All Institutional Liberation Events

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

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

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

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


Grand Canyon National Park in October 2016. HarshLight / Flickr

Which People?

US national parks do not have a rosy founding story.

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

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

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

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

Double Agencies

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Resistance

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

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

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

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

The interest of the commons is coming into view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Tactics to Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free the Institutions!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change

The challenge of politics in the Anthropocene is a matter of perspective: we can’t look at climate change directly. We look for patterns and estimate probabilities, relying on multiple disparate measurements. We see in parts: the melting ice caps, glaciers, and permafrost; the advancing deserts and diminishing coral reefs; the disappearing coastlines and the migrating species. Evidence becomes a matter of extremes as extremes themselves become evidence of an encroaching catastrophe that has already happened: the highest recorded temperatures, the hockey stick of predicted warming, sea-level rise, and extinction. Once we see it—the “it” of climate change encapsulated into a data point or disastrous image—it’s too late. For what and for whom remains unsaid, unknowable.[1]

Climate change tethers us to a perspective that oscillates between the impossible and the inevitable, already and not yet, everywhere but not here, not quite. Slavoj Zizek reminds us that such oscillation indexes the “too much or too little” of enjoyment (jouissance). For psychoanalysis, particularly in Lacan’s teaching, enjoyment is a special substance, that intense pleasure/pain that makes life worth living and some things worth dying for. We will do anything to get what we think we will enjoy. We then discover after we get it that it wasn’t what we really desired after all. Enjoyment is what we want but can’t get and what we get that we don’t want.[2]

Currents of Left anthropocenic enjoyment circulate via evocations of unprecedented, unthinkable catastrophe: the end of the world, the end of the human species, the end of civilization.[3] Prophetic Cassandras condemn all around them for our profligacy, even as they imply that there isn’t anything we can do. The damage has already been done. The perfect storm of planetary catastrophe, species condemnation, and paralyzed incapacity lets the Left enjoy in ways that ongoing deprivation, responsibility, and struggle do not. Left anthropocenic enjoyment thereby feeds on the disaster capitalist enjoyment produces. More, more, more; endless circulation, dispossession, destruction, and accumulation; ceaseless, limitless death. Incapacitated by magnitude, boggled by scale, the Left gets off on moralism, complexity, and disaster—even as politics continues, the politics of a capitalist class determined to profit from catastrophe.

If fascination with climate change’s anthropocenic knot of catastrophe, condemnation, and paralysis lures the Left into the loop of capitalist enjoyment, an anamorphic gaze can help dislodge us. “Anamorphosis” designates an image or object that seems distorted when we look at it head on but that appears clearly from another perspective. Jacques Lacan (1998) emphasizes that anamorphosis demonstrates how the space of vision isn’t reducible to mapped space. It includes the point from which we see. Space can be distorted, depending on how we look at it. Apprehending what is signiWcant, then, may require “escaping the fascination of the picture” by adopting another perspective, a partial or partisan perspective, the perspective of a part. From a partisan perspective, the whole will not appear as a whole. It will appear with a hole. The perspective from which the hole appears is that of the subject—that is, of the gap that the shift to a partisan perspective opens up.

When we try to grasp climate change directly, we trap ourselves in distortions that fuel the reciprocal fantasies of planetary-scale geoengineering and postcivilizational neoprimitivism. The immensity of the calamity of the changing climate—with attendant desertiWcation, ocean acidiWcation, and species loss—seemingly forces us into seeing all or nothing. If we don’t grasp the issue in its enormity, we miss it entirely. When we approach climate change indirectly, from the side, however, other openings, political openings, become visible. Rather than being ensnared by our fascination with an illusory anthropocenic whole, we cut across and through, gaining possibilities for collective action and strategic engagement.

Here are some examples of approaching climate change from the side. Christian Parenti (2011) emphasizes the “catastrophic convergence” of poverty, violence, and climate change. He draws out the uneven and unequal impacts of planetary warming on areas already devastated by capitalism, racism, colonialism, and militarism. From this angle, policies aimed at redressing and reducing economic inequality appear as necessary adaptations to a changing climate. In a similar vein, but on a different scale, activists focused on pipeline and oil and gas storage projects target the fossil fuel industry as the infrastructure of climate change, the central component of warming’s means of reproduction. Instead of exemplifying a tired politics of locality, infrastructure struggles pursue the anamorphic politics of climate change. They don’t try to address the whole of the causes and effects of global warming. They approach it from the side, the side of its infrastructural supports.

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

The NHM, the new project of the art, activist, and theory collective Not An Alternative, likewise pursues an anamorphic politics. In this ongoing performance, Not An Alternative adopts the legitimating aesthetics, pedagogical models, and presentation forms of natural history museums in support of a divisive perspective on science, nature, and capitalism. With the NHM, Not An Alternative does not try to present climate change directly or nature as a whole. Instead, the project approaches our setting from the side, through examinations of labor history, social movements, public relations, and practices of science communication. The NHM puts displays on display, transferring our attention to the infrastructures supporting what and how we see. Its anamorphic gaze is avowedly partisan, a political approach to climate change in the context of a museum culture that revels in its “authoritative neutrality.” The NHM activates the natural history museum’s claim to serve the common, thereby dividing the museum from within: anyone connected to the museum sector, anyone tasked with communicating science and natural history to a wider public, has to take a side. Do they stand with collectivity and the common or with oligarchs, private property, and the fossil fuel industry?

This essay focuses on the innovative artistic and political practice evinced by the NHM. I situate the project in Not An Alternative’s work as politically engaged artists, attending to some of the ways the NHM responds to problems that arise in the overlap of socially engaged art and institutional critique, understanding this response as lessons for politics in the Anthropocene.[4] The NHM is, first, a platform for political organizing that treats the museum, science, and nature as sites of struggle. As a platform, the NHM moves beyond socially engaged art’s creation of experiences and valuation of participation for its own sake to function as an organizing tool for building divisive political power. The NHM, second, is an artistic project that confiscates the form of the natural history museum in order to direct us toward what the museum as an institution excludes—namely, the place of power and politics in determining how we see and what is possible. Extending institutional critique (work from artists such as Hans Haacke, Fred Wilson, Mark Dion, and Andrea Fraser), the NHM locates the limits to a system within the system. The repercussion is that working within a system becomes not cooptation and complicity but occupation and seizure. Consequently, third, the NHM is a theoretical laboratory for experiments in seizing the state by seizing the institutions that transmit knowledge and legitimacy—experiments, in other words, in the building of a counterpower infrastructure. The wide array of operations that constitute the project demonstrate a capacity for political organization and strategy, one the can be adopted, amplified, and extended. In fact, Not An Alternative’s NHM is a project that shares with other recent projects an emphasis on the politics of the institution: for example, Jonas Staal’s New World Summit and Liberate Tate’s efforts to liberate cultural institutions from the oil industry, specifically BP. In contrast with Left anthropocenic enjoyment of failure, moralism, and catastrophe, lessons in institutionality hold open the promise of and need for collective struggle.

Too many contemporary discussions of the Anthropocene so obscure the organization of people—our institutions, systems, and arrangements of power, production, and reproduction—that they appear only as distortions. Everything is active except for us. In contrast with emphases on nonhumans, actants, and vibrant matter, I am interested in the political subject as it registers in the gap between the haste of an action and the retroactive determination of this precipitous act as the act of a collective political subject.[5] We shouldn’t undermine collective political power in the name of a moralistic horizontalism of humans and nonhumans. We should work to generate collective power and mobilize it in an emancipatory egalitarian direction, a direction incompatible with the continuation of capitalism and hence a direction necessarily partisan and divisive. The NHM, along with other projects of institutional liberation, pushes the imagining, production, and organization of such a power in the context of the resource struggles of the Anthropocene. Through their work, the people appear with a capacity to effect political change.

