Beyond Survival: Concluding Remarks

I write this concluding response to the Art Journal Open forum and essay series Beyond Survival on a gorgeous spring day in the Northeast. Lilacs in full bloom, the sun ducking in and out behind big puffy clouds, bluebirds feasting on insects plucked from the moist, springy ground. On this perfect, near-summer day, somewhere between 150 and 200 species will go extinct, as they do every day, day after day after day, at a rate not seen since the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-six million years ago.

It has been thirty years since Félix Guattari noted, “It is not just species that are becoming extinct but also the words, phrases and gestures of human solidarity.”1 It has also been thirty years since a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition so outraged Senator Jesse Helms that he cosponsored a bill barring the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from using federal funds to “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials.” Originating in radically different contexts and worldviews, these quotations nonetheless map the drift from the subversive solidarities of queer pleasure, represented by Mapplethorpe, to the business-friendly civic uplift of creative placemaking that the NEA has embraced since the Helms bill as it has fought its own extinction again and again.

Against the backdrop of headlines announcing President Trump’s second proposed elimination of the NEA and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, I conceived of the Beyond Survival series to probe the more subtle, lived effects of sustained precarity and a diminished funding landscape. The ensuing essays revealed a host of cultural and pedagogical practices, often indebted to community organizing, mutual aid, and punk, that question the priorities and politics of institutional gatekeepers, prefigure a renewed and more inclusive cultural commons, experiment with nontraditional structures and contexts, and attempt to meet deep material and social needs. There are, in other words, countless people actively expanding the repertoire of solidarity, despite an increasingly inhospitable political climate. Successive waves of real estate speculation have displaced communities of immigrants with distinctive, politically engaged cultural practices while transforming the central core of most major American cities into a monocrop of finance professionals and tech workers. Teaching jobs that sustain an intellectual and creative practice have pretty much evaporated, as Kristen Galvin and Christina M. Spiker describe. Those adept at finding funding face a process so bureaucratized that, as Margo Handwerker and Richard Saxton demonstrate, it fails to recognize and nurture the most valuable aspects of creative inquiry. Yet despite the persistence of collective creative practices revealed by the forum, the dominant trend has been toward ever more brutal competition for the handful of niche opportunities—whether elite or upstart—that afford some type of refuge within an environment that seems to have less and less space for people who want to think and make culture for a living. 

The decline of habitat and forage for cultural workers is but a sliver of the mass extinction event currently underway—and which has far more dire planetary consequences than sheaves of rejected grant applications and an army of unemployed PhDs. Yet the response to these linked conditions has been similar: few of us who live as more-or-less privileged cultural workers in the Global North have been able to fully abandon our attachments to the practices and institutions that are not only broken but also seem to actively hinder our lives and work. What Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism” animates most academic job applications and grant proposals—and not only because of their vanishingly small selection rates, the time redirected from developing other structures of support, and the mind-numbing bureaucracy that can accompany success. The term “cruel optimism” also captures the uncomfortable irony of measuring professional accomplishment by the number of times you are invited to fly to far-flung destinations to talk about the Anthropocene (an attachment I have been unable to shake). These examples demonstrate how many of us continue to make our lives in a professional landscape “bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming.”2 Such attachments are especially cruel because they center and habituate competition among scholars and cultural producers at a moment when, due to widespread academic and ecosystem collapse, our survival is predicated on our solidarity.

Punctuating the background noise of hundreds of daily extinctions, nine weeks of protest at the Whitney Museum of American Art also wrapped up as I was writing this short essay. The demonstrations demanded the removal of vice-chair Warren Kanders from the museum’s Board of Trustees. Kanders is CEO of Safariland, a weapons company whose name betrays nostalgia for colonial “adventuring” and which produces the tear gas used against the water protectors at Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter protestors in Baltimore and Ferguson, Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza, and Indigenous asylum seekers at the southern border of the United States. Coordinated by Decolonize This Place, the weekly protests emphasized the material, political entanglements of cultural institutions, linking diverse issues such as police violence, gentrification, disinvestment in education, and prison labor contracting. Culminating with the opening of the Whitney Biennial, the protests notably did not ask exhibiting artists or museum staff to abandon their attachments to the institution but rather to articulate additional, perhaps primary, attachments to the manifold communities touched by the museum, near and far.

Forensic Architecture, Triple-Chaser, 2019, high-definition color video, sound, 10:43 min. (image © Forensic Architecture, 2019)

The artistic research collective Forensic Architecture used their biennial project, Triple-Chaser, to expose Safariland’s complicity with alleged war crimes. Not content to exhibit a finished artwork, Forensic Architecture continued their research after the opening of the exhibition, resulting in evidence strong enough to prompt multiple artists to withdraw from the biennial and Kanders to resign from the museum board.

The essays by Amy K. Hamlin and Patricia Nguyen for Beyond Survival demonstrate how similarly durational and connective modes of working might unfold in art and academic spaces beyond the spotlight afforded by high-profile events like the Whitney Biennial. Through her engagement with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Hamlin’s pedagogy envisions the history of art as contributing to the profound social transformation required by climate collapse, anti-Black racism, and ongoing colonialism. Patricia Nguyen’s account of Chicago’s Axis Lab, a short-lived cultural space and ongoing organizing effort, points both to the need for sustained monetary support and to the irreplaceable wealth of relationships—multiethnic and multigenerational—in building community-based initiatives with meaningful accountability.

Together, the essays in the Beyond Survival series ask us to do the hard work of examining our attachments to institutional forms which, if barely functional today, are scarcely up to the urgencies of the socio-ecological changes just over the horizon. Early evidence points to climate change exacerbating the widespread precarity, extreme inequality, and increasingly overt forms of state violence that have characterized the neoliberal era. Bare survival—let alone anything beyond it—demands strengthening the languages, spaces, and practices of cooperation between people, as well as with the more-than-human world.

Sarah Kanouse is an interdisciplinary artist and critical writer examining the politics of landscape and space. Her solo and collaborative work has been presented through the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Documenta 13, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Cooper Union, Smart Museum of Art, and numerous academic institutions and artist-run spaces. She is associate professor of media arts in the Department of Art + Design at Northeastern University.

  1. Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, trans. Ian Pinder and Paul Sutton (London: Athlone Press, 2000), 44. Earlier in the same paragraph, Guattari presciently compares Donald Trump to an algae bloom.
  2. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2.