Colin Sterling [CS]: This part of the Drifting Curriculum begins from the premise that museums are to some extent a paradigmatic apparatus of the Anthropocene – one of the foremost ways in which a certain desire to care for things becomes a mode of domination and exploitation. Can you imagine a museum that escapes such logics?
T. J. Demos [TJ]: We can look at museums from a range of perspectives, beginning with their participation in the dominant conditions of fossil capitalism and its accumulative logics. Despite good intentions in terms of declaring climate emergencies or attempting to decarbonize energy sources, museums participate in a wider economy that negatively impacts Earth’s natural systems. So just in terms of their structural embeddedness in petrocapitalism, museums are definitely part of the Anthropocene, participating in a liberal logic that generalizes causality and displaces differentiated impacts, avoiding the causality that – in my view – needs to be pinned down to centuries of racial and colonial capitalism. I really haven’t seen any successful alternative proposals for what a museum could be that’s “Post Anthropocenic”, outside of say the interventions around institutional liberation in their different guises; for example, Liberate Tate and associated groups that are targeting the toxic fossil fuel philanthropy that goes into supporting most museums, not only in the UK but in the world. That seems to be an important initial process in coming to terms with museums’ relationship to toxic energy sources and patronage systems that support them financially. That’s not going to get us to a Post Anthropocene Museum, but it should be a step on the way.
Going further is a practice like Strike MoMA
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the kind of proposals they’re coming up with, which is not so much a detailed road map for how to get to a Post Anthropocene Museum, but about the community-based process that is required to begin to imagine what a post-carbon world would look like beyond the socio-environmental violence of fossil capital, of which MoMA, given its toxic board of trustees made up of CEOs of corporate globalization, is but one center. I think that’s really crucial. I have little faith in general about contemporary museums doing that work themselves through a top-down process, whether it’s declaring a relatively meaningless climate emergency or trying to limit their carbon footprint—largely cosmetic gestures—as they’re just too immersed within their own institutionalization and fund-raising imperatives to begin to think beyond it. There might be some small-scale participatory outsourcing of radical proposals to artists, but ultimately given the museums’ need for funding streams and the demand to continue to reproduce their own existence, I don’t see much they can do beyond dominant and mainstream approaches to mitigating ongoing climate breakdown.
[CS]: You mentioned the question of institutional liberation, which offers a very useful framework to understand what museums and other cultural spaces could be in the fight against the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene, but this often hinges on outsider agitation rather than internal structural change. How do you see the two coming together in a way that doesn’t simply appropriate the language and aesthetics of ecological activism without fundamentally shifting institutional practices?
[TJ]: To take seriously the radical version of outsider agitation would require completely abolishing the museum as we know it. I can’t see museums being willing to do that. Certainly, some non-profit spaces have greater flexibility in thinking otherwise and might sincerely pursue alternatives. But even the most forward-thinking institutions, say BAK in Utrecht, are not actually going to do anything that would jeopardize their own existence—reliant as it is on their carbon footprint—as art institutions operating within the conditions of neoliberal capitalism.
Take someone like Ariella Azoulay, who in her participation with Strike MoMA
and their model of institutional liberation, has proposed that modernity itself is the scene of an imperial crime, given its basis in perpetrating Indigenous genocide, transatlantic slavery, extraction of resources, expropriation of cultural heritage, and so on. If we think of museums as a central instrument of that criminality – a criminality that is onto-epistemological in so far as it operates to separate people from their objects as she puts it – that begins to get at some of the fundamental issues in this mode of domination that you point to in your first question. The impulse to take things out of their context and put them on display so some people can look at them, is a fundamental element of most museums and is deeply situated within colonial power relations. Certainly, there are experimental approaches to reimagining museums as process-based, community oriented, less fetishistic and objectifying, but that’s not a very common approach to rethinking museums in the age of climate breakdown. Azoulay’s proposal – and the wider framework of Strike MoMA
and institutional liberation – means ultimately the abolition of museums. The methodology of Strike MoMA
is to say “look, we have to set up committees with stakeholder community members, with complete sovereignty outside of museum administration and leadership”. And that would be the place where we could reimagine what the museum could be in the era of the Anthropocene or its aftermath. Methodologically speaking, that offers a necessary and realistic approach, which doesn’t so much answer the question of what a post-Anthropocene museum would look like, but provides a process for how we go about addressing it.
[CS]: As you highlight throughout your book
, I am struck by the sheer range of alternatives currently being imagined by artists, activists and cultural practitioners around the world - alternatives to dominant social and economic formations, to ways of living, to relations with land and history. How might these alternatives become more than simply specters that haunt our descendants as yet another set of failed futures? Is it simply a question of scale and momentum until certain cultural tipping points are reached?