Figure 2. Not An Alternative demonstration and attempted occupation of a park following the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, 2011. Photograph by Not An Alternative.

Figure 3. Not An Alternative candlelight vigil following the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, 2011. Photograph by Not An Alternative.

Figure 4. Not An Alternative, Occupy Town Square, and Pratt Disaster Resilience Network directing residents impacted by Superstorm Sandy to relief stations administered by Occupy organizers. Photograph by Not An Alternative.

Institutionality, at a Minimum

As is clear from its name, Not An Alternative twists Margaret Thatcher’s infamous “there is no alternative” to shift from something in the negative to nothing in the positive. This “nothing” is an interior antagonism, an object’s nonidentity with itself, the inherent limit of a system, or the gap constitutive of the subject. Not An Alternative’s projects aim to find and occupy the impossible instances of a given system, splitting the system by forcing its internal limits back onto it and seizing the common, egalitarian potential that is already present.[6] Forcing of a lack opens the space of the subject; seizing the common demonstrates fidelity to the people as that subject.

Not An Alternative developed its position in part via a critique of communicative capitalism—more specifically, via a critique of the injunction to participate that infuses the contemporary intertwining of democracy and capitalism. In a context where activists and artists were repeating communicative capitalism’s demand for participation as if participation were in and of itself a radical or emancipatory act, Not An Alternative emphasized how networked media involves us in building the traps that ensnare us. The group explains, “We come up with new forms and they are integrated directly as fuel for a system that is fundamentally unsustainable. Our solutions are sucked into the brand identities of institutions. As Not An Alternative, we are not interested in the production of solutions or the inclusion of new subjectivities or symbols, but rather the excavation and occupation of existing ones, revealing an inherent split” (Donovan). Under conditions of the proliferation of memes and images, of capitalist efforts to identify and monetize whatever is new and different and intense competition for positions, recognition, and capital, producing the new feeds the system. In the name of democratic participation, artists and activists end up reinforcing dominant processes of multiplication and diffusion.[7] Treating democracy as the value to be realized, they proceed as if politics were nothing more than social engagement. The role of the artist then becomes creating new openings through which people might engage and be engaged. Not An Alternative breaks with socially engaged art in that it views politics antagonistically. Political art should occupy division and force the institution to take a side.

Not An Alternative’s work takes the form of installations, interventions in arts institutions and public spaces, and political collaborations. Collaborations have been with community groups (for example, Occupy Sandy and Picture the Homeless, a housing advocacy group in NYC), activist campaigns (Strike Debt), and social movements (Occupy Wall Street, antiforeclosure, climate justice). In these collaborations, Not An Alternative has two aims: to find the limits of a given system and to assemble a symbolic infrastructure that links groups and actions, making disparate actions and campaigns legible as fronts in one struggle. So even as Not An Alternative’s work stretches from video and performance, through museums and urban spaces, to research and organizing, it is marked by what Yates McKee (2013) calls a “militant uniformity.” This militant uniformity comes from the common, the visual systems that continue to signify some minimal degree of institutionality in our setting of the decline of symbolic efficiency.

Not An Alternative came up with Occupy’s black-and- yellow symbolic infrastructure (McKee 2014). This infrastructure takes the color scheme and style associated with public works such as construction sites and highway caution signage and puts it in the hands of the people. With this visual infrastructure, Not An Alternative presented the occupation in terms of what was common: common tactics carried out under a name in common. Rather than a marker left by capitalism and the state, the signage points to the common interest of the people, to the division they share in common. When activists reappropriate warning tape and caution signage, they force the question: in whose interest is power exercised? During Occupy, the “militant uniformity” of the yellow and black helped make a collective subject present to itself, enabling it to feel itself as a collective force.

Likewise, in contrast with the familiar critique of representation, Not An Alternative demonstrated the power of representation.[8] It pulled out a visual element of the movement—tents— forcing acknowledgement of the way tents already functioned as clear symbols of occupation. Where various activist, artistic, and theoretical voices reject representation for its inevitable omissions, a rejection anchored in the fantasy of a pure, complete, and direct representation, a fantasy of absolute and unmediated inclusion, Not An Alternative recognizes that representations attempt to produce their subjects (Steyerl, 17).[9] A shared image or point of identification, a name in common, affects those who identify it as a marker of collectivity—whether they identify with it as their own or see it as designating an enemy. Because of Occupy, tents assumed a political meaning that had remained implicit in their range of appearings in refugee camps and the temporary encampments that sprung up outside U.S. cities in the economic downturn. People were asserting themselves in places where they did not belong, refusing to accept any longer the barriers posed by capital and the state. Whether or not every occupier was actually living in a tent, tents signified occupation, pressing the divisive claim of the people against the one percent. Not An Alternative’s “mili-tents,” carried in actions and attached to walls even after police had cleared all the occupiers out of Zuccotti Park, both pointed to the fundamental division in capitalism that Occupy asserted and highlighted the symbolic infrastructure the movement itself was producing.

Not An Alternative’s practice is situated in the overlap between socially engaged art and “institutional critique.” Initially appearing at the end of the 1960s, institutional critique has gone through two and arguably even three waves.[10] Given current discussion of these waves, it is perhaps most accurate to locate Not An Alternative’s practice in the critique of institutional critique that emerged in the second and third waves in the 1990’s and 2000’s; to locate it, in other words, in institutional critique’s own self-reflection.

The first wave of institutional critique developed an immanent critique of the institution of art, applying to museums normative criteria that the museums themselves claimed to hold. Crucial to this critique was the exposure not simply of the market dimension of art but of the role of class in determining what counts as art and the role of art in establishing the signifiers of class.[11] Artists such as Hans Haacke, a key influence on Not An Alternative, extended the idea of the “institution” beyond spaces for the teaching, viewing, production, and selling of art to encompass “the network of social and economic relationships between them” (Fraser, 412).

The second wave of institutional critique focused on the limits of institutional critique. Did institutional critique’s dependence on the institution it was critiquing in some way compromise it, making it just as guilty and complicit as the gallery or museum? Did attempts to find loci of independence backfire when an institution happily sponsored “external” critical perspectives as aesthetic events from which the institution itself was critically shielded or immunized, its political credentials established by the fact of its sponsorship? As Fraser argues in her influential 2006 essay, “It is artists—as much as museums or the market— who, in their very efforts to escape the institution of art, have driven its expansion. With each attempt to evade the limits of institutional determination, to embrace an outside, to redefine art or reintegrate it into everyday life, to reach ‘everyday’ people and work in the ‘real’ world, we expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it” (414). Inclusion in the institution serves as the very means by which political effects are precluded, deactivated. Expanding the frame spreads political deactivation. Once everything is art, included within and supporting the institutional frame, nothing is political.

Not An Alternative accepts Fraser’s point that escape is impossible— there is no outside. With Lacanian theory as an explicit part of its practice, Not An Alternative locates the limit within the institution.[12] No institution is fully self-identical. Institutions are split between the ideals they espouse and their actual practices, between the practices they openly acknowledge and the obscene rituals they have to deny. Not An Alternative thus turns the institution against itself, siding with its better nature, and forcing others to take a side. It looks for allies, “double agents” already working within the institution, reinforces them, and in so doing activates the power that is already there. So rather than just making complicity with state and capital visible, Not An Alternative treats institutions as forms to be seized and connected into a counterpower infrastructure. Fraser writes, “It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to” (416). Emphasizing the “we,” Fraser points to the necessity of a partisan position. Not just any values, and certainly not all values, are politically compatible with the institution “we” are. The institution is the site of a larger struggle, a territory or apparatus that can be commandeered.

