburg, thinkers such as Silvia Federici, Glen Sean Coulthard, and George Ciccariello-Maher, among others, have reconceived primitive accumulation as an incomplete and ongoing process of dispossession.

Coulthard challenges Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation on three counts: First, Marx’s temporal framing of primitive accumulation, which stages the violent expropriation of common land as a stage in the development of capitalism. Second, Marx’s original commitment to modernist developmentalism, which led the author to claim primitive accumulation as “a historically inevitable process that would ultimately have a beneficial effect on those violently drawn into the capitalist circuit.”[30] Third, Marx’s insistence on the violent character of primitive accumulation. Coulthard argues that a shift in perspective—from one that prioritizes the capitalist relation to one that prioritizes the colonial relation—enables the development of a theory of primitive accumulation that can attend not only to the persistence of violent dispossession under neoliberal capitalism, but also to the fact that “violence no longer constitutes the regulative norm governing the process of colonial dispossession.”[31] The flipside of Coulthard’s critical rereading of Marx is perhaps the most provocative: in a world devastated by capitalism, elements of noncapitalist life can be defended from the siege of primitive accumulation.

One reason, as Estes explains, is that for Indigenous peoples, the natural world is inalienable. Describing the perspective adopted by Water Protectors who gathered to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s controversial Missouri River crossing in 2016, Estes writes: 

Mni Sose, the Missouri River, is one such nonhuman relative who is alive, and who is also of the Mni Oyate, the Water Nation. Nothing owns her, and therefore she cannot be sold or alienated like a piece of property.[32]

By this, Estes is not suggesting that the Missouri River had evaded capitalist accumulation until the Army Corps of Engineers approved plans to route the Dakota Access Pipeline under it. Other pipelines cross under the river. Railroads cross over her. Industries line her shore and pump waste into her. Since the nineteenth century, she has been an important shipping channel for everything from commodities to ammunition. The Pick-Sloan dams, constructed from the 1940s to the 1960s to provide electric power as well as irrigation and flood control for the agricultural industry in Missouri River states, turned the river against its original custodians, flooding seven Lakota and Dakota reservations and dispossessing their already displaced and dispossessed inhabitants. What Estes means is that when seen from the perspective of the Oceti Sakowin—a perspective that understands land, water, and animals as living non-human relatives— the Missouri River is not reducible to its expropriation by the capitalist state.[33] To state that water is inalienable is to posit a truth claim—not a falsifiable hypothesis in the manner of colonial science, but an unfalsifiable claim demanding a specific political and ethical response from the collective that it hails into being. It conjures a subject that is true to it.

Geographies undergo historical transformations, and as the climate changes, rivers dry up. However, just as burial grounds remain burial grounds even after their contents are exhumed by archaeologists or bulldozed by oil companies, water remains, despite its periodic desecration, an inalienable excess to capitalism and settler-colonialism’s war on the common. Recent Indigenous-led movements to protect water against the extraction industry make this emphatically clear: water is alive in the material sense, but it is also sacred. The concept of the sacred oriented modes of non-capitalist life for centuries, in defiance of capitalist and colonial rule. It continues to foster the courage of revolutionary anti-colonial movements today. This concept works to establish a beyond to the material world in which to posit collective belief. 

Where Indigenous anticolonialism anchors collective belief in the natural world, communist movements anchor belief in the proletarianized many, locating a beyond to the world of capitalist domination in the specter of communism. When, at the start of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels posit that “A specter is haunting Europe,”[34] they are not referring to existing communist party infrastructure (the party does not yet exist), but to the red threat recognized by the ruling class. The specter, as an absence that insists from within the capitalist world, connects living communists to their ancestors—the primitive communists of pre-capitalist times—and their descendants, those who have yet to take up the cause. The specter of communism holds up the living communists, orienting them toward a communist future. It gets embodied in the strikes and working-class uprisings to which Marx and Engels referred, but also in the ceremonial practices of Indigenous Nations, performed in de!ance of settler law. Like the sacred waters, the specter is inalienable. It adopts the form of a prosthesis in the material world, but it cannot be reduced to the prosthetic form that it takes.[35] When it appears, it links the dead to the living, holding open the gap of collective desire.

The Specter Is in the Object

In “The World Is Already without Us,” Alberto Toscano asks the question, “why are photographs of manufactured landscapes so often depopulated?”[36] Addressing the erasure of labor in the contemporary landscape photography of Edward Burtinsky amongst many others, his examination could be expanded to address the more widely critiqued genre of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, which likewise erased the presence of the Indigenous human and non-human inhabitants who tended the land according to a non-capitalist relation until and after settler occupation. These representations, reflecting both the rei!cation of labor and the rei!cation of nature, actively repress the specter that haunts them in the present. For Marx, the concept of the commodity follows a congruent structure: it is an object that both embodies and invisibilizes the labor that produces it. It rei!es an entire system of production, of private property, capitalists, and workers, as well as the “iron laws” that make the system a system. Like the museum, the nineteenth-century landscape painting, or the contemporary manufactured landscape, the commodity tells the story of what is extinguished in its making.

Toscano’s account of the dialectic of extinction and resurrection latent in the labor process presents a key for thinking about what it might mean to conjure the specter that haunts the natural history museum. Reflecting on the “hidden abode” masked in the commodity form, the mounting dead labor concentrated in commodities as they travel through the production process, Toscano clarifies that “the fact that they are indeed products of past labor is, in Marx’s colorfully crude metaphor, ‘as irrelevant, as, in the case of the digestive system, the fact that the bread is the product of the previous labour of the farmer, the miller and the baker.’”[37]

The project of resurrecting dead labor is not equivalent to resurrecting labor history:

When living labor power seizes these products, these things, and ‘awakens them from the dead’, as Marx declares, it is not as past but as present use value within a labor process overdetermined by the empty, homogenizing time of exchange value.[38]

The work of conjuring the specter in the land or in the natural history museum follows from this: the specter is awakened not as past but present use value, not as traumatic reminder but as prophetic guide for revolutionary work.

The museum is constituted through the same dialectics of extinction and resurrection as is the commodity. It represses the outside in the objects it contains, overdetermining them in its taxonomic, display, and interpretive protocols. It works to convince itself that it has captured the objects it contains. It does this by means of individuation, by separating the objects in its collection from their original uses and from the communities that cared for them, and by processing them as specimens, trophies, and rare goods. From the perspective of the modern individual—which is also the perspective of the capitalist state—this is interpreted as an effective, unilateral process of extinguishing, not one part of a dialectical struggle that includes a possible resurrection. From this perspective, the individuated object is an object of desire—a fetish severed from the source.

But the museum object also holds the potential to become an object cause of collective desire: when the object’s sacredness is presupposed by a collective, it stands as a beacon for collective belonging, embodying the non-capitalist excess of the capitalist enclosure. The sacred can be desecrated but not destroyed. When the museum object is recognized as imbued with the power of the sacred, it stands for the non-capitalist gap in the institution, activating the museum divide.

The project of institutional liberation emerges from the perspective of the gap. It attunes the partisan gaze not to the power of the enclosure but to the sublime threat to it. It is from this perspective that a partisan politics can be lodged into the capitalist world ecology. Such a politics is the necessary precondition for militant collective action on climate crisis. By orienting our gaze to the spectral threat to the capitalist world, we enter the dialectical struggle between extinction and resurrection, awakening the non-capitalist power in the capitalist world. When we see this non-capitalist power, we see it everywhere. As the object cause of desire, it produces the collective desire for collectivity in us. It opens a gap, holds us in common, and concentrates counterpower as we organize around it.

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.

“Beneath the Museum, the Specter” was originally published in The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, edited by T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott and Subhankar Banerjee (Routledge, 2021), 418-427.

