[CS]: A lot of your practice goes back to the idea or form of the museum – or at least uses that term in a particular way. What do you see as the main benefits of engaging with questions of the non-human, the Anthropocene, climate justice etc. through the lens of the museum? What can this framework offer us given that the museum is so entangled with many of the histories and forces you seek to challenge?
[TH]: When we started working with the notion of a museum, our original idea was the fact there is all this history writing happening, but most of it happens from one species’ perspective. We started from the idea that we want to correct this obvious mistake, and write world history from the other species perspective, and create a museum that honours these other perspectives. A fruitful starting point for working on this is twofold. One approach is to question or challenge an anthropocentric view of history and the formal manifestations of that, in museums or memorial museums: How is that narrative being cemented into these tangible material places telling this story? And then the other is how do we tell a story of someone who can’t participate in telling the story, and what relationships would be central to this.
The Museum of The History of Cattle started as an experiment in how we actually do this. I’m answering the question from this particular zone because then maybe it’s easier to get into the broad ideas that come from there. What we discovered with the Museum of the History of Cattle, was that it really became like a performance. Most agricultural and ethnographic museums we went to for research were very object based. You have very little context and lots of objects, so all the stories and relations are excluded from the picture, you don’t get an understanding of what those lived relationships were, you just have these objects. And, of course, non-human animals were also objects amongst other objects in these narratives. We wanted to challenge this by telling a story about relations. We had the facts right, but we would write things in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way, and people would believe everything, because it was presented by appropriating this language of authority. But the most important realisation we had was that it did transform the world outside into a place where a museum of the history of cattle existed. It transformed the whole world through this little gesture of a small museum.
Alongside this, with the Museum of The History of Cattle we faced another problem: how to write a history of a creature that doesn’t use language. As we wrote in our introductory essay, they use their tongue for touching, not for writing things down and transcending the present moment; they live in the present in a different way. Instead of suggesting that we were speaking for the cow, which of course we didn’t want to do because it’s oppressive in different ways, we used different registers of language. Some would be more poetic, some would be more humorous, some would be just lists of facts. We don’t know how a cow would verbalise all this, or how they would explain it; we don’t really know anything, except that that perspective exists, beyond our ability to describe it in any way.
For us the museum was not so much writing a counter-history, but more pointing to the absence of the cow from history writing, pointing to the presence of the gaze, that there is someone – even if we don’t know who that is or what that is – but there is someone, and just to be aware of that presence, of that gaze by trying to tap around it, from the negative space around it. Because if you understand that there is someone then an ethical relationship can start to appear.
All the museums we’ve built are very different in their approach, but I think these elements of pointing to something that’s not present and showing how a museological exhibition can question itself, or question the logic of the whole apparatus, is important.
[CS]: I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about the very different approaches to the exhibitions in the Museum of the History of Cattle and the Museum of Nonhumanity – what are these different modes of display trying to convey?
[TH]: For the latter, we wanted to build a massive museum full of anecdotal evidence of how the boundary between human and non-human functions as a way of legitimising violence in different ways in Western history. And we wanted it to be a museum full of actual objects. We had already rented a 300sqm hall, and then we realised we can’t fit even one fifth of what we had planned in there, so we were faced with the issue of how to tell something that’s so incredibly vast without having to scale it down in a way that we can still include all this data. Through practical thinking around how we then tell this story, we came up with the idea of video, so instead of having many different rooms we would be able to stretch it in time and you would be able to go through these thematic examples with archival images and languages. Laura Gustafsson is an author, so that’s part of why language is very central in our work – different registers of language, and how language facilitates different kinds of action. If people watch the whole 70 minutes, you get more out of it when you really follow the dramaturgy and how different themes follow each other; it felt really good to use duration and dramaturgy in that way, telling the story, which you can’t always do in installation.
[CS]: The history of museums is full of critique about how they are spaces of othering, they are spaces where other cultures are placed on display in a way that creates hierarchies. How does your engagement with the museum either seek to work along the grain of that idea or subvert it?
