Blackbox Office. Artistic Interventions in the Workplace

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.

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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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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.