  1. [1]Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 13.
  2. [2]Jodi Dean, “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,” e-flux Journal, no. 69 (January 2016): www.e-flux.com/journal/69/60586/the-anamorphic-politics-of-climate-change/.
  3. [3]See Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation,” e-flux Journal, no. 77 (November 2016): www.e-flux.com/journal/77/76215/institutional-liberation/.
  4. [4]Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2015), 4.
  5. [5]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2.
  6. [6]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2–3.
  7. [7]Frédéric Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 146.
  8. [8]Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5.
  9. [9]Anker, Imperial Ecology, 39.
  10. [10]See Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper, “Genealogies of Resilience: From Systems Ecology to the Political Economy of Crisis Adaptation,” Security Dialogue, vol. 42, no. 2 (2011): 143–160.
  11. [11]Alberto Toscano, “Powers of Paci!cation: State and Empire in Gabriel Tarde,” Economy and Society, vol. 36, no. 4 (November 2007): 601.
  12. [12]See Kai Bosworth, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle: Vulnerability, Security and Settler Colonialism in the Oil Assemblage,” in Mary Thomas, Mat Coleman, and Bruce Braun, eds, Settling the Bakken Boom: Sites and Subjects of Oil in North Dakota (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming). See also Shiri Pasternak and Tia Dafnos, “How Does a Settler State Secure the Circuitry of Capital?” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 36, no. 4 (Summer 2017): 739–757.
  13. [13]Bosworth, “The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle,” 608.
  14. [14]Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 18.
  15. [15]Andreas Malm, “In Wildness is the Liberation of the World: On Maroon Ecology and Partisan Nature,” Historical Materialism, vol. 26, no. 3 (2018): 4.
  16. [16]Malm, “In Wildness,” 9.
  17. [17]Malm, “In Wildness,” 27.
  18. [18]Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2018), 186.
  19. [19]Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, second edition, translated by John H. Bernard (New York: Cosimo Books, 2007), 75.
  20. [20]An exception is Christopher Hitt, who, after identifying the “scholarly neglect on the part of ecocriticism to interrogate the discourse of the sublime,” argues that the concept of the sublime is not “fundamentally or intrinsically maleficent.” See Christopher Hitt, “Toward an Ecological Sublime,” New Literary History, no. 30 (1999): 605.
  21. [21]Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, second edition (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1897), xvi.
  22. [22]Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), translated by Martin Nicolaus (London and New York: Penguin Books and New Left Review, 1993), 84.
  23. [23]Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (Brooklyn and London: Verso, 2016), 105.
  24. [24]Dean, Crowds and Party, p. 109.
  25. [25]Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2019), 154.
  26. [26]Estes, Our History is the Future, 82.
  27. [27]Estes, Our History is the Future, 111.
  28. [28]Estes, Our History is the Future.
  29. [29]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 8.
  30. [30]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 10.
  31. [31]Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 15.
  32. [32]Estes, Our History is the Future, 15.
  33. [33]Estes, Our History is the Future, p. 16.
  34. [34]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1847) (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 47.
  35. [35]Tim Fisken, “The Spectral Proletariat: The Politics of Hauntology in The Communist Manifesto,” Global Discourse, vol. 2, no. 2 (2011): 20.
  36. [36]Alberto Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” Social Text, 127, vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2016): 111.
  37. [37]Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” 114.
  38. [38]Toscano, “The World Is Already without Us,” 114.

This essay discusses the exhibit Kwel’ Hoy!: Many Struggles, One Front, a collaborative art installation featuring a sixteen-foot totem pole created by the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation in northern Washington State and southern British Columbia. The exhibit was the product of a collaboration between the Lummi and The Natural History Museum, a mobile and pop-up museum founded by composed of a collective of radical artist-activists. Kwel’ Hoy! appeared in different forms in two natural history museums in the eastern US during the 2017–18 year, helping uplift Indigenous leadership and movements whose activities center around protecting land, water, and our collective future. The exhibition focused on connecting communities on the frontlines of the environmental crisis with movements fighting fossil fuel expansion projects. In this essay I argue that the collaboration between members of the Lummi Nation, The Natural History Museum, and museums and conservation organizations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey intersects with broader struggles to mobilize cultural institutions in the fight against extreme extraction. Museums are a key site in this regard: they see more visitors annually than sporting events and theme parks combined. Although museums have historically served to legitimate racist colonial classifications of the world and its peoples, today they are far from monolithic, and are being placed under increasing pressure by current events and by climate justice activists, who push them to serve the public interest rather than the ecocidal perspectives and policies of the oligarchs who all too often populate their boards. Kwel’ Hoy! offers an instance of what I term the art of articulation: artist-activists using ideological fissures within dominant institutions to crack open and realign them, thereby forging connections among cultural institutions, front-line communities fighting for climate justice, and activist scientists seeking to mobilize natural science for the public good. The Kwel’ Hoy! exhibit is exemplary in its strategic effort to create rhizomatic links between diverse constituencies who can be mobilized to fight fossil capitalism, and in its determination to alert large segments of the public that a just transition beyond extractivism is possible.

Totem pole carved by House of Tears Carvers; an ever-growing stone altar initiated by members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation and added to by members of the public contributing stones and prayers for the water; and videos and graphics that map the fossil fuel ecosystem—encompassing land, energy, economics and culture.

Capitalism’s Organic Crisis and Populist Extractivism

Contemporary capitalism is in the throes of a deep crisis. In order to make sense of the horrors of the present, we can turn back to another period of extreme counterrevolution. Writing after the Fascist seizure of power in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s, the revolutionary Antonio Gramsci argued that his society had experienced an organic crisis, a comprehensive convulsion wherein the various parts of the social order refused to cohere, which generated a breakdown of social consensus. For Gramsci, this organic crisis encompassed not only the economic and political elements of society, but also the entirety of the social and cultural terrain. Capitalist societies, Gramsci argued, are prone to such periodic crises of hegemony. Indeed, writing about the clashes of the 1970s that led to the rise of neoliberalism, British radical Stuart Hall described the way in which an organic crisis ramifies across society, sparking what he called “debates about fundamental sexual, moral and intellectual questions … a whole range of issues which do not necessarily appear … to be articulated with politics.”[1]

Since the ruling classes are unable to resolve the multiple contradictions that provoke an organic crisis, such a breakdown is also—and above all—an opportunity to assert a new set of values and orientations for society. These new values are not always progressive, let alone revolutionary. Indeed, the contemporary rise of authoritarian populist movements around the world, from Trumpism in the US to the constitutional coup against Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, is an expression of the contemporary organic crisis of capitalism: the economic and social orthodoxies that have held sway for years are bankrupt. After nearly four decades of neoliberalism unchained, years during which dominant political parties of all stripes accepted the necessity of austerity, global deregulation, and flagrant giveaways to multinational corporations, popular discontent has flared, unseating members of the political establishment and leading to a right-wing surge that is grounded in the ginning up of overt white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia. This naked bigotry is combined with a fresh round of tax cuts for the plutocrats, producing an unwieldy assemblage that will generate neither the economic nor ideological stability longed for by its adherents.

