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SAN FRANCISCO — I will admit that it had been a long day filled with mundane tasks — conference calls, email catch-up, copyediting — when I wandered into the exhibition Office Space, currently on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The day’s tedium made me particularly prone to embrace the show’s premise: offering a thoughtful, funny, and totally unnerving look at modern day office culture. It’s odd to walk into a museum and be greeted with what at first glance appears to be a deconstructed office: a pile of papers sits in a state of disorder on a desk; a disassembled Herman Miller cubicle — partially painted — stands upright, its purpose diminished; French presses rest stagnant with murky water; computer mice lay on the floor, woven into a giant mandala. The mundane nature of the contemporary office is here subverted, pulled apart, teased, and in the most disturbing works, analyzed. We are invited to partake in the spectacle-ization of what for so many people constitutes everyday life.
Office Space takes as its starting point the advent of the 24/7 workday. Labor practices were standardized and the 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday workday established as the norm after the Industrial Revolution. But in the 21st century, the creation of the smartphone has allowed for ubiquitous access to email, and much of the developed world has shifted away from hard labor to what curator Ceci Moss describes as “immaterial labor” — intangible service and information-based work. Accordingly, the workday has moved from a defined moment in time to an abstract and creeping entity that invades one’s personal life at every turn.
Through videos, sculptures, paintings, and installations, the 25 international artists and artist collectives included in Office Space reflect on these shifting labor practices. As in any exhibition, what is technically on display is the artwork, but walking through the space, one gets the eerie feeling that what’s actually being shown is the dreadfulness of the modern workplace, viewed through the lens of contemporary art.
The pieces in the exhibition generally follow one of two approaches to the subject: a reflection on the myriad stuff that fills the modern day workplace or an analysis of the routines to which humans in the workplace are submitted. The evaluations of material objects are largely humorous: Cory Arcangel’s “Permanent Vacation” (2008) consists of two computers emailing one another on a loop, each immediately responding with an out-of-office message; Mark Benson’s “Open Fields” (2015) takes the most popular office plants sold by retailers like Staples and crams them into uncomfortable spaces, entirely subverting their purposes. These are punchy if depressing one-liners about the mundane and stultifying nature of the office, likely to resonate with anyone who’s ever spent time in a cubicle.
It is, however, the pieces that look at the human labor process and the way workers are manipulated, bribed, and encouraged to conform that are infinitely more captivating. Among these is Harun Farocki’s “A New Product” (2012), a video documenting a Hamburg-based business consultancy that implements workplace optimization. Watching the video, we see the sterile remove at which the firm manages the office, paring down excess costs and ridding it of any potential for human volition. Addressing the laborers as cogs in a machine, the firm streamlines the workplace to be its most efficient, and through the lens of Farocki’s camera we are left with a shiver, witnessing how inhumane and devoid of feeling the process of work becomes.
The highlight of the exhibition is Finnish artist Pilvi Takala’s “The Trainee” (2008), an installation and video project that she created while working in the marketing department at professional services firm Deloitte under the pseudonym Johanna. For months, Takala would show up at her job and literally do nothing. While office culture dictates that during slow periods, one must orchestrate a careful song and dance of faux busyness, Takala secretly filmed herself simply sitting still, staring into space, doing absolutely nothing. The installation features an approximate re-creation of the open-plan office and the meeting and waiting rooms in which she worked, with two video screens on either side showing the documentation of her project. In one, Takala stages a brilliantly uncomfortable experiment: she rides the elevator for an entire day, happily chatting with others as they exit and enter, explaining that “she’s just going for a ride.” In the other, she films herself at her desk, inert. Shots of her sitting still are interspersed with emails to HR from her colleagues suggesting she is deranged (which she was able to procure after being fired), as well as conversations with questioning coworkers, whom she tells she is “doing brainwork.” By thwarting the accepted culture of an office, Takala foregrounds the absurdity that governs most of our 9-to-5 ritual.
Taken as a whole, the show offers a thoughtful look at what can best be described as the overwhelming banality of the present-day office, and in so doing achieves something much bigger. By exploring a subject that’s readily relatable, Office Space extends an invitation to those with no particular knowledge of contemporary art, offering them the chance to explore a familiar topic through a new lens. While many of the works are weighty, they’re far from ungraspable, providing a wonderful entry point for new museumgoers and a refreshing take on the possibilities of a contemporary art exhibition, for even the most entrenched of viewers.
Office Space continues at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission Street, San Francisco) through February 14.