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Kaegan Sparks is the curator of the exhibition The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff by artist Zoe Beloff at Momenta Art, on view through March 20 with a special event on Friday, March 18, at 7pm with Amy Herzog and the artist. The show’s central film draws on archival instructional films demonstrating worker efficiency and the symptoms of contagious psychosis. The surrounding installation mimics the setting of the film, while simultaneously expanding upon and questioning industrial capitalism’s framing of the body as either “productive” or “unproductive.” These resonances are amplified by the gallery’s location in Bushwick, a rapidly gentrifying, historically working-class neighborhood, and the gallery itself is located in what was once a garment factory.
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Hannah Bacon: What was your first encounter with Zoe Beloff’s work and what was the impetus for this show?
Kaegan Sparks: I first became aware of Zoe’s work through her multimedia essay “Bodies Against Time,” published by Triple Canopy in early 2012. The piece is based on Zoe’s installation The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff, which she made in 2011 as part of a commission for the Site Gallery in Sheffield, UK and the M HKA in Antwerp. When I first saw the full film featured in the installation, I thought it was brilliant and invited Zoe to screen it at The Drawing Center in early 2013 as part of Drafts, an interdisciplinary series of programs I organized there in collaboration with the Reanimation Library.
Thinking about drawing, I was initially infatuated with one aspect of Zoe’s project in particular: the early 20th-century time-motion studies of scientific management engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. These long-exposure photographs register the trajectories of a worker’s hands performing various tasks as continuous streams of light — a sort of drawing in time — and one such “chronocyclegraph” also appeared in the Reanimation Library’s image archive.
Ever since then, I’d wanted to help shepherd the full installation to a New York exhibition venue. In 2014, I applied to a curatorial open call at Momenta Art with a related proposal, and through conversations there came to realize that it was a perfect opportunity to bring The Infernal Dream to the city.
HB: What are the origins of the archival material used in the installation? How does the production and reproduction of these media contribute to the overall themes of the exhibit and your interest in the work?
KS: The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff is the title of a roll of film from the early 1930s that Zoe discovered at the Vrielynck Collection in Antwerp, an archive containing objects from the history of cinema. The cartoon features two destitute but determined characters who pursue the last flame in hell for fear of starving and freezing to death. Zoe interprets their free-fall descent as a metaphor for the plummeting economy after the stock market crash of 1929, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s idea that cartoons expose the barbarism in society.
In her essay about the project, Zoe describes that this film — much like a Surrealist object in a flea market — called out to her. This anthropomorphic detail becomes more interesting when you consider the role of enlivened things in her larger installation. In another archival film featured in the show, Mutt and Jeff go struggle to animate themselves and thus reclaim the means of their own production from their illustrator. The interchange between bodies and things in the installation of course evokes the Marxist idea of reification, where traded commodities come to stand in for social relations between people, and objects obscure the labor of the subject who made them. But in the work you also see another sort of resistance in objects exceeding or going awry of the order imposed on them, for instance in the entropic movement of paper falling in the last moments of the central three-channel film.
This film sets up a dialogue between two midcentury 16mm instructional films that Zoe salvaged from a business college. The first is called Motion Studies Application, which demonstrates a regimen derived from early twentieth-century scientific labor management, often associated with Fredrick Winslow Taylor. In Motion Studies Application we see male supervisors choreographing the efficient motions of female workers, who are constantly responding to a clock. The second film, which serves as a foil to the worker training, is called Folie à Deux. In this film a male psychiatrist interviews a mother and daughter to illustrate a diagnosis of contagious psychosis, where each patient imbibes and replicates the symptoms she sees in the other, forming a reciprocal loop. Beloff interlaces these two sources of found footage with a series of performative reenactments by Kate Valk, who embodies both the historical female subjects and the male analysts in turn through lip-syncing and gestural mimicry. The intricate sequence of appropriated gestures between the historical and contemporary footage is really stunning, and brings to the fore lots of complex questions about staging, gender and agency, and the camera’s role in measuring and articulating bodies.
