Diversity of Tactics, Diversity of Aesthetics: Post-MoMA Futures, Part I
Ariella Azoulay, Shellyne Rodriguez, Dalaeja Foreman, Nitasha Dhillon, Andrew Ross, Jasbir Puar, Abou Farman, Nelson Maldonado-Torres and others chart a Post-MoMA future in this first installment of 'Writing for Post-MoMA Futures'
Table of Contents
2. Modernity is an Imperial Crime: Outlines for a Working Group (Ariella Azoulay in conversation with Shellyne Rodriguez and Dalaeja Foreman, facilitated by Nitasha Dhillon)
3. The Art of Maiming: A Research Working Group (text by Jasbir K. Puar, working group member)
4. Curators and Educators for Decolonization, A Declaration and Invitation (text by Nelson Maldonado-Torres, working group co-facilitator)
5. Artists for a Post-MoMA Future: Call for an Indeterminate, Ongoing Charette to Envision a Post-MoMA Future
6. Remarks by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Curators and Educators for Decolonization, online Strike MoMa gathering, Week 2
7. Teach-in by La Tanya Autry of #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and Black Liberation Center, online Strike MoMa gathering, Week 2
8. Abou Farman, The Museum of Modern Artigarchy
9. Andrew Ross, Growing Up on 53rd Street: MoMA, Midtown, Modernity
10. Andreas Petrossiants and Jose Rosales, Is the Museum Obsolete?
11. Communiques 1 & 2 From Comandante Scream
12. Strike Modernity
Introduction to Writing for Post-MoMA Futures, Part I
This dossier of materials is the first installation of Writing for Post-MoMA Futures, a collaborative project with the Verso blog intended to build the intellectual and relational infrastructure of the Strike MoMA initiative over the course of the Ten Weeks of Action and beyond. The release of the dossier is a real-time contribution to Week 4 of this initiative, and is interwoven with two other events this week. The first is a conversation (included below) between Ariella Azoulay, Shellyne Rodriguez, Dalaeja Foreman, and Nitasha Dhillon about the task of what Azoulay calls “abolishing MoMA” and its significance for collective liberation struggles beyond the art system. The second is the Ruins of Modernity Tour, which gets under way just as this dossier goes live. Conceived as a direct action, the tour will lead from Columbus Circle to MoMA and represents an escalation and intensification of the Strike MoMa initiative.
This dossier assembles a variety of movement-generated writings by organizers, artists, scholars, and educators, blurring the boundary between these roles. Included here are outlines of Strike MoMA working groups, movement analysis, poetic texts, and theoretical interventions. These materials present a variety of forms, aesthetics, and emphases. What brings them together is that they share Strike MoMa: Framework and Terms for Struggle document as a horizon, embracing its call to imagine and enact the dismantling of MoMa with a diversity of tactics and visions. These materials have been produced within and for the movement spaces that have been opened since the release of that document on March 23, including the weekly pop-up de-occupation at Post-MoMA plaza across from the museum and its parallel online gathering for those unable to be there physically. In other words, these texts are operational and time-specific interventions that are helping to cultivate, deepen, and strengthen the emerging Strike MoMA formation as it grows. This common ethos and relational affinity is what binds them as an editorial assemblage, and together they establish the beginnings of a collective conversation that will unfold in later phases of Writing For Post-MoMA Futures, as well as forthcoming iterations of the Ruins of Modernity tour in coming weeks.
On April 23, an email was sent by Strike MoMa organizers to MoMA Director Glenn Lowry announcing their intent to bring the Ruins of Modernity Tour into the museum. In the email, they address a letter sent to staff by Lowry (and subsequently leaked by workers) in which he charges that Strike MoMA’s motivation is to “destroy the museum.” In response, organizers write:
Your attempt to conflate striking MoMA with “destruction” amounts to fear mongering, as if it were us, rather than the oligarchs, who embody a threat to culture, art, and society. MoMA has been a mechanism of destruction since its inception with the Rockefellers. Its claims for enlightenment and progress have always been in ruins; we are heightening this condition and its related contradictions. You invoke “the museum” as if it were a homogenous community with a unified interest; but everyone knows it is a site of class struggle and riven with antagonisms, however many reassuring emails you send or conversations you have with staff. The MoMA regime is a system of power and wealth that harms people, that uses art as an instrument of accumulation, and that makes empty appeals to what you call “the public good” while covering for billionaires like Leon Black, Larry Fink, and Jerry Speyer, whose names have become synonymous with patriarchal violence, the carceral state, climate destruction, neo-feudal landlordism, and direct support for the NYPD Foundation. Disassemble, dismantle, abolish. All these verbs apply when we are talking about destroying an apparatus of violence so that something else can emerge, something controlled by workers, communities, and artists rather than oligarchs.
