Almost every aspect of our lives is touched by capitalism in one way or another. The need to earn money — and how much of it we make — dictates how we spend our time. And even if we don't consider ourselves materialistic, we use our consumer choices to define ourselves and broadcast our identities to the world. But capitalism hasn't been the only economic system that has governed human societies over the centuries and, in fact, it has only been in use for a small fraction of human history.
The Museum of Capitalism, a pop-up exhibit in an industrial event space in Oakland's Jack London Square, examines capitalism from the vantage point of a fictional future where it no longer exists. By studying capitalism in the past tense, the show highlights its peculiarities and ethical failures — ones that we currently take for granted, like sweatshop labor and environmental pollution.
Curated by artists Andrea Steves and Timothy Firstnau, the expansive show features a huge variety of 2D and 3D works from over 60 artists. Many of the pieces in the exhibition examine aspects of society from alternative perspectives that often render them absurd. For instance, take Packard Jennings's Mindfulness Meditation Booth, an installation made to look like a meditation room for police officers preparing for stressful confrontations. A museum placard describes the origins of modern policing as "a way to deal with the threat that crowds posed to capitalist interests, usually in the form of worker strikes and slave insurrections." This information — as well as the robotic voice narrating the guided meditation inside the chamber — is unsettling and begs the question, can there truly be a friendly, peaceful police force if part of its function is to keep social inequality in place?
Another compelling piece in the show is Come Run in Me 2, an installation by Hong Kong-based artist Christy Chow about the impossible demands placed on sweatshop workers. Viewers must run on a treadmill while a monitor in front of them shows a worker sewing dresses. The participant's pace directly correlates with how fast the worker sews, but losing the game is inevitable because the workload is always too great.
Even the bathroom is an art piece in the Museum of Capitalism. Before its entrance is a pamphlet that explains why we must always purchase something at an establishment to be able to relieve ourselves instead of just being able to pee for free. Other pieces also question why human bodily functions and basic instincts are exploited in a capitalist system. Careforce Prints by Marisa Jahn, for example, is a series of political posters advocating for the rights of caretakers whose labor often goes unacknowledged and uncompensated. And Kambui Olujimi's The Gini Quotation, a series of cell-like glass sculptures, points out the absurdity of people donating biological materials (like sperm and eggs) in order to make money.
The Museum of Capitalism isn't outright preachy, but when it holds up these features of our society to a microscope, they can seem odd and often unethical. In an unchecked capitalist system, the exhibition seems to ask, what isn't for sale?
The Museum of Capitalism is on view through August 20 at 55 Harrison Street, Suite 201 in Oakland. For more information, click here.