The scapegoating of immigrants and other marginalized social groups is a tried-and-true tactic of popular authoritarianism, a strategy employed since the beginning of the conservative counterrevolution in the 1970s to galvanize public support for administrations ruled by and for the one percent.[2] The rhetoric of figures like Reagan and Thatcher, for example, suggested that the economic and social crises roiling people’s lives in this period were not the product of a dysfunctional capitalist system, but rather the result of lawless ethnic and sexual minorities and the liberal permissiveness that abetted their disruptive behavior. Over the last four decades, bigotry, law and order rhetoric, and heavy-handed repression have gone hand in hand with the dismantling of the redistributive elements of the post-1945 welfare state and a massive upward redistribution of wealth. Contemporary figures such as Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have revived and intensified this toxic stew of tactical scapegoating and class warfare. To it they have fatefully added an ecocidal populist extractivism. Bolsonaro has, for example, promised to mow down much of the Amazon in the name of national development.[3] Trump, for his part, has pledged to “bring back coal” and to promote American energy dominance, promises that have resonated with not only the coal bosses and oiligarchs but also with sectors of the US labor movement, which has supported his greenlighting of the Keystone XL pipeline.[4]

But Trump’s America First Energy Plan dooms the planet. Even the notoriously pro-fossil fuel International Energy Agency (IEA) has concluded that “the world has so many existing fossil fuel projects that it cannot afford to build any more polluting infrastructure without busting international climate change goals.”[5] As Fatih Birol, director of the IEA, bluntly put it during the launch of the think tank’s World Energy Outlook 2018, “We have no room to build anything that emits CO2.” Today’s organic crisis thus has an ecological dimension. Vast swaths of our planet are becoming literally too hot and dry for human beings to endure. Weather- and climate-related disasters are intensifying, with typhoons and hurricanes killing scores of people and inflicting unprecedented economic damage. Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Global Warming of 1.5° C report issued a clarion call for rapid transition: “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.”[6] The IPCC report made it clear that contemporary capitalism will experience an intensifying breakdown of the environmental systems upon which it depends unless dramatic political action of the kind that elites have refused to engage in is taken very soon.

The Art of Articulation

What would it be like to think about winning? What strategies can movements fighting against capitalism’s pillaging of society and the planet adopt in order to overcome popular authoritarianism and win power? For far too long, the Left has ducked such questions.[7] But in order to reverse capital’s headlong sprint towards planetary ecocide, radicals will have to knit the diverse movements resisting popular authoritarianism together into a force capable of vying for power at various political scales. They will also have to forge solidarities between committed cadres of activists and those broad swaths of the population that are increasingly disaffected with the status quo. In order to do so, radicals must challenge longstanding traditions of elitism on the Left and among artist-activists. Take Situationism, for example. One of the major inspirations for the Global Justice Movement and affiliated efforts in the art world in the 1990s and after, Situationism, as theorized by figures like Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, consisted of creative and often hilarious but nonetheless piecemeal assaults on what was perceived as the passivity and tedium of life in post-1945 capitalist societies.[8] Underlying these tactical assaults was a wholesale denunciation of consumer society, which was represented in totalizing terms as homogeneous and utterly alienating. Postwar social democracy and the Keynesian welfare state were accordingly seen not so much as hard-fought victories to be built on but as forms of co-optation that helped consolidate a stultifying consumerism. This left little room for any kind of political transformation short of a full-scale proletarian revolution. Until the revolution, all that one could do was engage in isolated acts of symbolic dissent.

In contrast with the work of the Situationists, many thinkers of the New Left saw society not as a totality but rather as an amalgam constituted by complex and contingent configurations of elements. The key was to figure out how to break apart the current consensus and reimagine a more just arrangement. From Deleuze and Guattari to Foucault, Laclau and Mouffe, and Stuart Hall, a broad array of thinkers conceived of capitalist social and cultural formations as the outcome of relatively contingent processes of articulation and assemblage. For example, in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, Ernesto Laclau described Plato’s allegory of the cave in terms of a theory of articulation: “Common sense discourse, doxa” Laclau wrote, “is presented as a system of misleading articulations in which concepts do not appear linked by inherent logical relations, but are bound together simply by connotative or evocative links which custom and opinion have established between them.… Knowledge presupposes, then, an operation of rupture: a disarticulation of ideas from those connotative domains to which they appear linked in the form of a misleading necessity, which enables us subsequently to reconstruct their true articulations.”[9] The task of anti-capitalists, then, is to rupture or disarticulate the existing common sense (or figure out where the contradictions of the system have already produced such ruptures), and then reconstruct ideas in a manner that serves the political struggle for social justice.

In developing their theories of articulation and disarticulation, Laclau and other New Left thinkers were drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci. Indeed, Gramsci’s theory of organic crisis is an effort to understand how the dominant order cracks apart under the weight of capitalism’s contradictions. After the failure of proletarian movements in Italy and other Western European capitalist nations, Gramsci rethought the reductive social theories of leaders like Lenin, giving future revolutionaries a toolbox for building counterpower. In Two Tactics of Social Democracy, Lenin emphasized the need to create a “single will” between the peasantry and the proletariat but paid little attention to how these connections might be generated from within the groups in question. Seeing “the masses” as “backward and ignorant,” Lenin argued that a vanguard party needed to forge alliances between groups whose identities remained fixed and static.[10] By contrast, writing in 1926 following the dissolution of factory council movements in industrial cities like Turin, Milan, and Genova in Northern Italy, Gramsci sought to understand how these movements might have built connections with the peasantry in Southern Italy, who at the time were occupying large estates and uncultivated lands.[11] Key to Gramsci’s assessment was the refusal of soldiers recruited from rural Sardinia to attack the workers occupying factories in Turin. For Gramsci, this subaltern solidarity—forged in the face of immense geographical and cultural differences—was produced by a recognition of common oppression. The alliance Gramsci witnessed unfolding in Turin suggested broader possibilities for articulating a common front between the peasantry of Southern Italy and the industrial workers of the North, one that might challenge the nationalist rhetoric of the Fascists by emphasizing solidarities born out of a shared fight against exploitative elites.

Gramsci’s astute analysis of the challenges of political mobilization in a time of conservative counterrevolution has much to say to radicals today. The key question of our time is how to defeat a popular authoritarianism whose lineage traces directly back to the Fascist forces Gramsci confronted. Moreover, the questions he addressed concerning the building of solidarities among political groups with very different geographical and cultural backgrounds are remarkably relevant to the present. How can we link diverse frontline communities, such as Indigenous groups who have taken the lead in protecting land and water in rural areas, with urban environmental justice groups that are challenging the disproportionate presence of toxic facilities in communities of color? Further, what stories can we tell and which institutions can we mobilize in order to generate solidarities between those on the frontlines of climate crisis (in both the Global North and South) and the broader publics in wealthy countries, most of whom are not yet deeply impacted by the climate crisis but are nonetheless aware of the hair-raising scientific assessments of it? How can we generate solidarities between people across national borders at a time of rampant xenophobia and racism? And, informing all of the previous questions, how can we rearticulate dominant neoliberal narratives that have inculcated a gloomy sense that the default state of human relations is a war of everyone against everyone else?[12] For many decades, the Left has had its own version of this nihilistic perspective, championing subaltern and fugitive knowledge but holding little hope of overcoming neoliberal hegemony. The insight that the dominance of reactionary forces does not obliterate cultures and acts of resistance is certainly a valuable one, but history has returned us with the greatest urgency to the question of how to articulate these counter-knowledges into a bloc that can take on and defeat popular authoritarianism. Since we are faced with the prospect of planetary ecocide, all of our thinking must center on cracking open vulnerable institutions, exploiting and even producing crises of hegemony, and articulating new, unexpected, and potent solidarities to revive our capacity to shut down fossil capitalism in order to care for one another and the planet.

