The actual work of the contemporary artist is his or her CV1
With their grey and sober tones, fitted out with cold, metallic furniture and tightly packed with busy employees, the office spaces depicted in Playtime (1967) by Jacques Tati have nothing going for them. They look like a caricature of the post-modern working world. Seen as inaesthetic spaces that had to be decorated with artworks in order to bring a bit of warmth to them, it was nevertheless during the same period that some conceptual artists drew on the neutrality emanating from these spaces as the fine arts basis for their approach, which would later lead Benjamin Buchloh to qualify conceptual art from this period as the “aesthetics of administration”.2 Although some works focus on office accessories,3 others draw attention to the actual space in the workplace: an obvious example is Michael Asher’s intervention at the Galerie Claire Copley (1974), but there is also the January 5–31, 1969 exhibition, organised by Seth Siegelaub, where the minimalist display of the artworks leaves ample room for the office to be fully present within the space. As proof of how the service sector is expanding in the Western economy as well as of the rise of a service and communication society, we can point to artists that have sought inspiration from the office aesthetic in their works, such as The Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince & Winters (1979), which ape consulting companies, the Kippenberger Büro (1979) by Martin Kippenberger, who, in order to sell his unsold works, decided to open his own sales office, or Cindy Sherman who documented employees working at Artist Space while including herself in the scene (Artists Space staff (1979) and Untitled (Secretary) (1978)). The 1980s was the decade of the artist-entrepreneur, high finance, communication, and advertising, introducing a totally new context that aroused the curiosity of artists like Philippe Thomas who created Readymades Belong to Everyone® (1987), a communications and event production agency that offered services such as helping collectors enter the world of art history by having them sign someone else’s work. The agency consisted of a sober office and waiting room set up in the same space, resulting in a powerful aesthetic effect. It should be mentioned that a recent presentation of this project4 was associated with the DIS collective in an intergenerational dialogue on advertising and communication. DIS is now known for being the harbinger of the “corporate” aesthetic, as they brought to the fore a whole generation of artists5 whose approaches revealed the consequences of advanced capitalism on the working world, now categorised as “post-Fordian” or “immaterial”, as theorised by Paolo Virno,6 Maurizio Lazzarato, and Antonio Negri.7 Since the early 2000s (the decade of the Internet bubble and the rise of start-ups), these artists, along with others, were closely linked with the material environment specific to the office space (typed A4 documents, emails, folders, laptops, suit and tie / women’s “working-girl” suits, tables and chairs, a cube office layout, colours that are neutral and cool, etc.). The current infatuation with what we will call (for lack of a better alternative) the “office aesthetic”, clearly did not happen by accident, and so we have been reflecting on what its presence in recent artworks might mean.
One of the projects that best symbolises the office as an artistic form could be Collective Wishdream of Upper Class Possibilities developed by Plamen Dejanoff from 2001 to 2003. In January 2001, the artist moved into a split-level apartment on the 3rd floor of a newly constructed high-tech building (where Adidas, Sisley, Benetton, as well as start ups like Viva and wirDesign also had their premises), situated in the Mitte neighbourhood in Berlin. Inside this duplex, which operated as an apartment, studio, and exhibition space presenting projects in various forms, a table-tennis table (a vital accessory for any self-respecting start-up) was used as an office desk, decorated with his works and those of other artists, which were set out in such a way as to furnish this unique workplace in a functional manner. Among all the ideas he presented, we would like to mention the project concerning his year-long employment by the Swiss company Tomato Financial-Treasury Services SA (2002): after signing the contract he received a salary for representing the firm to the outside world. Whether or not he fulfilled the task or how he did it is less interesting to us than the fact that he used the image (in the communications sense) of his workplace, which resembled an ad agency or a start-up more than it did an artist’s studio in the usual sense of the word8 and was the ideal setting in which to carry out this type of business. By adapting his approach (already highly design-oriented) with post-Fordian work codes, Dejanoff starkly revealed the links between art and the neo-liberal economy, which, although they might have seemed shocking then, barely raise an eyebrow now.
