Workers curator Susan Cross provides this introduction to an interview that our intern Kathryn Amato did with Camel Collectives’ Anthony Graves.
Camel Collective engages in research-based art. For A Facility Based on Change, the collective used as a starting point the museumâ€™s location in the former Sprague factory and two archival photographs documenting a Sprague strike in 1970. The artists employed a screen-printing process (a technique normally used for mass production) to generate a series of 13 unique paintings. These abstracted images feature fragments of the historic photographs which the artists cut and recombined. Images of Herman Miller office partitions of the same era are embedded in several of the paintings, referencing the transition from assembly line to office work. The new, yet still incomplete narratives point out the difficulties and multiple contingencies inherent in re-assembling history.
One of the pictures printed in the North Adamâ€™s Transcript at the time of the strike captured the workersâ€™ messages written in coffee cups affixed to a chain-link fence. The caption rather anachronistically described the improvised signage system as a â€śwork of art.â€ť Taking this description to its logical conclusion, Camel Collective installed a similar fence across the gallery space of the museum. The installation positions the viewer as the â€śunidentified pedestriansâ€ť named in the caption, potentially unlocking the subject from its historical confines. The coffee cups in the current installation now announce – in a twitter-like shorthand – news headlines connecting current labor struggle with those of the past. These messages will change during the course of the exhibition. Camel Collective is Carla Herrera-Prats (b. Mexico City, 1973), Anthony Graves (b. South Bend, Indiana, 1975) and Lasse Lau (b. SĂ¸nderborg, Denmark, 1974).
Intern Kathryn Amato asked Anthony Graves of Camel Collective these questions:
MASS MoCA: It is clear that extensive research went into this artwork; as you have stated research is actually the starting point in your collective artwork. Did you want to speak with any of the employees of Sprague, especially any of the strikers?
Anthony Graves: The research we were doing wasnâ€™t necessarily comprehensive in the sense of what could be called field work, or sociology. We didnâ€™t interview strikers or previous employees. Our research was primarily focused on examining images representing the 1970 Sprague strike and at microfiche documents from the North Adamâ€™s Transcript whose reporters covered the strike.
Our primary interest was in looking at and attempting to think critically about photographic documentation in general, and at those representations of labor struggles still with us as a historical record. We wanted to convey something of the 1970 strike, but more importantly we wanted to make it clear that in order to invoke that history we risked forgetting and potentially repressing those layers of mediation that stand between us and the event. If we were working with the genre of documentary, it might have made sense to have intensive discussions and interviews, not only with the strikers but with former management as well. Of course, even in conversation with those who actually took part, one would have to keep in mind that mediation plays a critical role in memory.
What we discovered through combing the records of the Transcript was perhaps marginal to the strike. The strikers had used an existing chain-link fence to display messages that they wrote with used coffee cups. At least one of the photographs was taken in March, if I recall, so it must have been cold on the picket lines. It struck me as an interesting moment; the striking workers were improvising with materials at hand, not unlike something we do as artists. In fact, the Transcript reported that the workers had realized a â€śwork of art.â€ť
We were intent upon producing something that provided a sense of the gaps between document and experience, but not necessarily with the strikers as our medium. We were certainly aware of the prospect that former Sprague workers would be among the museumâ€™s audience and hoped that memories would be provoked by an encounter of the work. Iâ€™m not sure this can always be done using direct or documentary means.
MM: When looking through the photographs from the 1970 Sprague strike, it appears that the barbed wire on the original fence is rather predominating. Why did you choose to include that aspect, and is the direction in which the barbed wire is facing significant?
AG: The easy answer is that it is in the photograph, and it is part of the structure of the fence. Barbed wire is designed to threaten, but also to snag and tear at skin and clothing. It is designed for humans; in this case I would assume the strikers or employees, or perhaps thieves, vandals? Who knows? What seemed so odd was that the barbed wire appears to be facing inward, towards the factory. It seems positioned to keep people inside the factory rather than keep them out. It also strangely positions the camera both on the â€śinsideâ€ť of the fence and on the outside. This was an ambiguity we rather appreciated because we wanted to leave an undecidable space open for the viewer to traverse, to move past and through. In the installation itself we wanted the wire facing the larger of the paintings away from where viewers enter the gallery, so one would have to move past and around the fence to read the caption. As the viewer crosses the space, he or she passes from a spectator in the museum to the â€śunidentified pedestrianâ€ť named in the caption of the photograph. We could say that symbolically the viewer passes from the space of spectatorship into a space of representation, into the space of the photograph itself. I hope there is something retrospective to the experience of moving past the fence where one recalls the passing movement in front of it as if one were self-consciously witnessing oneself within or as an image.
