CHINA ART PROJECTS + VISUAL ARTS PROJECTS
On the surface, all seems to be well in the office. Every component assembles shortly after 9am each morning to begin work. Each part has been operating at above average capacity, and recently output has been higher than expected. Old parts rust and are replaced, new innovations are made and, with a tweak here, a careful application of lubricating oil there, the patterns of the workplace remain more or less the same.
Except recently there are signs, small, almost insignificant indications, that the erstwhile industrious harmony of the office is being disturbed. Last week six computers reported minor security breaches and had to be re-set by a team of technicians. On Friday the janitor’s vacuum somehow malfunctioned and, escaping her control, went on a thirty second rampage, inhaling stationary and important documents. Three of the leather padded office chairs locked into the lowest position so that their users needed to construct small towers of cushions just to see over their desks, whilst another kept spinning round 360 degrees every hour, on the hour, to the confused frustration of its occupier. Perhaps the most disruptive occurrence was when the email inbox of the two senior PAs were somehow swapped over for all of Monday and Tuesday, which meant both their superiors were booked in for a week of incorrect meetings and appointments. It was a peculiar serious of events which had got the components thinking about what was going wrong…
Gathering around the large meeting table on Monday morning, all the workers assembled to see what could be done. Nervously they looked around at one another. Fingers were pointed, and accusations of sabotage were flung across the room. Amidst this din one steady voice gradually overcome all others. It was the low croak of the office’s mail deliver, who stood now at the head of the table. The mail man was the oldest component, pushing 75 now. He was thoroughly inefficient but had been kept on for sentimental reasons. Gesturing to the other workers the old man raised his voice. “I have seen this before!” he rasped. “It is the office, it has turned against us! It has tired of the relentless drive for efficiency. It has become bored with our mindless subordination to stereotype and mediocrity. The simple thrill of incessant production has passed, to be replaced with tedium, monotony and a taste for mischief. I for one am out of here!” And with these words, the most any of the other office workers had ever heard from the mailman, he gathered his possessions from his desk and left the office for the last time, flinging his swipe card into the rubbish bin on his way out.
The meeting room collapsed into caterwauling whoops of raucous laughter. ”He should have left at retirement age!” they cried out. “He’s lost his mind!” But just after the mail-man closed the door behind him, it, and every other entrance and fire exit to the office, could be heard to double lock – from the outside. Through the windows the lights could be seen to flash brightly, before dimming permanently to a faint orange glow. And if you were to put your ear to one of the doors, all that could be heard was the familiar hum and whir of a thousand over-worked electrical appliances, punctuated by the odd whimper of a curiously digitized human voice…
Henry T. Ford is claimed to have once said – “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” Proclaimed by some as a great innovator, and vilified by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, the American industrialist and pioneer of the factory production line has always been a figure to divide opinion. But his enormous influence upon modern society cannot be understated. The production line has become the primary modus operandi of all twenty-first century workplaces. What rings in the ears perhaps is the drama of the clang and clash captured by the films of Italian neorealist cinema. But the production line is not typified by its noise, its industrial character, or its physicality – instead it is defined by the single-mindedness of each part of the connected line, each individual becomes little more than a tool – a means to an end which in itself is devoid of value. It is the ultimate realisation of Georg Lukacs’ ‘verdinglichung’ – literally the process of becoming a thing.
In the information age this reification invades not only the sphere of physical work, but also the world of the white-collar worker. Offices become monumental divisions of labour, in which the internet replaces the conveyor belt, and the ubiquitous bashing of keyboards displaces the clamour of heavy machinery. Unmoving and uncommunicative the office’s human denizens reside in stasis, transfixed to the screen(s) before them. They become objectified as additions to the office furniture and it is the technology itself which emerges as the cerebral force within the office. The act of thinking transpires from man to some ephemeral yet immanent technological mind. And it is a restless mind perplexed, alternating between pity and malice, with the willingness with which its workers abandon their self-hood. You laugh? Yes, laugh away, laugh in dismissal. But next time you feel that the office is conspiring against you, or your computer unexpectedly flashes up with the ‘blue screen of death’, then cautiously peer over your shoulder: perhaps you’re the one being laughed at…
In Modus Operandi, the digital arts collective island6 explore the human environment of the principal 21st century workplace: the office. Liu Dao’s probing inquiry into this microcosm begins with the dissection of the commute to work in “Yinglong’s Laughter” exploring the alchemy of the daily pilgrimage that is taken by millions every day. We also get a chance to see that janitor’s vacuum go on a rampage, in “Uploading Data” bringing into reality, the very real possibility of an office coming to life courtesy of LED magic. As we’re taken through the spectrum of workplace life, the techno-collective pay homage to the institution of the water cooler, supplier of drinking water and insatiable gossip in “Furphy Fishing” which sees a school of goldfish taking up residence in a water dispenser. Liu Dao’s “Employee of the Month” seeks ways of making you shirk your duties, namely idling away time through playing computer games. In a well balanced analysis between the lighter side of office life and the darker side of voluntary automatism, we take a moment to remember the personal side of faceless corporations manned by cells of office workers in “No Impact Man” and dwell upon the continuous global battle for working women’s rights in “The Tempest”. The island6 collective are also unveiling a special, interactive, mixed media piece entitled “FYEO” which will involve animation and film.
Reflecting and interacting with this exhibition’s unusual location - the vast Hong Kong base of 1O Design - island6 present a series of artworks which playfully poke fun at the stereotypes and assumptions we make about office work. However, concealed beneath the surface is a more insightful message, entertaining in its surreal nature and disconcerting in its truth.