This is the overlap between Not An Alternative’s critique of participation and its institutional critique. In each case it emphasizes the importance of division, taking a side. Not An Alternative rejects the supposition of some socially engaged art that the goal is creative experience and inclusive participation. Instead, it embraces militant opposition, tight organizational forms, and the aggregated power of institutions. It insists as well on the struggle that continues within any group, form, or institution. Division goes all the way down. Self-identity is a fantasy. Not An Alternative further rejects both the melancholic claims of contemporary depoliticization and a politics thought in terms of resistance, insurrection, playful aesthetic disruptions, and the establishment of momentary relations of community and belonging. It aims to occupy institutions, build counterpower infrastructure, and develop strategies. Not An Alternative rejects familiar calls for innovation. Instead, it salvages the generic images, practices, institutions, and forms that have already compiled and stored collective power. Here it claims the continued power of communism as the name for an anticapitalism oriented toward the collective desire for collectivity.

To sum up, for Not An Alternative, institutions are sites of collective power. It models a Leninist strategy for seizing the state under conditions of communicative capitalism as it takes over available signifying modes and reclaims the communicative common of language, ideas, knowledge, and affects. This is a politics of organization, infrastructure, and counterpower. To the extent that Not An Alternative’s projects do not simply create momentary social relations or open participatory social spaces but actually build a partisan counterpower infrastructure, their work moves beyond socially engaged art to the art of political engagement; an art that, no longer confined with the suppositions of a democratic imaginary, takes communism as its horizon.

Figure 5. The NHM, workshop, 2014. NHM workshops train participants to take the view of museum anthropologists who are attuned to the social and political forces shaping nature. Photograph by the NHM.

Being the Museum

Not An Alternative’s current multiyear project, the NHM, employs the visual and communicative practices of natural history museums to perform a sort of “people’s natural history”—that is to say, a natural history that includes the struggles of the oppressed and laboring classes. Instead of relying on aesthetic gestures of critique, irony, or the retreat into poetic reverie found in some ecological art, Not An Alternative takes on the generic form of the natural history museum. Becoming the institution allows it to incorporate sincerity, commitment, partisanship, and truth into a politically engaged artwork. The NHM isn’t a joke or a stunt. It’s a registered member of the American Alliance of Museums. It has a board that includes prominent scientists (James Powell), artists (Mark Dion), and environmental activists (Naomi Klein). It doesn’t exist as a building. It exists as an insistent collective perspective on the common.

As an artistic project, the NHM installs a gap between the expectations associated with the natural history museum form and its own displays. These include re-creations of dioramas from other natural history museums as well as letters, petitions, campaigns, articles, and events authorized by the museum. By exhibiting how nature appears, the NHM opens up not only the irreducibility of nature to its appearing but also the gap of human systems, perceptions, and institutions within nature. This gap forces “visitors” (whether construed as the specific museum professionals addressed in some exhibitions and organizing efforts or more broadly as anyone who comes in contact with the name “Natural History Museum”) to acknowledge the place from which they see.

The museum as an institution works allegorically as a screen through which to access the real of political antagonism occluded in the moralizing and technocratic discourses of the Anthropocene. A natural history museum is a collective perspective on a common world. Visitors to the NHM encounter themselves as a collective in their act of looking: how does the common appear in this institution dedicated to fostering appreciation of the natural world, and how is what is common excluded? With this reflexive torsion, the NHM holds open the gap it installs, politicizing it as a collective desire for collectivity.

The NHM functions as a campaign and counterinstitution. As a political campaign, it challenges fossil fuel industry greenwashing in natural history museums. Here it provides a platform for calls for fossil fuel divestment. The NHM’s speciWc targets are the cultural institutions that communicate knowledge of science and nature: museums that retain a great deal of public trust but which provide legitimating opportunities for coal, oil, and gas companies. Fossil fuel oligarchs like David R. Koch sit on the boards of and are major donors to such influential museums as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The dinosaur wing in the American Museum of Natural History, for example, is named after Koch, who donated twenty million dollars to the museum. To combat this oligarchic influence, the NHM organizes scientists, museum workers, and museum visitors to stand with and for the common over and against capitalist extraction, exploitation, and expropriation.

Figure 6. The NHM, Kick Koch off the Board, 2015. The NHM 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 NHM.

Figure 7. The NHM exhibition poster, 2014. The NHM’s inaugural exhibition took place at Queens Museum in 2014. It featured photography, taxidermic specimens, and programming with scientists, artists, historians, anthropologists, media theorists, and climate justice activists. Graphic by the NHM.

Although it does not have a permanent brick-and- mortar (or steel-and- glass) base, the NHM does have a bus. It uses the bus for expeditions to sites such as Sunset Park, Brooklyn, an area within New York City’s storm surge zone; eleven oil wells in the Big Cypress National Reserve in the Florida swampland; and Washington, D.C., for the delivery of a petition with over four hundred thousand signatories demanding that the Smithsonian Institute remove Koch from its board.[13] Reports of the NHM’s expeditions appear regularly on its website.

Launched to coincide with the People’s Climate March, the NHM opened in September 2014 with an exhibition and discussion series in the New York City building at the Queens Museum. The NHM’s opening exhibition was set inside a sixty-four- foot tent inside the building. It featured a series of light boxes with photographs of dioramas from various natural history museums. The diorama is the aesthetic form most associated with the twentieth-century natural history museum. It doesn’t attempt to impart information so much as it tries to convey feelings of wonder. Its romantic, idealized, and hyperrealistic displays bring the aura of nature into the museum. The NHM’s light boxes showed this display. Some of the photographs included the people looking at the dioramas. Others seemed to emanate from within the dioramas. The NHM’s opening also included a two-month discussion series. Taking place inside the tent, the series included artists, writers, and activists organized into panels on institutional critique, the Anthropocene, museum patronage, urban planning, and climate justice.

The enormous tent gave the feeling of both an exhibition and an expedition. It resonated with Occupy, linking the occupation of the Queens Museum to the political movement and making the natural history museum legible as a political form for climate change struggle. There are natural history museums all over the world, a preexisting infrastructure ready to be activated against those who would use it to legitimate continued drilling, fracking, and coal, oil, and gas production. In the position of political collectivity, the tent ampliWes the affective engagement that accompanies the “diorama feeling” of nature’s power and vulnerability, otherness and awe. Under the same tent, visitors become part of the collective that is splitting the museum between the people and the corporation, oligarchy, or industry seeking to present knowledge in its interest. The NHM’s tent turns visitors into occupiers, implicating them in a counterpower infrastructure. It divides the space of its installation within itself, creating a new, divisive collectivity.

Figure 8. The NHM, Citizen Science Expedition, 2014. The NHM’s fifteen-passenger mobile museum bus is used to transport scientists, artists, activists, and members of the public on tours and field expeditions. Photograph by the NHM.

As I mentioned, the NHM is a dues-paying member of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Less than six months after the NHM’s launch, its director was invited to serve as a guest author of the blog of the AAM’s key initiatives.[14] At the MuseumExpo accompanying the AAM’s 2015 annual meeting, the NHM had the largest exhibition space. It brought its bus and enormous tent into the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, where it highlighted fossil fuel industry greenwashing in science and natural history museums. Volunteers from the NHM distributed fliers to visitors with answers to questions commonly posed to museum professionals trying to navigate through the funding pressures of neoliberal capitalism and the ideology of “authoritative neutrality” in the context of climate change.

