Review Out of Office by Matthew Sturt-Scobie | Metropolis M

‘Thank you for your email, I am sleeping’

Packed schedules, hidden labour and exploitative productivity; the way work works, isn’t working for us, IMPAKT states. Matthew Sturt-Scobie enters its office-turned-exhibition space, hoping that the group exhibition ‘Out of Office’ will present him with valuable alternatives.

Like many I’m sure, the spectre of ‘productivity’ seems to haunt my every waking hour. Out of Office, an exhibition taking place at IMPAKT, Centre for Media Culture enticed me because of its lofty anti-capitalist agenda, stating: ‘Out of Office presents a collection of artistic responses that reveal, rethink and reject the constant drive towards exploitative productivity’. I thought it might at the very least provide a politically validating spa to soothe oneself by relating to the struggles of others; at best, a place to be armed with valuable alternatives to this status quo and moved to action.

On entering, I was drawn in by the tense, brooding soundscape of the exhibition’s audio-visual centrepiece: Hardly Working (2022) by artist collective Total Refusal. It presents a 30-minute video projection filmed within the role playing game ‘Red Dead Redemption’. We follow townsfolk, escorts and street sweepers soaked in a handsome night time mosaic of fire and moon light caught in puddles, windows and glassy eyes. These characters are not controlled by players, but function merely to populate, to construct a sense of ‘happening’ within the world of the game. As you follow them through their coded actions and paths, a deep and lyrical terror emerges when you realise that their labour serves no greater function than to exist for a player’s immersion. Streets never become clean, the same cigarette is smoked for almost half an hour – the work seeps dread. Rather sadly, the work became a sacrificial lamb of the exhibition’s air bleaching halogen bulbs (resulting from the exhibition design seeking to replicate an office ambience), but ‘Hardly Working’ was well worth squinting for.

Turning to view the blown up email projected in semi-bold, utilitarian font, Auto Sleep by Mario Santamaría reads: ‘Thank you for your email, I am sleeping. I will have limited access to my email during this period’. This work transmitted its sardonic humour well to the audience (I heard many a chuckle as people passed). In subverting the conventional and titular ‘out of office’ email into one of the ‘acts of resistance’ the exhibition relays, it became a kind of manifesto written in subtext. At the opposite side of the room sat The Artist Worker’s Library by Alina Lupu, made up of a high-res photo of her library (predominantly work-critical literature) paired with a separate, small floating shelf of physical books. Alongside Auto-Sleep, The Artist Worker’s Library communicates a similar refusal to create surplus. As this work stares back at Auto-Sleep across the room they speak of a tense, maybe uncomfortable (but perennial in the arts) question of value. Like readymades they call attention to things thatalready exist and labour that has already taken place: in collection, preservation, research and curation.

Moving through the exhibition, there are a few works that anchor the exhibition in real-world struggle. Hidden away in the corner lies AMZN by Tytus Szabelski. Through it, we are introduced to grim, earthly realities of human depravation – brought on by predatory capitalists and their obstructionist schemes to negate or delay workplace progress within polish Amazon warehouses. These works disturb the surface of the total, their raw truths begging questions about the relative efficacy of the surrounding artworks in dismantling the systems that keep the victims of exploitation exploited. They ask: how then would one of these workers in Poland interpret Santamaría’s Auto-Sleep? I am reminded of theorist Robert Pfallers’ term ‘Interpassivity’ wherein the media we consume perform our anti-capitalism for us, so that we can feel like we’ve accomplished something, but continue to consume uncritically.

Before I leave, I encounter two further video installations, the hum of poor resolution lending them a rebellious or guerrilla spirit. First The Trainee by Pilvi Takala, which I recognise from my studies back in 2018. Takala performs and documents the role of marketing intern at a corporation, then boldly does nothing at all: riding elevators to nowhere all day or staring out of a window for a series of hours. Here, a tenacious creator infiltrates a company and the fruit of their labour is concerned, disturbed, curious and fearful responses; in screen shots of email chains and secretly taped interactions. By instigating this challenge to her community’s performance expectations, Takala autopsies their surrounding corporate psyche. Across from The Trainee, lies what seems like the second note in The Trainee’s chord: The Value of Absence – Excuses to be Absent from your Workplace by Adrian Melis. Melis has documented hundreds of recorded telephone ‘sick calls’ – from broken ankles to forgotten appointments, all of ambiguous authenticity. Collectively, these calls reveal an apathy in communist Cuba, where employees take advantage of sick-pay regulations to do nothing at all. Played on a cathode-ray TV, whose dilating, shuddering motion could make your eyes bleed, it certainly captures a kind of perverse lo-fi surveillance and is literally uncomfortable to watch.

Throughout, the artworks themselves became islands of what could have been an impressive and holistically considered ambience. In my experience, the aesthetic wellspring the exhibition draws from is so plentiful – materially and sensorially, that I expected more. We have all consumed media at some point representing grim bureaucratic drudgery (think: The Matrix, The Office, and Being John Malcovich). Here, steel scaffolding houses many of the artworks. Whilst this might aim to demarcate the corpses of cubicles, it rather avoidably speaks more to manual labour and construction than the service or tech industry spaces that one anticipates from the given conceit. Throughout the exhibition the spectre of productivity certainly made its presence known; at moments I heard its howls. Yet overall, I found it all too easy to fade in the moments between artworks, slapped awake by the halogen light.

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