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New Whitney already under pressure for its proximity to gas line--but why?

A projection from protesters on the south side Whitney Museum in Manhattan on Tuesday night. Image courtesy Emon Hassan for The New York Times

The newly erected Whitney Museum for American Art in the Meatpacking District has already come under fire for a perceived ethical issue: being built near a gas line that brings fracked fossil fuels into Manhattan. The project is backed by the new group Occupy the Pipeline, which includes members such as the Guerilla Girls and Strike Debt’s Noah Fischer. Given that the Whitney doesn’t own the pipeline, and that it’s basically impossible to find Manhattan real estate that isn’t in proximity to something awful, it seems doubtful that the plight of fossil fuels should fall on the Whitney’s shoulders. An excerpt from Occupy The Pipeline’s website describing the issue:

“With the new Whitney museum in New York, the public now has an example of a museum that literally incorporates fossil fuel infrastructure into its foundation. The vault of the controversial Spectra gas pipeline is concealed underneath the Whitney museum’s front steps…Today we are asking: how can a museum that literally covers up the dirty fossil fuel industry be a beacon for the future of art and culture?

Occupy the Pipeline’s transformation of the literal into the metaphorical is extremely problematic here. This logical conflation uses the museum’s cement foundation’s proximity to another company’s property as proof that the institution has an interest to literally conceal the efforts of the fossil fuel industry, which is just ludicrous and wrong. Similarly, standing in the foyer of 508 West 26th Street doesn’t mean that I foundationally support the 8th-floor Greene Naftali, or if I’m on the roof of the building, that I am so over the gallery.

To describe their intentions, Occupy the Pipeline states:

“This action represents a collaboration among international groups focused on culture and climate activism. As artists who care about the integrity of art museums, we are building a grassroots translocal platform which recognizes the role that cultural institutions beholden to corporations can have in creating a reality where economic and climate injustice are tolerated. As human beings, we are fighting for a fossil fuel-free future.”

Image via whitneypipeline.org

I’m all for climate activism and keeping institutions accountable to the public, but this seems like a fabricated issue that rides the coattails of the new Whitney’s opening hype. It brings to mind one of Fischer’s earlier projects, Occupy Museums, which also seemed off in its aim to target museums, rather than commercial galleries or auction houses, as propagators of corporate interest in the arts. (With that said, Fischer’s other projects, such as Strike Debt, seem not only worthwhile but vital, and I previously reported on his Artist as Debtor conference for this publication.) It’s paramount for us as activists to choose targets judiciously, and not create red herrings that cause innocent parties distress and distract from more urgent issues.

Do you think the new Whitney should come under fire for its proximity to the Spectra pipeline, or is this a fabricated issue?

Agreed–unless they have evidence that the company that owns the pipeline was somehow involved in the decision to place the museum on that particular site, this seems like a manufactured controversy. It’s possible to give the group the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re pegging their campaign to the opening of the new Whitney building in order to call attention to the pipeline’s existence, knowing that (sadly) a protest of the museum is likely to get more media attention than one directed at Spectra Energy, but placing such emphasis on the symbolic significance of the building’s location seems to detract from legitimate concerns about the very real environmental effects of fracking. Given the information they’ve provided about the museum’s relationship to Spectra Energy, I see a fundamental difference between this and the BP/Tate issue that they’ve attempted to link it to, as they haven’t mentioned anything about Spectra providing the Whitney with funds or incentives.

In their letter, they ask if the museum will now be committed to exhibitions and public programming that address climate change, corporate interests, “the role of art in relation to a safe, habitable environment for Americans and, indeed, all humankind?” Shouldn’t these questions be relevant to the museum–all museums–regardless of its apparently incidental proximity to a pipeline?

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Just noticed this, but I wrote a similar quick thing earlier today about how the Occupy Museums protest was ludicrous and irresponsible. Completely with you, Karen, on the need to “choose targets judiciously.” What’s especially bad about this gambit is that the natural gas pipelines in New York that are dangerous are actually the corroding older ones (one of which caused an explosion in East Harlem in 2014), not the brand new Spectra line. And to have a fatuous protest like this after the recent events in the East Village is just in extremely poor taste.

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I’m really sad to see this post in e-flux. It amounts to manufactured doubt, character assassination, and represents stretched misunderstandings of so many of the elements of this event. Let me explain:

The insertion of the Spectra Pipeline vault was part of the real estate development project that included the construction of the new Whitney museum. They were different, but they were basically on the same site, and they went hand in hand. Was the Whitney’s board aware of that from the get go? Did they realize they placed their workers, visitors, and art collection at risk? The Bloomberg administration’s appalling disregard for public concern - on the federal, state, and community levels - for this project makes this even shadier. And the unreal flip flops among prominent members of the boards of the Whitney, the Hudson River Park Trust, and other boards in which Diana Taylor (M. Bloomberg’s girlfriend) sat… even shadier. How did this massive infrastructural investment come to be? The public has a right to know.

The open letter (http://whitneypipeline.org/open-letter-about-the-new-whitney-museum/) signed by an international group of institutions asks six questions of the Whitney. Far from accusing the Whitney, it recognizes that the Whitney may be a victim here of high-level corruption, as many museums often are (consider the conflicts of interest of those, like Diana Taylor, again, who sit on the boards of both major American museums and private auction houses). We know that Bloomberg was invested in shale gas development at the time that he required all burners to convert to “natural” gas. Sounds like corruption to me, and if it doesn’t seem like it to you, then at the very least it is a conflict of interests.

The open letter represents a challenge to the museum to take a stance on the future of American culture. It states: “The Whitney museum can make active choices now to be a force for good on the right side of history for the future of New York and the planet, for a culture beyond fossil fuels.” In a post-Sandy NYC, how can one possibly take issue with that?

