All Museum of the Future Events

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

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

Capitalism’s Organic Crisis and Populist Extractivism

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

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

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

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

The Art of Articulation

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

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

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

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

Kwel’ Hoy!: Many Struggles, One Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberating Institutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. [1]Stuart Hall, “Gramsci and Us,” in The Hard Road to Renewal (London: Verso, 1988), 168.
  2. [2]Stuart Hall, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: MacMillan, 1978).
  3. [3]Philip Fearnside, “Why Brazil’s New President Poses an Unprecedented Threat to the Amazon,” Yale Environment 360, November 8, 2018,
  4. [4]Norman Solomon, “AFL-CIO To Planet Earth: Drop Dead,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2016,
  5. [5]Adam Vaughan, “World has no capacity to absorb new fossil fuel plants, warns IEA,” The Guardian, November 12, 2018,
  6. [6]The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, October 2018,
  7. [7]There has, however, been an efflorescence of strategic theorizing over the last few years, one that includes work such as Andrew Boyd and Dave Osward Mitchell’s edited volume Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York: OR Books, 2016); Jeremy Brecher’s Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual (Oakland: PM Press, 2017); adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico: AK Press, 2017); Mark and Paul Engler’s This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (New York: Nation Books, 2017); Jane F. McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To (Chico: AK Press, 2017).
  8. [8]Jeremy Gilbert, Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics (New York: Berg, 2008), 100.
  9. [9]David Featherstone, Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (London: Zed, 2012), 27.
  10. [10]Featherstone, Solidarity, 27.
  11. [11]George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (London: Verso, 2017), 19.
  12. [12]Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism (New York: Verso, 1979), 7–8.
  13. [13]“About the Journey,”,
  14. [14]“2013 Totem Pole Journey Archive,”,
  15. [15]Christophe Bonneuil, “What Time Will It Be After Capitalism?” Verso Books (website), February 26, 2019,
  16. [16]Subhankar Banerjee, “Resisting the War on Alaska’s Arctic with Multispecies Justice,” Social Text Online, June 7, 2018,
  17. [17]Hobart M. King, “Marcellus Shale – Appalachian Basin Natural Gas Play,”,
  18. [18]Justin Nobel, “The Hidden Risk in the Fracking Boom: Are pipeline safety regulations keeping pace with the flood of natural gas?” Rolling Stone, February 20, 2019,
  19. [19]Sullivan County Residents Against Millennium, “Millennium Pipeline Highland NY Compressor – FLIR,” YouTube video, 2:39, February 20, 2019,
  20. [20]Sane Energy Project, You Are Here,
  21. [21]Noah Remnick, “The Ramapoughs vs. the World,” New York Times, April 14, 2017,
  22. [22]Monsy Alvarado, “Totem pole journey highlights Native Americans’ fight against fossil fuel development,”, April 21, 2018,
  23. [23]“Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front,” website of the Watershed Institute,
  24. [24]The Natural History Museum, “Winona LaDuke: What is the Museum of the Future?” YouTube video, 1:08,
  25. [25]Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Objects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
  26. [26]Stanley Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgression,’” Dissent 44 (Winter 1997): 107–110.
  27. [27]Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgression,’” 107 (emphasis original).
  28. [28]Joel Kovel, “Dispatches from the Science Wars,” Social Text 46/47 (Spring–Summer 1996): 171.
  29. [29]Kovel, “Dispatches,” 171.
  30. [30]Beka Economopoulos, in conversation with the author, January 23, 2019.
  31. [31]Jodi Dean, “Exhibiting Division, Seizing the State: The Natural History Museum,” in Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene, ed. Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw (London: Routledge, 2018), 205–222.
  32. [32]Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation,” e-flux journal 77 (November 2016),
  33. [33]It should be noted that The Natural History Museum is an institution born out of the Not An Alternative collective.
  34. [34]Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation.”
  35. [35]“Not An Alternative, “Institutional Liberation.”
  36. [36]“Open Letter from Scientists to the American Museum of Natural History,” January 25, 2018, See also John Schwartz, “Science Museums Urged to Cut Ties With Kochs,” New York Times, March 24, 2015,
  37. [37]The Natural History Museum, “Kwel Hoy – Totem Pole JourneyExhibition at The Carnegie Museum Of Natural History,” YouTube video, 3:56, January 21, 2018,
  38. [38]Jim Waltman, in conversation with the author, February 13, 2019.
  39. [39]Kelly Trout, “The U.S. Oil and Gas Industry is Drilling Us Towards Climate Disaster,” Oil Change International (blog), January 16, 2019,

