Office Space, an exhibition curated by Ceci Moss at YBCA in San Francisco, features artists responding to the immaterial labor force of the 21st century. Examining offices as a site of politics, these artists dissect contemporary work forces.
I work at a museum, and feel tied to this subject in two directions, one from working in an office, and two, from working in an office where my main task is to organize and maintain exhibitions of art.
My desk is located within an open office floor-plan. It is situated laterally between two other desks, such that our backs are against a wall. I look out at a row of five other desks, all of them situated against the opposite wall. On all of the desks is a phone and a computer. Although it is an open office, I have never worked anywhere as quiet as this. Everyone wears headphones, and although we’re often less than five feet away from each other, we still communicate tasks and requests through email, as if to force a paperless paper trail to hold one another accountable.
One of the first pieces in the exhibition is Cory Arcangel’s Permanent Vacation of 2008. Comprised of a set of two computers, keyboards, mice and an IKEA table, Arcangel has set up two email accounts with vacation responders. The vacation response bounces back and forth between the two inboxes, each time sounding a horrible tinny alert announcing the arrival of another email. Permanent Vacation considers our reliance on email, as a repository of information, as a record of our past, and as an impersonal avatar of ourselves while we are away.
I often think about how tied I am to my computer. In the office at the museum, we all stare at the computer for 8 hours, every day. I think, as I scroll through art blogs and do crossword puzzles in windows that I can easily hide should anyone in the office come over to my desk, what it would have been like to work for 8 hours WITHOUT a computer. Would I have to bring paper crossword puzzles? What is the real life analogue for closing out a conspicuous tab?
Reconfiguring a nostalgic mid-century modern office ideal, Mika Tajima’s A Facility Based on Change III reappropriates Action Office furniture from Herman Miller and a Balans chair of the artist’s design.
Action Office, first introduced in 1964, was the first cubicle system. Designer Robert Propst championed the Action Office, arguing that the environment of the office must encourage the mental activities of the worker. Initially encouraging an open, colorful, modern and flexible workspace, the first iteration of the Action Office didn’t catch on quite as Propst intended.
Designed for adaptability, Action Office II (2.0) focused on those three hallowed walls which would eventually become the bane of the office environment, the cubicle. The walls of the original Action Office were heightened, leaving the worker trapped in one sightless cell amidst a labyrinth of sameness.
In A Facility Based on Change III, Tajima plays on the notion of the cubicle, arranging the walls with no entry or exit points. Creating actual cubes, and reintroducing a midcentury modern color palette that reflects the concept initially intended by Propst, Tajima creates an alternate office space, one which blocks entry. Tajima hangs her own silkscreened images on the Action Office walls with pins and clips, allowing a brief glimpse of individuality within the mass-produced office environment and using its own tools to subvert its anonymity.
Precariously balanced near the cubicle walls is a Balans chair of the artist’s design. The Balans chair was initially developed in the 1970s in Europe from alternative seating positions conceptualized by a Danish surgeon. However, the strange contortions made by the body in order to fit into the sloping curves of the chair, in Tajima’s work, speak to the unnatural mental and bodily contortions made by workers in the office environment.
During my visit, one patron attempted to seat themselves in the chair. A gallery guide assured me that this happens “ALL of the time.” The comfortability with which white-collar workers view office furniture reveals the thin masking of designed environments meant to somatically manipulate employees in hopes of efficiency and productivity.
The late-20th century move toward immaterial labor has created a distinction in capitalism’s subject; because the work-day is not tied to material production, the divide between work and home life is non-existent. Office workers find themselves in a constant labor-loop that is not bound by the physical constraints of the office– evidenced by the migration of work-space to the virtual, where access is continuous and constant.
Further collapsing home/work divisions, in late-capitalism, the value of labor is determinant upon cognition rather than manual labor, and as such, a worker’s value is determined by their very subjectivity. Individual traits, the way in which the worker thinks, are monetized.
