Mr Rant started talking to his twelve – pack of pens: “ How did society ever function without you, little Sharpies. Your nibs have the precise amount of give to create a line quality with character, yet not so much character as to be mushy. Thank you, little pens. I told Kyle the product code number, Mr Rant bought his pens, then he was gone.
What a freak, but he made my day.
Martin Westwood’s installations, sculptures and collages refer to the stratified world of commerce and its mass produced objects. He selects images of people at work engaged in mundane activities, taken from corporate brochures, which are appropriated and repositioned through the use of mechanised processes. By foregrounding corporate iconography, Westwood examines the codified absurdity of the workplace with its well-rehearsed and repetitive actions and exchanges: emptied public gestures that filter through to the private world of the individual, tainting and marring every intimacy.
The life of the office runs along narrow, prescriptive lines, providing a simplified ontology, whose goals are focused entirely on productivity and profit. It is thus a half-life, both real and unreal in equal measure; it displays the hallmarks of something authentic, but without the tangible rewards of lived experience.
The trappings of work have taken over and defined what we now call the space of leisure. At work we produce goods and services from which we are essentially alienated, while our own private time is taken up with the pursuit of leisure, an activity that turns us into consumers of the very kinds of products we bring about in our working lives. In this way, we close the circle of creation and consumption, of birth and death.
When the business closes on a weekend evening, and I suddenly see myself confronted by hours in which I shall not be able to work to meet unsleeping demands, then the excitement I projected far ahead of me in the morning falls back upon me like an ebbing tide, and doesn’t stop there, but takes me with it, to where I know not. And yet I am unable to harness my mood to any purpose – all I can do is go home.’
Indeed, the public sphere of work has been gaining ground in all aspects of our lives through instruments, materials and activities. The restlessness of Telematics, engendered by mobile communications devices and computers, compresses our physical space and time, conflating the here and the there, and our relationship between the public and the private. The clash between these spheres can only result in the dominance of a single one: since work is automated and highly directional, it is more likely to become all-pervasive than leisure, which is undirected, slothful and evasive, its goals being much less clearly defined. This leaching of working processes into every human activity, from social relationships to the most intimate of bonds, fills us with anxiety.
The addictive nature of work becomes patent when work ceases, when employees are made redundant. The crash of Lehman Brothers in 2008 made headlines across the world. Television images showed casually dressed staff leaving the New York headquarters with nothing but a cardboard box each containing their belongings, looking utterly bewildered and bereft. To ascribe this state to a simple loss of earnings would be a gross simplification; the status, camaraderie and competition employees also enjoyed disappeared with the wage packet. We work, and in turn, work shapes us through a welter of artificial codes that become etched upon us: ‘at its heart is a concern with appearances: ruthlessness masquerading as insouciance, ambition mitigated by the desire to appear fair at all costs; the impulse to intervene and engineer success.’
Employees’ ambivalence about such appearances cannot be entirely eradicated from the working environment; while we are told to enjoy work – new practices allow us to personalize this environment, we are encouraged to bond sociably, or we may wear leisure outfits in the office, in effect, we become inured to such treats and are able to see through the smokescreens and resent work’s hold over our lives. The absurdity of these power relations becomes patent, resulting in a generally compliant workforce becoming disillusioned and seeking relief in a myriad of small trespasses and misdemeanors, similar to those we enact in every other sphere of our lives. The office, far from being separate, or oppositional to a life led elsewhere, replicates this other existence, but in a stripped out manner: a kind of life-light, without the intoxicating ingredients of reality.
This substitution of lived experience by a dimmer surrogate can be seen in the emblem of the balloon that reoccurs in several of Westwood’s installations. An object particularly loved by children, it signifies celebration and festivity. Its appearance at the office party signifies that work has temporarily been suspended and replaced by innocent, infantile pleasures. However, the balloons in ‘fatfinger [.HAITCH.KAY.EKS.]’, covered in shredded papier-mâché strips, affect a false optimism: hovering just above the ground, they have become ossified and too weighty to soar, their threadbare coverings gently unraveling revealing precisely what the office party lacks in actual festive spirit.
Westwood’s depiction of scenes from the workplace always suggests something repressed which remains hidden. A handshake ceases to be a gesture of friendly greeting, becoming a hollow form of systemic communication. Indeed, the artist’s choice of commonplace scenes and mass-produced materials appear to underscore their submission to a set of codes.
Michael Newman argues that illustrations and advertising images are generic, and, as such, are instantly recognizable to contemporary audiences: ‘The image, as found, is extremely precise, cool, almost hieratic, even deathly, in its formal organization. Richard Prince’s ‘stolen’ image ‘Untitled (Couple)’, taken from a magazine in 1977, depicts a man and a woman, expensively dressed, as if attending a public function or a corporate engagement. Prince contends that his image is ‘incredibly specific’ without being ‘specific about any one sense. It’s the sense that’s not specific.’
Similarly, Westwood’s corporate characters are fully recognizable in their specific actions, pointing, telephoning, sitting or smiling, but remain unconvincing: they function like the placeholders for a bodily gesture or human emotion; the sense that these individuals can be read in a generic manner loosens the grip on their individuality; it follows, that if this characteristic is not located in the individual, then it must be mobile, its destination redirected at will – a surface.
In Brett Easton Ellis’s novel ‘American Psycho’, the central character, a corporate executive, remarks on his colleagues’ utter unawareness of his own vacancy. ‘There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.’
Julian Murphet argues that ‘American Psycho’ points to identities without ‘substance or centre. An identity that is a fiction, though not one that we write ourselves. It is ceaselessly written for us, in us and on us.’ This gradual sense of disappearance provides a leitmotif in much of Westwood’s work. The installation ‘Broken Line’ features a reworked audio loop of Alvin Lucier’s seminal soundpiece ‘I am Sitting in a Room’, in which the artist re-records the sound of his own voice whilst confined to a small space. The ambient noise of the room is eventually all that remains.
This hybrid life, at once biological, mechanical, and electronic, is still coming into being before our very eyes. And we are its cells. In a still unconscious way, we are contributing to the invention of its metabolism, its circulation and its nervous system. We call them economies, markets, roads, communication networks, and electronic highways, but they are the organs and vital systems of an emerging superorganism that will transform the future of humanity and determine its development during the next millennium.