[TH]: Of course, museums as they have come to be in the Western tradition are all about dehumanisation and objectification. What led us to work with The Museum of Becoming (our exhibition for Helsinki Art Museum HAM in 2020) which is very different and doesn’t look like a museum, is exactly this. After working on two projects, the first of which started from a very traditional ethnographic, cultural museum setting, with objects and texts, then Museum of Nonhumanity, which started to open this up into a more ephemeral, more time-based, more theatrical form, Museum of Becoming asked the question: how do we create a museum that is not always also a kind of a mausoleum of things that once were part of life? What is a future-oriented museum? Telling stories about the past is always pointing towards the future, but how do we move away from these past looking, object-focused, deadening museums?
Curator Pablo José Ramirez has described the creative practices of the Mayan communities he has worked with as being in the service of reproduction of life. In contrast to this, we could say that in Western traditions museums are in the service of reproduction of death; not only in the sense of taking things from the cycles of life and focusing on objects, but also in the sense of being funded by blood money. Museum of Becoming came from this idea of what would a museum be that does not start from this relationship with death. We realised it can’t be objects – it has to be something that’s in the flow of time. So, the main piece of our exhibition, Becoming, is actually a 3-channel video installation that goes for three hours. We interviewed 37 different people around us who are somehow “in the service of reproduction of life”, and working against those death making, objectifying forces. That was our answer to the question. You can’t just substitute dead objects with other objects, and say, okay, now we have challenged this history, because it’s not just about what narrative or language we glue on top of everything. It’s much more about what is the ontology, the underlying understanding of what objects and things are; what is a museum that is really based on relations, can it be a museum anymore?
There is something about calling something a museum that allows you to engage in conversations around narratives and histories, and museums and collectives. And if you don’t call it a museum, if you just say ‘this is a group of people talking about things’, then you’re not part of that conversation, you’re just having your own conversation, so maybe that’s the reason to call it a museum.
[CS]: I think what you raise there about getting beyond the object-focused dimensions of museology is so integral to what I’m interested with the subject of the Anthropocene. So many museums have engaged with this subject, but they usually use it to reinterpret what they already have, or to collect new things that they describe as Anthropocene Objects, which could be literally anything. But we need to get beyond this objectness – that’s what the Anthropocene actually challenges – to go beyond the objectness of these narratives and storytelling forms. That’s why I find what you are saying here so powerful, and why I think, why not, why couldn’t a museum be just stories, a three-hour film, why shouldn’t it be? Let’s take that proposition seriously and see where it goes.
[TH]: I totally agree with you because we have to get rid of this object based and object generating culture. This objectifying idea of what existence is really goes all the way to the structures of our language. To think of relations where not only everything is connected, but everything is part of a whole, there are no identities, there are no differences, I can’t say when did I begin and when will I end, I’m not separated from anything that happens. Maybe that’s a little bit my issue now with culture that is so focused on identity, which is politically really necessary and relevant, but sometimes it feels like it’s proposed as an endpoint: okay, if we just substitute old identities with new identities everything is liberated, but it’s the identity-object fixated thinking that is the problem. How can we move from that to something more relationship focused, and allow for more fluctuation between identities? What would a museum be in that situation?
[CS]: That touches on one of the last questions I was going to ask, which is around what you seek to undo through different processes of becoming. The stories you gather in the Becoming project seem to also be asking for an unravelling or an unmaking, and I just wondered about that tension between becoming and undoing.
[TH]: Absolutely – becoming is definitely about undoing, but in Becoming we felt that what happens beyond end times is so easily abstracted from what is happening that there is a danger it becomes an intellectual exercise, and doesn’t allow for the transformation in the now to happen. I’m more interested in what keeps the future open at this moment than projecting a utopia. And that’s what we were trying to do in Becoming, not to look somewhere there, but what is the process of transformation here, almost looking down to our feet, what’s emerging now, what kind of things should we cultivate at this very moment that then might lead us to some completely unexpected places.
The problem with the political now is not that we don’t have good ideas about how to do things, or how to be, but that there’s no avenue to actually exercise those practices. How do you exercise communality, how do you exercise something other than heteronormativity and patriarchy, how do you practice a different relationship to food, when there’s no actual place for you to do that? I think that hat kind of undoing – creating micro-spaces for new practices that can then undo the other patterns – is as important as imagining a future.