Lowry’s fear mongering is to be expected given that Strike MoMA directly threatens the MoMA regime he is tasked with managing. However, his invocation of “destruction” finds echoes in a more diffuse sense of cognitive dissonance percolating across the art system, as when we overhear the idea that Strike MoMa is aiming to “cancel” MoMA in the manner of a disgraced celebrity. The current movement strikes at the core of the art system. The struggle against settler institutions like the museum and the university is unsettling to all of our ways of being. For many artists, critics, curators, it is difficult to divest from an institution that has convinced the world of its necessity and permanence, and around which many professional profiles revolve. As stated in the Strike MoMa document, striking MoMA is not about moralizing from a place of purity. It is about “heightening contradictions” to the point that the apparatus breaks down so that something else can emerge, something based in values of care, generosity, and cooperation rather than property, profit, and imperial plunder.
Seeing the continuities between imperialism and the contemporary museum becomes all the more resonant in light of a recent development at MoMA that follows on the heels of the announcement of the tour by Strike MoMa. This past Tuesday, after months of silence from MoMA, it was officially announced that Leon Black's replacement will be Marie-Josee Kravis, a long-time board MoMA board member.
As Strike MoMA put it in a statement released to journalists on April 28 in advance of the Ruins of Modernity Tour:
The replacement of Leon Black by Marie-Josee Kravis is a game of musical chairs. For us, the issue is not one bad board member. They are all part of the same "interlocking directorate" whose violence is accumulated in the very structure of the museum and the power grid of the city surrounding it. Kravis is deeply involved in a network of think tanks that make up the intellectual and operational infrastructure of the global ruling class. She is the vice Chair and Senior Fellow of the right-wing Hudson Institute, started by Rand Corporation executives and connected to the Institute For Advanced Study in Princeton. It has given awards to figures including Ronald Regan, Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Netanyahu, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Vice President Mike Pence. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group, and is active as Chairwoman Emeritus of the Economic Club of New York. This elite planning body hosted a nationally-televised speech by Donald Trump in 2019, and Kravis personally introduced a speech by Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo less than a year ago. At this level of the power elite, ideological lines between liberals and Trumpists break down. It is about consolidating ruling class governance in the face of heightening contradictions. The profile of Kravis only adds to the case against MoMA. Her name now appears in the limelight alongside better-known board members like Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock and supporter of the New York City Police Foundation, and Glenn Dubin, the hedge fund billionaire who has been explicitly named as a participant in Epstein's inner circle of sexual abuse on his private Caribbean island. The election of Kravis to the head of the board makes the stakes of striking MoMA all the more clear for our communities and movements for collective liberation.
The Writing for Post-MoMA Futures project is woven into the work of organizing against the forces of death and destruction represented by a figure like Kravis and her affiliated institutions. The materials appearing here and in future iterations are concrete contributions to developing the framework for what it means to simultaneously exit the apparatus of MoMA while imagining and building counter-institutions. They point in the direction of Phase 2 of Strike MoMA, which will unfold later this year with a Convening for a Just Transition to Post-MoMa Futures.
Modernity is an Imperial Crime: Outlines for a Working Group (Ariella Azoulay in conversation with Shellyne Rodriguez and Dalaeja Foreman, facilitated by Nitasha Dhillon)
The Art of Maiming: A Research Working Group (text by Jasbir K. Puar, working group member)
The research-intensive working group is focused on excavating and exposing the circuits of capital that make the Settler Museum possible. Through our research we intend to unravel these circuits to reveal and imagine other ways of being in relation. Warren Kanders (Whitney/Safariland), Leon Black (MOMA/Jeffrey Epstein), and Darren Walker (Ford Foundation/”humane” jails) have been rendered monstrous exceptions or benevolent “best of” capitalists in a system that relies on the wealthy washing their money through philanthropic arenas and institutions. In actuality, none of these philanthropists are exceptional. Rather their profit-making practices and ideological orientations to capitalism and exploitation are normative, typical, expected, lauded, and justified as the only way to create urban spaces of cultural value.
There is much more work to be done to unearth these carceral assemblages of the settler museum, board of director members, benefactors, and the industries that make money for philanthropists: “humane” weapons manufacturing companies; housing and business development projects that gentrify neighborhoods and fracture communities; support of building more prisons; Zionist efforts to suppress freedom of speech on Palestine; liaisons with sexual predators and violent “white collar” criminals; corporate corruption and malfeasance.
As a methodological approach we refuse to accept the mystification of capitalist exploitation presented by the lexicon of financialization. We labor in tandem with the Strike MOMA Working Group in the spirit of not only decolonial and abolitionist futures but decolonization and abolition now. This research is necessary tactically, to use as leverage in the media and for impact, to disseminate information in order to discredit and to educate, to demand acknowledgement of the great harms of these institutions, and to execute certain actions to solicit their dismantling. This research is in concert with movement pedagogy that seeks to unsettle everything.
In short, we do not need profit from war, economies of maiming and death, labor exploitation, land grabs, settler colonialism, and the prison industrial complex in order to have sustainable, nourishing, representative, and accessible artistic work grounded in community needs and desires.
