Geschichten der Gegenwart

Perhaps the best guar­ded and least trans­pa­rent realm of contem­porary society is that of firms, corpo­ra­ti­ons or busi­nes­ses. All of your artis­tic works concern them­sel­ves to some degree with the world of employ­ment. Unlike artists such as Günter Wall­raff, you don’t go inco­gnito into facto­ries staf­fed by low-income workers, for instance, in order to inves­ti­gate poor working condi­ti­ons or ever­y­day racism. Instead, your inte­rest is in the offices of corpo­ra­ti­ons. What is it about this work­place that inte­rests you? 

graz_flotronMari­anne Flotron is an artist exhi­bi­ting inter­na­tio­nally. She won the Swiss Art Awards in 2003, 2007 and 2009. Her work got support from the Dutch Mondrian Foun­da­tion.  She lives and works in Amsterdam.

Mari­anne Flotron: I think that the majo­rity of people working in Europe do so in an office. Many spend cons­i­der­ably more time and thought in the envi­ron­ment of a company than with their fami­lies or in poli­ti­cal sphe­res. Since I am inte­rested in the way systems and envi­ron­ments influ­ence indi­vi­du­als, the office, as well as the company, is vital for me. Logi­cally, what takes place in a company – i.e. prac­tices, social customs, possi­bi­li­ties or impos­si­bi­li­ties in terms of beha­vior etc. – has more influ­ence on the way of thin­king, or rather shapes the manner of beha­vior of the indi­vi­dual more than the poli­ti­cal sphere. And the prac­tices vary greatly between diffe­rent settings, to some extent even coming into ideo­lo­gi­cal conflict with one anot­her. To give only one example: In poli­tics, the ideal is debate and discus­sion; in busi­ness, by contrast, the ideal is accep­tance and appro­val. Could this not be one of the reasons we accept the econo­mic system as an all-encompassing authority?

That is an important point. Our ever­y­day activi­ties and our poli­ti­cal conscious­ness are deter­mi­ned to a large degree through our beha­vio­ral condi­tio­n­ing “in the office”. In the working world, we become “desi­gned” for oppor­tu­nism, as it were. Perhaps we could enlarge upon this with refe­rence to one of your works? In 2011, you went into a company with a theatre group to do a piece with the company’s employees about their work. How did it go? 

For the piece Work I went, along with the crew of the Theatre of the Oppres­sed, into the offices of a Dutch insurance company. The Theatre of the Oppres­sed was concei­ved in Brazil in the 1960s as a reac­tion to the mili­tary dicta­tor­ship of the era. It was crea­ted by Augusto Boal, partly to call atten­tion to oppres­sion, but princi­pally to provide a means for coun­ter­ac­ting that oppres­sion and enab­ling resistance.

Videostill aus Marianne Flotrons Arbeit "Work" - "The Play" (2011) (WORK ist produziert von der Kunsthalle Bern and Philippe Pirotte, unterstützt vom Mondriaan Foundation Amsterdam, Carola und Guenther Ertle- Ketterer Bern, Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, Amsterdam.)

Video­s­till aus Mari­anne Flotrons Arbeit "Work" - "The Play" (2011) (WORK ist produ­ziert von der Kunst­halle Bern and Phil­ippe Pirotte, unter­stützt vom Mondriaan Foun­da­tion Amster­dam, Carola und Guen­ther Ertle- Kette­rer Bern, Rijks­aka­de­mie van beel­dende kuns­ten, Amsterdam.)

The Theatre of the Oppres­sed normally attempts to make the poli­ti­cally oppres­sed aware of the prac­tices of their condi­tio­n­ing and disci­pli­ning. In your piece “Work”, which can be seen at the moment in Zurich as part of Mani­festa, the Theatre of the Oppres­sed encoun­ters the office workers of a demo­cra­tic society…

This piece is under­pin­ned by the same logic we discus­sed at the begin­ning: In Europe, we define oursel­ves predo­mi­nantly by the work we do. Conse­quently, we actually define oursel­ves not through a demo­cra­tic system, but through an extre­mely cost-efficient, unde­mo­cra­tic system that the work­place is. With Work, I wanted to activate the idea of a demo­cra­tiza­tion of the work­place, but also chiefly to demons­trate the extent to which the capi­ta­list economy influ­en­ces the beha­vior and thin­king of its workers.

