When capitalism is finally history

Luke Pickrell talks to Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau, the artists who founded and curated the Museum of Capitalism in Oakland, which opened in June.

Oliver Ressler, Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies, 2003-08. On display at the Museum of Capitalism (Brea McAnally)Oliver Ressler, Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies, 2003-08. On display at the Museum of Capitalism (Brea McAnally)

"EMANCIPATORY POLITICS must always destroy the appearance of a 'natural order,' must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable."

These words of the late author Mark Fisher, printed on parchment paper in purple ink and an eye-catching font, were handed out to visitors at the opening of the Museum of Capitalism (MoC) in Oakland, California.

The museum's, whose stated mission is to "educate this generation and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of capitalism," opened in June with a series of multimedia exhibits created by artists, scholars and others, with more to come.

It has already hosted numerous events, including a presentation by the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) and a lecture on "How to do nothing" by local artist Jenny Odell. Upcoming events include discussions with Occupy Museums and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Thousands of people, including students from high school and college classes, have passed through the museum since it opened in late June.

Review: Exhibition

The Museum of Capitalism, June 18-August 20. (Open Wednesday–Sunday 12–6 p.m.; Fridays to 8 p.m.) 55 Harrison Street along the Jack London Waterfront in Oakland.

To find out more about the museum's plans and goals--at a time when the threat that capitalism poses to human existence has never been greater, and an increasing number of people are seeking an alternative to the status quo--I stole a moment of time from Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau, the artists who opened the museum in June.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

HOW WOULD you describe the content of the museum to those who haven't seen it? What are you trying to convey about capitalism and what are some of the ways you do it?

Timothy: The museum contains a wide variety of artifacts, artworks and exhibits created by a wide variety of artists.

The exhibits aren't organized into a rigid structure, but rather into an open layout that encourages the experience of thematic resonances between them. These different elements of the museum are intended to give impressions of how issues of class, race, gender, and ecology are linked to capitalism, sometimes in subtle ways, and how struggles around these issues might be seen as common struggles against capitalism.

The exhibition also includes a special exhibition called American Domain, curated by Erin Elder, exploring land ownership in the United States; a library where visitors can study capitalism to learn more about some of the issues raised in the exhibits and the local groups working on them; and a gift shop where visitors can buy mementos of the museum in a familiar retail environment.

The text labels in the museum, and the framing of the project in general, use a "future anterior" tone that looks back on capitalism as if it is a thing of the past, giving visitors a chance to do what we like to call "pre-enactment"--exploring their cognitive and emotional attitudes towards capitalism and encouraging radical imagination in a way that does not deny current realities, but de-familiarizes them.

We hope this sheds light on the realities of capitalism and makes people feel more empowered to change them.

WHAT ARE your backgrounds as they relate to art?

Timothy: I don't think there was ever a time I decided I wanted to be an artist. This doesn't fit neatly into other career trajectories or categories.

I came to art through anthropology and linguistics. Art is where all of my projects were supported. There wasn't a careerist mentality. Art is the space we can operate in. Whatever it gets called doesn't matter.

Andrea: We don't make art as an end point, but in order to work through or make sense of something. We've always thought of our projects as having an ability to bring about change, whether that's a mental shift or a change in perspective.

A lot of our projects stem from ideas of justice and our desire to bring justice to the world. To paraphrase one of the artists on display in the museum: Art makes space for belief, and belief makes space for change.

Timothy: I was working the front desk of the museum and watching a group of people leave--I'm always curious about people's response to the show.

There was a group of people who were leaving, and they were in a daze, as people tend to be when leaving the museum because it can be overwhelming. Just as they were getting out the door, this one guy said to the other five: "It really is easy to take all that stuff for granted." That was such a nice thing to hear, because that's one of the feelings we are trying to provoke.

Andrea: It's about seeing the world as it is, and also as it could be. That's the idea of the project. It offers this moment of rupture in the way you see something--and in which you can imagine something different.

ARE THERE any artists that influenced your work or your life?

Andrea: I was trained as a sound artist and musician. One of the points of influence for me comes from working with sound, during which you spend a lot of time listening to things around you.

From my experience as a performer, I'm aware of the ways in which a visitor to an installation--an audience member--experiences a thing. I'm always thinking about the bodily experience and how something will unfold for someone. I'm always concerned with what someone will be confronted with upon entering a space, what will draw their attention, what will cause them to move.