Curators and Educators for Decolonization, A Declaration and Invitation (text by Nelson Maldonado-Torres, working group co-facilitator)
Why strike MoMA? So that something else can emerge, something under the control of workers, communities, and artists rather than billionaires. —Strike MoMA: Framework and Terms of Struggle
Decolonization is a collective project that is rooted in the struggle against Indigenous genocide, settler colonialism, racial slavery, racialized gendering and modern/colonial ungendering, as well as the naturalization of land expropriation and the commodification of the environment. Decolonization is also a protest against the rationalization and naturalization of war and violence against Indigenous, Black, colonized, and racialized subjects as well as their descendants all over the world. This ongoing war targets bodies, territories, knowledges, symbols, movements, and rhythms. It expects disappearance, if it does not directly produce it in highly violent forms, as well as assimilation into the standards of the modern West. More than anything, however, decolonization might be a desire for an alternative.
Decolonization depends on generosity and creativity, without which critique becomes a ruse, if not a means of self-destruction. Decolonization involves the identification of what must be created, abolished, imagined anew, as well as reframed or reconceptualized. Curators and educators play an important role in performing these tasks. Along with artists, community organizers, activists, elders, and others who form part of decolonial movements, they help to identify and clarify fundamental problems as well as generate the most relevant questions that inform projects for decolonization.
The strike against MoMA is more than solely the rejection of the actions and financial investments of certain individuals in its Board or its Chairperson. It is a denunciation as well as an interruption of the coloniality that is embedded in the modernity that is enshrined in the MoMA itself, and that is also part of most other museums. It is not a strike against art but against its colonization and co-optation of art in the service of colonial and imperialist projects. More than anything, the strike against MoMA is a decolonial gesture, as well as an act committed to the idea that art should not be captured by oligarchs and capital, or assimilated into national myths, but rather that creative action plays a crucial role in the process of combatting war and affirming the worth of communities.
Curators and Educators for Decolonization stand up in solidarity with the strike against MoMA and the goal of promoting artistic formations “under the control of workers, communities, and artists rather than billionaires.” For this, we commit to engage in curatorial and educative initiatives that seek to:
A) Identify and bring higher visibility to creative projects that already present viable models of decolonial formation. Particular emphasis will be given to projects that are part of Native American and Indigenous “land back” and anticolonial movements, projects that target antiblack racism and racialized gendering/ungendering, and initiatives that address the conditions of refugees and migrants facing racist actions. This activity involves a critical engagement with the concept of art and artistic projects on the basis of decolonial formations that challenge these concepts, along with a critical reflection on museums and museumification.
B) Generate ideas and activities that promote and anticipate the emergence of decolonial creative formations, including visual, verbal, embodied, and musical creative works and techniques.
More specifically, Curators and Educators for Decolonization are committed to engage in one of these actions from the start of the strike against MoMA on April 9th, 2021 to the end of 2022. The list provided here is not exhaustive: equivalent activities could also be proposed. Collaborations among members, including regional encounters and coordination of work (e.g., similar exhibitions and/or courses taking place at the same time or building from each other), are particularly encouraged, but individual and punctual actions are entirely adequate too.
A) Curate an exhibition, part of an exhibition, or a series of educative sessions that introduce audiences and participants to the strike against MoMA, and to at least some of the actions that take place during the strike.
B) Critically engage the archives of established artistic institutions (starting with those in the places where the curators find themselves) to make visible the ties between the history of these institutions and the history of empire/nation-building/capital. Use the material in publications, exhibitions, seminars, or other activities.
C) Curate an exhibition, part of an exhibition, or a series of educational sessions that feature creative projects that enact the principles of a decolonial post-MoMA formation. There should always be attention to Indigenous struggles for land in the national formation where the curatorial project takes place.
D) Curate an exhibition, part of an exhibition, or a series of educational sessions that: highlight creative work that challenges the coloniality of historical and/or contemporary museum formations, and that advances ideas, images, or sounds that promote the emergence of a decolonial post-MoMA future.
A) Design a class, a module of a class, or a research initiative exercises that introduce students to the strike against MoMA, and to some of the actions that take place during the strike.
B) Critically engage the archives of established institutions of education (starting with those in the places where the educators find themselves) to make visible the ties between the history of these institutions and the history of empire/nation-building/capital. Use the material in publications, exhibitions, seminars, or other activities
C) Design a class, a module of a class, or a research initiative that features creative projects that enact the principles of a decolonial post-MoMA formation. There should always be attention to Indigenous struggles for land in the national formation where the educational initiative or research takes place.
D) Design a class, a module of a class, or a research initiative that: highlights creative work that challenges the coloniality of historical and/or contemporary museum formations, and that advances ideas, images, or sounds that promote the emergence of a decolonial post-MoMA future.
Curators and Educators for Decolonization will follow up and support the 10-weeks strike by seriously engaging its contributions to the emergence of decolonial creative formations. We will also seek to follow and contribute to the Phase 2 of the movement, namely, the convention for a “Just Transition to a Post-MoMA future.” This could involve the coordination of activities at museums and/or classrooms regionally and internationally, as well as the creation of a website, and the organization of a conference at the end of 2022.
Contact Curators and Educators for Decolonization (CED): firstname.lastname@example.org
Artists for a Post-MoMA Future: Call for an Indeterminate, Ongoing Charette to Envision a Post-MoMA Future
Yona Friedman’s sketch for La Ville Spatiale from 1958. Friedman’s visionary project imagined a city that would accommodate the free will of its citizens and would be suspended on a framework above the existing urban space, avoiding any displacement of what came before.