Kwel’ Hoy!: Many Struggles, One Front

For the last seven years, members of the Lummi Nation have been traveling on Totem Pole Journeys to unite communities on the frontlines of the environmental crises generated by unsustainable fossil fuel projects. The totem poles, which are created by master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James and the House of Tears carvers, are part of a Lummi tradition of carving and delivering totem poles to areas struck by disaster or in need of hope and healing. Seven years ago, the Lummi Nation faced its own potential disaster: the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, the largest coal export facility in North America, was slated to open on tribal lands at Cherry Point, known in the Lummi tongue as Xwe’chi’eXen. Rail lines running from Wyoming and Montana through Idaho, eastern Washington, along the Columbia River Gorge, and then up the coast of Puget Sound would connect to the coal port, where bulk cargo carriers would arrive to ship the coal through the Salish Sea and across the Pacific to Asia. In 2012, the Lummi Nation formally declared their opposition to the project, which they concluded would result in “significant, unavoidable, and unacceptable interference” with treaty rights and “irreversible and irretrievable damage” to Lummi spiritual values. As Lummi Councilman Jay Julius put it, in opposing the proposed coal port, “‘Kwel hoy’: ‘We draw the line.’”[13]

In September 2013, the Lummi Nation launched the Kwel hoy’ Totem Pole Journey to oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal project. The journey began in the Powder River Basin, a region which supplies roughly forty percent of the coal consumed in the US. The totem pole followed the coal train route through Indian country up to Xwe’chi’eXen and then continued on to British Columbia, where it was placed in the homeland of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, demonstrating unity with the Canadian First Nations’ position opposing the transport of tar sands by pipelines across their territories. There, the totem pole was met by members of First Nations who had traveled from all directions to reinforce the message of Kwel hoy’. As the Lummi Nation states, one primary goal of the 1,700-mile long Totem Pole Journey was “to connect tribal nations along the coal corridor.”[14] But the Lummi are clear that the coal port proposal had dire implications not only for the sacred landscapes and treaty rights of Tribal Nations, but for all of the communities in the region. The rallying cry of Kwel hoy’, they argue, brings together the Peoples of the West, whose “communities, commerce, livelihoods, public health, tourism, agriculture, fisheries, air and water safety, natural resources, quality of life would all be adversely impacted.” The journey of the totem pole thus helps forge precisely the kinds of solidarities that Gramsci argued for, linking groups separated not just by geography but also by longstanding cultural traditions of settler colonialism and racism. By bringing “cowboys and Indians” together, Kwel hoy’ generated a new collectivity—the Peoples of the West—who stood together in opposition to the environmental despoliation of fossil capitalism.

Produced by Freddie Lane, a member of the Lummi Nation Tribal Council and a videographer, and Jason Jones of The Natural History Museum, From the Ancestors to the Grandchildren insists that in addition to linking disparate communities in a common struggle, the totem pole journey also identifies connections across time. The video documents a process of temporal articulation that links the Lummi activists of today to their ancestors, who have bequeathed important knowledge about how to maintain sustainable relations with the natural world. These connections across time in turn link the ancestors and warriors of today to future generations, whose fate will be determined by actions in the present. This rearticulation of temporality ruptures the time-order of contemporary capitalism, which is organized around a homogeneous, empty, and eternal present in which the sole claim to meaning is derived from feckless accumulation through various forms of extreme extraction.[15] Rearticulating time challenges the neoliberal dictum that “there is no alternative” (to the present state of affairs). In addition, the totem pole journey and the Indigenous traditions that animate it also make connections between humans and other living creatures visible in what artist-activist Subhankar Banerjee calls “a struggle for multi-species justice.”[16] As Freddie Lane puts it in his voiceover to the video, “The road that leads to death is not an option. The world is not made up of dead objects, resources to be burned. From the ancestors to our grandchildren, we draw the line.”

This line has come to extend across the North American continent. In the spring of 2018, the Lummi Nation and their allies brought a totem pole to New Jersey, where communities faced threats related to those that catalyzed the original Kwel Hoy’ journey. The Marcellus Shale formation, which stretches through western New York and Pennsylvania down to West Virginia, is the biggest natural gas field in the US, and one of the largest in the world.[17] With the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the late 1990s, massive quantities of “natural gas” or methane became relatively easy to exploit. The US is now awash in fracked gas, but all that fossil gas has to be shipped out of rural areas like western Pennsylvania to cities along the coast and to Europe and Asia, where prices for fossil gas are far higher. This has led to a frenzy of fossil infrastructure construction in states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, whose governor signed a ban on fracking but has been more than willing to greenlight pipeline projects. Though the oil industry has assured the public that the pipelines are safe, abundant evidence suggests the opposite. In addition to their frequently leaking and exploding,[18] the pipelines also feature “compressor stations” that belch endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde into the air.[19] In reaction to the massive buildout of fossil infrastructure in the Northeast, communities across states such as New York and New Jersey have mobilized in opposition to these toxic projects.[20]

In 2014, the aptly named Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings development company announced plans to construct a pair of pipelines that would stretch from Albany, New York to Linden, New Jersey, running straight through the territory of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, a group of Munsee-speaking Indigenous people native to the highlands around Mahwah, New Jersey. Two-hundred thousand barrels of crude Bakken shale oil were projected to flow through the pipelines each day, endangering water supplies for one of the most populous regions in the US. Inspired by protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which drew thousands of people to Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2016, the Ramapough mobilized in reaction to this threat to their land and ancestral sacred sites, organizing the Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp along the Ramapo River to resist the Pilgrim Pipeline. Although the Ramapough Nation’s stand against the pipeline was embattled—with the local township penalizing the tribe for raising tepees that allegedly violated zoning regulations—their fight has drawn the support of activists in the area as well as coverage in the national press.[21]

In late April of 2018, leaders from Lummi Nation joined members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation to support the latter’s tribe’s efforts to stop the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline from threatening water and sacred sites.[22] Alongside them were local residents, activists, and scientists from the New York and New Jersey area who are also fighting local pipelines. The protests included the placement of a totem pole and a blessing ceremony on Ramapough land, both of which were also part of Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front, a traveling exhibition organized by the Lummi Nation and The Natural History Museum that drew attention to the efforts of communities across the country to fight the buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure. Following the blessing ceremony on Ramapough land, the Kwel’ Hoy exhibition opened at the Watershed Institute, an organization located just south of Princeton, New Jersey, that is devoted to conservation, education, scientific research, and environmental policy advocacy. According to the institution, the totem pole helped “connect the scientific community’s efforts to protect local watersheds from the proposed PennEast Pipeline to the Ramapough Lenape Nation’s efforts to stop the Pilgrim Pipeline, and to the Lummi’s struggles to protect the waters of the Pacific Northwest from oil tankers and pipelines.”[23]

Liberating Institutions

Speaking about the impact of museums on public consciousness, author and activist Winona LaDuke states that “Most Americans know little about Native people: what they know comes mainly from some history books, a lot from Westerns [movies], and some from a museum. And when we are always frozen in the past, they are surprised when they see us walking someplace and we are still here.”[24] Museums of natural history thus participate in and reinforce what the anthropologist Johannes Fabian called “the denial of coevalness,” the idea that anthropologists are “here and now” while their objects are “there and then,” that non-European people exist in a time not contemporary with that of the West.[25] Cloaking themselves in the mantle of scientific knowledge, anthropologists and the natural history museums that exhibit their findings participate in an inherently violent erasure of the enduring presence and struggles of the people they represent. In depicting Native Americans and other groups as “frozen in the past”––for all intents and purposes as collectively dead––museums participate in ongoing acts of colonial genocide.