The Thea­ter of Oppres­sed tech­ni­ques can be used as demo­cra­tiza­tion tool but unfor­tu­n­a­tely the groups in Europe who follow the legacy of Augusto Boal concern them­sel­ves mainly with indi­vi­du­als who fare badly in our system, e.g. homeless people, or child­ren with learning diffi­cul­ties. I’m criti­cal of that because they often attempt to reinte­grate these people back into the system without ques­tio­n­ing the system.  The empha­sis is on the adap­tation of the people towards the system. For me, it’s important to have a look at the system itself: How does that system look like, into which we want the homeless to be reintegrated?

Marianne Flotron, "Work"

Mari­anne Flotron, "Work" - "Hector's Comment" (2011)

How did you work with the employees?

I invi­ted Hector Aris­tizabal – someone who has maste­red the Theatre of the Oppres­sed tech­ni­ques – to work with the employees of the firm. The idea was to create a “forum play”, which is one of the tech­ni­ques of the Thea­ter of Oppres­sed that was then to be perfor­med at the company. The forum-play tech­ni­que entails the staging of a short piece in a commu­nity and by commu­nity members which depicts the problems or diffi­cul­ties of that commu­nity., For Work this implied that the piece had to be writ­ten and staged by employees and that it should address problems or diffi­cul­ties in the company. The piece is then perfor­med in front of the rest of the commu­nity, in this case the rest of the employees. After the play is perfor­med, the audi­ence is infor­med that the play will be repeated and offe­red this time to inter­vene with the happe­nings on the stage. As soon as an employee in the audi­ence disagrees with anything that takes place in the play, he/she is invi­ted to inter­rupt and take part in the play, in order to offer an alter­na­tive to the narra­tive. The work brought about the concep­tua­li­zing of a play which contai­ned the problems of the employees, and which promp­ted them to think about alternatives.

Marianne Flotron, "Work" - Hectors Comment (2001)

Mari­anne Flotron, "Work" - Hectors Comment (2001)

The firm in ques­tion is a busi­ness with no fixed working hours; instead, the workers them­sel­ves are respon­si­ble – time-wise – for the comple­tion of set tasks. You and Hector Aris­tizabal held discus­sions with the workers to find out whether they have diffi­culty with this idea of work. Aris­tizabal says, “We asked them ques­ti­ons that they were not asking them­sel­ves.” During these discus­sions with the employees, one almost gets the impres­sion of being in a neoli­be­ral dicta­tor­ship, or else in a theatre. The employees mecha­ni­cally recite the firm’s ideo­logy: perso­nal respon­si­bi­lity is free­dom, this free­dom makes us happy, and whoever is not happy with it has only them­sel­ves to blame… i.e., the indi­vi­du­als seek, in neoli­be­ral fashion, fault in them­sel­ves and never in the system. They always turn their aggres­si­ons against them­sel­ves, never against the firm. The conse­quen­ces are depres­sion and suicide, instead of resis­tance.  Aris­tizabal sums up by saying that the employees are not merely oppres­sed: rather, they don’t even realize they are being oppressed.

The fact that ever­y­body looks for fault in them­sel­ves and not in the system is, for me, one of the key points. We are respon­si­ble for our own success. If we are not success­ful, it is due to our own fault. Admit­ting that we are oppres­sed equals the fail­ure. And this is why those oppres­si­ons remain undiscussed.