A charette is an intensive period of time in which people gather to resolve a design problem. The general idea of a charrette is to create an innovative atmosphere in which a diverse group of stakeholders can collaborate to “generate visions for the future.”
In 2004, MoMA unveiled a renovation by architect Yoshio Taniguchi. Speaking to New York Magazine, he remarked, “The model for MoMA is Manhattan itself. The Sculpture Garden is Central Park, and around it is a city with buildings of various functions and purpose. MoMA is a microcosm of Manhattan.”
To this we respond: THAT’S THE PROBLEM!
MoMA has become a microcosm of a city that excludes, extracts, and exploits on occupied Lenape territory. And yet, inside the museum are the relics of our comrades in radical thought who envisioned worlds no one else could imagine until they were conveyed through form. It is time for these visions to be unleashed and wielded in the world, to breathe life into these works anew.
Take for instance the museum’s collection of visionary architectural models and drawings. Visionary architecture, while often optimistically broadcasting a wish or desire, is simultaneously rooted in inevitable failure. Often relegated to models, drawings, and other incarnations of the paper project, these proposals remain theoretical or unbuilt due to various circumstances, ranging from sheer feasibility, to political or financial circumstances. The residual idea exists as a pragmatic metaphor, a statement demanding a culture capable of enabling its existence, a poetic critique of reality.
We call for a suspension of reality. Reality has for too long been an excuse. We call for the creative will of this city’s people to imagine a dynamic, inclusive, earth-shaking, transformative, dispersed home for art that does not weaponize the care for these beloved and inspiring works at the expense of enabling systems of harm. We will wonder together, what will it look like? We will make drawings and build models. We will ask better and more beautiful questions. And we will delight in our collective sympathetic magic that will bring these visions into reality when we hold space together.
Speaking about the 2004 MoMA renovation, Taniguchi recalled his initial conversations with the then-head of Architecture and Design at the museum when it came to his proposal. “If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture. But if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear,” he said. Let us fulfill Taniguchi’s vision, which is shared in the Strike MoMA Framework and Terms for Struggle document: As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.
Let not the laws of the city nor the law of gravity determine our vision!
To get involved, please write to: email@example.com
Remarks by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Curators and Educators for Decolonization, online Strike MoMa gathering, Week 2
Teach-in by La Tanya Autry of #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and Black Liberation Center, online Strike MoMa gathering, Week 2
Abou Farman, The Museum of Modern Artigarchy
Over the last few years, an increasing number of art and cultural institutions have come under sustained attack for what to some may have appeared as a range of disparate reasons: a racist statue; labor issues; or a weapons manufacturer, opioid peddlers, prison profiteers, gentrifiers sitting on the board. However, these instances are part of a growing, global, and coherent set of revolts against finance feudalism and the global oligarchy, beneficiaries from the afterlives of colonialism and slavery. Whereas much of protesting in the art world has historically concerned matters of representation (what kind of art by what kind of artist expressing what kinds of concerns get to be included in the spaces of its reception and exhibition), some current spates of protests are challenging social structures and cultural imaginaries, rather than the art on display. Board members have been the main targets, for the boards of these hallowed institutions, it turns out, are full of unsavory characters who make their money from selling drugs, peddling arms, and putting regular folks in cages. That money gained from dispossession, displacement, and detention is then donated (4Ds) in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to museums and non-profits. The protestors have been clear: the cycle of these four Ds has to stop. That is, actions won’t stop once a particular board member is removed because that does not stop the violence of the oligarchs. It merely shifts its location; they are interchangeable. In that case, actions will move to another site in the chain of art washing and philanthropy subterfuge.
None of this comes as too much of a surprise. What we know today as “The Museum” has always been underwritten by ill-gotten wealth and power, from colonial ventures and slave plantation profits to military expeditions and Gilded Age robber barons. Without these adventures in violence, theft, and barbarism, there would have been no institutions of high civilization or high art in the modern, Western world. The money’s been dirty for a few hundred years. So has civilization.
Today’s protests—following on the heels of a few earlier fights like Gulf Labor’s face off with the Guggenheim and unionization efforts at the New Museum—have gained momentum because they are not about art. Or, put differently, they are not about art in the way the museums have come to delineate art, as a restricted domain of production over which they hold the monopoly of value. Rather, the protests are about that very monopoly; they are about the museum in the structural sense, about the financial capital that underwrites, and benefits from, the cultural capital of museums, universities, and institutions of knowledge in general. Accumulated through its originary violence of colonial dispossession and enslavement, Western capital and power hid behind the idea of the mision civilizatrice (the civilizing mission) of the White man, bringing education, art, and “progress” to the rest of the world. Today’s concentration of capital keeps lubricating the gears of civilization that gave rise to these institutions in the first place. We have to understand museums as a function in the machinery of racial capitalism. Profit from every part of a historically-shaped cycle of dispossession, displacement and detention ends up as Picassos on the wall where we are taught to stand mouths agape and feel awe about the human spirit. A highly creative project indeed, a fetish of the highest order.
