Loot and Looting
9 essays
Compiled by Jessie Krish, Margaret Loane, and Stephen Mercer

In Stealing Beauty (2007), Guy Ben-Ner writes: “Children of the world, unite. Release the future from the shackles of the past. My peers, it is our time to steal. Not in order to gain property but in order to lose respect for it.” Widespread protests and insurrections across the globe have given new urgency to conversations concerning property, possession, and looting. From a television in a Best Buy to a tank on a pedestal, the political meanings of loot and looting change with object, actor, and context. This reader moves between the street and the institution, following the actions of individuals, the masses, and the state. It considers the inherent tensions within the museum: working hard to circulate duty-free art, to guard national loot, and to develop convincing and inclusive postcolonial narratives. As museums seek to reflect the lives and struggles of marginalized populations, does looting take on a new guise? What role will museums and galleries play in providing counter-narratives to fascist rhetoric and policies? And can we imagine a museum divested from collections, commodity, and property?

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Charles Mudede
White Knee, Black Neck
Originally published in June 2020

If we begin with the understanding that police protect property and their owners, we can expect this to be its primary consequence: those who have very little property in a community are bound to experience a frequency of bad encounters with law enforcement that is much higher than those who have a lot of property. And so it is. What we find in the US, the world’s top ownership society for the past hundred years, is a vast jail, prison, and parole system filled with men and women who do not own much of anything. From this fact, which links poverty to the business of policing, we also find an explanation for the overrepresentation of black Americans (who make up about 13 percent of the general population) in the US’s state prisons (they make up 40 percent of the penal population).

Joshua Simon
Neo-Materialism, Part I: The Commodity and the Exhibition
Originally published in November 2010

It is perfectly understandable that the dandy, the man who is never ill at ease, would be the ideal of a society that had begun to experience a bad conscience with respect to objects. What compelled the noblest names of England, and the regent himself, to hang on every word that fell from Beau Brummell’s lips was the fact that he presented himself as the master of science that they could not do without. To men who had lost their self-possession, the dandy, who makes of elegance and the superfluous his raison d’être, teaches the possibility of a new relation to things, which goes beyond both the enjoyment of their use-value and the accumulation of their exchange value. He is the redeemer of things, the one who wipes out, with his elegance, their original sin: the commodity.

Hito Steyerl
A Tank on a Pedestal: Museums in an Age of Planetary Civil War
Originally published in February 2016

I love history.
But history doesn’t love me back,
Whenever I call her I get her answering machine.
She says: “Insert logo here.”

Dilip Gaonkar
After the Fictions: Notes Towards a Phenomenology of the Multitude
Originally published in October 2014

People do not riot every day, but they have rioted often enough in the past, especially since the onset of modernity. People continue to riot with alarming regularity in the present, especially in the so-called Global South, as the saga of modernity continues to unfold now in its global phase. This repeated and continued reliance on rioting as a distinctive, but historically and culturally variable, mode of collective action (if not agency) merits greater attention than it has hitherto received. People riot over all sorts of things—the price of bread, oil, and onions; the publication of a book; the screening of a film; the drawing of a cartoon. They riot on account of police brutality, political corruption, and the desecration of the holy places. They riot when subjected to ethnic or racial slurs (real or imagined) and when continuously deprived of basic necessities like water, electricity, and sanitation. They riot for being ill-treated at health care facilities, for being denied entrance to once public, now privatized, spaces of pleasure and recreation, and generally for justice denied and petitions ignored. They riot after soccer games, cricket games, music concerts, and also before, during, and after elections. The list can be extended indefinitely.

Susanne Lang and Darius James
Magic Hat – Property of the People
Originally published in March 2010

iLiana Fokianaki
Redistribution via Appropriation: White(washing) Marbles
Originally published in May 2018

It has now been almost three years since the June 2015 referendum in Greece, and these three years have demonstrated an alarming acceleration of the multiple crises that Europe faces. Nationalism and the far right have rediscovered their power in the streets and parliaments of Europe, in both North and South. Even in the contemporary art world, we see the emergence of the alt-right, which audaciously presents itself as revolutionary and progressive, shouting at the top of its lungs about its right to exist.

Mostafa Heddaya and Rijin Sahakian
Recolonize This Place
Originally published in March 2020

Artists in Iraq, particularly young artists who came of age during the invasion, have never lacked the desire or ability to create art. But globally visible contemporary art, as anyone in the field knows, often assumes a ladder of prestigious art-school attendance, production support, mentorship, residencies, international travel, and social skill, usually in English. At Iraq’s two main art schools in Baghdad, which are free of cost, middle- and working-class students hardly have access to resources reserved for elites. Instead of journalists speculating what Iraqi art could have looked like—or curators failing to engage with artists outside their comfort class—it would be more useful to consider how actually-existing forms of production could be supported and understood. Young Iraqi artists never stopped working, and are informed—formally and informally—by the extensive visual and political histories that stretch from the Sumerian era to Baghdad’s current sprawling metropolis. Which “Iraq” is ultimately being recuperated in “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011”?

Franco “Bifo” Berardi
The American Abyss
Originally published in September 2020

Thanks to his ignorance and moral abjection, Donald Trump represents the true soul of America, the unmovable soul of a population formed by a never-ending sequence of exploitation, oppression, bullying, invasions, and abominable crimes. Nothing but this. There isn’t an alternative America, as many thought in the 1960s and ’70s. There are millions of women and men, mostly nonwhite, who have suffered from American violence, and especially at a certain point in the ’60s and ’70s, fought to reform America to become more human. They failed, because there is no way to reform a nation of bigots and killers.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
Imagine Going on Strike: Museum Workers and Historians
Originally published in November 2019

Imagine experts in the world of art admitting that the entire project of artistic salvation to which they pledged allegiance is insane and that it could not have existed without exercising various forms of violence, attributing spectacular prices to pieces that should not have been acquired in the first place. Imagine that all those experts recognize that the knowledge and skills to create objects the museum violently rendered rare and valuable are not extinct. For these objects to preserve their market value, those people who inherited the knowledge and skills to continue to create them had to be denied the time and conditions to engage in building their world. Imagine museum directors and chief curators taken by a belated awakening—similar to the one that is sometimes experienced by soldiers—on the meaning of the violence they exercise under the guise of the benign and admitting the extent to which their profession is constitutive of differential violence.

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