MM: Could you comment on the installationâ€™s title? I understand it references a manual published by a Henry Miller designer. I see that you have inserted images of Heman Miller partitions (credited as the â€śfirst office cubiclesâ€ť) in some of the screen prints. Could you discuss your interest in the intersection of Henry Miller and the events at Sprague?
AG: The Sprague strike should be seen within the context of the many other strikes that took place in the 1970s as much of the manufacturing in the U.S. was just beginning to be outsourced overseas. At the same time the 1970s saw economic shifts from manufacturing to service providing, and a shift in the market system from tangible commodities to a financialization of the markets. Herman Millerâ€™s first Action Office line was launched in 1968, designed by Robert Propst. The images and title appropriated from Propstâ€™s â€śThe Office: A Facility Based on Changeâ€ť was a way to indicate this shift from manufacturing to a form of managerial production. Propst is sometimes mis-credited as the inventor of the office cubicle. The Action Office was in fact a very permeable and open system, spatially speaking. It was only in practice that cubicles became the emblem of the characterless office space.
There are three forms of partitions intersecting in the workâ€”the chain fence, the office partition, and the white gessoed grounds of the smaller paintings. These reference the spaces of factory, office, and museum, which we thought relevant to the site of MASS MoCA and its prehistory as a factory and print works. So it is a visual way to mark a historical conjunction whose broader consequences we are now livingâ€”the demise of manufacturing in the U.S. along with the rise of a â€ścreativeâ€ť class.
MM: Can you explain some more about the twitter-like statements which are spelled out in the coffee cups? Why did you choose this shorthand? How often do you anticipate you will change the messages?
AG: I would say that they are more like the shorthand of text messages. The grid of the chain-link fence provides a kind of rudimentary LED-like grid amendable to rendering text, so it seemed appropriate to link this to contemporary forms of electronic communication so important to collective organizing.
The messages will change roughly every month. We never had the intention of keeping up news headlines, but wanted the installation to be able to function like a vehicle for forms of communication, such as reporting, that donâ€™t fit very easily within the more open structures of signification that art provides.
MM: The correlation between your artwork being produced by a collective of artists and the idea of a group of strikers joining together as a unified group must have been an interesting aspect of this project. Did you feel a great connection to this idea, and is that something that might draw you in when you are researching other projects?
AG: Weâ€™ve been interested in the dynamics of collective organization since our initial meetings in 2005, so, yes, group dynamics are certainly of interest to us, and this includes labor unions. Weâ€™ve also been interested in the issue of labor and production in and outside of artistic contexts, particularly in the shifting dynamics of production from a Fordist to post-Fordist economy. There has been a well-documented breakdown in the distinctions between labor time and leisure time, with a massive shift in a labor force geared towards manufacturing to more precarious forms of creative â€śfreelanceâ€ť labor. Detroit is one casualty in this economic shift. These new forms of precarious labor make previous methods of collective organization difficult if not illegible to contemporary workers, who may not even recognize themselves as â€śworking classâ€ť or as the kinds of people who would organize.
I would draw a definite distinction between an artist collective, such as us, and a labor or trade union. Obviously the organizational model is very different and occurs at a radically different scale, not to mention that there are immediate material stakes in the collective bargaining process that artist groups just donâ€™t have a purchase on. In contrast, artists tend to function, though not always, on the symbolic and poetic registers. I think there is a lot to be learned from the historical struggles of trade unions as well as communes or intentional communities. It is interesting to note that these two forms of collectivity have often found themselves at odds.
Additional information on both Anthony Graves and Camel Collective can be found here.
The Workers will be on view at MASS MoCA until March 15th 2011.