At about the same time, Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski’s observation that the “new spirit of capitalism” has apparently taken on board the “artistic critique” (that is, a criticism that demands more space for creativity, liberty, autonomy, and authenticity in modern industrial societies), brought an element of understanding to the incursion of office aesthetics in artistic (but also curatorial) practices, as well as to our increasingly favourable reaction to it. According to the authors’ claim, managers of large companies and government bodies (all coming from the May’ 68’s generation), incorporated artistic critique into their management techniques; these appear to draw on the model of thought and lifestyle of artists in order to overhaul a Keynesian capitalism that in the ’80s and ’90s was quite moribund, by extending this model to the whole economy and all forms of work.9 By appropriating artistic critique in this way, this new spirit of capitalism has in fact emptied it of its substance, as seen in I am a Revolutionary (2001), a video by Carey Young, in which she is filmed at work with a personal trainer in the offices of a large company, doggedly repeating “I am a revolutionary” in order to try to convince herself of it. The way in which numerous critical modes have been insidiously moved aside by money and capital is thus illustrated, rendering null and void any quest for a radical position in our current climate. Here again, the decorum and clothing of the artist contribute to an aestheticisation of this work environment, and in comparison to Plamen Dejanoff’s approach, which could be off-putting, it seems as though this office aesthetic is now increasingly accepted as an artistic form. We can find it today in immersive experiences such as Regression Toward the Mean (2014) by D’Ette Nogle, Bob’s Office (2016) by Amalia Ulman, Office of Unreplied Emails (2016) by Camille Henrot, or in Relieviation Works (2017) by Aria McManus. More eloquently, one of the images in the Smiling at Art series (2013), produced by DIS, is of a “white cube”-style exhibition room displaying ergonomic office chairs on wheels, admired by visitors as if they were sculptures. But the issue of the ready-made is no longer relevant here: Duchamp never in fact insisted that these be admired for their innate qualities, whereas these very office furnitures are actually appreciated on the basis of aesthetic criteria. Beyond its functional status and design, it is presented as a work of art (and not something that generates thought on the status of a work of art) and, quite unexpectedly, is accepted as such.10
Although the artist has become the model for the entrepreneur/manager of neo-liberal capitalism, with its new modes of work (networks, freelance, co-working, flexibility, the de-territorialisation of places of work, no fixed work schedule), as Pierre-Michel Menger11 seems to suggest, even more explicitly than Chiapello and Boltanski, it is via a curious change in the order of things that this new mode inspires and nurtures a large portion of current creation. As Maurizio Lazzarato pointed out, although artists are the source of this “new spirit of capitalism”, they are also its victims—just like other workers. He underlined the fact (in contrast to the three authors above) that the neo-liberal economic model is not based on artists and their liberating thought, but on “human capital” as an entrepreneur of one’s own self. Building on Michel Foucault’s theories from his Naissance de la bio politique [Birth of Biopolitics] period, the author claims that in fact “neo-liberalism does not seek its model of subjectivisation in the artistic critique since it already has its own model: the entrepreneur, a figure that neo-liberalism wants to extend across the board to everyone, artists included”, and further on, “Capitalisation is one of the techniques that must contribute to the worker’s transformation into ‘human capital’. The latter is then personally responsible for the education and development, growth, accumulation, improvement and valorisation of the ‘self’ in its capacity as ‘capital’.” Although in our opinion Lazzarato does not manage to entirely refute Chiapello and Boltanski’s thesis, he does correctly capture the way in which artists are absorbed into this new mode of subjectivisation. It is clear that the current state of art, its economy and the extreme professionalisation of artists’ careers, the industrialisation of culture, the labelling of contemporary art, its media exposure, and the precariousness in which most of its players develop only support this observation.12