“We humbly ask permission from all our relatives: our elders, our families, our children, the winged and the insects, the four-legged, the swimmers and all the plant and animal nations, to speak. Our Mother has cried out to us. She is in pain. We are called to answer her cries. Msit No’Kmaq—all my relations!”

—Indigenous prayer

“On the brink of crisis and major global collapse, museums are, and need to be, agents for change.”

—Valine Crist, Haida Nation, at the ICOM NATHIST conference Anthropocene: Natural History Museums in the Age of Humanity

In the summer of 2016, in the middle of brown flatlands on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, a sprawling camp of tepees, tents, and RVs appeared. Members of more than 300 Native Nations and several thousand supporters formed an unprecedented alliance against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which, despite tribal opposition, was set to cut through Sioux territory and across the Missouri River. DAPL risked jeopardizing the primary water source not only for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, but also for 17 million people downstream. 

Standing Rock captured headlines around the world and held the attention of millions. It invoked the horrifying memory of Wounded Knee, where more than a century ago hundreds of Lakota people were massacred by the US Cavalry for protecting their treaty lands from the encroachment of gold prospectors. This time, it felt like maybe if we did something, the outcome could be different. 

In an open letter, more than 1,400 museum directors, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians joined the Standing Rock Sioux in denouncing the company behind DAPL for desecrating ancient burial sites, places of prayer, and other significant cultural artifacts sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people. This letter was initiated by my institution, The Natural History Museum in Brooklyn, New York.

The Natural History Museum was founded in 2014 as both an institutional transformation project and a traveling museum. With decades of experience in both community organizing and exhibition development, we serve as a “skunkworks” for the museum sector—an independent research lab that develops projects that enable museums to try new forms of collaboration and public engagement programming, use their influence, and increase their relevance. 

We believe that to be relevant in this time of environmental crisis, museums must move beyond the ambition to just be sustainable and carbon-neutral. We must also address and support the needs of frontline and fence-line communities that are struggling for a more just and sustainable world for all.

Being environmental stewards within this context means we need to align our practices with the global climate and environmental justice movement. This movement is led by Indigenous communities and born from cultures and bodies of knowledge that are already present—as artifacts, stories, and didactics—in the Native halls of the country’s natural history museums. In the post-Standing Rock era, these objects are charged with new meaning and significance. Through their curation and interpretation, we can connect history to the present—and impart lessons for the future.

‘Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line’

Many American Indian and Alaska Native tribes face an array of health and welfare risks stemming from environmental problems, such as surface and groundwater contamination, illegal dumping, hazardous waste disposal, air pollution, mining waste, and habitat destruction. They are the first to experience the effects of climate change, yet they contribute the least to environmental degradation. Indeed, while Indigenous communities inhabit just 2 percent of the world’s land mass, they steward 80 percent of its biodiversity.

Leaders in the US museum sector have already begun questioning how they can begin to address Indigenous responses to climate change. The theme for the 2017 ICOM NATHIST (the International Council of Museums Committee for Museums and Collections of Natural History) conference was the Anthropocene Era—in which humans are not simply one species in a planetary ecosystem but a force that is modifying all of nature. The conference, at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Pittsburgh, explored how natural history museums can interpret the implications of the Anthropocene for the public.

When The Natural History Museum was asked to participate, we invited a delegation of tribal leaders from across North America to take part in panels, roundtables, and luncheons around the question of how museums can support Native-led climate justice initiatives. We also used the conference to debut at CMNH “Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line,” a three-year traveling exhibition and event series co-created with leaders from the Lummi Nation, a Coast Salish tribe from the Pacific Northwest that has been leading efforts to protect water and land in its region and around the country. At the center of this project is the Totem Pole Journey.