Another important feature is that these actions are not only led by the artists and intellectuals who have a vested interest in the institutions and want to change them for the better. The coalitions are joined or led by groups fighting a wide range of issues imposed on vulnerable communities by the oligarchy and its security state—from anti-extractivist movements to prison abolitionists and sanctuary activists to movements for indigenous land restoration and Black liberation. Positioning itself from the beginning at the intersection of these currents, Decolonize This Place (DTP) has been the exemplary platform that started with arts institutions and then joined major mobilizations against gentrification and police brutality in collaboration with local groups around the city. DTP, like MoMA Divest, understands and promotes the view that these are linked, international struggles.
But against and for what? If all this is about global politics and economics, then why focus on museums like MoMA and non-profits like the Ford Foundation? Because, political and economic systems of power are concentrated in the museum and non-profit worlds. Wherever the money comes from, the museum or non-profit acts as the laundromat for the global oligarchy, sanitizing the money and giving it the stamp of culture’s approval. This is the political ecology of art and the flow is clear. Today, The Art World—when in caps, this designation includes the design, fashion, creative non-profit, and museum industries—is the distillation of the processes of global capital which is moving towards greater concentrations of wealth and value in fewer hands: the artigarchy.
The financial capital of the artigarchy is accrued as a result of the particular forms contemporary global politics has taken: a. growing inequality and the concentration of wealth, often reproducing colonial and racial histories; b. increasing dispossession and displacement caused by almost a quadrillion dollars of global capital (including debt and speculative capital) seeking its ten percent via extraction of resources no matter where they lie; c. the massively weaponized security state protecting the open flow of big capital and its owners, whilst restricting and criminalizing the flow of people, even as that extractivist capital displaces them; d. the aesthetic, humanitarian, and philanthropic apparatus that makes it all feel nice (progress!), and allows those of modest privilege to feel like change is happening whilst the oligarchs can feel good about their great heist and cleaner money.
Luncheons hosted by those in the oligarchy—like the one at MoMA in 2019 that was protested by MoMA Divest and protected by NYPD—are in honor of the CEOs of the big banks and corporations, in that case Bank of America which got to graffitti its name all over the art. That is why—in an echo of James Baldwin who said “White is a metaphor for power and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank”—we say Bank of America is another name for MoMA. And vice versa. So is General Dynamics, the weapons giant, whose director, James Crown, has his name emblazoned on the newly-minted “People’s Studio.” There are others—Leon Black, Larry Fink—but the point is structural and not personal: to fight MoMA is to fight inequality. To fight the Whitney is to fight the security state. The distinction is part of a fictitious habitus we are asked to accept and inhabit.
But, some might say—as the directors and curators of these institutions have—that we cannot vilify the wealthy! Or that we cannot tell them where to invest their money, as remarked by Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA. Those are plainly false and deliberately dumbed-down replies to legitimate demands. Of course you can. That is precisely what we all need to do. The problem is the wealth and where it is invested, the immense inequality of it, the ways it is working to amass itself whilst causing harm, hijacking the courts, the prosecutors, the voting machines. Why are we being asked to let them be? We can’t address white supremacy or climate change or mass incarceration without dismantling the ideological, financial, and state apparatuses that facilitate the accumulation of wealth and power. That includes the museums.
Since 9/11, we have indisputably seen inequality grow to extremes, and even more so after the 2008 crash. The most recent Oxfam report on global inequality states: “While the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth dwindle by 11%, billionaires’ riches increased by 12%. Last year, the top 26 wealthiest people owned $1.4 trillion, or as much as the 3.8 billion poorest people.” Whilst people are struggling to pay rent, to pay for food, to pay $2.75 to get on public transport in New York City, the world’s billionaires increase their fortunes by $2.5 billion per day. Meanwhile, the racial wealth gap has been increasing and pandemic billionaires have made more than $400 billion during a time when people have lost livelihoods, not to mention their lives.
Research cited in a pre-pandemic HuffPost article showed that annual fraud by America’s largest corporations cost Americans up to $360 billion annually which amounts to roughly two decades’ worth of so-called street crime every single year. Yet, in 2018, nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, the majority black and latino, whilst prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals.
Along with this immiseration of the poor and the fattening of the oligarchs, we have seen public funds, money for health, education, housing, the arts decrease. While the prosecution of white collar crimes (by the SEC, IRS, or EPA) is hampered and underfunded, the budgets of those arms of the state that mainly punish the poor—the police, prisons, and the military—keep growing.
There is no ethical world I want to be a part of, in which an institution that raises and spends over $450 million dollars on renovations in one year and a year later fires uncontracted workers whose cumulative salaries are a fraction of the kinds of sums it has access to the next. MoMA has finance capital and social capital but is ethically bankrupt. The whole modern civilization for which it stands, as one of its highest exemplar, is bankrupt.