I’m also annoyed by Noah Fischer character assassination efforts, as if he is a central figure here. He was a press liaison for this action and so was quoted quite a bit. But considering the breadth of organizations involved here, any effort to make this about him is a clearly underhanded attempt to undermine the larger group. Full disclosure: I am one of the organizers of this action and a core member of Occupy Museums. And there are others, too. Far from “one of Fischer’s earlier projects,” it is still alive and well (see, e.g., our latest Whitney actions…). Occupy Museums represents the sustained efforts of lots of people to call out economic and social injustice in the arts and culture. If you don’t think that’s a worthwhile cause to address, please don’t spend your time trying to undermine the folks who do.

Karen’s post is written fast and loose, apparently to be provocative and “get the conversation going.” But it is full of inaccuracies and generalizations which need to be clarified unless the intention is to create vortex of spin.

Let’s start here:
“The project is backed by the new group Occupy the Pipeline, which includes members such as the Guerilla Girls and Strike Debt’s Noah Fischer.”

Occupy the Pipeline is not exactly a “new group” but one of the main groups that fought the Spectra fracked gas Pipeline for years in the streets and in the courts. It includes dedicated activists and environmentalists whose knowledge of pipeline and fracking issues runs well beyond the Bloombergian rhetoric of “natural gas” and well beyond the scope of this blog. To see what I mean, see a recent refutation to an Artinfo piece written by a coalition member to this action: whitneypipeline.org/?p=140

“Strike Debt’s Noah Fischer” is not in fact Strike Debt’s Noah Fischer, because I have never been affiliated with Strike Debt. That is a different group who has done amazing work such as the rolling jubilee. I’d love to take credit, But it’s kind of important when covering this material to understand who the groups are, and what are their specific tactics. Rather, I am part of Debtfair (www.debtfair.org) and organized the recent conference The Artist as Debtor that you covered here on this blog.

While you’re discussing groups, you leave out an important one: Liberate Tate, the group in London who co-wrote the letter to Whitney with us, and who has been putting on parallel actions in London regarding museums and fossil fuels in the UK. Their point to act in museums, and our common point is that museums provide a social license for big business and 1% individuals to operate, to do business on a certain level. BP gains immense amounts of PR and social credibility by sponsoring Tate. In much the same way, the controversy of the Spectra pipeline, fracking and “natural gas” (an industry term) has been nearly put to final rest by placing a museum on top of it. That is a function that museums serve today. And the fact that fracking is indeed a serious issue that becomes incredibly controversial when you take time to learn about it, means that there are questions to ask here about what exactly the museum is doing on top of the pipeline. How did it get there? Is this how forward thinking museums should be setting up shop. Do you know the answer to these questions? If not, Would you please ask the Whitney? We could not get any answers.

At to your last comments on Occupy Museums being “off in it’s aim to target museums” that falls flat in 2015. It’s been brought to light that 90% of Guggenheim’s solo shows come from 5 galleries- which begs the question–how separate are the gallery and museum spheres really? There are important campaigns going on to highlight Koch on the board of Science museums, Koch as a sponsor of public space at the Met while undermining elected democracy, BP divestment at the Tate, and of course 21st century slave labor conditions for the new museums on Saadiyat.

Occupy Museums has been a part of many of these campaigns, while in solidarity with the work of other groups to make the only real public space in the art world (museums) a space of democracy, or meaning and where the struggle for labor, racial and climate justice is alive.

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If you don’t think that’s a worthwhile cause to address, please don’t spend your time trying to undermine the folks who do.

But it isn’t a cause. It’s some sort of imagined symbolic slight being projected onto the Whitney for no other demonstrable reason other than geographical proximity like Quixote tilting at windmills. It does very little to draw public attention to the very real dangers of fracking and instead makes the environmental movement look absurd and petty. You have not offered a single shred of actual evidence other than the circumstantial and situational that the Whitney is in any way morally obliged to have a stance on the matter at all outside of it’s ambit of showing quality art, environmentally themed or otherwise. Confusing the map for the territory achieves nothing.


Hi Populuxe - I get your concern, and I also appreciate how well written your post is. But you have two different points here that I’d like to tease out. You seem to be conflating them, which is leading to a misunderstanding.

First, as artists active in social movements, we aim to work in the realm of “imagined symbols.” Museums are themselves such symbols, and they are also engines that produce symbolic value. They are therefore powerful targets for both grassroots activists and corrupt plutocrats. This is why this action got so much attention and spurred so much debate about NYCs energy future. We are proud of that.

Second, as environmental activists, we know what evidence we do have and what we don’t, and we have done our best to design a course of action to advance our cause, which is a healthy sustainable planet and people. Ours is one strategy among many, and we welcome suggestions for improvement, and we don’t stand in anyone’s way who wants to take a different tack.

You claim we have not offered a “single shred of actual evidence,” but we are not operating in a courtroom, we are in the realm of public opinion. Populuxe, you have not offered a single shred of useful feedback on how better to “draw public attention to the very real dangers of fracking.” I look forward to reading and incorporating anything you write that is actually useful.

There is clearly a culture of cynicism in the art world that may lead the authors in this discussion to see the action (or any action, for that matter) as “absurd and petty.” Luckily, that isn’t how most people are reading this, and the respected journalistic accounts of the action don’t say that or otherwise imply it. Frankly, empty criticism of this kind is “absurd and petty.” (It isn’t surprising that your post ends in “nothing.”)

Our environmental challenges today are so dire, it’s time to put away the pettiness and work together. We are struggling to wrest control of our culture from social and economic injustice… so help us: http://whitneypipeline.org/

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They should cut the foundations, slide the Whitney across the Henry Hudson on to one of those big dirty barges docked by the waste facility on the waterfront.
Should float…