Visualizing Precarity: An Interview with Post-Capitalist Artist Leah Sandler
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
For the past two years, America has been in the throes of an unprecedented pandemic (obviously). But one of the things Covid-19 has inadvertently done is exposed the limitations and precarity of America's political apparatus and economic system. Since the beginning of the pandemic in Central Florida, food lines have wrapped around meal-centers, thousands have died as a direct result of Covid, thousands lost their homes and jobs, and hundreds of businesses closed. Throughout all this, Floridians only received $3,200 in direct payments from the Federal government, and, of course, healthcare remained a privatized enterprise: if a Floridian needed to go to the hospital after catching Covid, they needed to pay the bill. No other time—in recent memory—has the collapse of America (or at least, a reconfiguring of America) seemed so visible and imminent.
Leah Sandler has been making art about a capitalist subsumed apocalypse for a decade—and the pandemic has made her art seem more pertinent and applicable to our own times. Her most recent and notable project is the Center for Post-Capitalist History, a “parafictional” future- oriented project that consists of different artistic appendages and modes of expression (flags, books, manifestos, pictures, visual art, videos). We talked to Sandler about what exactly she’s critiquing with her art, the meaning of it, what she has in the works, as well as some pragmatic political questions.
Source: Leah Sandler
Q: For the uninitiated and unfamiliar, how would you describe the Center for Post-Capitalist History? A: CPCH is a conceptual project, fleshing out a parafictional history museum in an unspecified future that exists after the fall of Capitalism, in a world ravaged by climate change with a lot of inherited epistemological problems. The parafiction (a fiction that exists in between reality and fiction, and plays with its reception as factual or truthful) is in many ways an attempt to visualize the precarity of our contemporary moment. For me, the project is hopeful for a better future, and holds visions of utopia, but is in acknowledgement of the magnitude of work that is to be done. I’m building this world from the perspective of a Floridian, and an artist living in a climate- vulnerable state with an incredibly visible wealth gap and a national political imaginary that tends more towards using these things as divisive talking points followed by inaction and complicity with profit, rather than a recognition of this existential threat to all humans that we are directly contributing to.
Q: There seems to be a lot of thematic cohesion across a lot of your work. Why is capitalist ideology what you choose to focus on? Has most of your work prior to CPCH also dealt with explicitly political subjects? A: In many of my projects, both current and earlier in my life, I am working through a frustration with the contradictory ideologies that guide mainstream American culture.
Q: Your book for CPCH, titled, “Field Guide to Embodied Archiving”, posits the body as an
archiving mechanism through things such as “inscription injuries” that are inflicted through “repetitive gestures associated with labor under late capitalism”. This is a really interesting conceptual idea, and albeit this is meant to be a para-fictional ‘field guide’, it seems to be directly applicable to contemporary bodies now. Why do you think it is so imperative to note the bodily impressions of capitalism?
A: The capitalist psychological dreamwork presents us with so many tantalizing abstractions, and asks us for our bodies and lifetimes in trade. It asks us to detach ourselves and our empathy from other bodies. Bodies aren’t abstractions, and our basic needs are so interconnected.
Q: In your interview for Orlando Weekly, it was mentioned that you are going to be one of the artists featured on the I-4 Billboard Exhibition. What exactly is that project, and what will your contribution be? A: The Corridor Project I-4 Billboard Exhibition is a really fun public art endeavor curated by veteran Orlando art-rat, Pat Greene, featuring the work of local artists on ClearChannel billboards along the I-4 corridor. I’m glad this highly visible venue will be dedicated to artists rather than advertisements. I am grateful to have my work included. My billboard design is site-specific to the I-4 corridor and its infamous reputation as a microcosm of the political climate of the entire weird state (and country). The piece is a still image from a hand drawn, digitally animated video I created as an ambiguous acknowledgement of the messiness of Floridian political theatrics and our vulnerability to climate change. As a billboard, and a still image, I think it will be significantly more ambiguous to viewers passing at 70mph. The piece is called “The Intimidator and Constituents.” I drew this coyote character with the Dale Earnhardt 3 shaved into his side. He has an audience of particularly vulnerable rabbits. The audio in the video, (not on the billboard, haha) in which the Intimidator appears to be speaking, is the opening announcement from last year’s Virtual Climate Change Summit.