The case of BlackRock and its CEO Larry Fink, who sits on the boards of MoMA and NYU and donates to the NY Police Foundation, is emblematic but not unique. From its Manhattan perch a few blocks from MoMA, BlackRock manages assets of over seven trillion dollars. That is more than the entire collective GDPs of Mexico and South and Central American and Caribbean nations combined. Those assets are invested in all sorts of things—mainly large global companies, including weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, fossil fuel extraction companies such as ExxonMobil and BP, mining companies like Vale and Rio Tinto, and prison companies like Core Civic and Geo Group. A large number of such companies have been found to be in violation of human rights, labor rights, and indigenous rights. For example, both Vale and Rio Tinto, sometimes through local subsidiaries and always with the help of local states and security forces, have privatized large areas of land in places like Mozambique, Brazil, and Colombia for resource extraction, thereby displacing people, often through forced evictions. After setting up operations, they have been accused of poor working conditions, sometimes even forced labor; pollution and contamination; corruption and illegal licensing; and attacking environmental activists. There have been local protests, contestations, and, obviously, violence. Securing these extractivist ventures, then, requires weapons, in the production of which BlackRock also owns shares. People dispossessed and displaced by these securitized financial ventures go on the move, and people on the move are vulnerable to all sorts of things, including detention at borders. It’s a good thing, then, for BlackRock to also own shares of prison companies that detain people on the move. There is profit at every point in the cycle of dispossession, displacement m and detention. They call it a diversified portfolio. And thereby also shirk blame. With one decision, Larry Fink could seal the fate of the prison company Core Civic, yet somehow we are to not blame the directors and owners of these funds and these companies, who protect themselves by being seated here whilst their profit-driven atrocities take place elsewhere.
Most large funds and billionaires inevitably invest in the same cycle, including most US pension funds and banks, many of which also have large art collections run by smiling art curators. Vanguard, securing the future of America’s employees in their old age and one of the largest asset managers in the world, has a very similar investment profile and directors that serve on various boards, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It can’t be otherwise.
The state, and its security apparatus, from police to the military, are hijacked by these imperatives—they call it development or economic growth, but it’s really just profit. In this situation, all corporate heads will defend the arrest and incarceration of indigenous and environmental activists who know that another pipeline will only increase oil leaks and pollution. The oligarchs will trigger and defend the arrests in the name of growth, as they are appointed to serve on the boards of museums around the country. No wonder then, that despite repeated requests by activists and artists, not one of the major museums has stood up to declare what position it holds vis-a-vis funds linked to war, dispossession, displacement, or prison profits.
And that translates to the curators, writers, and artists, only a handful of whom have stood up and confronted the horror. This is not to blame curators or artists, for what the struggles at the Whitney and MoMA have shown is that the administration will be punitive.
As for the artists, they worry that without the valuation of the accumulated wealth and power of the big institutions, they will never get anywhere. That is not the case, of course, and to think so is to buy into the colonial fiction of the metropole, the metropolitan, the center. But the point here is to highlight the regime of fear, to recognize that we are working under the repressive regimes of these institutions which pretend to operate in the name of artistic freedom and freedom of expression but enact the security regime’s tactics of producing insecurity, financial or otherwise. Producing fear. As MTL+ and FTP wrote last year, the tactic of becoming ungovernable is precisely to come together to get over that fear.
Oligarchic institutions don’t abide by reform. They need breaking up. Getting rid of Warren Kanders from the board of the Whitney may not have decisively changed the conditions on the ground in Palestine, Ferguson, Standing Rock, the US-Mexico border, or any of the other places where Safariland weapons were used. But it was useful because it shifted the frame and showed a surging power in cultural activism, positioning it as part of a larger social and political mobilization addressing not just what art belongs on what wall, but the material and structural conditions underlying the decisions about what a wall is. All these actions—naming harm, forcing accountability, bringing down monuments, claiming reparations, reclaiming stolen land—have been and continue to be about those walls, borders and barricades that get erected to ensure the security of the state. They were and continue to be about the evasion and dismantling of those walls, and the making of other worlds—plural, many, multiple, non-standard worlds—without those borders.
Andrew Ross, Growing Up on 53rd Street: MoMA, Midtown, Modernity
Midtown is not simply a neighborhood sector of Manhattan, it is the home of a Central Business District (CBD)—typically the area in a city with the highest land value, and with the highest concentration of commercial and financial capital investment. Over the course of the twentieth century, Midtown supplanted Wall Street as the city’s primary CBD. Large landowners, like the Rockefeller family, played an outsized role in “curating” the land markets of both of these CBD’s, with the Rockefeller Center complex, in particular, playing a key anchoring role. That MoMa became the premier museum of Midtown (geographically and conceptually distinct from the Museum Mile of the Upper East Side) meant that it was more centrally aligned with the engines of real estate growth and capital accumulation. MoMa grew up in the same neighborhood as America’s corporate titans headquartered in the Midtown’s CBD. These kids on the block know each other very well—they went to the same school of capital accumulation. MoMa’s cultivation of “modern art” is indissociable from the corporate aesthetic of the American century because it is rooted in the same epochal mode of production.