The naked oppressiveness of such depictions is obscured, in part, by the aura of objectivity and neutrality cultivated by museums and by science in general. In the wake of the notorious 1996 Sokal affair, in which the cultural studies journal Social Text published a hoax article wherein physicist Alan Sokal purported to show that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct, critic Stanley Aronowitz wrote, “So the issue is not whether reality exists, but whether knowledge of it is ‘transparent.’ Herein lies Sokal’s confusion. He believes that reason, logic, and truth are entirely unproblematic. He has an abiding faith that through the rigorous application of scientific method nature will yield its unmediated truth.”[26] Against Sokal’s insistence on “objective truth,” Aronowitz argued that “The point is not to debunk science or to ‘deconstruct’ it in order to show it is merely a fiction … The point is to show science as a social process, to bring it down to earth, to remove the halo from its head…. If science reflects on the social and cultural influences, on its visions, revisions and its practices, and perhaps more to the point, on its commitments, then there is hope for a liberatory science.”[27] Aronowitz’s points about the need for science to reflect on its influences and its commitments remains salient today. In fact, in the same issue of Social Text in which Sokal’s hoax article was published, eco-socialist scholar Joel Kovel argued in a remarkably prescient essay that the ecological crisis had generated a new conjuncture in which science needs to be reevaluated:

Science can never more be taken at face value. The record of its violations must be held before it: the reduction of the universe to brute, mechanically driven matter, the adjunctive role toward domination. In the present conjuncture, certain aspects of so-called normal science must continue: how, after all, are we to contend with the damage that is being done, or devise appropriate technology for an ecological society, if we reject the collective intelligence embedded in the scientific project? But science has to be reworked for an abnormal conjuncture. The myth of its autonomy from society is gone, perhaps forever. What remains must be refashioned according to the revealed crisis of ecology – science now seen in the light of what it has so far largely expelled. What has been reduced away must be restored: respect for the integrity of complex wholes rather than atomized parts; the primacy of dialectical becoming over static, mechanical being; the recognition of our embeddedness in nature and hence nature’s immanent consciousness and vitality.[28]

Against the naïve belief in scientific neutrality and objective truth that Sokal espoused, Kovel reminds readers of science’s history of ontological reduction and complicity with imperial domination of the natural world and colonized peoples. Yet for Kovel, despite this record of violations, scientific traditions cannot be abandoned, rather they must be remade in light of and in order to address an age of overlapping crises of capital and the environment. Science must be “reworked’ for what Kovel calls “an abnormal conjuncture.”[29] This injunction to transformation applies not simply to science, which must be rearticulated around ideas of commitment and the public good, but also to museums of natural history, where scientific knowledge of the natural world and the West’s (colonized) Others is displayed.

As the group’s name suggests, The Natural History Museum is engaged in precisely such a rearticulation of science and its institutions of representation. As Beka Economopoulos, a member of the group, puts it, The Natural History Museum’s work is animated by a central question: “How can institutions and disciplines that have had fraught histories with Indigenous communities and have been hamstrung from playing a meaningful role in environment and social movements because of the myth of neutrality—how can they reevaluate their roles in the current moment of crisis, perform science and perform solidarity with communities who are most impacted and also showing the greatest leadership in contemporary struggles?”[30] The group’s determination to reorient museums is facilitated by the fact that such institutions are not monolithic entities. Natural history museums are tugged, Jodi Dean argues, between competing imperatives to truth and collective good in the face of opposing political and economic demands.[31] The work of The Natural History Museum exploits and animates potential splits in the museum by challenging museum professionals and scientists to stand up against fossil fuel greenwashing.

The Natural History Museum is not alone in this enterprise. It is part of an upsurge of insurgent movements acting in and against museums around the world, including groups such as Art Not Oil, BP or Not BP, Gulf Labor, Liberate Tate, Occupy Museums, and Decolonize This Place.[32] For many activists working in this terrain, museums are, in the words of the Not An Alternative collective, a “cultural commons.”[33] Along with related institutions such as libraries, universities, and even parliaments, museums are public institutions that “supply an infrastructure for creating and communicating common understandings of the world.” For Not An Alternative, neoliberalism has become hegemonic in part by seizing and repurposing these public institutions: “the capitalist class relies on ideological apparatuses like museums to produce and reproduce the subjects it needs.”[34] As public support for these institutions has dwindled, they have become increasingly dependent on donations from corporations and one percenters that always come with strings attached. The time has come, Not An Alternative argues, to take these institutions back from the oligarchs. To occupy and ultimately liberate an institution is to exploit the fissures within that institution: “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?” Efforts to liberate institutions are certainly not carried out in unanimity; indeed, some of the art activist groups mentioned above have a far more hostile attitude towards the institutions they seek to occupy than The Natural History Museum does, and in fact, some institutions are far more resistant to transformation than others. Nonetheless, while attitudes and tactics may vary, Not An Alternative convincingly argues that the Left’s abandoning of the struggle to liberate institutions in recent decades is a strategic failure: “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.”[35]

The Natural History Museum works in a particularly fraught—and consequential—conjuncture. The group’s activities materialize the links among museums, science, and environmental movements during a time of corporate climate change denial and greenwashing, the Trump administration’s efforts to quash critical research and environmental regulation, and the resurgence of militant Indigenous resistance to planet-annihilating extractivism. This explosive conjuncture shows that the possibilities for cracking open and reorienting particular institutions is a product of the immense pressure such institutions have been placed under by the organic crisis of capitalism. As existing hegemonic alignments have recently come under increasing strain, The Natural History Museum has been able to build coalitions that have won startling victories against fossil capitalism. For example, by helping orchestrate an open letter in which dozens of the world’s top scientists urged museums of science and natural history to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry, The Natural History Museum successfully persuaded a group of such museums to divest. The group then played a pivotal role in removing climate change denier David Koch from the board of the American Museum of Natural History.[36] The extent to which The Natural History Museum has reoriented discourse within museums of science and natural history was apparent when the Carnegie Museum of Natural History—located in Pittsburgh, the heart of fracking country—welcomed the Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line exhibit on the occasion of the International Council of Museums conference on the Anthropocene.

Carnegie Museum director Eric Dorfman’s declaration of his institution’s determination to be an ally to Native Americans—notwithstanding the open challenge the exhibition posed to the fossil capitalist interests that bankroll his institution—testifies to the success that The Natural History Museum has had in turning the museum into a “base of political struggle.” Equally if not more striking is the perception of exhibition visitor Kayah George of the Tsleil-Waututh/Tulalip Tribes that “our voices are being heard, like they should be for the first time in a long time. I believe the message of this totem pole is very clear. It’s the message that we are rising.”[37]

When Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front opened at the Watershed Institute, the rearticulation of museums and conservation institutions, science, and the struggles of frontline communities against ecocide reached a powerful zenith. For Jim Waltman, the executive director of the Watershed Institute, Kwel’ Hoy had a phenomenal impact by bringing the issues on which the organization works to life in the most visceral way and giving everyone connected to the institution a strong sense of solidarity with Indigenous people and people across the world who are fighting the same fossil capitalist foes.[38] The exhibition was laid out in a manner that dramatized this active forging of solidarity. A red line winding across the museum’s walls tracked various examples of the deadly ecologies of fossil capitalism, and then linked these examples to sites of struggle against fossil capitalism, including the Ramapough Lenape Nation’s fight against the Pilgrim Pipeline, the Lummi Nation’s struggle against the Gateway Pacific Terminal project, and the Watershed Institute’s fight against the PennEast Pipeline.

Introducing the Watershed Institute’s mission, Waltman boldly declares that “scientists have an obligation to deploy the tools of science in protection of the environment.” This, he argues, means that “scientists have an obligation to stand up and speak truth to power.”

Included in the exhibit was footage that showed the important role of scientists in documenting the damaging impact of fossil fuel infrastructure on local ecosystems. This includes citizen scientists, among them the thousands of children who attend science camps at the Watershed Institute every summer. Their efforts in discovering and documenting endangered species whose habitats are threatened by fossil fuel infrastructure have been key to fighting back against pipeline projects in the area.

