I once had a boss who, like the protagonist in Pilvi Takala’s film, The Stroker, would invariably touch you on the upper arm whenever he encountered you. Initially this signifier of his “touchy-feely” management style was comforting. Here was someone trying to develop a different kind of boss/worker relationship while conferring a sense of fellow-feeling with his subordinates. Simultaneously I and my colleagues experienced an uneasy dissonance of the blurred lines between intimacy and control.
It is no surprise that such an intelligent and subversive artist as Takala would be drawn to this messy social quagmire, where the mantras of “breaking down the boundaries between life and work” and “fermenting interactions that will boost creativity” are gospel. This has to be one of the most gripping and thought-provoking works I have seen in a while. Thanks to DJB for the tip-off! I urge you to get down to Carlos/Ishikawa at 88 Mile End Road before the show closes on 18 August.
Takala’s 14 minute two-channel video installation derives from her ten-day undercover placement in the futuristic offices of Second Home in Spitalfields. This gargantuan workspace venture is in essence a scaled-up, luxury version of the internet cafe. Instead of coffee and cake you get a well-being programme including high spec restaurants and cultural events. But you just can’t just roll up and book a slot. You can hire a desk for £375 a month but expect to be vetted for your entrepreneurialism and creativity. Second Home companies or “members” have been “curated” by its owners to create the optimum vibe by including cool creative start-ups as well as multinationals like the management consultants Ernst and Young looking for some street cred.
Thanks to a fruitful chat with Regina Lazarenko, the gallery’s Assistant Director, I gained valuable insight into the artwork’s genesis. Takala planned what, on first sight, is a standard social psychology experiment – a covert observational study into non verbal communication. With the consent of the Second Home management, she adopted the role of a well-being consultant. She walked through the workplace greeting her co-workers with a touch on the shoulder and a “how is it going?” greeting. Inevitably the responses to this approach from a stranger varied widely from hostility and anxiety to avoidance and wary appreciation. A hidden camera and sound recorder helped to capture her interventions.
However in a move reminiscent of Jeremy Deller, another leading artist who places major importance on respect for participants in his artworks, she transformed her observations into re-enactments of the interactions. The result is a compelling micro-analysis of our ambivalence to touch. She carefully exposes the way our feelings of discomfort visibly leak through our non-verbal gestures. But more fundamentally Takala is opening up a debate on the business ethics of conflating workplace and personal relationship modes. In a memo to all the Second Home members she partly reveals her subterfuge by announcing that “the stroker” is the founder of the well-being organisation, Personnel Touch, a company title that is a masterful linguistic melding of the commercial and the intimate. The ultimate irony is that Takala’s work as a performance artist is now showcased on the cultural events page of the Second Home website as an example of their tagline: “More than just a workspace, almost a way of living.” Among the many telling moments in her film is a scene which reveals the “co-worker” with the most positive reaction to the stranger’s touch of recognition – the office cleaner.
Takala combines the chutzpah and bravery of the prankster with the compassion and acute eye of the social critic. Her takedown of Disney’s hegonomy of the manufactured image in Real Snow White (2006) – https://vimeo.com/11757111 – is another brilliant exposé of the absurd world we now live in. Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967) is again proven to be so prescient: the commodity has sucessfully colonised all social life.