In such an environment where each human being has become the entrepreneur of their own life, artists no longer correspond to the romantic and liberated figure they were associated with for many years, but now belong to the mass of workers “obliged to be free”13 in our democratic regime. Despite Joseph Beuys’s hypothesis that claims that “if the wider concept of art refers to every man considered to be an artist (‘every man is an artist’), then it is resolved in work”;14 in reality, artists are actually subject to the same administrative regime as free workers: they are their own boss, checking their own work, managing their budget, declaring their assets, promoting themselves on social networks, periodically working on self-funding, and developing in a milieu where creativity and freedom tend to fade away in favour of profitability. The clear presence of the office aesthetic and its accessories in many current approaches thus seems to reflect the paradigm shift occurring in the lifestyle of artists, who now find themselves in a system they once thought themselves outside of. In this both formal and conceptual way, artists manifest this new conditioning to a regime more coercive than ever, with which they are in constant debate. Then this office aesthetic appears, which, materialised in the form of an artwork, no longer appears as something austere, to flee from at the end of a workday, but instead as containing its own beauty and style, and generating a fortiori a new fad (when will we see an open-space style of interior decoration?).15
Towards the end of their essay, Chiapello and Boltanski note that although capitalism has stripped artistic critique of its meaning, the latter is just as relevant as ever.16 It is now a question of asking ourselves whether or not this office aesthetic and the incursion of aspects of post-Fordian labour into artworks is a sign of a gradual resignation. Because in the absence of a critical approach, this seldom-debated incursion and the grip the image of this new form of work have on our lives seem to reveal more of a voluntary submission to the new spirit of capitalism than the rebirth of the artistic critique from its ashes.
- Boris Groys, “The Truth of Art”, in E-flux Journal, no. 71, March 2016.
- Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” in Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 172.
- Among other works, here we are thinking of Working Drawings And Other Visible Things On Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art (1966) by Mel Bochner or Ian Wilson’s typewritten certificates from the late 1960s.
- Philippe Thomas with Interventions by Bernadette Corporation, DIS and Emily Segal, exhibition organised by Marta Fontolan at Project Native Informant, London, 2016.
- For example, see the programme of the 9th Berlin Biennale curated by DIS in 2016.See Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
- See Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
- See Maurizio Lazzarato and Antonio Negri, “Travail immatériel et subjectivité” in Futur antérieur, no. 6, Summer 1991.
- Continuing on this theme, it would be interesting to study how the types of furniture in artists’ studios have developed over the last thirty years and to identify at which point artists tended to blend furniture and the atmosphere found in start-ups or co-working spaces with the chaotic atmosphere of a Francis Bacon-style studio... It is only a small step for furniture, lying around the studio, to become an artwork.
- Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. by Gregory Elliott, (New York: Verso, 2017).
- For example, see the exhibitions The Office curated by Pierre-Alexandre Matéo and Charles Teyssou in 2016 in the offices of ACL Partners, and OpenOffice curated by Nuno Patricio in 2017 on the website Ofluxo.net.
- See Pierre-Michel Menger, Portrait de l’artiste en travailleur. Métamorphoses du capitalisme, (Paris: Edition du Seuil, Coll. La République des idées, 2003).
- Maurizio Lazzarato, The Misfortunes of the “Artistic Critique” and of Cultural Employment, European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, 2007, trans. by Mary O’Neill, online: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0207/lazzarato/en
- See Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self, (London: Routledge, 1989)
- Joseph Beuys, “Entrée dans un être vivant”, conference given on 6 August 1977 in the framework of the International Free University, “Documenta 6” in Kassel, in Joseph Beuys. Par la présente, je n’appartiens plus à l’art, (Paris: L’Arche, 1988), p. 59.
- Here we are conveying Boris Groys’ theory on the ways in which art can change society: “artists and their audience share the material world in which they live. [...] Art “changes the world in which these spectators actually live—and by trying to accommodate themselves to the new conditions of their environment, they change their sensibilities and attitudes. [...] Indeed, if one is compelled to live in a new visual surrounding, one begins to accommodate one’s own sensibility to it and learn to like it.” In Boris Groys, The Truth of Art, Op. Cit.
- Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Op. Cit., p. 556.