The fate of the PennEast and Pilgrim Pipelines is not yet determined, but construction of fossil fuel infrastructure continues around the country and the world. The US alone is set to drive nearly sixty percent of global growth in oil and gas supply between now and 2030—with plans to expand production by four times the amount of any other country in the world.[39] Upwards of ninety percent of this expansion would depend on fracking, which would bring with it tremendous threats not only of near- and long-term climate change but also air pollution, health risks, and growing competition for water. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on 1.5°C of Global Warming warns that the world needs to cut carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030 to keep warming within that limit. In the face of this deathly prospect, we need, as Lummi Nation activist Freddie Lane puts it, “to summon all the forces of life that run through everything to come together in a common collective fight.” The collaboration among Lummi Nation carvers and activists, The Natural History Museum, and institutions like the Carnegie Museum and the Watershed Institute offers a powerful challenge to the fossil fuel industry. We must build on such hopeful alignments if we are to reroute the road to death that fossil capitalism has put us all on.

My deepest thanks to the members of The Natural History Museum for their collaborative efforts during the period described in this essay. I am also grateful to my research assistant Robin Renée Robinson for her wonderful work during this collaboration. In addition, I am indebted to my colleagues and the staff at the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Center for Humanities at the Graduate Center/CUNY for their support, as well as to the Mellon Foundation, The Environmental Humanities Lab at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and FORMAS, the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development, for their economic support.

Ashley Dawson is Professor of Postcolonial Studies in the English Department at the Graduate Center / City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons(O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change(Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.

“The Art of Articulation” was originally published in Dispatches #002 (April 25, 2019).

  1. [1]Stuart Hall, “Gramsci and Us,” in The Hard Road to Renewal (London: Verso, 1988), 168.
  2. [2]Stuart Hall, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: MacMillan, 1978).
  3. [3]Philip Fearnside, “Why Brazil’s New President Poses an Unprecedented Threat to the Amazon,” Yale Environment 360, November 8, 2018, https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-brazils-new-president-poses-an-unprecedented-threat-to-the-amazon.
  4. [4]Norman Solomon, “AFL-CIO To Planet Earth: Drop Dead,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2016, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/afl-cio-to-planet-earth-d_b_12080618.
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  6. [6]The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, October 2018, https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.
  7. [7]There has, however, been an efflorescence of strategic theorizing over the last few years, one that includes work such as Andrew Boyd and Dave Osward Mitchell’s edited volume Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York: OR Books, 2016); Jeremy Brecher’s Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual (Oakland: PM Press, 2017); adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico: AK Press, 2017); Mark and Paul Engler’s This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (New York: Nation Books, 2017); Jane F. McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To (Chico: AK Press, 2017).
  8. [8]Jeremy Gilbert, Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics (New York: Berg, 2008), 100.
  9. [9]David Featherstone, Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (London: Zed, 2012), 27.
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  11. [11]George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (London: Verso, 2017), 19.
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  13. [13]“About the Journey,” Totempolejourney.com, https://totempolejourney.com/about-the-journey/.
  14. [14]“2013 Totem Pole Journey Archive,” Totempolejourney.com, https://totempolejourney.com/2013-totem-pole-journey-archive-2/.
  15. [15]Christophe Bonneuil, “What Time Will It Be After Capitalism?” Verso Books (website), February 26, 2019, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4252-what-time-will-it-be-after-capitalism.
  16. [16]Subhankar Banerjee, “Resisting the War on Alaska’s Arctic with Multispecies Justice,” Social Text Online, June 7, 2018, https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/resisting-the-war-on-alaskas-arctic-with-multispecies-justice/.
  17. [17]Hobart M. King, “Marcellus Shale – Appalachian Basin Natural Gas Play,” Geology.com, https://geology.com/articles/marcellus-shale.shtml.
  18. [18]Justin Nobel, “The Hidden Risk in the Fracking Boom: Are pipeline safety regulations keeping pace with the flood of natural gas?” Rolling Stone, February 20, 2019, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/pipeline-explosions-fracking-796569/.
  19. [19]Sullivan County Residents Against Millennium, “Millennium Pipeline Highland NY Compressor – FLIR,” YouTube video, 2:39, February 20, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuAJAqwE-G8.
  20. [20]Sane Energy Project, You Are Here, https://www.saneenergy.org/our-programs/you-are-here.
  21. [21]Noah Remnick, “The Ramapoughs vs. the World,” New York Times, April 14, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/14/nyregion/ramapough-tribe-fights-pipeline.html.
  22. [22]Monsy Alvarado, “Totem pole journey highlights Native Americans’ fight against fossil fuel development,” Northjersey.com, April 21, 2018, https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/new-jersey/2018/04/21/totem-pole-journey-highlights-native-americans-fight-against-fossil-fuel-development/536550002/.
  23. [23]“Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front,” website of the Watershed Institute, https://thewatershed.org/kwel-hoy-2/.
  24. [24]The Natural History Museum, “Winona LaDuke: What is the Museum of the Future?” YouTube video, 1:08, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SxjkaYypLk&index=13&list=UUMBBYHDnN2tSX_iMOET3ReQ.
  25. [25]Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Objects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
  26. [26]Stanley Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgression,’” Dissent 44 (Winter 1997): 107–110.
  27. [27]Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgression,’” 107 (emphasis original).
  28. [28]Joel Kovel, “Dispatches from the Science Wars,” Social Text 46/47 (Spring–Summer 1996): 171.
  29. [29]Kovel, “Dispatches,” 171.
  30. [30]Beka Economopoulos, in conversation with the author, January 23, 2019.
  31. [31]Jodi Dean, “Exhibiting Division, Seizing the State: The Natural History Museum,” in Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene, ed. Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw (London: Routledge, 2018), 205–222.
  32. [32]Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation,” e-flux journal 77 (November 2016), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/77/76215/institutional-liberation/.
  33. [33]It should be noted that The Natural History Museum is an institution born out of the Not An Alternative collective.
  34. [34]Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation.”
  35. [35]“Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation.”
  36. [36]“Open Letter from Scientists to the American Museum of Natural History,” January 25, 2018, http://thenaturalhistorymuseum.org/open-letter-from-scientists-to-the-american-museum-of-natural-history/. See also John Schwartz, “Science Museums Urged to Cut Ties With Kochs,” New York Times, March 24, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/science/science-museums-urged-to-cut-ties-with-kochs.html.
  37. [37]The Natural History Museum, “Kwel Hoy – Totem Pole JourneyExhibition at The Carnegie Museum Of Natural History,” YouTube video, 3:56, January 21, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9hQu5Iydec&list=UUMBBYHDnN2tSX_iMOET3ReQ&index=14.
  38. [38]Jim Waltman, in conversation with the author, February 13, 2019.
  39. [39]Kelly Trout, “The U.S. Oil and Gas Industry is Drilling Us Towards Climate Disaster,” Oil Change International (blog), January 16, 2019, http://priceofoil.org/2019/01/16/us-oil-and-gas-industry-is-drilling-us-towards-climate-disaster/.

PHONE INTERVIEW WITH STEVE LYONS AND JASON JONES OF NOT AN ALTERNATIVE / THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM. NEW YORK/MONTREAL/VIENNA, 3.3.2017The Natural History Museum (NHM) was founded to disentangle museums of science and natural history from insidious relationships to the fossil fuel industry. The NHM is anchored in the history of institutional critique: it insists that institutional critique should not be an end unto itself, underlining that public institutions are worth fighting for. Treating institutions as “forms to be seized and connected into a counterpower infrastructure,” The Natural History Museum models a path from institutional critique to “institutional liberation.”[1]

The NHM was founded by Not An Alternative (NAA), an activist art collective that established a coworking and event space in Brooklyn in 2003. The members come from NGO careers, politicised art school backgrounds, as well as the fields of art history, political theory, geography, and graphic design. In its early years, NAA hosted public programs that integrated conversations occurring in activist circles, where the group developed relationships beyond their immediate community. NAA has always held a relationship to art and artists but has never viewed the art world as its primary or ultimate destination.