In Work, it can be seen throug­hout. An example is to find in the forum thea­ter piece that the employees crea­ted.  The main charac­ter does not achieve her goals set by her super­vi­sor and merely buries herself furt­her in her work. The employee does not ques­tion the goals or the firm, but only herself. Inte­res­tingly, one of those super­vi­sors told us in passing that these goals are always set too high. In our conver­sa­ti­ons with the employees, we repeatedly stres­sed that we were not concer­ned with this firm in parti­cu­lar, but rather with the topic of work in gene­ral. Never­theless, the workers spoke only about how unbe­liev­a­bly great their jobs are, how fantastic it is to work at this firm, and, above all, how great this kind of work is. Once more they gave us, as you say, the firm’s ideo­logy, which by the way, is found on posters in every possi­ble corner of the company-building: free­dom, respon­si­bi­lity, and trust. These catch­phra­ses are offe­red and used to the point that they become “mantras” one can echo at any moment. It is imme­dia­tely unders­tood that the word “free­dom” refers solely to the free­dom to decide when and where to work. It is, there­fore, a restric­tive inter­pre­ta­tion, one which has little to do with free­dom. The word is used so often, howe­ver, that one begins to forget how narrow the conno­ta­tion is and asso­cia­tes a wider conno­ta­tion of free­dom to his work. It is even more diffi­cult to under­stand what the term “trust” should mean in this context.

And what do they mean by it?

Marianne Flotron, "Utopia" 2006

Mari­anne Flotron, "Utopia" 2006

One example that is often mentio­ned on the topic of trust is that there are no cashiers in the canteen. The employees are trusted that they will pay their meal. If an employee does not pay, it will be met with instant dismis­sal as it is a breach of trust from the employee towards the company. During the role plays we found out that the employees are control­ling each other whether they pay or not.

As a result, a kind of inter­nal poli­cing system arises, which in reality is the anti­the­sis of trust. The company puts the respon­si­bi­lity on making sure the meal is paid on the fellow employees.

When watching the video instal­la­tion, it is often unclear whether one is watching the forum-theatre actors or the employees of the firm. I assume that this uncer­tainty is part of your artis­tic stra­tegy. This is inte­res­ting to me because it forces me to ask, of ever­y­thing that I see, where the theatre is, and who is play­ing which role…

Exactly. This is a metho­do­logy I use through all my work. Through this uncer­tainty, through this doubt, I hope to guide the viewer to anot­her level of reading the work. When I bring actors into a preexis­ting situa­tion and make them inter­act with it, I attempt to create for the viewer a certain distance to the unfol­ding events and provoke a diffe­rent view­point on the preexis­ting situa­tion. This doubt, or breach, enab­les the viewer to perceive the events differ­ently, to bring them into ques­tion. At the same time, I am inte­rested in, and this is some­thing I want to get to the bottom of with my work – when one learns a role: when and how is it acqui­red and then perfor­med? When one forgets the role, i.e., when do we iden­tify with the role? To what extent are the employees’ patterns of beha­vior a role? Roles are crea­ted, affir­med, sustai­ned and at some point justi­fied   And most compa­nies train their employees with role-trainings towards a desi­red employee beha­vior. In this sense, the roles of the employees and the roles of the actors are compa­ra­ble and there­fore I create a situa­tion where they encoun­ter each other at the same level.

Would you say that for you not only this uncer­tainty but also the inter­ven­tion of the actors is important? Because you concern yours­elf not with the idea that we are all ‘play­ing theatre’, as Niko­lai Evrei­nov (in 1910) and Erwing Goff­man (in the 1950s) deter­mi­ned, but in the ques­tion of how one kind of theatre – the theatre of the firm – can be respon­ded to with a ‘counter-theatre’.

Yes, the actors are important in my work, because through them I can make asser­ti­ons simi­lar to those made by compa­nies, e.g. that self-determined working hours ulti­mately amount to free­dom. Essen­ti­ally, in almost all of my works, I try to ‘desta­bi­lize’ given circum­s­tan­ces or condi­ti­ons. I do not wish to fictio­na­lize them, but merely ‘desta­bi­lize’ them, in order to bring to the surface the fictions and absur­di­ties inherent in these circum­s­tan­ces. The reality may then be, for a moment, percei­ved as fiction. I believe that this allows for an enti­rely diffe­rent treat­ment of reality.

Marianne Flotron, "Fired" 2009

Flotron Fired 3

Video­s­till aus: Mari­anne Flotron, „Fired“ (2007) ("Fired" ist unter­stützt von der Rijks­aka­de­mie van beel­dende kuns­ten, Amsterdam.)