For the last six years, leaders from the Lummi Nation have transported a series of hand-carved totem poles along North American fossil fuel export routes to honor, unite, and empower communities working to protect water, land, and public health from the impacts of coal and oil transport. As the pole travels, it helps build alliances between Native and non-Native communities. In extending the Totem Pole Journey into CMNH, our aim was to engage the museum—and the museum public—as allies on the journey.

The exhibition featured video, audio, and interactive components, as well as the totem pole carved for the 2017 journey. The totem pole was displayed horizontally on a trailer as it traveled across the country, and visitors were invited to touch the pole and explore the stories about the red, black, white, yellow guardians of the Earth carved into its surface. It was paired with a participatory mobile mural painted by more than 140 Native and non-Native community members from cities and reservations along the journey’s route and coordinated by artist Melanie Schambach.

We also exhibited a series of Story Poles, vertically stacked shipping crates displaying objects selected by tribal leaders and community members living along the Totem Pole Journey route. From a sacred pipe used in ceremonies to a sample of coal ash from coal trains that have contaminated the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, the mix of objects in these displays were accompanied by audio interviews that conveyed the personal stories of climate justice and injustice that these items symbolized. Members of more than a dozen Native Nations helped develop the exhibition. 

“Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line” was intentionally placed in dialogue with “We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene,” the CMNH’s major exhibition on the Anthropocene. Within the conversation started by “We Are Nature,” our exhibition highlighted the communities that are working to protect water, land, and our collective future. 

We also wanted to explore how an exhibition about fossil fuels and fossil fuel resistance could be staged in the heart of coal and fracking country, where the environmental impact of fossil fuels continues to be a contentious topic. By centering this project on the totem pole, a cultural artifact that one might expect to find in a museum of natural history, “Kwel’ Hoy” functioned like a Trojan horse, to paraphrase Lummi Tribal Councilman Freddie Lane. It helped us bring the Lummi campaign for a safe and sustainable future into the museum context.

The exhibition at CMNH represents only one stop in an evolving museum exhibition and public programming series that over the next three years will travel to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and other museums. Each exhibition will have the totem pole as its centerpiece but will be customized to include the host museum’s collections, the local Indigenous and frontline communities, and the climate and environmental justice issues that those communities face.

What Can Your Museum Do?

“Kwel’ Hoy” is as much a content-driven exhibition as it is a model for replication. We want to shine a spotlight on the many ways museums can participate in the climate and environmental justice movement, not only as advocates but also as supporters of communities that are leading the charge. Of course, every museum has its own specific mission, expertise, and operational limitations, but even the smallest institutions in the most conservative states can take real steps. Here are two possibilities:

1) Focus on the “just transition.” A common concern we hear from colleagues at peer institutions is that taking on environmental justice concerns in regions where fossil fuels are the bedrock of the local economy can make visitors feel alienated or attacked. What happens to their jobs, their homes, and their local economy when fossil fuels are abolished?

One of the most important concepts advanced by the climate justice movement is the notion of a “just transition” from a dirty energy economy to a clean energy economy. The climate justice framework plots an extensive plan in which nobody—including those currently employed by fossil fuel companies—is left behind. The discourse on just transition can help museums broach this topic with both decision-makers and visitors. Organizations such as Movement Generation offer age-appropriate trainings, workshops, and curricula on such climate justice concerns.

2) Partner with communities. The communities that are leading climate and environmental justice campaigns are using history, tradition, story, song, and distinct iconography in the context of their struggles. As trusted institutions, museums can lend their institutional support to these communities by contextualizing and uplifting their symbols, stories, struggles, and objects through exhibitions and public programs. They can only do this if they reach out, listen to, and work in partnership with the communities they want to support.

At many museums, increasing community engagement is now a top priority. Some, such as the Queens Museum in New York City, have hired full-time community organizers to broker relationships with historically underserved communities. Institutions that are unable to expand their operational capacity can reach out to grassroots networks such as the Climate Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Native Organizers Alliance. The Natural History Museum is also able to facilitate collaborations between museums and communities that meet the needs of the various stakeholders involved.

