Interoffice Memo on the Occasion of ‘Office Space,’ the Exhibition

Bea Fremderman, 'Kafka Office,' 2013. (Courtesy: the artist)

To: KQED Arts Readers
Cc: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
From: Sarah Hotchkiss
Re: 'Office Space' the exhibition, not the movie

It has come to my attention that the local arts organization Yerba Center for the Arts (YBCA) has turned their attention to the workplace. The show, curated by Ceci Moss, is Office Space, a nod to the 1999 Mike Judge comedy of the same name. Before I even entered the workforce, this movie prepared me for my inevitable participation in it, complete with inexplicably evil technology, looming superiors and -- at times -- utter boredom.

Sean Raspet, Installation view of 'Folder (A Novel)', 2010; 'OBSCENITY TRIALS,' 2010; and '2Registration::(Untz'tled (Police Incident (8[e.)) 7], ((((2007-2012) 2007-2011. ') ') 2012),' 2014.
Sean Raspet, Installation view of 'Folder (A Novel)', 2010; 'OBSCENITY TRIALS,' 2010; and '2Registration::(Untz'tled (Police Incident (8[e.)) 7], ((((2007-2012) 2007-2011. ') ')
2012),' 2014. (Courtesy: the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco)

If many of us have experienced a shift in the nature of our workplace in the past decades (from cubicle to co-working, or office to home office), others have experienced no such shift. I type this memo at a work desk capable of moving between standing and sitting heights, in my beige cubicle attached to a warren of other beige cubicles. The technology I use is often inexplicably evil. A tiny sliver of natural light is visible if I tilt my head back at just the right angle. Otherwise, it’s just flickering fluorescents.

Office Space (the exhibition) is filled with homages to working environments like mine. Cory Arcangel's installation Permanent Vacation pits two email accounts with “out of office” vacation responses against each other in an endless loop of gently dinging inbox sounds. Sean Raspet places a desk of coffee mugs and file folders in front of OBSCENITY TRIAL, a wall of the very same ceiling tiles currently hanging over my head. Mika Tajima rearranges the elements of the Herman Miller Action Office (the original cubicle) into nonfunctional freestanding and wall-leaning configurations.

Joseph DeLappe, 'The Mouse Mandala,' 2006-15.
Joseph DeLappe, 'The Mouse Mandala,' 2006-15. (Courtesy: the artist)

Other aspects of the show take the trappings of office spaces past the knowing nod and into the realm of absurdity, as Office Space (the movie) did so well. Mark Benson’s Open Fields positions fake plants on a shelf just below the YBCA’s Juliet Balcony, squishing their giant silk branches against the underside of the overhang. Joseph DeLappe’s The Mouse Mandala is a massive woven floor piece made of defunct computer mice, their many tails caught in the middle as they stretch outward, trying to escape what looks unnervingly like a rat king.

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But will all these physical reminders of work life soon disappear as labor becomes increasingly immaterial? Is the new office space a virtual space? Attempts at addressing these questions are less aesthetically engaging as a whole. Laurel Ptak’s Wages For Facebook adapts the 1972 feminist/anti-capitalist manifesto “Wages for Housework” for the age of social media. Black, all-caps text scrolls soundlessly across the modestly-sized monitor. Scale is a determining factor for many of the most shrug-worthy works in the show. At the end of a corridor in YBCA’s massive downstairs space, a wall sculpture by Josh Kline that might otherwise pull viewers in for a closer look becomes bland and underwhelming.

Pilvi Takala, 'The Trainee,' 2008.
Pilvi Takala, 'The Trainee,' 2008. (Courtesy: the artist and Carlos/Ishikawa, London)

The piece that most successfully interrupts the status quo of the working environment, subverting its efficiency and purposefulness, is Pilvi Takala’s The Trainee. For one month, the artist posed as a trainee in the marketing department of Deloitte, a multinational professional services company. In the final two weeks of her time at the office, she began to do “brain work,” staring off into space in different areas of the building -- once spending an entire day riding in the company elevator. Documenting herself doing nothing, she also captures the responses of her coworkers as they pass through various stages of incomprehension. One of the most telling complaints comes from a Deloitte employee who emails Takala’s supervisor to argue that the trainee’s weird behavior is slowing down everyone else’s work; speculation and rumor is distracting the sheep! The gallery devoted to The Trainee is sparsely filled with projections, monitors and a vitrine -- another awkward use of space -- but somehow most fitting for this piece, our discomfort mirroring the unease of Takala’s coworkers.

Office humor is notoriously dry and often cringe-worthy (see my attempt to turn a review into an interoffice memorandum). I wonder how those completely unfamiliar with this work environment encounter Office Space (the exhibition). Is it sterile and strange? And for those steeped in that culture, is it just too close to home? If you deeply identify with the pulsing beat and maze of drab cubicles in Bea Fremderman’s video Kafka Office, one of the show's highlights, perhaps it’s time for your own interoffice memo.

Office Space is on view through Feb. 14, 2016 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit ybca.org.

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