London Gallery West is delighted to present The Politics of the Office, a photographic research project that offers a rare opportunity to witness images of offices in the City and Canary Wharf that are largely inaccessible to the general public. Underpinned by a multidisciplinary study comprising the history of the modern office, management theory, organisational psychology, and architecture and office design, this extensive project presents the office as a defining space of industrialised and service-based society, encapsulating power in its varied contemporary forms. The offices shown belong to nearly fifty financial, corporate, and legal institutions including law firms, insurance companies, hedge funds, investment banks, and advertising agencies; access to which was obtained during a period of two years that involved contacting hundreds of institutions.
The office is ubiquitous within industrialised societies. A space for work, the office is also a space of order,standardisation, rationalisation, and bureaucratic hierarchy. Recent management trends linking productivity to interaction between workers have lead to the creation of breakout and other informal, non-functionalist areas, often inspired by hotel interiors. Similarly, with the aim of facilitating collaborative working, personally assigned desks have been replaced by non-territorial systems that position the worker as a guest who 'checks-in' to be given a desk (hotdesking), or ‘reserves’ a desk if such a facility is available (hoteling, or for a short period, moteling). This allows institutions to reduce costs by reducing the total number of desks to a fraction of the number of employees.
The office emerged in the nineteenth century alongside the development of photography. Yet despite the prevalence of the office in the visual realm – in films, television series, comics, pornography, and art – the documentation of actual offices has been generally limited to architectural photography and that commissioned by corporations or developers for commercial purposes – or has focused instead on the representation of office workers as in the work of Lee Friedlander or Anna Fox. The Politics of the Office therefore constitutes an unprecedented visual investigation into the space of the office, using photography both to examine the power relations enacted through this space, and to intervene in the power structures involved in its representation. Eschewing the seductive geometry of the open-plan
floor that accords so well with the rectilinear frame of the camera to create dramatic compositions, and by employing a low point of view, the offices are shown on a human scale and in their banality.
Arranged in a horizontal sequence, the installation leads the spectator on a 'tour' of the different functional areas of the office: Reception, Waiting Areas, Client Areas, Meeting Rooms, Workspaces and Amenities. Intersecting this sequence, several vertical series expand these categories upwards and downwards, borrowing the language of spatial 'status markers' that signify power or lack of it – relative location within a building, degree of enclosure, amount of space, quantity and quality of furniture – to create an allegory of the hierarchical power relations that organise the office and influence life in industrialised society. Rather than a series of spectacular interiors for enjoyment, the images instead encourage the spectator to reflect on how power is exercised through the space in/of the image, and how, to paraphrase Foucault, this acts upon the way of acting of those who are subjected to it.
Gallery Talk, Wednesday 14 January 2015, 1 – 2pm
Andreia Alves de Oliveira in conversation with Professor David Bate, Photographic Studies MA Course Leader