Increase Productivity
Contemporary Art Tasmania, nipaluna/ Hobart

An exhibition for Shotgun 7. Supported by Detached Cultural Organisation, MONA and Contemporary Art Tasmania. 

Images: Rémi Chauvin

Increase Productivity Catalogue Essay by Dr Helen Hughes:

Grace Herbert’s exhibition Increase Productivity brings together two symbolic regimes of self-improvement: the first is that of contemporary corporate culture, represented by that most ubiquitous object of postfordism, the communal hot desk; and the second is that of the personal fitness and well-being industry, here represented by a Bod Pod – an air-tight, human-scaled, fibreglass chamber that, using the principle of air displacement, calculates the user’s body–fat ratio with extreme precision. Both the hot desk and the Bod Pod are installed within adjoining transparent but nevertheless walled-in mobile office spaces, each 3 x 3 metres wide, which the artist has constructed inside the gallery. They are lit with the same cool, flat light of fluros, which gives both objects and spaces a uniform palette. Yet where the communal hot desk connotes sociality, the Bod Pod (which, with the help of cyberfeminist artist Linda Dement, has been made over into an atmospheric meditation cubicle fitted out with a customised voice-over and pensive soundtrack) encourages deep, personal introspection. How, we are therefore compelled by to ask, are we to understand the hot desk and the Bod Pod’s relation to one another? Where the hot desk allows one to work on whatever, wherever, whenever, and thereby become a more competitive producer, the Bod Pod allows one to understand one’s body and its specific nutritional needs in order to reach peak physical (or in the case of this exhibition, peak emotional and psychological) fitness. Their combination in the gallery thus reads as a portrait of the shifting economies of productivity and efficiency under late capitalism, of the total bleed between work and leisure, one’s self and one’s job – with the mobile office operating at the level of the social, and the Bod Pod at the level of the individual.

In considering the architectures and apparatuses of contemporary capitalism, Increase Productivity extends themes that Herbert has explored in past works – such as the detournement of both readymade objects and the advertising campaigns in which they are often embedded. Herbert’s sculptural installation with Theia Connell, Vending Machine (2017), for instance, took the form of a vending machine that dispensed, and promptly smashed, a series of uniform, phallic, plaster-cast obelisks, borrowing from the readymade languages of public monuments, visual merchandising, and capitalist consumption to reveal inherent hierarchies, frustrations, and fault lines. Similarly, the video Show Room (2016) applied the overblown rhetoric of shopping channel featurettes to “sell” a number of Robert Morris-like minimalist objects, which – the generic, male voiceover artist explains – can be shown in any number of configurations and finished with any number of architectural materials. Contemporary art tailor-made exclusively for you. Shown in this light, Morris’s avant-garde gesture of emptying out artistic subjectivity is seen as an arch capitalist manoeuvre, deserving of the charge meted out by postmodern artists of the 1980s and ’90s, like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon under the moniker of “Design Office,” that minimalist art = corporate foyer sculpture. As with these previous works, Increase Productivity pivots around readymade objects of the office desk, the desk chairs, and the Bod Pod; it instrumentalises the existing discourses surrounding these objects – replete with promises of efficiency and professionalism, and, by extension, their failings, the various points at which these promises fall short – such that we see their coded values.

The particular aesthetic of Increase Productivity gives a fuller indication of the artist’s critical perspective onto the trappings of late capitalism. The hot desk and Bod Pod are encased by blue- and green-tinted Perspex partition walls. In the grammar of contemporary office design, such fixtures would be understood as emphasising light and air, and inculcating a particular type of sociability in which different clusters of workers temporarily form around a shared space; all are visible to one another through the transparent partitions. Proximate to the hot desk is a large-scale readymade decal of a verdant forest, intended to inspire peace and tranquillity among stressed out workers – to enact evanescent moments of self-care throughout the workday – and thereby restore high levels of productivity. But the transparent cube in which hot-deskers would work is also a zoo. As if Bentham’s panopticon were mapped onto the workplace, this “office” is a site of surveillance for bosses and co-workers, and thus internalised – a site of self-surveillance. Get closer to it to realise that the aluminium desk is warm to the touch courtesy of heating coils, which work to create an uncomfortable climatic atmosphere in the room. A number of wax objects placed on the hot desk have begun to melt and warp, a slightly comic suggestion of the damage such labour culture is slowly and surely meting out against its workforce.

A third symbolic regime lurks in the midst of the hot desk and the Bod Pod. Like the hot desk (equally indifferent to that which passes through it, and equally palimpsest-like, for it is deinstalled and repainted white at the end of each exhibition cycle), it is the public site of art itself – the gallery. In Increase Productivity, the symbolism of the gallery is invoked as the ground upon which corporate office culture and the personal fitness industry are brought into relief. This trifecta – of the body, the office, the art gallery – would suggest that the art gallery as a traditional site of reflection, of critical distance on and from the world, is now just another unmediated and unmitigated mechanism of capitalism. Or – even worse – a harbinger of its most insidious developments. For, if the artist was once distinct from the alienated labourer by virtue of the fact that the artist’s work is inherently meaningful, self-expressive, and self-directed, the figure of the artist is now emblematic of a new form of worker alienation – the plight of what Franco Bifo Berardi terms “the cognitariat,” or intellectual labourer, who, unlike the industrial labourer, “considers work as the most important part of [their] life, no longer opposes the lengthening of the working day, and indeed tends to lengthen work-time of [their] own accord.” With creativity and competitive edge being the key characteristic of this economy, the cognitariat is inherently atomised, individualistic, and responsibilised for their own happiness and wellbeing (a battle they cannot but ultimately lose). The cocooning of the Bod Pod within the office and the office within the gallery suggests that the tentacles of this operation are moving outwards and inwards simultaneously, colonising the mind and the world in one swift bidirectional motion.

Given all this, we may finally be inclined to posit Increase Productivity within a lineage of institutional critique artists that would include canonical figures like Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, and Andrea Fraser. Specifically, in its drawing of office work and artwork into relation, we might think of Asher’s now iconic gesture of institutional critique – of removing the wall separating the gallery from the office at Claire S. Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in 1974 to lay bare the messiness of its administrative and capitalist functions, to expose the gallery’s unsightly umbilical cord connecting it to the world at large. But Herbert’s installation practice is additive rather than subtractive; it doesn’t subscribe to the masculinist idea of “revealing” a latent truth, but rather operates on a more playful, fictive plane, using an imaginative, science-fictional modality to help us perceive reality more clearly. And in this respect, it is the institutional critique of Marcel Broodthaers, which pivoted on the difference between official museum culture and that of his own fictitious Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, with whom we would more productively compare Herbert’s work. Recall Broodthaers’s axiom: “a fiction allows us to grasp reality and at the same time what it hides.”