20 March 2015

Berlin — Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, a tightly curated exhibition currently on show at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin, is small but packs a real punch. Curators Mike Stubbs and Emily Gee from FACT Liverpool were invited to present the exhibition as guests of the annual transmediale festival, which also took place at HKW in January. This little gem, with probably less than half of the floor space of the main transmediale survey exhibition CAPTURE ALL, achieves what the main exhibition did not: a show that is more than the sum of its parts. The works complement and expand upon each other, creating an engaging critique of Fordist, and Post-Fordist, neoliberal working practices.

The exhibition draws its title from the “time and motion study,” a tool for assessing and improving business efficiency that was developed at the turn of the 20th century and influential throughout at least the first half of that century. Based upon a broad program of residencies, research, and symposia at FACT, the depth of understanding and thought behind the exhibition at HKW is clear. No position is superfluous, or overwrought; there is no ambiguity about what the exhibition is trying to achieve, and yet the complexity and nuanced approach to the topic is not compromised.

Walking into the space, one is immediately faced with a simple but powerful installation dedicated to Tehching Hsieh’s masterful performances, including photo documentation of four of the productions and an arresting time-lapse slideshow of “Time Clock Piece.” Hsieh is not only a big-name drawcard for the exhibition but also a kind of bedrock for the curatorial concept of the show. His performances so purely focus on the concept of “work,” addressing it without the adornment of production but as a hollow construct, forcing the viewers to question their own precepts about labor that are so ingrained as to go unregistered.

Directly to the left of the Hsieh installation is Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s “75 Watt.” Perhaps the most visually dominant piece in the exhibition, Cohen and Van Balen’s work draws its name from a statement in a handbook for mechanical engineers that 75 Watts is the average output of a laborer over a standard 8-hour workday. The artists had an object designed to be made in China with the sole purpose of choreographing a dance performed by the workers as they manufactured it. At HKW, several examples of the finished object are displayed in front of a video showing the factory employees performing the “dance” dictated by the production process. It is a subtly beautiful, cautiously absurdist investigation of mass production — from the geopolitical imbalances inherent in this type of manufacturing to the anti-humanist nature of the worker-as-machine ethos of assembly lines.

Unpacking the now entrenched notion of the 8-hour working day is Sam Meech’s monumental textile work, “Punchcard Economy.” The 5m x 3m banner that forms the centerpiece of the work is machine knitted, using a combination of digital imaging tools and traditional punch card systems, based on data collected about real people’s working hours. The work is accompanied by a video showing Meech making and discussing the work, as he addresses some of the issues around the utopian socialist Robert Owen’s notion of 8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure, and 8 hours of sleep that began to gain international traction in the 19th and early 20th century.

There is a delicious irony in the juxtaposition between the hard-won 888 “ideal” and Ellie Harrison’s infographic piece “Timelines,” which compulsively plots her every action — across work, sleep, leisure, and, mostly, the awkward phases in between — in a sort of maniacal productivity study. The curatorial choice of placing “Punchard Economy” next to “Timelines” adeptly raises questions about the ways in which digital technologies, deregulated workplaces, and other Post-Fordist traits — purportedly setting workers free — are instead creating even greater degrees of self-exploitation and productivity anxiety.

Rounding out the exhibition is Oliver Walker’s video installation “One Euro,” which documents workers across various industries for the length of time it takes them to earn one euro (or, in other variations of the piece, one British pound). The disparity is such that the white collar finance executive in the shortest video is visible for only a second before the screen goes black, with the remaining screens progressively fading to blackness, eventually leaving a laborer in a cotton field, who toils for over an hour and a quarter before he has earned his euro and the videos loop. The work is powerful in its visualization of the relationship between labor, time, and money, and the vastness of wage inequality (as well as, one could argue, the disparity of effort expended across the different forms of labor). The dead screens that form a considerable portion of the installation are like a silent condemnation.

So what’s not to love about such a concise yet wide-reaching exhibition, covering significant social and political aspects of a subject that is of such integral importance? Despite admiring each of the individual works and the intellectual stringency of the curation, I was disappointed that the exhibition remained so silent on the issue of gender as it relates to the workforce. A feminist reading of the issue of labor — examining, for example, issues such as the gender pay gap; the invisible, unpaid work of parenting, which still is disproportionately carried out by women; or notions of emotional labor that also predominantly affect women — was notably absent from the exhibition. And the apparent invisibility of women’s work was underscored for me, frustratingly, by the failure to credit Linda Montano — she is pictured in the show, in a photo documenting “Rope Piece,” the one-year performance that she and Hsieh completed together in 1983-84 — but is not credited as a participating artist despite the fact that she was an equal and imperative performer in this seminal work.

While Harrison’s “Timelines” goes some way to acknowledge the types of work and unpaid work — including non-work — that women disproportionately do, the exhibition is crying out for at least one more perspective on this subject. Without it, the show can neither be seen as complete, nor truly contemporary.

Gretta Louw