Nika Dubrovsky: Interview with John Phillips

This article is a part of the room: Museum of Care as a Project

John Phillips is an artist, designer, printmaker, curator of Museum of Unrest; based in UK and France.

John Phillips: Tell me about the Museum of Care and how it came about. 

Nika Dubrovsky: The idea for a Museum of Care was originally discussed between me and my late husband, anthropologist, and activist David Graeber during COVID.

I told David about a blog post by a Russian gallerist named Marat Gelman, who noticed that kilometers and kilometers of abandoned office spaces have been unused during COVID-19. Gelman proposed turning them into museums. Indeed, we assumed back then that the office space would remain empty in the future. If everyone survived working at home for a couple of years, why go back to the office in any case? Gelman imagined that governments may allow gallerists and museum directors to take over many of these empty properties to create cultural spaces instead. 

It sounded really good, but David and I felt that something was wrong. Oh, wait a minute! Isn’t that a very precise description of gentrification? This is exactly how the art world keeps destroying neighborhood after neighborhood and city after city, in each case promising to bring more culture and creativity to it, but eventually bringing lawyers, dentists, and investors, pushing away residents who can no longer afford skyrocketing real estate prices in their own communities.

Because galleries and museums are rarely built to accommodate the actual needs of people living in these neighborhoods.

We started to think about what could be done differently. While working on our collection of essays Another Art World, David and I discussed my Soviet childhood, which was significantly influenced by institutions known as “Houses of Culture,” which originated from Proletkult. 

These houses of culture are the remnants of a movement started by Alexander Bogdanov. Although the Stalinist regime took control of Proletkult only a few years after its creation, it is interesting that the structure still retains its original purpose of providing democratic access to education and cultural reproduction.

There were thousands of them, not only in the Soviet Union but also in other countries and cities of the former Warsaw Pact. Houses of Culture were organized around the educational needs of regular people, which sometimes proved to be more intriguing, peculiar, and intellectually challenging than any academic institution could even dream of. Since the Soviet regime did not pay much attention to unprofessional, DIY small-scale local educational networks, this is exactly where many brilliant cultural practices were developed.

People could do a variety of things in these places, from playing chess (most important Soviet chess players come out of the House of Culture informal circles) to studying mathematics, creating puppet theater, or studying classical painting. Leningrad’s underground poets had their literature club in Houses of Culture, and eventually, the most important rock music found a place inside their walls. 

Classes cost either nothing or were very cheap. Naturally, they attracted a lot of dissidents––people who were not able to fit into the strict ideological framework of that time. My art teacher, Alexander Zayzev, who later established himself in Soviet academia, while being a student, attended evening classes run by a forbidden artist, Grygoriy Dlugach, who followed the Russian avant-garde tradition. Although Dlugach was not permitted to teach at the Soviet Academy, he was able to instruct at the Cultural House in the evenings. There he managed to set up a whole group of students, who conducted research on the Soviet avant-garde and its relationship with classical art.

David and I fantasized that one day we may set up a place called The Museum of Care, in some way modeled on Proletcult ideas, where the value would be shifting from production and consumption of any objects to Care and Freedom, that may or may not include objects. David often said that all of us are the result of mutual care that we take of each other and so the Museums should do exactly that: space in which people care about and work on each other, share knowledge, experiences and ideas, occasionally they can produce objects or “final” product, but the process itself is the aim. 

In the same collection of essays, we point out that the art world, with all its museums and galleries, is built on an artificially created feeling of the scarcity of ‘real’ art. Different parts of the gigantic Western machine of cultural production simultaneously shout at each other and all of us: “Only us, only these people, only in this museum, only in this gallery!” Even anti-colonial projects are mostly constructed as though to say, “I am the best at exposing the colonial guilt of all white people!” or “our museum has found such a special representation of traditional culture—so rare and authentic! That’s why our anti-colonial project is the most legitimate cultural product !” —Even though the very idea of culture is a Western invention. 

We published three essays in this series and started work on a fourth one, but then David died. I am still in the process of finishing that last part. It will be more optimistic and, at the same time, more practical, pointing out possible ways out for all of us.

So how would you visit the Museum of Care?

It has existed as an online space, a website for the past three and a half years. The Museum of Care uses the metaphor of the curator and the “room”. 

Curators create rooms and take care of them. Potentially everyone is a creator and curator, or people can start as participants and then become curators or vice versa.

Instead of being just a visitor, people proposed to make one of their own or join an existing one, if the curator of the room agreed with it. There are no restrictions on what should be done in the room, unless someone is doing totally illegal stuff, like selling weapons. The museum is not there to check the credentials of the people who are in it. 

The Museum of Care is built on exactly opposite rules to your regular museum. An administration, which is currently provided by the David Graeber Institute, is here only to run a website and social media to announce events. It is not dictating the policy of the rooms, or exhibitions as in normal museums, unless people from DGI become curators themselves for specific projects or rooms. 

There is also an attempt to blur the line between creator and views, production and consumption and the hierarchy of what is valuable and what is not. As I said, any subject is welcomed to the Museum of Care. 

David was saying that culture is mostly not what we are doing, but what we don’t do.

So what happens in these rooms? 

Sometimes nothing, and that’s okay. Sometimes art events such as the Museum of Care and the Museum of Unrest organize a joint exhibition. 

It also hosts a lot of reading groups, talks, and discussions. For three and a half years we had meetings or events every week.

So can anyone set up a room? 

Absolutely anyone can set up a room, again unless you’re doing something really evil. We can provide (somewhat) limited support and help people set up their rooms initially and assist them with social media access and the mailing list. 

For example, there was a room about photography set up by people from V&A Museum that was very active for a while.

