In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown in 2020, one of the more riveting local social media feeds was the Center for Post-Capitalist History. Nightly updates were posted wherein the ever-rising COVID numbers in Florida were read in a dispassionate voice, taking deadpan jabs at positive thinking and Florida's "open for business' mentality. The speaker took slow, deliberate drags off a cigarette, stared holes in the viewer. This was the project of artist, writer and critic Leah Sandler, attempting to come to terms with her — our — new reality.
"The beginning of the pandemic felt like my para-fictional world was bleeding into my daily existence," says Sandler. "I was monitoring the Health Department's COVID-19 Dashboard with the death toll numbers when the pandemic first hit, and saw it going up and up and up. It felt like living through a dystopian horror movie and I channeled the anxiety I was experiencing through a series of CPCH Instagram videos reporting those numbers. I announced the rising death toll nightly until it just started to get too depressing."
The CPCH has been an ongoing concern for Sandler since 2015, existing in many mediums but always focusing on a consistent message.
"It is a para-fictional museum that exists after the fall of capitalism, in a world ravaged by climate change with a lot of inherited epistemological problems," explains Sandler. "The para-fiction is in many ways an attempt to visualize the precarity of our contemporary moment."
And in the very precarious moments that made up 2020, the CPCH became more timely than ever.
Though the CPCH Instagram went dormant, Sandler's pace of investigations and work only ramped up. She began to compile what would become her new book, Field Guide to Embodied Archiving, recently published by tastemaking Orlando area lit imprint Burrow Press.
The association with Ryan Rivas and Burrow Press goes back five years or more and includes Sandler co-curating a pop-up art show, Housewifes, in conjunction with Burrow's release of Rita Ciresi's book The Second Wife in 2018.
"Ryan Rivas has been incredibly active in Orlando creating connections between the silos of creative disciplines and getting visual artists involved in the local lit scene," says Sandler. "I got in touch with Ryan after some intense writing and art-making during the first few months of quarantine, and Burrow offered to publish a Center for Post-Capitalist History book."
The resulting tome, Field Guide to Embodied Archiving, is an ambitious critique of capitalism's hollow promises through text, illustrations and photography that are presented like the midpoint between a museum catalog and an instructional manual for fraught times. The book obliquely demonstrates how every human's "body-archive" reveals the incongruity between the capitalist promises of plenty and the explicit realities of alienation and a ravaged planet.
Befitting a deconstruction of the myth of rugged individualism, the book was very much a collaboration.
"The Center for Post-Capitalist History is a conceptual project that finds form through collaboration," says Sandler. "The project is world-building, and it's a lot better and more fun when other folks collaborate. It's a crucial part of the process conceptually as well. While the Center for Post-Capitalist History project's purpose is to create a para-fictional institution that has one foot in reality and the other in fiction, it has established a real, functioning organization of individuals working to create the fiction's facade of reality.
"I worked with Britta Seisums Davis, an incredibly talented graphic designer who I have known since middle school, and Kyle Smith, my partner and a visionary photographer and videographer, to create the Field Guide."
The collective creativity has produced an aesthetically gorgeous monograph, fit for any coffee table in the 407, and a worthy successor to Sandler's past zines. But there was an intentionality to this book that subtly takes digs at the notion of fine art and collectability. "As an artist, I am interested in the political and poetic potential of mediums that subvert the exclusionary history of 'fine art' in the Western traditions and canons that I'm entrenched in," says Sandler. "The aura of print media has historically been one of accessibility. I'm super into that."
Though Field Guide to Embodied Archiving has been out since early September, Saturday is the official launch party for the book. Continuing the Nook on Robinson's streak of adventurous outdoors events — 2 Pianos, Circuit Church, Please Understand — the evening will feature Sandler showing CPCH videos, doing a "performative reading" from the text and taking audience questions.
And even as Sandler closes the book (so to speak) on one project, another, nearly as ambitious one arises. She will be part of the Billboard Exhibition of artists turning billboards along I-4 into pieces of visual and conceptual art. Sandler is one of the 30 artists chosen by organizers Pat Greene and the Downtown Arts District, with a January 2022 launch.
"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," says Sandler. "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."
An archivist's work is never done.