As the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) industries began to supplant manufacturing as New York’s base economy, Midtown and its homegrown museum went with the flow, expanding upwards and outwards. Townhouse rows morphed into canyons of glass and steel. During the Bloomberg years, Midtown was the primary destination for foreign investment in the city’s real estate, most of it dirty money in search of a tax avoidance haven or money laundering opportunity. Billionaire’s Row was the inevitable outcome of tycoons, princelings, and oligarchs from Russia, Asia, and the Middle East looking for a place to park their surplus capital. Purchased with cash or through shell companies or LLCs, their owners have good reason to shield their activities from public and legal scrutiny—they are as crooked as the day is long. These palaces in the sky were not built to be lived in; they are safe deposit boxes for the plunder of global capitalist speculation. At nighttime, you can tell that entire, darkened floors of the Row’s supertalls lie empty while the city’s homeless shelters are overflowing. The gulf between ultra-luxury speculation and existential need is an extreme symptom of the capitalist production of housing crises.
MoMa officially jumped into the real estate business with the construction of Museum Tower. This white glove condominium, designed by Cesar Pelli, was part of the museum’s upward expansion, executed in the early 1980s. But this de luxe venture was only a preview of things to come, when an adjoining lot was sold to developers in 2007 for construction of an even more lavish cloud buster—the Tower Verre. 53 W 53, as it is now known, is often claimed as part of Billionaires Row on account of its soaring elevation and unit prices. Unlike Museum Tower, it is a stand-alone real estate play, but it is still an integral part of the MoMa scenescape. Perpetual benefactor membership of the museum is one of the perks of residency, which also include a 65-foot lap pool, golf simulator, squash court, private theater and restaurant. For the occupying class, the museum is just another bundled amenity on its doorstop.
That MoMa plays an adjunct role in Billionaire’s Row is no coincidence. The art collectors and donors in MoMa’s orbit are the same people who invest in the supertalls, just as the composition of its board overlaps with the board membership of many of the large corporations headquartered in the surrounding blocks. MoMa and its adjoining tower are at one with the predatory system of accumulation that built the supertalls just as the stately Met is at one with the older money of the Upper East Side. Their contents rotate between the private collections of townhouses and condos and the exhibition galleries, just as their larger spaces serve to host the grander social functions of the art-collecting bourgeoisie. Both museums are open to the public in the same spirit that the British aristocracy open their carefully curated mansions to the public.
If 53 W 53 is a trophy of class war, MoMa is its theater of operations, where the strategies of extraction and speculation are planned and staged through the medium of art. Appreciation is demanded, whether from the architectural critics who fawn over Jean Nouvel’s tower, the art critics who are groomed to separate artworks from the sordid economy through which they circulate, and the mass tourist, checking off their list of must-see destinations. Considered as a single complex, the combo of MoMa, the Museum Tower and 53 E 53 is the concrete expression of the interlocking interests of the ultra-luxury capitalist class and the artworld’s professional-managerial class, each serving the other in close proximity to their high-security precincts. Nowhere else is the architecture of power and greed so clearly and shamelessly displayed as on this midtown block.
Andreas Petrossiants and Jose Rosales, Is the Museum Obsolete?
Advocating a position that sees the “material world” as more necessary for changing social relations than the ossified aesthetic regimes of art, Guy Debord wrote something to the effect of: that which changes our way of seeing the street is more important than that which changes our way of seeing a work of art. On its face, this Situationist provocation is an invitation to reject participation in the art system and to upend social relations embodied in the street—that is, a space of revolt, of riot, of looting, and perhaps, of critique. However, if read in the context of Strike MoMA—a durational period of collective action fostering a space from which to imagine the mechanics of post-MoMA futures—another meaning emerges. It becomes a call for the abandonment of the illusory supposition of art’s autonomy from labor or political economy, from the street. Or, to use the terms of the Strike MoMA Working Group, it is an invitation to engage in a “diversity of aesthetics.”
After decades of political antagonism that has taken the museum as a site of contestation, whether through the artwork or otherwise, it is more widely understood that the museum is not an institution that should be reformed, re-staffed, or even critiqued, but rather one that has failed its historical claims to curating art and publics. Even Daniel Buren, a central progenitor of institutional critique—the historical precedence for art that explicitly targets the museum in the artwork itself—wrote in his canonical 1970 text “Function of the Museum” that the museum’s historical role has always been “a careful camouflage undertaken by the prevalent bourgeois ideology, assisted by the artists themselves.”
Following after decades of the institution folding critical art into a performative self-reflexivity, Marina Vishmidt argues that much critical artistic practice today functions as a kind of “reconciled realpolitik not all that different from the kind that anointed liberal democracy as the least-worst form of government still standing after everything else has ostensibly been tried.” In light of this, we also see that beginning in the late 60s, if not earlier, a shared sensibility began to establish itself among various, dissident currents of the left paralleled by critiques of the art system: the rejection of the inherited institutions of historical communism including the union, the worker’s council, cultural propaganda in the service of building class consciousness, the party-form, or the state itself. In other words, in certain spheres of militant theory and art practice, there emerged coterminous rejections of the museum and the organizational forms characteristic of previous cycles of struggle.