HB: The show mades reference to Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin. It was also evokes the philosopher Henri Bergson and his essay on laughter in which he tethers humor to mechanistic movements. These uncanny gestures are also indicative to the wooden gestures we diagnose in mental illness. How did you see the installation framing these castes of gesture as uncanny, efficient, or comical?
KS: Bergson’s definition of the comic — something mechanical encrusted on the living — is definitely mobilized in Zoe’s installation, particularly in the slapstick element. One of the installation’s strengths, I think, is connecting the mechanized bodies and object relations characteristic of Fordism to psychological aspects of work. Today, a worker’s sense of identity and emotional wellness is frequently instrumentalized by corporate labor management, in therapeutic and self-help rhetorics that conflate self-actualization with productive labor. Although Zoe’s project is really grounded in an early twentieth century industrial imaginary, for me Kate Valk’s role haunts Zoe’s film with the kind of affective versatility and erratic rhythms that characterize 21st-century work.
I think Zoe succeeds at establishing a dialectical relationship between what she calls “productive” and “unproductive” bodies in the installation. For this, she engages vexed histories of photography applied to parsing and regulating both economized and excessive gestures. The installation links the photographic time-motion studies of factory labor to Albert Londe’s work at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the late 19th century, which was pivotal in inscribing hysteria as an aesthetic category through photographic reproduction. Zoe’s film critically foregrounds this connection between the scripted working bodies of scientific management and the prescriptive archive of gestures that pathologized certain mental afflictions, especially in female bodies.
HB: How does it feel to do the work of curating art that has foregrounded concerns about affect, work, and labor? Did it make you reflect on the affective labor of curation?
KS: The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff was foundational for my engagement with labor as a topic of concern in art, and it triggered a line of research that continues to develop in my work as a curator and writer. I also credit cultural theorist Sianne Ngai’s writing on the “zany” (a category she defines as the “politically ambiguous intersection between cultural and occupational performance, acting and service, playing and laboring”) as an early influence. Ngai’s work really opened up overlaps between affect, aesthetics, and labor in an operable way for my own thinking about art. Of course, the ideas that I find the most compelling in art relate to my own modes of working and being in the world; the two are really coterminous.
And yes, curating is hugely about cooperation, communication, and negotiation — the bedrocks of affective labor! For me, it’s also crucially about care, not the care for objects that the verb “curate” originally signified, but collective effort and support for artists who are producing incisive and powerful work. My curatorial role here was largely to advocate for the project and for the artist, as well as to frame and facilitate the conditions for further discourse around her rich installation.
The administrative and production support behind such projects is often under-visible and underpaid, bringing to mind the spectrum of reproductive and maintenance work (social and material) that has been traditionally assigned to women. My next curatorial project is a group show around performances of emotional labor — framed by “soft skills” like sociability, adaptability, empathy, and cooperation — that play out as feminist strategies in art. Soft skills is a term that totally reeks of corporate management PowerPoints, but despite (or maybe because of) my partial revulsion to it I can’t let it go; it’s become a sort of reverberant node for my thinking about women and work.
HB: Could you say more about your upcoming projects?
KS: Self-management is a central mode of post-Fordist work that I’m conceiving as a performative strategy in art. One way to think about self-management is the individual worker’s internalizing a hierarchical disciplinary apparatus — the voice of the factory foreman, or the Taylorist engineer of Zoe’s film — which now often occupies a freelancer’s head. The short-term and on-demand exigencies of the gig economy mean that one is constantly auditioning for future employment. There’s also a huge amount of invisible labor around maintaining an amenable attitude, fluid communication, and interpersonal cooperation, which collapses a lot of antagonisms into the individual worker.
This is what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called the “emotional dissonance” or deliberate dissembling of service workers — a category that I think today capaciously extends beyond the prototypical customer service agent or nanny — who must produce experiences of ease, well-being, and satisfaction for others. As early as 1979, Hochschild theorized the commodification of “emotion work,” correlating the obliging, diplomatic, and patient affects demanded by company-client relationships with conventionally female roles in caring for and socializing children. One way to look at this kind of working performance, then, is in terms of reproductive labor drawn into the sphere of waged work and the production of surplus value.
The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff continues at Momenta Art (56 Bogart Street, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through March 20.