We also have a core community who are setting up projects: exhibitions, discussions, reading groups, that makes this place alive. 

I am happy about it, but I also accept that one day it may die. 

It was born during Covid when face-to-face interaction was not available, and I  set it up in the very sad moment of David’s untimely death. 

Now things change and develop: we are doing more and more things offline, also the David Graeber Institute was set up recently.

I saw that there was a problem recently with the person who withdrew from his room and wasn’t sure if you wanted to keep some of the materials that the group collectively produced to share with possible visitors.

Yes, this is true. I also have to admit that sometimes it is very complicated to interact with people. One of my favorite rooms is called David and his Philosophers. It named five of David’s most favorite philosophers. It was a proposal by Vassily Pigounides who was one of David’s students. 

Later, more people joined, and some eventually left. We hosted some great talks and events, all of which are available on our website and YouTube channel.

At some point the original curators of the room abandoned it, but new people came in and  took one of the philosophers from David’s list––Roy Bhaskar––and set up a one-year reading group. There were probably more than twenty events around that.

The person who ran this group was amazing and put a lot of time and care into facilitating, preparing discussions and holding this space together for almost a year.  

Later he retroactively decided to delete all the videos from the group he was running. Initially, I wrote “his group”, then I corrected it to “the group he was running”… Was it really “his group”? 

 I felt really sad, since I also spend lots of my personal time helping to organize these events: posting videos online, editing the ads in social media, inviting people to join us. 

I was proud that the Museum of Care is contributing to spreading the word about Roy Bhaskar, who is still unknown in the UK and died in poverty. David loved Bhaskar (and for a good reason), so it is sad that we would not be able to share these videos with other people any longer, but that was our rule: the curator is deciding what is going on in his or her room.

I remember David was saying that the idea of private property is not about owning something, but about the right to destroy or forbid anyone else to use it. 

I think it’s good when a project has a caregiver who takes responsibility for its well-being. He or she does lots of work, so should have a lot of rights. 

In the future I will personally be more careful in choosing the projects/rooms I collaborate with and invest my time and energy in, and the policies of each room of the Museum of Care should be spelled out more clearly. The organizer will need to be more explicit about what their future plans are, such as whether they are willing to freely distribute content and so on.   

Reading group is an example of a project that is collective by definition.   

Can we make a single person reading group? 

Oh, this will be a challenge! 

Personally I am interested in starting to experiment with new formats: online talks, more offline events, and working on publications, setting up prices with our sister projects and collective curatorial initiative. 

What’s the relationship between the Museum of Care and the David Graeber Institute? 

In the beginning, after David died, the Museum of Care became an urgent personal project for me, because I felt so alone and disoriented. I was looking for a community around David’s legacy, somebody to talk with about his text. 

After the Carnival for David, some people drifted away, but those who stayed were the ones who ran the Museum of Care for the last three years. There were complaints and even fights that the Museum would have been overshadowed by David Graeber’s name. I agree with that. The last thing David would want is to have a bunch of Graeberians around his coffin. This is why the Museum of Care is for everyone and has to have (and it does) a wide range of projects. 

My hope is that, although the Museum of Care was set up by people who love David, it will become a space for people who may not even be interested in David Graeber’s texts, and may embrace other thinkers, projects, and media. It’s not a promotional space for David and his writing, but it is the space that was built in the spirit of his ideas. 

On the other hand, the David Graeber Institute was set up to be specifically about David and his work. It will be working on his archive.

What are the plans for the future for the Museum of Care and also for the David Graeber Institute? 

The future of the Museum of Care is in the hands of the people who want to do their own projects in the Museum of Care. The moment that there is no project, the Museum will be archived (become a real Museum – I want to put a smileface here). 

Luckily, new people come in with new ideas. Some of them I don’t have any clue about, and some I am extremely interested in. Such as the proposal for the reading group about Mikhail Bakhtin that I hope to join. 

My friends and I are organizing some art events and we are planning to keep setting up collaborative projects between the Museum of Care, the David Graeber Institute and other institutions, for example the Museum of Unrest. 

I would be happy if there would be some glimpses of Proletkult education and what we are doing: international, non-profit, imaginative, inclusive for all, which would appear in the cracks of the system. 

The DGI can help the Museum of Care more or less only by supporting the website and social media. 

This is probably not insignificant, because it doesn’t take much, it certainly shouldn’t require palaces and museums for people to teach each other and connect with each other. The Hermitage and the Louvre do not create new masterpieces; they only store already existing ones.

What about the future of the David Graber Institute? 

The Institute is centered around David’s legacy, particularly on research involving his archives, but like the Museum of Care, the Institute will strive to cultivate ideas of care and freedom.

That’s why we’re setting up a university in the global South where we hope to implement some experimental art and technology projects connected to David’s academic research and writings.

We will share some of the DGI’s projects with the Museum of Care. I am a strong believer in the power of integration and horizontal connections to develop good things.

So you’re setting up a kind of university, or a department of a university? 

We’re exploring possible partnerships working with some existing American and Australian universities.

My personal fascination is the idea to set up a faculty  dedicated to Carnaval. Just think about it: there are entire universities dedicated to Theater, Film, and Television all around the world, but few, if any, focus on Carnival and Carnivality. Yet carnivals are fundamental for almost every human culture. I think this is a very worthwhile project that could contribute to overcoming the current education crisis. 

In any case, what the Museum of Care, DGI and what I hope our project on Saint Vincent will be able to do are wide, educationally egalitarian initiatives. They develop the same idea, just do it in different ways.

Your museum is also first and foremost a place that provides resources, gives away content, and connects people together.

I think it’s a useful endeavor!