I was influenced by the composer Pauline Oliveros, and in particular, the field she defined called deep listening, which thinks about listening and attentiveness to the things around you, and places an emphasis more on listening than producing.

I've always been interested in flipping the traditional audience-performer relationship, where the audience becomes part of the performance and part of the completion of the work. The piece isn't a piece until the audience participates.

Many of the artists in the show are also teachers and inspirations for us, and they tackled different topics in different ways.

HOW DID you come up with the idea for the museum?

Timothy: In a talk including Slavoj Žižek and John Holloway, Alex Callinicos said that, like the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, there might one day be a museum of capitalism. This was the inspiration.

Putting something in a museum historicizes that thing and gives it some force. It seems controversial in this country to historicize capitalism, because it's said to be ahistorical – something all-encompassing, like the air we breath.

The political question is interesting because it shouldn't be controversial to say that something historically specific won't last forever. That seems like a pretty sober claim to make, and yet it gets people all up in arms.

"Political" as a word gets thrown at things to attack them. We're told it's not good to be political, and that we should be quiet and accept the status quo. As an artist, you don't want to be put in the category of "political" because it's used to silence and dismiss the work you do.

WHAT ROLE can art play in politics and changing the world?

Andrea: I'm reminded of a quote in an Ian Alan Paul essay, in which he talks about how engaging in the struggle for justice is to knowingly fight for that which we, in some way, cannot know in advance.

When it comes to changing the world, art helps you imagine possible futures or scenarios that aren't necessarily known. What we are trying to do with the museum is wrestle with this idea that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

Some think it's incomplete if you don't say what comes next. But art can help you fight against something that might otherwise be hard to define. This relates to the initial question of why art.

We started this project not from a point of fully understanding what it means to say that capitalism has ended, or even what capitalism is. But we are embarking on a project to fight against something we know is unjust, even if we can't quite define it, and the project becomes a way of working through what we can't define right away.

Timothy: Art can bring awareness to an issue and serve as propaganda. It can also be embedded in social movements, like signs and banners, or through tactical media campaigns.

Right now, when the political discourse is so polarized, we are interested in art's ability to de-familiarize--which is a fancy word for making the familiar seem strange again. Art can cause a moment of rupture. It can shake up the framework and be disorienting so that the familiar can be reworked.

When you walk in the museum, there's hopefully something a little disorienting that you have to grapple with. Capitalism isn't over, but it's in a museum.

We're in a period in which you can give people lots of facts, but nothing gets through. We want to shake up the framework, and maybe in that process, things can come in and be assimilated. It can be hard to separate from an emotional attachment to capitalism, and maybe art can help us do that.

CAN YOU talk about the media attention for the museum?

Andrea: People want to talk about capitalism but aren't given permission. It's sort of a dirty word. As we've gone through the project, there have been people who have reacted strongly to the "c" word, or done verbal gymnastics to avoid saying it. But when you put it in the museum title, you can't avoid it.

Maybe I'm being cynical, but the media don't necessarily have an interest in the politics of the museum. They just know that saying the "c" word is provocative and can draw clicks.

WHAT WOULD qualify as a success for the museum?

Andrea: The emphasis isn't so much on achievement, but more so about working through something. It's about using the space to take in every interaction as its own possibility.

We've brought in groups, artists and many different perspectives, and this puts an emphasis on dialogue and collective thinking about a subject we aren't all experts on. Maybe this can be a space in which failure is acceptable, and in which we can experiment and sometimes fail. Some of these artists are doing things they've never done before.

Timothy: This is an experiment. It's not a finished product to bring to market. As was the case with Thomas Edison, each "failure" was just a step on the road to the light bulb. The museum isn't about reaching a certain quota of likes or clicks. We're looking to gain as wide an audience as possible from outlets you might not expect.

Andrea: Some people say the museum is too radical, and some say it's not radical enough. While this creates pressure, it means we are at least engaging people on both sides.

WHAT ARE your plans going forward?

Timothy: The MoC is a long-term project, but we don't know what the future holds because a lot depends on funding. We've been pretty nimble so far. There's been a lot of interest from people in other cities, and this is a theme that can adapt to different sites. It's fun to think about a MoC in Detroit or the Dust Bowl. The project is more of a framework that can support a bunch of different things.