One large installation re-created the famous polar bear diorama from New York’s American Museum of Natural History’s 2009 climate change exhibition. The NHM’s version included previously excluded political–economic content regarding David Koch, who at the time served as a member of the board of the American Museum of Natural History. Where the original diorama featured a polar bear confronting the detritus of consumerism, the NHM’s diorama exposed what lies beneath the surface: a large oil pipe from Koch Industries. The NHM pushes to the surface the infrastructure that the American Museum of Natural History would prefer to keep submerged: the fossil fuel industry driving climate change that also supports the American Museum of Natural History.

Figure 9. The NHM, Our Climate, Whose Politics?, 2015. Diorama in an exhibition at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Convention, Atlanta, Ga., depicting a diorama from a climate change exhibition at New York’s American Museum of Natural History with the inclusion of a Koch Industries pipeline. Photograph by the NHM.

A second installation gestured to Hans Haacke’s 2014 show at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Haacke not only exhibited a number of water pieces but also showed a new work attacking the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its new David H. Koch Plaza. This work displayed fake hundred dollar bills flowing down out of images of the new Koch fountain. The NHM installation continued the deployment of fountains, water, tubing, and Koch’s use of the cultural capital of museums to deflect critique from his consistent use of the political system to thwart environmental regulations. The installation featured a water system comprised of two tanks and a water fountain. One tank was identified as water from the American Museum of Natural History. Its accompanying description, modeled after a similar description used at the American Museum of Natural History, commends the cleanliness of New York City water. The second tank of water is identified as coming from North Pole, Alaska. This water is contaminated by sulfolane, a chemical from a Koch-owned refinery that leaked for years into the community’s groundwater, making it undrinkable. The NHM’s water system displays the pipes and tubes connecting the tanks and the fountain (itself a direct replica of one in the American Museum of Natural History).

In March 2015 the NHM released an open letter to museums of science and natural history signed by dozens of the world’s top scientists, including several Nobel laureates. The letter urged museums to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and with funders of climate obfuscation. After its release, hundreds of scientists added their names. News of the letter went viral, appearing on the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times, and featured in the Guardian, Forbes, Salon, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. A leading climate change denial and obfuscation organization, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, countered with a petition of its own.[15] One of the signatories is Willie Soon, a solar physicist who works at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon attributes climate change to sunspots. He has received over a million dollars in funding from the fossil fuel sector, including the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.[16]

Later in the summer, the NHM’s bus operated as a platform for speakers delivering a petition with over four hundred thousand signatories demanding that the Smithsonian Institute remove David Koch from their board. By the end of the summer, it was clear the NHM was having an impact: the California Academy of Sciences, one of the science institutions specifically targeted in a joint initiative of the NHM and 350.org, announced that it was phasing out investments in and relations with the fossil fuel sector. Just a few months later, Koch himself stepped down from his spot on the board of the American Museum of Natural History. Although a spokesperson from the museum said that the campaign against Koch “absolutely did not factor in his decision,” all of the coverage of his resignation noted that it was a symbolic victory for the activists.[17]

The Art of Political Engagement

Not An Alternative’s art of political engagement take shape as four interrelated elements of the NHM: collectivity, division, infrastructure, and truth. Each element is expressed along the three dimensions I mentioned at the outset: political organizing, artistic project, and theoretical laboratory.

Collectivity

The premise of the NHM as an organizing platform is that institutions matter as combined and intensified expressions of power. More than just the aggregation of individuals, they are individuals plus the force of their aggregation. Because institutions remain concentrations of authority that can be salvaged and put to use, it makes political sense to occupy rather than ignore or abandon them. We can repurpose trusted or taken-for- granted forms.

Natural history and science museums are interesting sites for political seizure and occupation. They retain public confidence as vehicles for science education. At the same time, they are threatened by budget cuts and market imperatives. So they are typically nonprofit, donor-and grant-dependent organizations, focused on cultural rather than commodity production. Yet they are forced to compete for visitors in the dense marketplace of entertainment. This subjects their staffs and boards to a particular pressure: how to retain their commitment to truth and the collective good in the face of opposing political and economic demands. The NHM makes this split within museums explicit. It uses it to organize museum workers, scientists, and visitors. Crucial to this endeavor have been the scientist sign-on letter and the petition calling for museums to break ties with the fossil fuel industry. Aggregated through the NHM, previously disconnected scientists present themselves as a collective force against climate denialism, obfuscation, evasion, and greenwashing. Even more, they are a collective force.

The NHM treats its visitors (understood broadly) as split between an understanding that something is wrong with the world and their own position within the world. After thirty years of neoliberalism’s intensification of individualism, visitors are likely to relate to the world as individuals and to think of the world’s problems as particular (crises, threats, events) rather than as systemic, interconnected. They are unlikely to see themselves as part of a collective that experiences these problems together and as differently—unevenly, unequally—together. Some museum professionals (whether consciously or not) reinforce individualist and individualizing expectations. They conceive exhibitions in terms of individual affective response. They model displays on the basis of individual use of screens and information acquisition. They attend to individual consumption opportunities (souvenirs). In contrast, the NHM presumes an unconscious desire for collectivity. Even if they don’t know it, visitors come to the museum looking for connection to a collective and a world from which they feel alienated: in a setting of deep cultural cynicism and mistrust, natural history museums remain among the most trusted institutions.

Expressed in psychoanalytic terms, the consumer orientation of funds-hungry contemporary museums depends on keeping visitors stuck in the circuits of drive, deriving enjoyment from the kicks of catastrophe. It focuses them on spectacles of climate change (extinction, extreme weather) and the ever-receding “great unknown” in nature. In contrast, the NHM incites their desire. Pointing at the capitalist system as the interior limit of what is considered nature, the NHM inscribes a gap in the great unknown. It presents the particular horrors of the world as connected (as systemic). Nature isn’t some kind of awesome exterior. It’s interior to human economic and political systems.

The NHM, then, operates in one respect as an activist organization, a pop-up museum and alternative institution with a mailing list, social media presence, and menu of cultural offerings. Yet it is also the generic museum that is present in every museum of natural history. It exists to force the already present split toward the common that every particular museum of natural history operating in a capitalist setting is forced to occlude.

Figure 10. The NHM, museum divestment campaign graphic, 2015. The NHM teamed up with
the environmental group 350.org to call on top science and natural history museums to divest
Wnancial holdings from fossil fuel companies. Graphic by the NHM.

Division

The NHM mobilizes division as it organizes scientists and museum professionals against fossil fuel greenwashing. One of the challenges of this work is the hegemony of the claim that scientists and museums must be neutral, objective, “above” politics. The NHM confronts this claim by pointing out the claim’s own limit in the purpose of the museum. As asserted in the Code of Ethics for Museums, the museum is responsible for fostering “an informed appreciation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited” (qtd. in Lyons and Economopoulos). It is obligated to preserve this inheritance for posterity, providing a common resource for humankind. To this end, natural history museums must not generate legitimacy for those who would undermine the very possibility of a future. The NHM compels the institution to serve the people. Or, better, it enables the institution to function as one of the means through which the people serve themselves—taking care neither to promote the particular interests of billionaires and oligarchs nor to refrain from addressing issues of urgent collective concern.

As the NHM emphasizes in the flier it distributed to museum professionals at the MuseumExpo as well as in an editorial in the Guardian, neutrality is a myth. It hides from view the process determining the alternatives toward which it is ostensibly required to be neutral. This process is political. It benefits some and harms others. As Steve Lyons and Beka Economopoulos (2015) explain, “The claim to authoritative neutrality is dangerous, precisely because it prevents institutions from seriously re-evaluating their roles in a time of climate crisis. At a time when powerful lobbies representing the interests of the fossil fuel industry seek not only to influence public policy but also buy the next election, we can only see neutrality as another word for resignation.” In the face of conflict over the truth, the museum loses credibility when it fails to take the side of science. Even worse, it betrays the trust inseparable from its institutional form.