As we begin our conversation about the beginnings of NAA and how they developed the Natural HIstory Museum, Jason talks about producing campaigns based on critical theory. Refusing dominant forms of individual studio art practice, NAA sought a means of translating theoretical practice for a larger social context: “plugging artists and theorists into social movement and community organisation.” 

Fig. 1 — The Natural History Museum, workshop, 2014. The Natural History Museum workshops train participants to take the view of museum anthropologists who are attuned to the social and political forces shaping nature. Photograph by The Natural History Museum.

cc.cc: What is “Not An Alternative”?

Jason: The name Not An Alternative is a spin on Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan “There is no alternative.” The phrase expresses a defining feature of neoliberal doctrine: that there is no exterior to the capitalist system. We wanted to promote a misreading of Thatcher’s words, to invert her intention to foreclose alternatives in advance. With a slight twist, we shifted her statement from something in the negative to nothing in the positive. “Not An Alternative” points to the repressed Other of neoliberal capitalism, the outside that is present as an exclusion.

We are interested in a militant practice of political art instead of a practice of art that is standardised and abbreviated – art that is invested in and appreciated for transforming aesthetic and political relations. We are interested in the common, in claiming the position of that which is common. Every subject is a battleground between the interest of a few and the interest of the many. We live in a capitalist context that has much to do with privatizing space, making symbols, creating brands, and using PR to centralise power and control. But capitalism’s capture of the commons is only partial. Commodities exist in relation to the commons they have been extracted from; they maintain this common dimension. We imagine that this common dimension can be claimed.

Steve: Most of our work has been about pointing to the limits of given systems. In 2010, we programmed a series of events called “Participationism and the Limits of Collaboration.” Around this time much of the art world was going wild about socially engaged and participatory art and it seemed like, for many artists and curators, participation was an end goal in itself. “Participationism” was our neologism for the pervasive belief that participation was inherently political. We wanted to intervene into the emerging discourse on participatory art. We argued that facilitating participation itself was insufficient. For a participatory practice to hold any kind of activist import or political consequence, it would need to be directed towards an end. 

cc.cc: I remember those days. The nightmare of participation is real. It even led a few curators to coin the term ‘New Institutionalism’ to designate a kind of cultural executive practice that considered the exhibition to be a social project.[2]

Steve: The discourse on participation tends to be bound together with the discourse on democracy, universal inclusion and consensus decision-making. What is necessarily excluded when we look through the lens of democracy or through the metaphor of ecology, for example? How does this capture and neutralize the forces of antagonism and struggle internal to any system? Badiou talks about “dislodging the democratic emblem.” A lot of our work takes a similar track. We want to identify the limits of a given system by describing what is constitutively excluded by it.

Jason: I recommend reading the text on “The Limits of Collaboration” by Astra Taylor on our website. http://notanalternative.org/2010/05/14/the-limits-of-collaboration/ 

cc.cc: Can you talk about NAA’s trajectory, from its early formation as an artist-run space to its current work with the NHM?

Steve: It could be said that there have been three distinct periods in NAA’s history: before Occupy, in which we were running our programming space and collaborating with grassroots organizations on campaigns and direct actions; during Occupy, in which we put all of our resources toward maintaining a rapid-response workshop for movement visuals and props; and after Occupy, when we started The Natural History Museum.

Jason: Around 2008–2009, we started working with the group Picture the Homeless, a homeless-founded grassroots organisation based in New York City. They were working on projects to raise awareness about housing rights by staging occupations on empty lots in the city. We worked with them to build a tent city. Our role in their work was to practically embed our experience with direct action into their campaign, and to think tactically about how Picture the Homeless could pull off unauthorized occupations in broad daylight. They produced the messaging, and we facilitated the communication, helped organize the tent city, and helped establish a visual narrative for their campaign. We released a video that spoke to their issues and documented the occupation without mentioning our role in the campaign. We told the New York Times that we were not part of the story. We kept ourselves anonymous within it. Only three months later, we released another video that included our role in the occupation.

This was around the time of the 2008 economic crash. We felt that one of the best ways to make visible the contradictions that the crash represented was by intervening in the discourse around space. Most visibly, we had luxury condos going up all over the place while many others were foreclosed. Around us, warehouse properties were held empty by landowners while families were kicked out of their homes. We saw so many empty spaces while more and more people were homeless. This spatial contradiction seemed important. With this work, we were beginning to experiment with using the symbols of construction and authority over space to claim a new authority. In New York, construction work tends to point toward the further privatisation and gentrification of the city. But at the same time, there is a public dimension to the signifiers of construction (barricades, caution tape, etc). Just as they can be used to protect private property, they can also be used to claim a public sphere. Our intention was to push this visual language so that it expressed something about the commons. 

By 2011 we had created our own little infrastructure and institution that was prepared for Occupy Wall Street. Many meetings were held in our space, and we were very involved from the beginning of OWS. When Zuccotti Park was occupied in September 2011, we opened a 1500 sq. ft. production space for visual materials. Most of our work was produced anonymously. We didn’t have a stake in becoming known as OWS artists. We wanted to create a visual language in common that connected OWS to other occupations happening around the world, one that everyone could use and iterate on, and one that could grow from there. We had already built up a visual language that played on the symbols of public authority. OWS presented a context where we could put it into action.

After OWS we started The Natural History Museum.

cc.cc: How was all this funded?

Jason: Until OWS we asked for donations at events. We made everything from cardboard.  Our space was a co-working office during the day. Two people also lived there, and we covered the costs ourselves. With OWS we had no interest in being part of the General Assembly (GA). Petitioning the GA for funds was impossible. We put together a portfolio of our previous and ongoing work and sent it to people who knew our practice and our reputation for successfully plugging art strategies into activist work. A segment of the art world became interested in our practice. We would do talks in institutional spaces quite often. This visibility helped legitimize us as an alternative space and an activist art collective. We were supported by private donors, Kickstarter, and our own part-time work. Beka [Economopoulos, co-founder of NAA] was working as consultant, strategist, and organiser. I worked as a designer and did video work as a freelance contractor. 

cc.cc: How long was the transition between between NAA’s Occupy-related work and the founding of the NHM? 

Jason: One year of transition. During that time, we were producing visuals and delivering them to people around the country, to groups at Gezi Park in Istanbul and Occupy Homes, a coalition of activists working to occupy foreclosed properties around the U.S. There was a global infrastructure set up around the name of Occupy, which is not to say that groups identifying with the name Occupy necessarily agreed with each other. We saw a certain power to maintaining and strengthening that Occupy infrastructure for as long as possible. So we tried making NAA our full-time practice. We did freelance contract work for the same groups we had worked with before Occupy but acknowledged our collective identity as Not An Alternative within these collaborations. 

Fig. 2 — The Natural History Museum, Kick Koch off the Board, 2015. The Natural History Museum joined forces with 150 of the world’s top scientists, including several Nobel laureates, and more than 550,000 members of the public to urge New York’s American Museum of Natural History to kick climate denier David Koch off its board. After 23 years on the board, Koch resigned amid controversy in December 2015. Graphic by The Natural History Museum.

After a year, an organization approached us with a proposal for a campaign to pressure the fossil fuel oligarch David Koch to pay for the restoration of New York following Hurricane Sandy. We started working on the project, but quickly felt the limitations of the campaign and decided to step down. However, in the research process, we discovered that Koch, who is a noted science denier and major funder of climate-science disinformation, sat on the board of the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The blatant contradiction this exposed between the ideals and practice of two of the largest natural history museums in the country made it a logical target for an NAA-led creative campaign.