The task now is to continue developing strategies and tactics “inside” and “outside” of the museum to unravel its connections to global systems of violence; to do this means to cease being precious about our movements or our institutions, and to acknowledge that to abolish capitalism, the police, and settler colonialism may also mean to abolish the foundational terms of the modern museum as such—what has historically been a receptacle for the spoils of colonial looting on the one hand and a vehicle for legitimizing nationalist prestige on the other. That said, if we do in fact acknowledge that the boundary between the street and the museum (or the political party, the supermarket, the airport) is a false one, then on the level of strategy, we can also ask: when is it better to look out and see the street and when better to maintain the illusory spaces of (aesthetic) autonomy? How to enter or exit the spaces and functions of the institution and act in such a way that cannot be recuperated, or wherein the recuperation is beneficial to abolition and struggle?
Over the last few months, we have been thinking with comrades and friends about similar questions. In solidarity with the Strike MoMA initiative, the ten week pop-up de-occupation taking place across from the museum, and MoMA workers, we would like to share the three lines of inquiry for collective research that we have been following (the results of which will be published as individual pamphlets in the coming months).
Inside and Outside, an Infrastructural Critique
In some recent organizing efforts targeting cultural institutions for their material connections to the carceral and surveillance apparatuses, to displacement, to occupation and (neo)colonial violence, an important characteristic has been the involvement of organizers and militants from outside the realms of cultural production. Contrary to efforts in the past, many of these recent struggles have attempted to delegitimize the boundaries between ostensibly autonomous art and other forms of waged or unwaged labor and their incumbent forms of exploitation, even as they strategically abide by them when necessary. With that in mind, where can we isolate spaces conducive to collectivity, and do they need to respect the lines sketched by power and its opposition? How can groups activate the MTL+ collective’s call for an “arts of escalation” in and out of those realms considered part of the art system?
Value and the Destituent Potential of the Human Strike
Could Mario Tronti’s claim that the working class is simultaneously the articulation and dissolution of capital be rephrased for thinking cultural production and cultural workers, even as art production is falsely considered to be an exceptional form of work? Insofar as value remains a fundamental social relation, ever efficient at recuperating activity, it gives the lie to the relative autonomy of the aesthetic as a privileged type of activity under capital. From what we have seen thus far, the various attempts to reappropriate its institutions have shown themselves to be short-lived at best, reactionary at worst. If that’s the case, then the question would be what to do with that social relation, value, and how to abolish it?
Looting (convened by Vicky Osterweil)
Of the various images from Nanni Balestrini’s reconstruction of NYC and Italy in 1977, it is the scene of a fifty year-old woman who, upon entering a store, announces that “today she shops for free” that remains especially dear to us; if second only to the poem’s autonomist refrain: “we’re going to take what we want and what we want is what we need.” Balestrini’s poetic dictum of want and need was renewed during the George Floyd Rebellions of last summer. In a video from an “autonomous zone” in Minneapolis, someone says: “people just came and shopped for free.” No longer valuable given their subtraction from exchange, and no longer useful vis-a-vis the requirements of the production process, commodities are devalorized and their functions recomposed. In the spheres of art’s custodianship especially, the value of art has historically been produced through the colonial looting and violence of Western capital. How then, to loot back without enshrining art’s value? If only to prove the anarchist dictum that property is in fact, and has always been, theft—and though the ideologies of modern art have attended to art’s exceptionality to/in capitalism—the foundations of modern art in Indigenous and working class dispossession make that exceptionality seem overstated at best. Given this historical context, could we say that looting is the theft of property that no longer presupposes the property-form?
The legacy of Adorno’s claim to the problematic nature of the autonomy of art finds echoes in the neoliberal art world today, one that agrees with critical positions so long as they are articulated mimetically. In his 2018 remarks, director of the Whitney Museum Adam Weinberg defended (former) vice chair of the board Warren Kanders, notwithstanding his career as an investor and weapons manufacturer, as follows: “Even as we are idealistic and missionary in our belief in artists … the Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role. Yet, I contend that the Whitney has a critical and urgent part to play in making sure that unheard and unwanted voices are recognized.” (The italics are ours) Today, Glenn Lowry employs a similar counterinsurgent tactic to discredit Strike MoMA, pointing to the museum’s commitments to “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
The irony of this PR strategy—to open MoMA’s archives and wallets to historically oppressed and marginalized communities from whose exploitation they have also profited—is not lost on us. If only for the simple fact that the museum’s staff is already diverse, though many of those workers of color are concentrated in security, sanitation, and human resources. MoMA appears to be making the preparations necessary for the terms and stakes of this confrontation, wherein talks of diversity are but one element in a strategy of counter-insurgency. Seeing that decolonization is not a discourse on the universal, and that there is little point in engaging in a debate with MoMA’s current stewards, we détourn Marx and Engels in reply:
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend. Just as you view the disappearance of class property as the disappearance of aesthetic production itself, so the disappearance of class culture is, for you, identical with the disappearance of all culture. What you call culture is simply the place where power always finds accomplices.
Communique from Comandante Scream #1
Communique from Comandante Scream #2
Photo by Hrag Vartanian