Some view nature in terms of the privilege of the few, the few who can own it, and the few who can access it. Others view nature in terms of all of us, as if we were not divided in our relation to nature, as if nature were not violent, ruptured, cataclysmic. The NHM takes its orientation to nature from two basic insights: nature is common and what is common is divided. We struggle over what is common. We fight to keep it common. The fact of this struggle alerts us to division, conflict, antagonism: nature has never been in balance. Nature doesn’t just exist. It insists beyond the limits of the known. What we can’t see and don’t know impresses itself on how and what we see. The NHM thus brings out the politics excluded from representations of nature as either originally in balance or external to human life. Any demarcation of a field is divisive, an inclusion and an exclusion. The NHM’s insistence on division, then, is not in the interest of some fantasy of full inclusion but rather for the purpose of mobilizing the exterior back within the institution. The excluded becomes inflected back in a torsion that repurposes, even reprograms, the institution.

Division goes all the way down. Science is itself divided, a never-ending struggle of methods, metaphors, egos, observations, paradigms, fields, and schools. It proceeds by affirming and rejecting, defending and defeating, knowledge that aspires to truth.

Infrastructure

The NHM seizes and repurposes the generic form of the museum as a set of institutionalized expectations, meanings, and practices that embody and transmit collective power. Cultural institutions tasked with science education become legible in their role in climate change, as sites of greenwashing and counterpower. In this latter sense, the NHM takes hold of the collective that is already present (as institutionality), redirecting it against that which exploits it.[18] Just as the museum is a site in the infrastructure of capitalist class power—with its donors and galas and named halls—so can it be a medium in the production of a counterpower infrastructure that challenges, shames, and dismantles the very class and sector that would use what is common for private benefit.

The aesthetics of the NHM, then, is more than relational. It’s political. The intent is not to create a transformational experience or new appreciation of community. It is to achieve concrete political goals: divestment from fossil fuels, organization of scientists into a divisive collective, appropriation of the museum form in climate change struggle, seizure of institutions of knowledge production and cultural transmission, and building a counterpower infrastructure. Here the NHM has more in common with the historic avant-garde than it does with the participatory art of the nineties. As Claire Bishop argues, the former positioned itself in relation to primarily Communist Party politics. The latter hyped itself in communicative capitalist terms that equated participation with democracy even as it lacked both a social and an artistic target (Bishop, 283–84). The NHM doesn’t promote awareness and debate. It pushes collective will formation. And it does so by giving a name and form to such a divisive will. As an avant-garde artistic project linked explicitly to an ongoing political movement, the NHM exposes an omission or failure on the contemporary Left: the lack of a revolutionary party or common name and form for the global struggle of the proletarianized.

Truth

The NHM states that its mission is “to affirm the truth of science. By looking at the presentation of natural history, the museum demonstrates principles fundamental to scientific inquiry, principles such as the commonality of knowledge and the unavoidability of the unknown.”[19] This mission is a generic statement of the fact that the credibility of museums of natural history comes from their fidelity to truth. Truth is partisan. It’s not a matter of consensus. Scientific truth forces itself beyond and through the practices and intentions of those who labor in its name. It is not identical with what scientists do and hence not reducible to its instrumentalization by capitalism and the state. In the theoretical language of Not An Alternative: science is not identical with itself. It is pushed and shaped by the real of a truth exterior to it.

T. J. Demos notes the dilemma that climate denialism poses for environmental activists. When we appeal to scientiWc expertise, we defer responsibility, giving up science to the dominance of states and capitals able to fund and deploy it; when we resist scientiWc expertise, we begin the slide into an inadvertent alliance with climate denialism, with the eco-thugs of extractive industry who spend billions to protect their interests by any means necessary. Demos argues, “Facing this dilemma, one must be aware of the fact that whatever we know about the environment—knowledge that will determine our future actions and chances of survival—we owe to the diverse practices that represent it” (18). The NHM locates itself at the site of these representational practices. Its wager is that insofar as science is shaped by a truth exterior to it, science cannot itself communicate its partisanship. Even as scientists are involved in practices through which they “fight to the death” or, in other words, in which they pursue and defend findings and methods as if their life depended on it, they tend to support a view of scientific practice as a whole as neutral and objective. Critics of corporate-funded science, industry-funded science, state-funded science, racist science, sexist science, and colonialist and imperialist science rightly and repeatedly demonstrate the falsity of this claim. All these particular enactments of scientific practice propel themselves by enclosing what is common within the limits enabling the practice. The practice of science is configured by its settings, settings to which it contributes. But the truth of science is not the same as the practice of science.

Figure 11. The NHM, Will the Story of the 6th Mass Extinction Ever Include the Role of its Sponsors?,
2015. Diorama in an exhibition at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Convention,
Atlanta, Ga., depicting the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural
History in New York several hundred years into a dystopian future. Photograph by the NHM.

To affirm this truth is to force a gap within scientific practice, making science the truth of a subject. With a technique that might be described as overidentification or mimetic exacerbation, the NHM produces an elaborate staging not just of what natural history museums could be but of the form of the natural history museum promises. It promises a collective encounter with a world, a universe, a knowledge common even when distant and unknown. It holds out the force of a truth that impacts and shapes us in ways that are unknown and unpredictable not because they are outside of or distanced from human representations, institutions, systems, and struggles but because they are indelibly inscribed within them. Such a truth can only be accessed indirectly, anamorphically, through the screen of the museum as a form faithful to its communication. Because it is tethered to this truth, the NHM doesn’t invite cynicism. It doesn’t try to mobilize doubt. On the contrary, it hails viewers (and, indeed, the museum itself) as likewise faithful to the truth, as those who would be and are outraged when institutions that communicate scientific knowledge are compromised and corrupted. The NHM takes the subjects of truth and organizes them as the subjects of a politics.

Conclusion

If the Anthropocene is a concept that sutures fields (a useful formulation from Elizabeth Povinelli), then the anamorphic gaze is a perspective that inscribes division and finds politics in the gap. The NHM models such a split, demonstrating how institutions are forms of collectivity that matter and that can be seized. Their missions, styles, structures, and personnel, their very form, can be conscripted into a service they may not know that they support. The NHM confirms the existence of a truth that its visitors already know such that this truth becomes something more than an individual hunch—something with symbolic registration. Their perspective, like the system itself, is already collective. The challenge is for whom: for individuated visitors or for partisans in organized political struggle? The NHM arranges collectivity, division, infrastructure, and truth so as to cut through the anthropocenic enjoyment of helpless fascination with the spectacle. Rather than remaining satisfied with the critique of the institution for what it excludes, for what it cannot say, the NHM identifies with and amplifies the collective desire that already infuses it. As an activist platform, it does the work of political organization. It doesn’t get lost in cynicism, failure, melancholia, or the endless circuit of critique. It doesn’t aim to democratize or pluralize. It doesn’t aim to activate passive spectators but rather to organize active scientists and museum workers. The NHM enables them to take the side they are already on as it mobilizes natural history museums as politicized camps in a class war against the fossil fuel sector at the heart of the capitalist system. Targeting the institution it salvages a preexisting language and infrastructure, claiming it as a common resource. It thereby provides an experiment in seizing the state that can, and must, be replicated.

Works Cited

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Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso.

Carter, Holland, and Robert Smith. 2015. “The Best Art in 2015.” New York Times, December 9.

Center for the Future of Museums (blog). 2015. “The Limits of Neutrality: A Message from The Natural History Museum.” April 23. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-limits-of-neutrality-message-from.html.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2: 197–222. CO2 Science. 2016. “‘To the Museums of Science and Natural History’—An Open Response.” April 16. http://www.co2science.org/articles/V18/apr/museumlet terresponse.php.