A museum’s exhibitions, programs, outreach initiatives, and public statements need to underscore that environmental crises are also social crises, and that the climate disruption experienced today is a consequence of the exploitation of land and life everywhere. We need to challenge the perspective that nature is a commodity, and we need to elevate the alternative view that regards all things as relatives rather than resources to be extracted and sold for profit.

At the Totem Pole Blessing ceremony that opened the 2017 ICOM conference on the Anthropocene, Tsleil-Waututh Nation leader Rueben George asked how future generations will view the environmental decisions we have made. Referring to the totem pole, George explained, “This will represent that we did something. That we stood for something. That we said no to money, and we said yes to earth and air and water.”

The Totem Pole Journey has inspired so many to draw a line against the forces pushing us toward extinction. The Lummi and their allies invited museums to join them on the right side of history.

Beka Economopoulos is the director of The Natural History Museum.

“The Right Side of History: How can museums support Native-led climate justice initiatives?” was originally published in Museum (July/August 2018): 31-35.

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

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

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

Fig. 1 — The Natural History Museum, workshop, 2014. The Natural History Museum workshops train participants to take the view of museum anthropologists who are attuned to the social and political forces shaping nature. Photograph by The Natural History Museum. What is “Not An Alternative”?

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

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

Steve: Most of our work has been about pointing to the limits of given systems. In 2010, we programmed a series of events called “Participationism and the Limits of Collaboration.” Around this time much of the art world was going wild about socially engaged and participatory art and it seemed like, for many artists and curators, participation was an end goal in itself. “Participationism” was our neologism for the pervasive belief that participation was inherently political. We wanted to intervene into the emerging discourse on participatory art. We argued that facilitating participation itself was insufficient. For a participatory practice to hold any kind of activist import or political consequence, it would need to be directed towards an end. I remember those days. The nightmare of participation is real. It even led a few curators to coin the term ‘New Institutionalism’ to designate a kind of cultural executive practice that considered the exhibition to be a social project.[2]

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

Jason: I recommend reading the text on “The Limits of Collaboration” by Astra Taylor on our website. Can you talk about NAA’s trajectory, from its early formation as an artist-run space to its current work with the NHM?

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

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

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

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

After OWS we started The Natural History Museum. How was all this funded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. [1]Not An Alternative (2016), Institutional Liberation, e-flux journal, #77 (November):
  2. [2]Kolb, J., & Flückinger, G. (2013). New Institutionalism Revisited. On Curating, (21), 6–15.

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, 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.


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 to call on top science and natural history museums to divest
Wnancial holdings from fossil fuel companies. Graphic by the NHM.


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.


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.


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.


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

Badiou, Alain. 2009. Theory of the Subject. Trans. Bruno Bosteels. London: Continuum.

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.

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. 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).

———. 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.

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.

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

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.

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.”

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
  15. [15]See “To the Museums of Science and Natural History—An Open Response,” (April 16, 2016). Available at
  16. [16]See Gills and Schwartz.
  17. [17]See Landsbaum.
  18. [18]See Not An Alternative (2015).
  19. [19]As stated on its website:

What is the purpose of a museum? Merely to transmit knowledge or to help shape the world for the common good? That is the crux of a live debate among museum professionals that burst into the open earlier this year. In an open letter that was picked up by news sites around the world (including the Guardian) dozens of top scientists, including several Nobel laureates and senior government officials, made a plea for science museums to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry.

They wrote:

“When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions in museums of science and natural history, they undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific knowledge. This corporate philanthropy comes at too high a cost.”

The letter was coordinated by our organisation, The Natural History Museum(not the one in London but a US-based institution launched in 2014) and within days, more than 100 members of the scientific community reached out to add their support. Together with this growing list of signatories, we are asking museums of science and natural history to drop climate science deniers from their boards, cancel sponsorships from the fossil fuel industry, and divest financial portfolios from fossil fuels.