[TJ]: That’s a big question that’s really important. Looking back at the book, there’s a working tension throughout between considering what do we do with radical artistic imaginations about how to live otherwise, and questioning how to actually and meaningfully change things within the urgent temporality of what’s demanded in the present moment of crisis and breakdown. And for me that gives rise to some contradictory approaches. On the one hand I’m inspired by artistic imaginings – people are trying to come up with all sorts of alternatives in every possible way – from the most ambitious kind of speculative imaginations expressed in creative aesthetic forms to artist-activists living in places like the ZAD in France, where they’re trying to exist collectively at the nexus of post-capitalism, ecological flourishing, and social justice right now. So, on the one hand there’s support and inspiration behind all of that, and on the other hand there’s the recognition that this is going on but it’s not scaling up – it doesn’t have the necessary transformative power to actually change the global hegemony of fossil capital. That’s a problem!
We really need to consider how to re-organize on the left and build forms of collective power strategically. This has to be done intersectionally and multiracially so as to overcome limiting single-issue politics. That requires building a broad-based alliance of interlocked commitments in order to ultimately transform conditions of governance worldwide. It sounds wildly ambitious to say something like that. But if we’re indeed in the position of civilizational breakdown, propelled by ongoing climate catastrophe—and I believe that’s indeed where we are—then that’s what we have to face up to. Increasingly that means recognizing the necessity of thinking about climate changes as class struggle—between liberal and corporate elites who materially benefit from fossil and green capitalism, and those who increasingly suffer under its rule. The problem is we’re missing the historical subject that could bring about the change. I’m not alone in saying that we need to organize and build that majoritarian working-class power so we can enact transformation.
[CS]: This brings me to the question of optimism – I felt there was a lot of optimism in your book, a sense of hope in the dark. What do you see as the main staging points for this optimism? Could museums be such spaces?
I think they can. I’ve said some things that are critical of their operations, but ultimately museums are complex places. There are lots of good people who really want to do what they can to question and invite ways of thinking alternatively. Hope itself is a complex subject. I don’t personally want to give up on it, but it depends on how we understand it. For me it isn’t an escapist utopianism that takes us away from the hard work of political engagement in the present. Hope is integral to political transformation; it has to be embedded in social relations, where it acts as a compass for transformational energies. We have an ethical and political obligation to continue the struggle. I really believe that, and part of my work – maybe its performative value – is to resist leaving students, readers, and comrades feeling fatalistic, as if nothing is possible. That would be really counter-productive, even a kind of malfeasance. Like many others, I am continuing to do what I do where I am, and with determination that energy can collectivize to transform society and its institutions, believing – possibly naively, I hope not – that we can transform institutions from within, and not just engage in a kind of exodus, which, arguably, post-Occupy, has shown to be of limited value.
[CS]: Your mention of exodus brings us to the last question – how do you work with or against the apocalyptic idea of the “world’s end”? What does this mean to you, and why is it important as a way to understand “ecology as intersectionality”?
[TJ]: At some stage in the conceptualisation of the book, I became increasingly aware of this leftist analytic showing that the effects of capitalism have reached a state of hegemony where it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to think beyond the system, even to the point where it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, as Jameson put it. As such, we’ve entered this phase of repetitiveness, where the repetition is not a matter of differentiation but just the perpetuation of sameness, where there’s no strategy of liberation that hasn’t been tried before and failed, and we’re condemned to repeat them. But I didn’t want to submit to that proposal, because I believe there’s an important element in manifesting political traction to refuse to give capitalism that power of totalization. There are other groups, communities and social formations that are also resisting it. The Zapatistas are one example; they use this language of worlding. They say “we want a world in which many worlds fit” – it’s a classic Zapatista slogan – that’s so amazingly generative and provocative, and seemed to be one really useful way to escape the conditions of what Mark Fisher called capitalism realism, the idea that there is no alternative. I wanted to riff off that, to theorize what does a world mean, how can we talk about the end of the world, and take into account other views, especially Indigenous approaches to apocalypse. For Indigenous artists and writers, this is not new. They’ve lived through centuries of worlds and endings, first in 1492 beginning with the conquests. So have Afro-diasporic peoples, whose worlds were ripped apart by slavery.
To take seriously the catastrophic moment in the ending of the world forces multiple questions – Whose world? Which ending? It means resisting liberal anxieties from defining current threats as about near-future climate breakdown, as if many worlds haven’t already been destroyed by racial capitalism and imperial violence in the past. If the ultimate challenge is to somehow recompose a majority that can exert the political power to transform the world as we know it, then that needs to be a majority that is composed out of all these differences and survivals, a choreographing of multiple worldings.
Ecology as intersectionality offers one way to think about doing that – a methodology that insists on refusing the potential reduction of ecological urgency to a single-issue politics, say around atmospheric carbon, and to instead locate the comprehensive causality behind climate breakdown in – to use shorthand – racial and colonial capitalism. It then necessitates an approach that strategically brings communities of difference together in solidarity, to build a majority—in political, not demographic terms—in order to overcome the massive threat of that system in the present and near future.