Connolly, William E. 2013. The Fragility of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Davis, Heather, and Etienne Turpin, eds. 2015. Art in the Anthropocene. London: Open Humanities Press.

Dean, Jodi. 2006. Zizek’s Politics. London: Routledge.

———. 2012. The Communist Horizon. London: Verso.

———. 2016a. “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change.” E-Flux 69 (January). http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-anamorphic-politics-of-climate-change/.

———. 2016b. Crowds and Party. London: Verso.

Dean, Jodi, and Jason Jones. 2012. “Occupy Wall Street and the Politics of Representation.” Chto Delat 10, no. 34. https://chtodelat.org/b8-newspapers/12-38/jodi-dean-and-jason-jones-occupy-wall-street-and-the-politics-of-representation/.

Demos, T. J. 2009. “The Politics of Sustainability: Art and Ecology.” In Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet, 1969–2009, Barbican Art Gallery, 17–28. London: Koenig Books.

Donovan, Thom. 2011. “5 Questions (for Contemporary Practice) with Not An Alternative.” Art21, May 19. http://blog.art21.org/2011/05/19/5-questions-for-contemporary-practice-with-not-an-alternative/#.VAxzBvldWSo.

Evans, Brad, and Julian Reid. 2014. Resilient Life. Cambridge: Polity.

Fraser, Andrea. 2011. “From the Critique of Institutions to the Institution of Critique.” In Institutional Critique. Ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, 408–17. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Geilung, Natasha. 2015. “Protesters Urge the Smithsonian Institution to Cut Ties with Climate Denier David Koch.” Think Progress, June 15.

Gills, Justin, and John Schwartz. 2015. “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher.” New York Times, February 21.

Kingsnorth, Paul. “Dark Mountain Project” (the self-published manifesto is available at http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/).

Lacan, Jacques. 1998. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.

Landsbaum, Claire. 2016. “Climate Denier David H. Koch Leaves American Museum of Natural History’s Board.” New York Magazine, January 21.

Lyons, Steve, and Beka Economopoulos. 2015. “Museums Must Take a Stand and Cut Ties to Fossil Fuels.” Guardian, May 7.

McKee, Yate. 2013. “DEBT: Occupy, Postcontemporary Art, and the Aesthetics of Debt Resistance.” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (Fall): 784–803.

———. 2014. “Art after Occupy—climate justice, BDS, and beyond.” Waging Nonviolence, July 30. http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/art-after-occupy/.

McKibben, Bill. 2010. Eaarth. New York: Times Books.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Natural History Museum, The. 2016. “About the Natural History Museum.” https://thenaturalhistorymuseum.org/about/.

Not An Alternative. 2015. “The Radical Subject of the Post-Apocalyptic Generation.” In The Art of the Real: Visual Studies and New Materialisms. Ed. Roger Rothman and Ian Verstegen, 86–100. Newcastle-upon- Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Parenti, Christian. 2011. Tropics of Chaos. New York: Nation Books.

Raunig, Gerald, and Gene Ray, eds. 2009. Art and Contemporary Critical Practice. London: MayFlyBooks.

Rosler, Martha. 2011. “Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers.” In Institutional Critique. Ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, 206–35. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Steyerl, Hito. 2009. “The Institution of Critique.” In Art and Contemporary Critical Practice. Ed. Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray, 13–19. London: MayFlyBooks.

Thompson, Nato. 2012. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991–2011. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Wark, McKenzie. 2015. Molecular Red. London: Verso.

Jodi Dean is the Donald R. Harter ’39 Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. She is the author or editor of twelve books including, most recently, The Communist Horizon (2012) and Crowds and Party (2016). She is also a member of Not An Alternative.

“A View from the Side: The Natural History Museum” was originally published in Cultural Critique 94 (Fall 2016): 74-101.



  1. [1]An earlier version of some of the points developed here appears in “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,” e-flux 69 (January 2016).
  2. [2]My description here positions enjoyment within the economies of desire and drive. For a fuller account, see Dean 2006.
  3. [3]A wide array of contemporary thinkers, activists, and artists are working with the themes of climate change, extinction, and the Anthropocene. My aim is not to criticize a particular person or work but to name a current present to greater or lesser degrees in the larger conversation or cultural milieu that has resulted from the uptake of the Anthropocene as the name for a problematic within the humanities. Examples could thus include Kingsnorth; McKibben; Morton; Evans and Reid; Chakrabarty; Connolly; Wark; the contributions to Davis and Turpin; and many others.
  4. [4]For an overview of the wide array of artistic practices brought together under the umbrella of socially engaged art, see Thompson.
  5. [5]For an elaboration, see Badiou; Dean 2016b.
  6. [6]Carter and Smith include Not An Alternative in their “The Best of Art in 2015.”
  7. [7]See also Bishop’s (2012) critique.
  8. [8]See Dean and Jones.
  9. [9]See also the periodization in Raunig’s and Ray’s (2009) preface.
  10. [10]See Raunig and Ray.
  11. [11]See Rosler.
  12. [12]See Not An Alternative (2015).
  13. [13]See Geilung.
  14. [14]See “The Limits of Neutrality: A message from The Natural History Museum,” Center for the Future of Museums (April 23, 2015). Available at http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-limits-of-neutrality-message-from.html.
  15. [15]See “To the Museums of Science and Natural History—An Open Response,” (April 16, 2016). Available at http://www.co2science.org/articles/V18/apr/museumletterresponse.php.
  16. [16]See Gills and Schwartz.
  17. [17]See Landsbaum.
  18. [18]See Not An Alternative (2015).
  19. [19]As stated on its website: https://thenaturalhistorymuseum.org/about/.

Politics in the Anthropocene is a matter of perspective: we can’t look at climate change directly. Relying on multiple disparate measurements, we look for patterns and estimate probabilities. We see in parts: the melting ice caps, glaciers, and permafrost; the advancing deserts and diminishing coral reefs; the disappearing coastlines and the migrating species. Evidence becomes a matter of extremes as extremes themselves become the evidence for an encroaching catastrophe that has already happened: the highest recorded temperatures; the hockey stick of predicted warming, sea-level rise, and extinction. Once we see it—the “it” of climate change encapsulated into a data point or disastrous image—it’s already too late. But too late for what and for whom remains unsaid, unknowable. The challenge in this scenario becomes grappling with continuity. How can we conceive and wage the struggles already dividing the collectivity presumed in processes whose outcomes are estimated and predicted?

Climate change tethers us to a perspective that oscillates between the impossible and the inevitable, already and not yet, everywhere but not here, not quite. Slavoj Žižek reminds us that such oscillation indexes the “too much or too little” of jouissance. For psychoanalysis, particularly in Lacan’s teaching, jouissance is a special substance, that intense pleasure-pain of enjoyment that makes life worth living and some things worth dying for. We will do anything to get what we think we will enjoy. We then discover after we get it that it wasn’t what we really desired after all. Likewise, we try to discipline, regulate, and control enjoyment, only to find it emerging in another place. We get off even when we think we are trying not to. Jouissance is what we want but can’t get and what we get that we don’t want.

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face created in 1947 by the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Its hands represent a countdown to possible global catastrophe. Initially made to refer to nuclear war, since 2007 the clock has been used to raise awareness for climate change.

Some use climate change as a vehicle for jouissance, for enjoying destruction, punishment, and knowing. A current of left anthropocenic enjoyment circulates through evocations of unprecedented, unthinkable catastrophe: the end of the world, the end of the human species, the end of civilization. Theorists embrace extinction, focus on deep time, and displace a politics of the people onto the agency of things. Postmodern Augustinians announce the guilt or hypocrisy of the entire human species. Hubris is humanity’s, all of humanity’s, downfall. Philosophers and cultural critics take on the authoritative rhetoric of geoscientists and evolutionary biologists. Those of us who follow the reports of emissions, extreme weather, and failed states enjoy being in the know. We can’t do anything about climate change, but this lets us off the hook when we stop trying.

