Would you be able to do your job properly with a camera recording your every move? The mundanity of an office environment gets the reality TV treatment at Pioneer Works, where the administrative staff has agreed, albeit with initial reluctance, to take part in a six-week performance with cameras constantly surveilling their daily grind. The performance is part of Work, E.S.P. TV's first institutional solo exhibition in the US. Curated by David Everitt Howe, and directed by Scott Kiernan and Victoria Keddie, Work dismantles the audience/performer divide by making it as present and blatant as possible.
Kiernan and Keddie have moved Pioneer Works' second floor workspace into its main exhibition hall, turning it into a functional office broadcasted live on a daily basis. Now painted chroma blue (the original, and easier-on-the-eyes version of a green screen), the new offices also feature a centralized control room, movable walls, a lounge area with a water cooler, the Pioneer Works staff, and the office dogs. Also on-site is a TV set and a VHS player where you can watch any tape from E.S.P. TV's six-season, 100-episode archival library.
The installation features sculptures that can be activated in real time or via video editing. The office is surrounded by a camera crew, TV mixing consoles, program feeds, and monitors. Artists and visitors roam the space, peeking through screens, watching the workers complete banal, ubiquitous office-related activities. Every day the staff logs into an evolving algorithm that combines their names with 32 productions terms for different camera shots. The program generates abstract "office speak" that appears as subtitles over shots, weaving a bot-generated narrative through phrases like: "Meetings," "To approve company culture don't follow," or "Offender, seek help from HR." The jargon is so common that often, it seems to make sense though taken out of context.
Known for a mobile television studio in a white van, E.S.P. TV has created a unique platform for broadcast-based mediums to engage in performative collaborations with artists. Work was greatly influenced by conceptual artist Michael Asher, who made a series of performative works in the 1970s, most notably his 1976 piece Via Los Angeles. In it, he turns the camera on itself, filming the production control room of a Portland TV station.
As E.S.P. TV explains to Creators, "The goal of the project is not one particularly of surveillance. There is nothing secretive, as the cameras on set are clearly side by side with the staff and manned by live cameramen… Rather than simply observe, we are developing a dialogue through a structural language of set, space, timing, and production to draw out a compelling performance from that which is not looking to 'perform.' In this case, that occurs through the subtle interactions and expressions of their daily work in the arts institution of Pioneer Works."
Work appears like a regular office environment until you realize the office is an installation, the staff are actors, and the viewer is part of the performance. The excitement of being a voyeur transforms into the realization that you are being observed as much as you are observing. In the digital age, when gazing at a screen is the norm, the exhibition makes you wonder how rapidly constant surveillance can go from being unsettling to expected.