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On Nonparticipation: Chris Conry, Nabil Ahmed, Keli Garrett

In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into […]


In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. This week we hear from organizer Chris Conry, artist/writer Nabil Ahmed, and playwright Keli Garrett. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.

What Does It Mean to Not Participate?
By Chris Conry
Let’s start with what “nonparticipation” is not. It is not apathy, protest, or renunciation. Nonparticipation works something like the quantum mechanical concept of the observer effect: to observe a particle is to change it. Nonparticipation is an unstable state that requires consciousness to be observed, but is instantly transformed by that same observation. It starts with pain. Once aware of our nonparticipation, we tell ourselves stories: “I never wanted to be part of that crew.” “The two-party system is inherently flawed.” “I’m the black sheep of this family.” You know there is a thing and you know you ain’t part of it.

Nonparticipation, in another way, is akin to the concept of quantum superposition: a particle exists simultaneously in multiple physical states until it’s observed and gets measured as ice, water, or steam. Nonparticipation is not-yet-participating. During the pain, we have a choice. What is the meaning of our not being an active part of something? Who are we, if we’re not that?

The craft of politics is the self-serving story. I can tell you what it means that the unemployment rate is up, the Dow Jones is down, or the election is too close to call. I can tell you a story to help you be part of (or not part of) some particular set of facts. Nonparticipation, then, is the space where we get to engineer a new story that tangles with, co-opts, or succumbs to the thing we are already re/joining anyhow.

So, if there is a choice to be made, how do we make it?

Once-trusted givers of order are increasingly viewed as unresponsive and self-serving. The US Congress, the church, and the financial system are experiencing crises of legitimacy. People view them as impenetrable or foreign, with power based in history, but ill-suited to our present needs. In response, people are innovating with political forms that are decentralized and democratic: online networks, occupations, and lending circles that are open-ended, personalized, and temporary. These two entities—established institutions and self-organizing people—pose competing claims for legitimacy: one based in authority, the other in authenticity.

So here we are in a museum—excuse me, an art center—that is temporarily hosting a “museum” that is itself not a building, but a multilayered project, including a play by Bertolt Brecht and a reflection on the New Deal. Step outside. In Minnesota we are, in fact, renegotiating the New Deal. Can we afford Medicare? Should we cut Social Security? Should we expand Medicaid? Can we save the New Deal? Do we need a new New Deal? Who’s party to that deal? Should we include immigrants? Should corporations pay? Is working hard and playing by the rules going to get you ahead?

Visiting The Museum of Non Participation, I am reminded that with the pain of alienation, there is freedom. I’m a voter. I’m Lutheran. I have a mortgage. I’m simultaneously a participant and critic of our institutional authorities. As the exceptions to their rule grow more numerous, I have a choice: to plunder what’s left before it is gone or to repurpose and reauthorize what remains.

Chris Conry is an organizer currently working at TakeAction Minnesota, where he leads Organizing a New Economy, a program focused on improving state and federal tax and economic policy.

Notes on Nonparticipation and an Entangled Earth
By Nabil Ahmed
In 1990, the first assessment report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that large-scale global migration due to climate change is the“greatest single impact” on world security. The climate is increasingly acting as a trigger to future conflicts around not only resources but also over migration at an unprecedented scale. A new contested term has entered the political imaginary through an environmental sensibility: climate refugees. The people of the mega deltas and the Island States in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, or in the Caribbean—Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Maldives, or the Bahamas—face a radical future with the rising oceans and the loss of their state.

Statelessness is in itself not a new concept. Historically, however, it is embedded in either multistate systems or it forms part of a complex national identity, geopolitically present through separatist movements that result in actions ranging from negotiating representation to guerrilla wars. Climate change will produce a completely new definition of stateless population where geographic territory submerges, redefining the very terms of politics that shake the foundations of a political philosophy understood by Carl Schmitt as an epic battle between the land and the sea. Can a state still exist without territory under international law? And what will be the rights of the people? The global north wants to protect a pristine nature that no longer exists, but at the same time use national immigration laws designed as deterrents and as instruments of antagonism, animosity, and violence on the human body.

Nonparticipation might be one way to understand this disparity between the global north and the global south. The first is responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions and extractivist fetishism, while the second pays the price through their historical nonparticipation in the global economy and epistemologies of the north. But I argue it is precisely in their nonparticipation that space for politics in the global south has opened up. The people of the global south share nonparticipation with nature after centuries of domination. In politics after nature in the Anthropocene—the geological epoch coproduced by humans that resonates the deep time of the planet—the global south and nature come to the table for a proposed contract between Earth and its inhabitants, poised between a gesture and a protocol.

Nabil Ahmed is an artist and writer who lives and works in London. He is currently undertaking doctoral research at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, London, where he also teaches. His practice and current research interest is in nonhuman political agency and the making of contemporary ecological interventions in the Bengal Delta.

By Keli Garrett

While I wrote this I kept thinking, I guess it is okay that every day approximately thirty-three people die from gun violence. That our violence is quotidian, expected, anticipated, and therefore our sacrament. That when seven women and twenty-six seven-year-olds are shot up, missing limbs and chins and fingers, life will go on here as usual. The NRA guys will get together and buy T-shirts with guns on them, renew their memberships, and assemble to heckle the grieving parents and families of the victims. Surely, I thought, the rest of us shouldn’t be condemned to sharing the same sky with such people. Really? I thought. Yes, really, was the answer.



At any point
the violence
has been
too hard
to bear

I’ve checked out

checked in
to video
moving picture,
word streams
of aimless,
narcissistic rambling
and have opted in
to commune
with the solipsistic
who center
themselves because
really, what else is there to see?

Potholes and fractures
don’t exist
except in
the movies played by
James Cagney and Matt Damon,
and, really, what else is there? besides those
or the two by two
copy cats
that follow the
same smack
injected into the arms of
nameless cats
who having no recourse but to play

the words as they are written

happily ingest the poison,
the stuff of which
their dreams will be made,
not of Kubla Kahn
but of

In a matter of moments

We were galvanized.

Some ranted
Some ran

We drank instead and
Closed our thoughts
No more dark things

We instead
Dared dream

Nightmares can be forgotten

We are what we think

Thanked our lucky stars

On est a l’abri nulle part

That we live in a place
Where one can
Shop all day and night

And that food is copious and plentiful


We decided instead
To eat too much

Living the Dream

Devouring our distresses

Anything not to peer into oneself
An abyss without and within

Our holes are vast though,
And nothing will fill them

Keli Garrett is a playwright and performer. She is a 2011 recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant from the Playwrights’ Center, where she is also a Core Member Playwright.

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