Getting to name our new era, marking our impact as the “Anthropocene,” provides a compensatory charge—hey, we changed the world after all. Even better than coming up with a name for our era is the jouissance that comes from getting to judge everyone else for their self-absorbed consumerist pleasures—why didn’t you change when you should have? Anticipatory Cassandras, we watch from within our melancholic “pre-loss,” to use Naomi Klein’s term, comforted by the fantasy of our future capacity to say we knew it all along. We told you so. Your capitalism, instrumental reason, or Cartesian dualism killed us all. Or so we fantasize, screening out the unequal distribution of the effects of warming—Russia doesn’t worry about it as much as, say, Bangladesh.

The perfect storm of planetary catastrophe, species condemnation, and paralyzed incapacity allows the Left a form of jouissance that ongoing deprivation, responsibility, and struggle do not allow. Overlooked as too human, these products and conditions of capitalism’s own continuity can be dismissed as not mattering, as immaterial. Organized political movement appears somehow outmoded, its enduring necessity dispersed into individuated ethico-spiritual orientations on a cosmos integrated over eons.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on oak. 207 cm × 209.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

This left anthropocenic enjoyment of destruction, punishment, and knowing circulates in the same loop as capitalist enjoyment of expenditure, accumulation, and waste, an enjoyment furthered by fossil fuels, but not reducible to them. Left anthropocenic enjoyment thrives on the disaster that capitalist enjoyment produces. In this circuit, captivation in enjoyment fuels the exploitation, expropriation, and extraction driving the capitalist system: more, more, more; endless circulation, dispossession, destruction, and accumulation; ceaseless, limitless death. Incapacitated by magnitude, boggled by scale, the Left gets off on moralism, complexity, and disaster—even as the politics of a capitalist class determined to profit from catastrophe continues.

The circulation of left anthropocenic enjoyment through capitalist currents manifests in a diminished capacity for imagining human subjectivity. Even as things, objects, actants, and the nonhuman engage in a wide array of lively pursuits, the anthropocenic perspective seems to confine humans to three roles: observers, victims, and survivors. Observers are the scientists, their own depression and loss now itself a subgenre of climate writing. Scientists measure and track, but can’t do anything about the unfolding catastrophe—action is for others. Observers also appear as the rest of us as moral audience, enjoined to awareness of human-nonhuman entanglements and the agency of microbes. In this vein, our awareness matters not just as an opportunity for spiritual development but also because multiple instances of individuated moral and aesthetic appreciation of fragility and the limits of human agency could potentially converge, seemingly without division and struggle. When the scale is anthropocenic, the details of political organization fall away in favor of the plurality of self-organizing systems. The second role, victims, points to islanders and refugees, those left with nothing but their own mobility. They are, again, shorn of political subjectivity, dwarfed by myriad other extinctions, and reduced to so much lively matter. The third role is as survivors. Survivors are the heroes of popular culture’s dystopic futures, the exceptional and strong concentrations of singular capacity that continue the frontiersmanship and entrepreneurial individualism that the US uses to deny collective responsibility for inequality. I should add here that Klein’s most significant contribution with This Changes Everything is her provision of the new, active, collective figure of “Blockadia.” As is well-known, Blockadia designates organized political struggles against fracking, drilling, pipelines, gas storage, and other projects that extend the fossil fuel infrastructure when it should in fact be dismantled. With this figure, Klein breaks with the anthropocenic displacement of political action.

If fascination with climate change’s anthropocenic knot of catastrophe, condemnation, and paralysis lures the Left into the loop of capitalist enjoyment, an anamorphic gaze can help dislodge us. “Anamorphosis” designates an image or object that seems distorted when we look at it head on, but that appears clearly from another perspective. A famous example is Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors, in which a skull in the painting appears as such only when seen from two diagonal angles; viewed directly, it’s a nearly indistinguishable streak. Lacan emphasizes that anamorphosis demonstrates how the space of vision isn’t reducible to mapped space but includes the point from which we see. Space can be distorted, depending on how we look at it. Apprehending what is significant, then, may require “escaping the fascination of the picture” by adopting another perspective—a partial or partisan perspective, the perspective of a part. From this partisan perspective, the whole will not appear as a whole. It will appear with a hole. The perspective from which the hole appears is that of the subject, which is to say of the gap opened up by the shift to a partisan perspective.

The Natural History Museum, Will the Story of the 6th Mass Extinction Ever Include the Role of its Sponsors?, 2015, diorama in an exhibition at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Convention, Atlanta, GA, depicts the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural History (NY) several hundred years into a dystopian future. Photo: NHM.

When we try to grasp climate change directly, we end up confused, entrapped in distortions that fuel the reciprocal fantasies of planetary scale geoengineering and post-civilizational neo-primitivism. The immensity of the calamity of the changing climate—with attendant desertification, ocean acidification, and species loss—seemingly forces us into seeing all or nothing. If we don’t grasp the issue in its enormity, we miss it entirely. In this vein, some theorists insist that the Anthropocene urgently requires us to develop a new ontology, new concepts, new verbs, entirely new ways of thinking, yet I have my doubts: geologic time’s exceeding of human time makes it indifferent even to a philosophy that includes the nonhuman. If there is a need, it is a human need implicated in politics and desire, that is to say, in power and its generation and deployment.

The demand for entirely new ways of thinking comes from those who accept as well as those who reject capitalism, science, and technology. “Big thinkers” in industry and economics join speculative realists and new materialists in encouraging innovation and disruption. Similarly, the emphasis on new forms of interdisciplinarity, on breaking down divisions within the sciences and between the sciences and the humanities isn’t radical, but a move that has been pursued in other contexts. Modern environmentalism, as Ursula Heise observes, tried to “drive home to scientists, politicians, and the population at large the urgency of developing a holistic understanding of ecological connectedness.”[1] The Macy Conferences that generated cybernetics and the efforts of the Rand Corporation and the Department of Defense to develop more flexible, soft, and networked forms of welfare, as well as contemporary biotech, geotech, and biomimicry, all echo the same impulse to interlink and merge.

The activist group Liberate Tate performs All Rise at the Tate Modern on the third anniversary of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For five days, performers whispered extracts from court transcripts of the BP trials in New Orleans throughout the institution’s BP-sponsored spaces Photo: Hannah Davey.

The philosopher Frédéric Neyrat has subjected the “goosphere” that results from this erasure of spacing to a scathing critique, implicating it in the intensification of global fears and anxieties: when everything is connected, everything is dangerous. Neyrat thus advocates an ecology of separation: the production of a “distance within the interior of the socio-political situation” is the “condition of possibility of real creative response to economic or ecological crisis.”[2] Approaching climate change anamorphically puts such an ecology of separation to work. We look for and produce gaps. 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.

Just as it inscribes a gap within the supposition of ecological connectedness, the anamorphic gaze likewise breaks with the spatial model juxtaposing the “molar” and the “molecular” popular with some readers of Deleuze and Guattari. Instead of valorizing one pole over the other (and the valued pole is nearly always the molecular, especially insofar as molecular is mapped onto the popular and the dispossessed rather than, say, the malignant and the self-absorbed), the idea of an anamorphic perspective on climate change rejects the pre-given and static scale of molar and molecular to attend to the perspective that reveals a hole, gap, or limit constitutive of desire and the subject of politics.

