Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Hyperallergic.
Since Natufian people first put down roots in the city of Jericho 11,000 years ago, capitalism has been the prevailing economic regime for humans for less than three percent of the time. Yet, afflicted with chronocentrism, many contemporary cultures treat capitalism as the natural ordering of the world. This thinking inhibits the ability to both imagine and plan for the inevitable end of this brief experiment in human organization.
Museum of Capitalism, a pop-up exhibition presenting itself as a fully functioning museum, attempts to shift our perspective and give viewers a bird’s-eye view of capitalism, especially its faults. Located on the large mezzanine of an Oakland waterfront office building, the “museum” tells the history of capitalism primarily through the work of visual artists who appropriate forms found in a typical history museum, including educational videos, dioramas, didactic displays, and vitrines with artifacts.
Museum of Capitalism, a project of artists Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau, has been described in the media as presenting the history of capitalism as seen from some imaginary future, after capitalism has ceased to exist. Though this framing can be found if it is looked for, I found the perspectives on display much more contemporary than speculative. Some works, such as “Abandoned Signs” (2017) by Temporary Services (Marc Fischer and Brett Bloom) can feed this futurist reading of the exhibition. Twenty-four black-and-white photographs of blank or missing outdoor retail signs from the Midwest are installed on a wall that greets visitors as they enter the exhibition. Letters are missing from some of the signs, while others advertise auctions or sales that seem to have ended years before. At first, this appears to be a catalogue of the ruins of capitalism — objects of study for future archaeologists — but one need not leap into the future to witness these ruins; a quick trip to a rural town would suffice.
Chip Lord’s “Peak Air Travel: To & From” (2016) operates similarly. The nine-channel video installation is a mass of wires and screens, each one displaying banal and often sterile scenes from major airports around the world. These are scenes many of us experience several times a year, but when we’re too busy buying last-minute snacks at Hudson News, we may fail to fully appreciate these unnatural and even dehumanizing environments.
The strength of Museum of Capitalism is that it doesn’t need science fiction to provoke contemplation on an economic system that has become normalized. By adopting the form of the history museum, as opposed to the contemporary art gallery, the exhibition urges viewers to consider works and issues on broader and more historical scales. The works don’t only suggest
how post-capitalist humans will view our times — I found many of them prodding me to consider how I view capitalism myself. By providing the primary sources of this history, the viewer is called upon to make ethical decisions about these future artifacts.
“Come Run in Me 2” (2017), by Christy Chow, is a treadmill-activated video game that encourages viewers to run as fast as a sweatshop laborer must work, inevitably leading to failure. The installation provides no new information about the horrors of sweatshops, but the frivolity of video games and sun dresses hanging nearby call on viewers to make an ethical judgment. Works like this remind viewers that we are living in a particular time and that our norms and values might not be shared across time.
Tara Shi’s “People’s History of Capitalism” (2017) and Oliver Ressler’s “Alternate Economics, Alternate Societies” (2003–2008) are most reminiscent of a history museum. The former is a wooden storytelling booth with a video recorder that asks participants for their stories and reflections on capitalism. Participants are asked, “What was capitalism?” with the implication that these stories will be preserved for future generations. Ressler’s piece is comprised of 16 videos occupying a large room and an adjacent wall. Each video features an interviewee plainly describing some non-capitalist system of organization, such as anarchist consensual democracy, inclusive democracy, caring labor, or workers’ collectives during the Spanish Revolution. These videos resemble the dry but informative educational videos found in any county historical museum.
The “museum” even boasts a library and gift shop. The library includes texts ranging from the Patent Office annual reports from 1910 and 1911; a report on trade negotiations that led to the creation of the World Trade Organization, and books by capitalism critics like Naomi Klein. While Museum of Capitalism often oscillates between earnest and tongue-in-cheek, it is never cynical. Nor is the exhibition a one-liner; there is endless material for future exhibitions should they be desired. And while this exhibition is temporary, the organizers hope to present other exhibitions or events under the moniker in Oakland and possibly other US cities.
In the end, one doesn’t need to travel to the future to gain any insights from the artworks on display. As the exhibition demonstrates, we have all the information and critiques we need to imagine that capitalism isn’t the perfection of humanity.