LONDON — On Saturday, October 29, hundreds of people gathered for a series of creative actions about the climate crisis in celebration of David Graeber’s work and legacy. Graeber, who died in 2020, was an academic and anarchist activist known for his best-selling books on economic anthropology, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, The Dawn of Everything, and Bullshit Jobs. Two years after his death, this weekend’s festivities marked the opening of the David Graeber Institute, launched with the aim of overseeing Graeber’s extensive archive of unpublished texts and continuing his legacy through projects related to climate change, debt, labor, and war. 

The event took place at Alexandra Road Estate (nicknamed “Rowley Way”), a housing complex in Northwest London designed in a lowrise Brutalist style by the architect Neave Brown. Seventy-five percent of the 520 apartments are used for social housing, while the other 25% are inhabited by artists, architects, and writers, including Graeber’s widow Nika Dubrovsky.

“We’re all here within the generosity, the genius, the originality of this teacher of his generation,” attendee and activist-preacher Reverend Billy Talen told Hyperallergic. “Every page of David’s work, he turns to the reader and looks us in the eye and says: ‘Wait a minute, what makes sense here?’ He’s in a conversation with us. We’re grateful for his work and we feel his presence here tonight.”  

Clive Russel, Michael Collins, Miles Glyn, and a group of artists organized a workshop with children and adults as part of the launch of the David Graeber Institute. (photo courtesy Nika Dubrovsky)

Celebrations kicked off with a creative action by the Red Rebel Brigade, a performance “artivist” group raising awareness about environmental issues. Dressed in their trademark red gowns and headdresses, they spread out across the estate and drew residents into a large procession, maintaining their characteristic silence as a gesture of pre-emptive mourning for the destruction of the planet. Next came a group of people in carnival costumes, wearing masks and horns and standing on stilts or riding three-wheeled wagons and iron horses. Finally, Talen paraded down the iconic red-brick road at Rowley Way along with the choir of his “Church of Stop Shopping.” 

Performers sang heartfelt songs about human solidarity in the face of imminent disaster, followed by addresses from Jamie Kelsey-Fry, organizer of the Global Assembly; James Schneider, co-founder of left-wing grassroots movement Momentum; ecological economist Steve Keen; and local residents of Rowley Way. 

“One of the key ideas that David was working on near his death was the idea of how we replace production and consumption,” said artist Clive Russell. “He talked about the idea that if we shifted to a value system of care and freedom, that it might actually release wonderful ideas. We can’t continue with production and consumption because obviously we’re doomed if we do that.”

The sequence of performances was inspired by David Graeber’s love of Venetian Carnival. After his death in 2020, in place of a funeral, Graeber’s family and friends organized an “Intergalactic Memorial Carnival” with people from over 200 different countries participating virtually. 

Among the issues raised on Saturday were Graeber’s belief in the importance of community in the face of ecological collapse and his idea that human consciousness only exists in dialogue with others. Some participants cited personal concerns that dovetailed with Graeber’s pressing areas of research. For example, residents of Alexandra Road Estate are calling for authorities to install collective solar panels in the building, arguing that proposed individual gas meters would make it difficult for many residents to pay the bills amid the cost of living and energy crises in the UK.

The event also included a poster-making workshop led by Russell, who is part of the design team behind the environmental advocacy group Extinction Rebellion’s graphic identity. The posters were inspired by the last fifty years of activist design by Paddington Printshop, Extinction Rebellion, Ocean Rebellion, and others. Stenciled onto the posters were slogans such as “Spare a little greed” and “Never was so much owed by so few to so many.” They were displayed in an exhibition titled APT / ART – CLIMATE EMERGENCY in the community room at Rowley Way. 

Participants at Saturday’s event (photo courtesy Nika Dubrovsky)

The exhibition was organized in collaboration with the Museum of Care and the Museum of Unrest. The former hosts an open-source collection of social activism posters. Participants were encouraged to print out these posters and display them in their own homes. People across the globe — from Italy to China to New Zealand — joined the event at Rowley Way on Zoom to join in the celebration and show their satellite exhibitions. 

The Museum of Care was created after Greaber’s death by Dubrovsky as an open platform based on their shared idea that everyone is an artist, which the couple discussed in several co-written texts. Dubrovsky told Hyperallergic that this form of democratized exhibition-making was conceived as an alternative space to the art market. 

“We are not trying to reform the existing structures, but to build something in parallel that is sustainable and meaningful, based on a different ideology and philosophy,” she said.

Graeber’s book Pirate Enlightenment, which he finished seven years before his death, will be published in January 2023 by Penguin and Farrar Straus & Giroux. 

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Naomi Polonsky

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...

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