Bea Fremderman’s 2 minute video loop, Kafka Office, renders the office environment as a branching maze comprised of dead ends. Looping lighting and shadow to create an endless void of time in a digitally-rendered cubicle structure, Fremderman accompanies the video with deeply affective bass tones. The soundtrack tracks time in concert with the lighting effects of the video, creating a somatic response not unlike being trapped. Although the setting is filmed from an angled birds-eye-view into the office, the quality and tone of the soundtrack encompasses the viewer and leaves them with a deep sense of appurtenance and subordination.
Installed in YBCA’s gallery, the piece is on a monitor placed on the floor, which allows the viewer a skewed perspective, like gazing into a nihilistic circus mirror. The sense of captivity and infinitude resonates, still, as the viewer is unconsciously absorbed into the space of the video and its sound.
A discussion of the office space would be nothing without a dissection of office supplies, one of the dubious perks offered to the late-capitalist subject.
Haegue Yang creates an altar of office supplies in Office Voodoo, hanging lightbulbs, ballpoint pens, CDs, bulldog clips, stamps and stamp pads and other office detritus from drying racks positioned in a semi-symmetrical pentagram. Repurposing the sterile tools of the office environment into an occultist prayer object, the piece is a reliquary, a politically incorrect subterfuge constituted of the aseptic, soulless objects that enable immaterial labor.
Taking immateriality beyond its logical limits, Julien Prévieux’s What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #1) projects hand movements onto a wall using an overhead projector and a Polaroid Polaview 3000. 
Julien Prévieux, What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #1), 2006-11, video
On first glance, the hand movements look like a two-dimensional rendering of sign language. They are, however, human movements that have patents filed in the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Speaking both to the official bureaucracy of patent filing and the absurdity of trademarking human movements, What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #1) illustrates gestures which may have a familiarity to users of Apple products. Extending the bureaucratic reach to the very body, the piece “speaks to capitalism’s pervasive reach.. how something so benign as a pinching finger becomes private property.” [2.]
Further asserting the tech sector’s bureaucracy (a topic near and dear to fellow San Franciscans), Andrew Norman Wilson’s Workers Leaving the Googleplex exposes the inherent caste system at play in office politics.
Wilson was employed at Google in 2007, during which time, he secretly filmed workers leaving buildings with differing security clearances. The taping was discovered by Google security, and Wilson was fired.
The revelation, to me, was that employees at Google are given colored badges which denote their level of security clearance. Of course, the colors correspond to the brightly colored branding of the Google logo. White badges, for instance, are assigned to full-time Google employees, while red badges are saved for contractors, and green badges for interns. The color-coding of corporate hierarchy engenders an embodied ranking system, which bars workers entry to spaces within their work environment. Not unlike the complex caste systems created on the basis of skin color in colonial Brazil, these colors regulate and differentiate the bodies within the Google campus.
The exhibition taken as a whole fluctuates between mimicking/mocking the sterility of modern offices and exposing the subterfuge that flows beneath them.
The contemporary office, especially in an economically volatile city like San Francisco, seems to me a place of utter instability, a capricious agreement between workers, desperate for employment and fair pay in an untenable environment (made so, in large part, by Silicon-Valley tech companies like Google) and offices who aim for the highest profitability, efficiency and productivity for the lowest possible wage.
I realized the paradox inherent in spending my day off from my office in a museum to go to museum replete with mock-offices, but the removal was just far enough that I was able to see both spaces critically and with the sarcastic humor that makes me really ~*fun and likable*~ back at the office.
Office Space is on view at YBCA through February 14, 2016 and has a comprehensive exhibition catalogue available for $5, which comes with digital files (including almost all of the images reproduced here) on a USB stick that is also a handy pen. Office supplies, hooray!
- Side note: this discontinued product from Polaroid is the coolest. It is an LCD screen designed to be used with an overhead projector to project video/presentations. I would like this so much more than the cumbersome projector/screen/laptop set-up that we use in my office. Studying it during my visit to YBCA was akin to sorcery– it is the magic screen as prophesied by PeeWee’s Playhouse.
- Ceci Moss, Office Space Extended Wall Labels, 2015.