Here are some examples of approaching climate change from the side. In Tropics of Chaos, Christian Parenti emphasizes the “catastrophic convergence” of poverty, violence, and climate change. He draws out the uneven and unequal impacts of planetary warming on areas already devastated by capitalism, racism, colonialism, and militarism. From this angle, policies aimed at redressing and reducing economic inequality can be seen as necessary for adapting to a changing climate. In a similar vein but on a different scale, activists focusing on pipeline and oil and gas storage projects target the fossil fuel industry as the infrastructure of climate change, the central component of global warming’s means of reproduction. But instead of being examples of the politics of locality dominant in recent decades, infrastructure struggles pursue an anamorphic politics. They don’t try to address the whole of the causes and effects of global warming. They approach it from the side of its infrastructural supports. The recent victory of the campaign against the Keystone Pipeline, as well as of the anti-fracking campaign in New York State, demonstrate ways that an anamorphic politics is helping dismantle the power of the oil and gas industry and produce a counterpower infrastructure.

The new movement to liberate museums and cultural institutions from the fossil fuel sector supplies a third set of examples, modeling a politics that breaks decisively with the melancholic catastrophism enjoyed by the anthropocenic Left. As the demonstrations at the Louvre accompanying the end of the Paris COP made clear, artists and activists have shifted their energy away from the promotion of general awareness and participation to concentrate instead on institutions as arrangements of power that might be redeployed against the oil and gas industry. Pushing for a fossil-free culture, an array of groups have aligned in a fight against the sector that supplies capitalism with its energy. They demonstrate how the battle over the political arrangement of a warming planet is in part a cultural battle, a struggle over who and what determines our imagining of our future and the future of our imagining.

Art collective Liberate Tate performs Hidden Figures, 2014. Photo: Martin LeSanto-Smith.

In this vein, Liberate Tate works to free art from oil by pushing the Tate to drop the sponsorship of British Petroleum. For the past five years, the group has performed art interventions in Tate buildings as well as other UK arts institutions that support (and are supported by) BP. Actions include unauthorized performances such as Birthmark, from late November 2015. Liberate Tate activists occupied the 1840s gallery at the Tate Britain, tattooing each other with the number of C02 emissions in parts per million corresponding to the day they were born. Hidden Figures, from 2014, featured dozens of performers standing along the sides of a hundred-square-meter black cloth which they held chest high, raising and lowering in arches and waves. Taking place in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the performance pointed to Malevich’s Black Square, part of an exhibit that opened the same summer that carbon concentrations exceeded four hundred parts per million, a fact parallel to and omitted from the exhibit, much like BP’s—and by implication the Tate’s—involvement in the climate crisis. Hidden Figures invokes the Tate’s release of the minutes of meetings from its ethics committee in the wake of numerous freedom of information requests. Black rectangles blocked out multiple sections of the released documents. Hidden Figures reproduced an enormous black square within the museum, placing the fact of redaction, hiding, and censorship at its center. As Liberate Tate explains, the redactions reveal a divide, a split between the ostensible public interest of the Tate and the private interest it seeks to protect.[3] Occupying this split via its demonstration of the museum’s incorporation into BP’s ecocidal infrastructure, Liberate Tate disrupts the flow of institutional power. Rather than fueling BP’s efforts at reputation management, it makes the museum into a site of counterpower.

The Natural History Museum, Exhibiting the Gaze, 2014. Light box photograph exhibited at the Queens Museum, NY, from a series of sixteen images documenting current exhibitions at natural history museums in the US. Photo: NHM.

The Natural History Museum, the new project of the art, activist, and theory collective Not An Alternative (of which I am a member), similarly adopts an anamorphic politics. The Natural History Museum repurposes the generic form of the natural history museum as a set of institutionalized expectations, meanings, and practices that embody and transmit collective power. It puts display on display, transferring our attention to the infrastructures supporting what and how we see. The Natural History Museum’s gaze is avowedly partisan, a political approach to climate change in the context of a museum culture that revels in its authoritative neutrality. Activating natural history museums’ claim to serve the common, The Natural History Museum divides the sector from within: anyone tasked with science communication has to take a stand. Do they stand with collectivity and the common or with oligarchs, private property, and fossil fuels? Cultural institutions such as science and natural history museums come to appear in their role in climate change as sites of greenwashing and of emergent counterpower.

Operating as a pop-up people’s museum, The Natural History Museum’s exhibits and tours provide a counter-narrative that combats the influence oil and gas industry on science education. The Natural History Museum also serves as a platform for political organizing, the ostensibly neutral zone of the museum turned into a base camp against the fossil fuel sector. It moves beyond participatory art’s creation of experiences and valuation of participation for its own sake to the building of divisive political power. In March 2014, The National HistoryMuseum released an open letter to museums of science and natural history signed by dozens of the world’s top scientists, including several Nobel laureates. The letter urged museums to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and with funders of climate obfuscation. After its release, hundreds of scientists added their names. News of the letter appeared on the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times and featured in scores of publications, including the Guardian, Forbes, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Later that spring, The Natural History Museum delivered a petition with over 400,000 signatures to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC demanding that the museum kick fossil fuel oligarch David Koch off its board.

The premise of Liberate Tate and Not An Alternative is that institutions matter as combined and intensified expressions of power. More than just the aggregation of individuals, they are individuals plus the force of their aggregation. Because institutions remain concentrations of authority that can be salvaged and put to use, it makes political sense to occupy rather than ignore or abandon them. We can repurpose trusted or taken-for-granted forms—a possibility precluded by the anthropocenic preoccupation with an imaginary whole figured in geologic time. Just as the museum is a site in the infrastructure of capitalist class power—with its donors and galas and named halls—so can it be a medium in the production of a counterpower infrastructure that challenges, shames, and dismantles the very class and sector that would use what is common for private benefit.

The distorted skull of Holbein’s The Ambassadors is photographed at a sideways angle to create the illusion of perspective.

The movement to liberate museums and cultural institutions from fossil fuel interests does not try to present climate change directly or nature as a whole. Instead, it approaches the processes contributing to global warming as processes in which we are already implicated. We are within the systems and institutions the effects of which scientists measure and chart. And that the people as the collective subject of politics are in them means that they are not fully determined. There are gaps that we can hold open and force in one direction rather than another. In too many contemporary discussions of the Anthropocene, the organization of people—our institutions, systems, and arrangements of power, production, and reproduction—appears only as a distortion. Everything is active except for us, we with no role other than that of observers, victims, or lone survivors. In contrast with emphases on nonhumans, actants, and distributed agency, the strategic coming together of organized opposition to the fossil fuel sector points to the continued and indispensable role of collective power. Just as a class politics without ecology can support extractivism, so can an ecology without class struggle continue the assault on working people that has resulted in deindustrialization in parts of the North and West and hyperindustrialization in parts of the South and East (we might call such an ecology without class struggle “green neoliberalism”). So we shouldn’t undermine collective political power in the name of a moralistic horizontalism of humans and nonhumans. We should work to generate collective power and mobilize it in an emancipatory egalitarian direction, a direction incompatible with the continuation of capitalism and hence a direction necessarily partisan and divisive.

Jodi Dean is Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Erasmus Professor of the Humanities in the Faculty of Philosophy at Erasmus University. She is the author or editor of nine books. The most recent is Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Politics and Left Politics.

“The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change” was originally published in e-flux journal #69 (January 2016).

  1. [1]Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (Oxford University Press, 2008), 22.
  2. [2]Frédéric Neyrat, “Economy of Turbulence: How to Escape from the Global State of Emergency?” Philosophy Today 59, 4 (Fall 2015):657–669.
  3. [3]Liberate Tate, “Confronting the Institution in Performance,” Performance Research 20.4 (2015): 78–84.