Re-creation at the Natural History Museum of a 2009 climate change exhibition at New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), this time with an oil pipeline attributed to Koch Industries, a company co-owned by AMNH board member and exhibit sponsor David Koch. Photograph: NHM

We believe that this stance flows directly from the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics, which states:

“It is incumbent on museums to be resources for humankind and in all their activities to foster an informed appreciation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited. It is also incumbent upon them to preserve that inheritance for posterity.”

Many of our colleagues in the museum sector have noted that institutional policy protects sponsors from influencing either administration or programming. We are told that funding is only accepted on the condition that there are no strings attached. Strings, however, need not be visible to make an impact, and self-censorship – however invisible or unquantifiable – is a major factor in every institutional decision. Nobel laureate Eric Chivian recently put it this way: “It is just human nature not to bite the hand that feeds you.”

The Natural History Museum has launched a petition to Kick Koch Off the Board of the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.Photograph: NHM

Sponsorships do have an effect at every level, and when a sponsor is known for his anti-science practices, that sponsor circumscribes the very horizon of the possible, not through coercion, but through the invisible threat of withdrawal.

Imagine a major natural history museum that organizes an exhibition about the full range of causes and impacts of climate change, obstacles to action, and solutions/responses – one that directly and forcefully critiques the anti-science practices of its largest sponsor. That might be a corporation such as BP or a private benefactor such as David Koch, whose businesses are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and historical funders of groups that have fostered climate denial. Would this exhibition offer a scientifically accurate educational experience about anthropogenic climate change? Yes. Would it risk jeopardizing the museum’s relationship with its sponsor? We believe that it would. Is the risk worth taking? It is imperative.

In a time of profound environmental disruption, it is not enough for museums to accept the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. We need museums of science and natural history to take a stand, to call out the biggest polluters and obstructionists to action on climate change. Faced with pervasive attempts by the fossil fuel lobby to muzzle scientific research and spread disinformation, countless scientists have stood together to declare that the time for neutrality has long since passed.

Museums, like scientists, have historically maintained a position characterized by museologist Robert Janes as authoritative neutrality. This widely held position affirms that “we must protect our neutrality, lest we fall prey to bias, trendiness or special interest groups.” But as Janes points out, as museums increasingly depend on private-sector sponsorship, their claims to neutrality take on an ideological bent. After all, what are corporations if not special interest groups?

Neutrality is a political category, one that hides from view the alternatives against which it is defined. And 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. And as the overwhelming majority of climate scientists predict, without taking action, there will be no future, let alone a future for museums.

An activist holds a painting of the Deepwater Horizon disaster outside the Tate Britain in protest over sponsorship of the Tate museums by BP, April 2011. Photograph: Alex Milan Tracy/Corbis

Museums of science and natural history are indispensable public spaces for the transmission of knowledge about the world we live in. They are among the most trusted sources of information. But when these institutions have significant ties to the world’s biggest polluters, or ignore the massive impact of the fossil fuel industry on the continuity of the earth’s many species, we are forced to question whose interests they serve. When museums cozy up to climate deniers and fossil fuel companies, they risk undermining the faith and trust they’ve earned through years of dedicated service.

As sites that both represent and supply basic societal infrastructure, museums of science and natural history are not just necessary; they are worth fighting for. We are urging museums of science and natural history to rise to the challenges of the present. This means presenting exhibitions on climate change that address the role of the fossil fuel lobby and its climate-denial machine in the shaping of nature – exhibitions that take on anthropogenic climate change without excluding the vast asymmetries in the burden of responsibility and the burden of impact.

If there is to be a future for museums, we need to do away with the false promise of authoritative neutrality. We need our museums to function as both educators and yes, as advocates for a sustainable and equitable future. Only then can we equip visitors with the stories and tools they need to truly understand the rapidly changing world, and to shape it for the common good for generations to come.

Launched in September, 2014, The Natural History Museum offers exhibitions, expeditions, educational workshops and public programming. Unlike traditional natural history museums it makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature. This blogpost is an edited version of one that appeared previously on the Centre for the Future of Museums blog. Sign the petition here, or make a donation to support the new museum.

“Museums must take a stand and cut ties to fossil fuels” was originally published in The Guardian (May 7, 2015).