The contention that the political subject of today is primarily shaped by media and the public sphere overlooks the significant conditioning of individuals that takes place in the workplace. The artist Marianne Flotron discusses her theatrical interventions into the corporate world.

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?

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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.