While popular notions of office life balance somewhere between the slick intrigues of Mad Men and the comedic irregularities of The Office, the group show “The Unspeakable Compromise of the Portable Work” puts a distinct art-world spin on nine-to-five realities. Curated by Barb Choit as an off-site project for Or Gallery, works by a mix of Vancouver- and New York–based artists have been installed in an office suite in the city’s Dunbar-Southlands neighbourhood. It’s a site that fits all the stereotypes of a nondescript, workaday environment—drop ceilings, fluorescent lighting and wall-to-wall carpeting, as well as a photocopier and mass-manufactured shelves, desks and chairs. As the former home of software company Dialog Medical Systems Inc., the space is also stocked with computer equipment dating as far back as the 1980s.
For the exhibition at 3520 West 41st Street, artists have been invited into the space as employees of a sort, turning the office and its bric-a-brac into evolving installations that blur the lines between work and art. It’s a bid to test not only the unexpected possibilities of an ordinary commercial space, but also (with a curatorial nod to Daniel Buren’s 1971 essay “The Function of the Studio”) the intertwined nature of studio practices and exhibition venues.
For his Dialog Vernacular Group and Topical Archive, Aaron Carpenter has co-opted the former occupant’s commercial identity to set up a functioning sign-printing business complete with an office/work space housing an “archive” (i.e. Dialog Medical Systems’ accounting records) of what he calls “work poetry.” Beth Howe’s Topographs (Displaced) transforms reams of leftover photocopy paper into stacked sculptural drawings and her The Function of the Studio reprints the Buren essay as a set of hand-bound chapbooks placed on top of the office’s photocopier. Jen Weih assembles newspaper clippings, found images and texts with a cubicle divider, computer paraphernalia and an exercise ball, among other office staples, in a floor-to-ceiling sculptural construction titled Study for an Essay: How Deep is Your Disaster II. A video projection by Sylvain Sailly, Stack of Paper (Friendly Reminder), digitally shuffles a pile of paper behind the office’s reception desk, while his Starfield (Backup) puts antiquated technology to use in a reprise of a classic screen saver installed on all of the office’s computers. Installations by Adam Brickell, Igor Santizo and John Anderson, as well as a closing-reception performance by Andrea Merkx and Nathan Gwynne (with indie rockers the Ice Machine and Swift), plus an ongoing artists’ blog, round out the bill.
In all, “The Unspeakable Compromise of the Portable Work” breathes a bit of fresh promise into the mundane reality of everyday office life. As for the blurred boundaries between work and art, Choit makes a pragmatic observation:
“There was a flourish of activity with the artists before the exhibition opened, which was a lot of fun. But everybody has jobs and different schedules so it’s been a little bit less of us all working together than people coming in when they can. So it has slowed down a bit, because people have jobs and stuff like that.”