In “Work“, you bring the theatre into the office; in “Fired”, you make visi­ble the theatre alre­ady taking place in the firm. In “Fired”, you film a trai­ning session for mana­gers, in which the atten­dees learn how to fire people without using the word “fire”. Up until the very end, it remains unclear whether this is actually your theatre, or the theatre staged by the firm…

Fired shows an actual trai­ning session in which mana­gers learn how to fire employees. Also here the main concern is the acqui­si­tion of a speci­fic termi­no­logy aimed at obfu­s­ca­ting the real situa­tion. Fired is struc­tu­red in such a way that the viewer iden­ti­fies with the fired employee. Only at the end of the video it beco­mes clear that we are dealing with a “real-life trai­ning exer­cise”, and that the fired employee is actually the trai­ner. Ther­eby, the viewer’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is under­mi­ned and the absur­dity of the situa­tion beco­mes apparent.

Is role­play­ing in the work­place beco­m­ing increa­singly signi­fi­cant? Is it chan­ging? What are your observations?

Compa­nies go to great lengths when insti­tu­ting beha­vio­ral trai­nings. They revert to role-play tech­ni­ques that were origi­nally deve­lo­ped at the begin­ning of last century, and are widely used today in many bran­ches of psycho­logy. The compa­nies use these tech­ni­ques for the purpose of opti­mi­zing their employees’ beha­vior. Through role-plays connec­ted to the very basis of acqui­si­tive learning, patterns of beha­vior are clearly influ­en­ced and chan­ged. Chan­ges take place also through the shift in language – we’ve alre­ady talked about the re-encoding of words such as “free­dom”. Conver­sely, we can observe the absorp­tion of busi­ness termi­no­logy into the private sphere. In Work, for example, the husband of an employee comp­lains that his wife spends too much time working. The wife feels split between her “respon­si­bi­lity to the firm” and her “respon­si­bi­lity to her husband”. Her private life, her husband, is suddenly percei­ved, accord­ing to the stan­dards impo­sed by the firm, as a respon­si­bi­lity. In furt­her role-plays, it emer­ged that employees usually opt for “respon­si­bi­lity to the firm” because it offers a quick and effi­ci­ent “solu­tion to the problem”.

But the trai­nings the compa­nies do, besi­des shaping the private lives of the employees, also shape the employee as a a-political subject.

Certainly. It is unner­ving to live in a society that is condi­tio­ned with this idea of free­dom. These examp­les make clear that no resis­tance or critique of the system should be expec­ted, because the indi­vi­dual addres­ses their criti­cisms only at them­sel­ves. A conclu­ding ques­tion remains: why these firms, espe­ci­ally those you have worked with, allow such inter­ven­ti­ons, and how did they react to them?

They agreed because they are convin­ced of their work culture.  These jobs are very sought-after; Google, for example, works in this way. What the broa­der conse­quen­ces of this modus operandi are, and how it reflects and influ­en­ces our society, is of little concern to the company’s senior manage­ment. And that is precisely the problem. Not the problem of senior manage­ment, obviously, but the problem of society. The exchange with the theatre group trig­ge­red a change in aware­ness in the company, and most of all, in those few employees with whom we worked. But this change only lasted for a short period of time, the period of reflec­tion was finis­hed as soon as we were gone.

The company allo­wed the inter­ven­tion under the condi­tion that the firm remains unnamed. I agreed as the work was not about this one firm, but about the system at large.

Mari­anne Flotron is an artist exhi­bi­ting inter­na­tio­nally. For her works, she has recei­ved the 2003, 2007, and 2009 Swiss Art Award (among others), and in addi­tion, her work is funded by the Dutch Mondriaan Fund. She lives and works in Amsterdam.

Von Sylvia Sasse

Sylvia Sasse lehrt Slavis­­ti­sche Litera­tur­­wis­sen­­schaft an der Univer­sität Zürich und ist Mitbe­gründerin und Mitglied des Zentrums Künste und Kultur­theorie (ZKK). Sie ist Heraus­geberin von novinki und von Geschichte der Gegenwart.