Q: Do you believe that a post-capitalist world is dialectically inevitable? If so, what economic system will succeed capitalism? (If you don’t think a post-capitalist world is inevitable, how do you think a post-capitalist society would be brought about, and why is it preferable?) A: I will answer this with the caveat that I am an artist, not a political scientist, nor historian. That being said, I believe the silos of academia that discourage interdisciplinary thought are gatekeeping tools and don’t do much for the encouragement of new knowledge. I practice “theory in the present,” or “low theory,” like Mackenzie Wark (author of the Hacker Manifesto and Capital Is Dead... Is This Something Worse?) has described... perhaps a coping mechanism to intellectualize trauma, or a way of trying to understand what is happening in the world around me. I am not here to reiterate Marx, but I do believe that there are many intervening human and nonhuman forces we are currently collaborating and contending with that are affecting our collective survival as a species, as well as our political and economic organization. What is the “dialectical inevitability” of collectivism when human survival is threatened? With its immense scale and speed, capitalist production is more than an economic system... it is an ecological
system that perpetuates an unsustainable pattern of extraction and expansion to create profit and prosperity for a miniscule fraction of humans during an incredibly short timeframe at the expense of many lives in the present moment, and in the indefinite future. I don’t necessarily believe that any ol’ post-capitalist society would be preferable, though, and I don’t believe in the *inevitability* of socialism in our current conditions... to reference Mackenzie Wark again, “Capital Is Dead... Is This Something Worse?” Her most recent book describes a new system that has evolved from capitalism and transformed significantly enough to be described as something different. She refers to it as “Vectorialism.” As opposed to property asthe defining power/ means of production, Mackenzie describes the creation of new conduits and concentrations of wealth and power through control of vectors of information and logistics. Capitalism is changing and growing and tangling itself into the future in abstracted and unknowable ways. However, again, it is an ecological system that relies so heavily on the environments and people it is extracting from. The human scale of time exists within the geological scale of time. It will inevitably be transformed, either by a collective and intentional human intervention, by catastrophic collapse, or by something else. Who the fuck knows? But empires have an average lifespan of 250 years.
Q: In America, people seem to have an electoral aversion to socialist candidates (even nominally socialist one’s such as Bernie Sanders, which we saw in 2020). Why do you think this is? Do you think this reflects the true beliefs of Americans, or do you think this is because of something else? A: I think there have been a lot of very intentional, and well-funded, projects with an aim of discrediting leftist and collectivizing movements. I think there has been a false narrative created and perpetuated in American culture that presents contemporary socialist platforms as being somehow akin to totalitarianism and old boogeyman Stalin. There are media organizations that are using their social currency and power over their audiences to forward the profit-motivated agendas of their highest paying sponsors, painting false binaries and riling up the masses into bigoted fervors without any consideration of the policies being implemented and subtended by these ideologies.
Q: Are you affiliated with any local organizations such as the Orlando chapter of the DSA? If so, what work do you do with them locally? A: Are you a cop? Just kidding. I am not directly involved with any organizations at the moment, however, any time I have profited financially from CPCH, I have directed the money towards local union, and direct aid projects and organizations, including Orlando DSA.
Source: Leah Sandler
Q: There are a lot of misconceptions of socialism and other post-capitalist economic systems. Would you want to briefly talk about your conception of what that system materially looks like? What kind of things are de-commodified, how do businesses operate? How are resources distributed and who facilitates that distribution? What happens to luxury goods, such as art? A: This is a big, big question, and I don’t have answers, really, but I do have some thoughts that could be more developed, and some more questions, but I’d love to start with art... which is
something that has existed a lot longer than any economic system, and hasn’t always shown up, historically, as a luxury commodity or monument. It shows up as ritual, as communication, as a manifestation of the values and materiality of the people who made it. Art isn’t going to disappear with capitalism, unless capitalism takes the entire human species out with it. If my cultural imaginary as a young artist was preoccupied with apocalypse, what might a generation focusing on the creation of utopia come up with? Artists are capable of envisioning possible futures. So, what kinds of communities would be making art after capitalism? And what would their values be? How would these people be living, thriving, and creating? What types of materials would they have access to, and what would they urgently want to communicate? What ideologies would they hold dear? Maybe they will dream as a rhizome and weld together a science-fiction genre that gazes earthward instead of spaceward (in the footsteps of Octavia Butler). Horizontal learning networks might dream and implement sustainable agricultural programs, deferring to ancestral, contemporary indigenous knowledges that feed communities and conserve and replenish soils, they might nourish and feed environments and ecosystems in which collaborating species of fungi and yeast cultures undo the damages inflicted by fracking and subterranean extraction. What could mass media potentially communicate if it isn’t dominated by advertisements for profit-driven consumer goods and reputation reclamation campaigns for the powerful? We might collectively hallucinate the logistics networks established by big box retailers evolving and turning towards providing food and medical supplies to rural areas and housing the unhoused in full-service shelters.