We pitched the idea of building a campaign to get Koch kicked off the board of the AMNH. We proposed the establishment of a new institution that would operate both as an actual museum and an institutional foundation for a long-term pressure campaign. The NGO that wanted to hire us didn’t like that idea, but we did it anyway. We applied for funding from the Chorus Foundation and Voqal Fund and were successful. This allowed us to buy the infrastructure to launch the NHM. We bought a huge tent which would be the NHM’s temporary home base. The tent referenced temporary emergency response infrastructure, but also correlated to the occupations that had been spreading across public squares around the world in 2009-12. We bought a large format printer. We bought an airport bus and had it custom-wrapped with NHM graphics. We wanted to make it look like the NHM was not just a creative campaign but a real institution. We thought that a campaign directed at a major natural history museum would only work if it harnessed a kind of institutional legitimacy. We opted to strategically “fake it till we made it.”

Fig. 3 — The Natural History Museum, Expedition Bus, 2014. 15-passenger bus on site at the People’s Climate March, New York, September 21, 2014. Photograph by The Natural History Museum.

Steve: We also staged photographs, bought the domain name thenaturalhistorymuseum.org, and populated our website with programs and workshops that were at that point only ideas—models for future programs. We established a mission and assembled an advisory board of influential actors in the fields of museums and environmental activism, like former director of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum James Powell, prominent museologist Robert R. Janes, and author Naomi Klein. In developing our advisory board, we wanted to create strategic alliances with people whose work we valued but we also understood that the advisory board could also help legitimise the NHM within the museum sector.  

Occupying institutionality is as much a design problem as an administrative one. Our initial solution to that problem was to build this infrastructure (the bus, tent, website, publicity materials), these pieces that could allow us to represent the NHM in the language of the museum sector, which we knew very little about. We hadn’t done much research about the field before we launched the project. We were working on instinct and assumptions. But we quickly learned that the museum sector was networked through a series of national and international museum associations and conventions.

cc.cc: How did the NHM situate itself within the museum sector and work with its networks and codes? 

Steve: A few months after our launch, we were approached by one of the directors of the American Alliance of Museums—the world’s largest museum association—and we were offered the largest exhibition space at the 2015 AAM convention at the Atlanta Convention Center. It felt like a huge deal, like we had weaseled our way into the sector like a trojan horse. We used this as an opportunity to provoke the sector in a fairly blunt way. We produced an exhibition about the entanglement of museums with fossil fuel industry interests, singling out Koch’s position at the AMNH and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. This corresponded to the launch of our Kick Koch Off the Board campaign, where we released a letter signed by 150 top scientists and a petition that gained 550,000 signatures and media hits around the world. As part of our AAM exhibit, we recreated a series of dioramas from the AMNH, augmenting them to include previously excluded socio-political content—in this case, the fact that a major funder of climate denial held a leadership role in two of the country’s largest museums of natural history. One of our reworked dioramas appropriated a display from the AMNH’s 2009 climate change exhibit, which featured a polar bear standing on a pile of trash. We reproduced this almost identically but inserted a Koch Industries pipeline into the trash pile. Our exhibition felt like an alien intervention into the exhibition hall of the AAM convention, a blunt provocation within a trade-show environment. We had nothing to sell but an idea. From there we started testing our first hypotheses about how to work within the museum sector. We continue to go to these conventions, not as provocateurs but as researchers and organizers.

Jason: Institutions are formal and informal constellations and vocabularies that represent power. They are held together by the common understanding that they represent. They have both an official and unofficial status. In their official status, they represent the people from the perspective of dominant power. But the symbolic vocabulary established and ordered by the institution is never total. Institutions and institutional perspectives also have the potential to be struggled over by a larger collective body of people whose knowledge and awareness exceeds the symbolic vocabulary established by power. Between those two factions there is a lot of fluidity, more than people would typically think. Our entry point is in the gap between the official ownership and common ownership of institutional symbols. 

Steve: The dominant perception within the anti-institutional left, especially after 1968, has been that institutions are co-opting machines, monoliths, expressions of dominant power. We started the project with a different set of assumptions. We consider cultural institutions not as monolithic totalities marked by ideological consistency, but rather as collective infrastructures marked by internal divisions, conflicting value systems, and dissatisfaction from within. When Jason discusses the institution as a split subject, I would add that that split manifests in actual ongoing struggles behind closed doors. People who work in cultural institutions don’t unilaterally agree, and in fact many are already sympathetic to critique from the outside. Our job is to give our comrades on the inside of institutions an alternative to point to, and to gather up enough popular pressure to force decisions that are sometimes already on the table. 

cc.cc: NAA is one of several art collectives pressuring for change at large-scale museums around the world. Do you situate the NHM within this broader tendency in art activism? 

Steve: Definitely. In advance of the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, several of us at the NHM were seeing a lot of excitement about what Liberate Tate was accomplishing in the U.K., and began thinking about how our work in the U.S. could be more directly linked to the work they were doing. We wanted to use the Paris Climate Summit as an opportunity to coordinate our efforts with other groups that were leveraging power against fossil fuel sponsors in cultural institutions.

So we raised some money, and we were able to bring together members of Liberate Tate, BP or not BP (U.K.), and Science Unstained (U.K.), Stopp Oljesponssing av Norsk Kulturliv (Norway), G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction, U.S.), Occupy Museums (U.S.) and other groups invested in museum activism. For two days, we sat around a table discussing commonalities in our tactics, goals and ambitions. We also considered how we might extend and strengthen the common visual language between groups so our localized actions could be more recognizable as part of a global fossil-fuel-free culture movement. We then had a number of meetings with art theorists associated with Liberate Tate and G.U.L.F. to think through the meaning of our collective efforts and how they both converged with and diverged from earlier practices associated with institutional critique. One of the outcomes of that interaction was “Institutional Liberation,” an essay published in e-flux journal. We describe institutional liberation as a collective practice geared toward liberating institutions from capitalist class interests.

Jason: A documented example of this project was a collective action that took place at the Louvre [which is sponsored by the fossil fuel companies Total and Eni] during the Paris COP.

Steve: The Louvre action was a one-off. Since then, 350.org started a campaign at the Louvre and a group of activists launched the direct action collective Libérons le Louvre, although those projects emerged independently from our action. Our main agenda in Paris was to build connections and think together about how our various projects could be more powerful if they were anchored within a coordinated movement, but also to clarify divisions between groups as well as the approaches, theories and angles taken by each.

Jason: It all related back to the event we did with Hans Haacke, Mark Dion, and Gavin Grindon at Queens Museum in 2014. Hans and Mark have played a role in shaping two generations of institutional critique. While our work has always been informed by their practices, with the NHM we want to consider how the practice of institutional critique can be used as a vehicle to build counterpower. Liberate Tate also holds a strong connection to the history and practice of institutional critique but they are taking it further, not only by pointing out divisions within the institution, but also by seizing on these divisions to force the institution to stand with the people and against the corporations that have used it as a public relations tool for twenty-something years. How can you leverage a critique of institutions to force a division into the open, and then to use that rupture to force a decision?

We did that simply with the Koch campaign. Koch was a low hanging fruit. Here we have an anti-science oligarch on the board of a major science institution. This was an overt contradiction. By bringing that contradiction to the attention of the public, we could create a moment of controversy to pressure the institution to respond. With the Koch campaign, a Haacke-esque gesture of institutional critique became the basis for a campaign. Six months after we launched that campaign, he resigned from the board of the AMNH, a position he had held for twenty-three years. This wasn’t our end-goal. We didn’t even expect it to happen. We see it as a symbolic gesture, something concrete to point toward as we continue to pressure institutions to align themselves with a more radical self-understanding. 

This interview was originally published in continent. 7.1 (March 2018): 74-80.

  1. [1]Not An Alternative (2016), Institutional Liberation, e-flux journal, #77 (November): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/77/76215/institutional-liberation/
  2. [2]Kolb, J., & Flückinger, G. (2013). New Institutionalism Revisited. On Curating, (21), 6–15. http://www.on-curating.org/issue-21-reader/new-institutionalism-revisited.html