The Silicon Cage of the Creative Workspace. Yuri Pattison’s ‘user, space’ exhibition. Chisenhale Gallery, 7 July–28 August 2016
In the ‘user, space’ exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, the artist Yuri Pattison installs an eerie vision of office infrastructure that defines the contemporary creative workspace. Shrink-wrapped Eames’ chairs and desks laid out in open plan look like a tech start-up is about to move in; warehouse shelves host modems, routers and wires necessary for online work, while beanbags and pot-plants demarcate a space for leisure in the office. The bright industrial lights and long Perspex tables ensure us that this is primarily a space for work – but whether that would be an office for digital accounting or a meth lab is not entirely clear.
Pattison’s selection of objects draws attention to the ever-expanding technological means of communication and computing that support the post-industrial workforce. But how can this inventory of the contemporary workspace function as an art installation? If we consider that the contemporary neoliberal economy absorbed many of the formal and cultural paradigms that used to be privileged as artistic, then Pattison’s practice presents a rather odd short-circuit in historical trajectories. Sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello point out that neoliberalism incorporated the social and artistic critiques of the 1960s and early 1970s and their radical demands for individual expression, personal freedom and cultural flexibility, albeit in very instrumental forms. When art becomes a department in the marketing branch, its cultural status as an exception no longer appears tenable.
Pattison’s response to these circumstances is a ‘reverse’ assimilation of formal and organisational codes from heteronomous workspaces through which art sustains its identity as a space for second-degree reflection. This is not an uncommon response to the crisis of art’s autonomy under neoliberalism – think of all the exhibition installations in independent galleries made from unpolished wood, so authentically utilitarian and transformative they leave you with splinters. The limitations of such an approach become acute if the space of art is maintained as a distinct sphere of cultural codes, rather than a social field fully interfaced with the creative industries it seeks to differentiate itself from. In this regard, Pattison’s method of production stands out.
The works in the ‘user, space’ exhibition developed over Pattison’s 18-month Create residency at Chisenhale Gallery, during which he explored East London’s Tech City – an area designated for growing tech and creative start-ups which are often clustered together on sites defined as shared workspaces. Pattison is careful to avoid the pitfall of patronising the office taste of the business sector from the vantage point of a sanctioned gallery artist. He integrates the two spaces – the gallery and the office – by pivoting around the protean definition of art in the context of the contemporary creative economy: his works function both as art that decorates offices and as elements of a gallery installation which seeks to transform and intensify the experience of office-space. Many components of Pattison’s ‘user, space’ installation first appeared as ‘lobby sculptures’ through which he gained access to such hubs of the creative industry as the Google Campus, Second Home or London Hackspace (enquire for lobby work series, 2016). Artistic objects with an active networked component are particularly welcomed in these tech offices, such as a bitcoin mining rig that monitors online transactions and accumulates small amounts of this cryptocurrency (enquire for roaming space work 1 (after enquire for lobby 1), 2015–2016). In their original office setting, such works functioned as artistic oddities that offer easy talking points close to in-house tech discourse – and thus fully participate in the creative ‘feel’ of the business space with a dash of conceptual-artistic je ne sais quoi. But these works were simultaneously developed for the occasion of the exhibition at the end of the residency period, where they cumulatively produce the space of Pattison’s artistic-logistic fantasy.
The ‘user, space’ exhibition focuses the logic of the transparency in the creative workspace that governs both the selection of materials, such as glass or Plexiglass, and the open plan of the workspace: the space for creativity cannot appear restrictive. Rather than negating this logic, Pattison’s exhibition pushes it further: the entire show appears as a temporary solution constructed in cheap materials, transparent plastics and modular metallic shelving. Moreover, the transparency emerges as a fully opaque system of networks in transparent form (for user, space) video displayed on the largest screen in the show. The camera leads the viewer through the office space from the atypical vantage point of its infrastructure, mainly pipes and wires normally hidden in the ceiling bulkheads. The creative office is thus presented upside-down, with shiny desks and chairs hanging from the ceiling. While this surreal scene at first glance appears to be computer rendered, it is in fact shot using a stabiliser gimbal in a brand new co-working space with no significant post-production effects. The eye of the camera traverses different offices, floors, perhaps even buildings – orientation is difficult since this perspective homogenises the departments and workspaces which all appear as merely extensions for the sprawl of their infrastructure. Transparent form (for user, space) extends the shared workspace to a structural logic, an architectural diagram in which the totalising office space begins to take over the creative labour it hosts. Pattison’s works do not offer any specific glimpses into the socio-economic mechanisms that govern the expansion of such offices, but opt instead for a focused – if reductive – presentation of the ‘optical unconscious’ in the infrastructure of the creative workspace.
Pattison’s focus on office and network infrastructures enables another vantage point on the creative economy, thus opening up a reflexive space in Chisenhale Gallery where contemporary art may yet prove a relevant critical framework for decoding our present historical conjuncture. The ‘unbound creativity’ of open plan workspaces meets its architectural cage and infrastructural mainframe – metaphorically pregnant with allusions to alienation and control that underwrite the flexibility of the co-working space. The works never fully address the contemporary labour regime and its effects on the workforce, such as the precarity of short-term contracts that plague both start-up and art industries alike. Instead, this peculiar exhibition highlights the hybridity of contemporary art as both a type of a creative industry and a differential space of reflection that enables subversion and critique of whatever forces it interacts with. In the circumstances in which the large national museums do not offer much space for a developed discursive exchange at the level of artistic production, the format of the long-term residency championed at Chisenhale provides a valuable sanctuary of productive debate, as well as an exhibition space capable of aesthetically re-programming even the hard-wired circuits of London’s Tech City.
BORIS ČUČKOVIĆ BERGER