The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., presents a vivid, Old Testament-based depiction of a fallen world. Visitors can walk through a lush, Edenic paradise to see Adam naming the animals, but in the next gallery, you might be caught up in a war-torn slum with graffiti proclaiming the death of God. (Above all, there’s lots of dinosaurs. It’s all about indoctrination — and, well, kids love dinosaurs.) Still, the production level is surprisingly high, even if the concept — with the life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark — is completely ridiculous and easily refuted by science.
I was afraid the pop-up Museum of Capitalism (MOC), now open in Oakland’s Jack London Square, would fall along similar, good-yet-awful lines. I was sure it would either be dense with self-referential theory, full of hectoring, or tripping all over itself in a vain attempt to make concepts like purchasing power parity come alive.
It is none of those things.
Rather, it’s a spacious art gallery that offers sustained critiques of state violence, commodity culture, and the ruthless exploitation of the commons. If you’re tired of shallow, feelings-based Facebook rants about how this or that is “problematic,” and you want a deeper understanding of how power operates in a late-capitalist post-democracy such as ours, this is an excellent start. There’s even a library, where you may begin to question the self-naturalizing aspects of bourgeois ideology from a place of crypto-monastic contemplation.
There’s also a gift shop, the existence of which could be taken as either stunning hypocrisy or the fact that even anti-capitalist art projects need to pay PG&E. MOC is a project by Timothy Furstnau and Andrea Steves, who work under the name FICTILIS, and it owes its existence to a $215,000 grant from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. Philanthropy always sounds like clean money, but the art-loving Tremaine was the widow of an industrialist who founded the company that later became the lighting division of General Electric, a noted defense contractor. That just goes to show the degree to which filthy lucre gets into everything. It’s as silly to ding this museum for selling books as it is to believe that, under Marxism, you don’t get your own toothbrush.
And in any event, tacked to one wall is an image of alt-looking people queueing up to buy $30 “Destroy Capitalism” T-shirts from a booth. Otherwise, there’s only a little hectoring at MOC, mostly confined to an unsettlingly calm, male voice-over that accompanies a three-minute video of aerial footage pertaining to Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Unlike the best visual arts exhibits, where you can walk out feeling like the top of your head has been blown open because you’re suddenly able to perceive the world anew, it’s easy to leave this museum feeling glum about the short- and long-term picture for America and the planet.
There is space for optimism, too, as in one room where you can put on headphones and watch utopian socialists or feminist writers like Marge Piercy speak about possible alternative economies. But mostly, MOC is a place of critique — some of it extremely clever. Take the meditation chamber created by “Mindfulness Binaural Designs” of Taos, N.M., which claims to have helped the Ferguson, Mo., police department become more centered. It’s absolutely deadpan satire, so convincing that I scanned the accompanying text for evidence of a wink, and found only a date: 2024. While the work might read as a dig at hippie pseudo-profundities and the ease with which zen mindfulness can fuse with the military-industrial complex, it’s really about the intractability of police violence. No amount of soothing balms will curb the State’s appetite to club its own citizens; better, then, to dismantle the cops altogether.
Explanatory panels describe the institution of the police with an anthropological detachment, and elsewhere, artifacts are presented as if curated during some future, post-capitalist phase of human history. There’s a glass box of “decommissioned” billy clubs, another filled with pens given out by pharmaceutical firms, and a genuinely hilarious vitrine of various wands, from a divining rod to a carved pagan stick to a mascara tube to a device for pleasuring oneself. (It’s a bit like Marty McFly visiting 2015 and being shown a “quaint little piece from the 1980s called the ‘Dustbuster.’ ”)
Quite a lot of typos and missing words fill the blurbs, but one doesn’t get the sense that this is student work or a rush job. Some 80 different artists have pieces on display, and more than a few succeed at questioning the system in a way that is also aesthetically arresting. Take four would-be propaganda posters by Marisa Jahn called Careforce Prints. Their retro designs and calls to incorporate uncompensated childcare and eldercare into existing benefits structures like Social Security feel like common-sense — even though, in 2017, a proposal like that would be dead in the water.
Temporary Services (Brett Bloom and Marc Fischer) meticulously documented defunct storefront architecture in the Midwest for the poignant Abandoned Signs, but the truly breathtaking pieces comprise Tim Porlock’s CA$H_4_GOLD, two large-scale, computer-generated composite images based on San Bernardino, Calif. Depopulated and vehicle-free, these cityscapes combine arch juxtapositions — a palm-tree-filled billboard advertising Corona beer against an abandoned neighborhood with dusty palms of its own — with an impossibly goth built environment full of dead-end freeway overpasses circling a mountain.
Often, the people screaming “Wake up!” the loudest are the ones who put you to sleep the fastest. But MOC’s displays spill out of the prescribed channels for educating the half-awake. Nowhere is this clearer than in The Capitalist Bathroom Experience, a pamphlet outside the restrooms that illustrates the history of sanitation and social divisions. Just as Victorian social reformers endeavored to banish cholera from London’s open sewers and Texan evangelicals want to make the toilet a place of state surveillance, bathrooms have always been a site of tension and conflict. Zip up and know this: A better world is possible.
Museum of Capitalism, 55 Harrison St.,, Suite 201, Oakland, museumofcapitalism.org