Sean Dockray - archive / Staged Substation / live essay

After spending much of last year researching data centers, I learned that many of them had come to occupy buildings that were once productive in the 19th and 20th century industrial economy. I found a former paper mill, a former electronic components factory, a former printer, a former textile mill, not to mention former military bases, limestone mines, and shopping malls. They seemed like zombie buildings - recently dead and disused, only to be re-animated, only not completely, or, not the same. They no longer had workers, they no longer make anything…

We live among zombies of the 20th century. These buildings used to serve another purpose, a function, often heroic and tied to industry. Now they seem redundant, at best servicing the tech industry. There are more in these interior photographs: modern designs, rather than proposing new utopian futures, are collaged into an eclectic present. The chair is barely the chair anymore, especially in the context of the real estate renderings where that chair is only a sign. It is all form and no function, or its function is only marketing. When Le Corbusier said that a house is a machine for living in, he was inspired by the efficiency and technological progress that he saw in modern industry, in ocean liners and airplanes. He thought that the same principles that advanced those industries and made them more efficient, more streamlined, more beautiful, could be applied to the house. Some of his designs may have looked almost uninhabitable at the time, sharing more in common with the factory than the home. In the machine-home, the chair is for a body to sit in - but that same chair is now a free-floating signifier. It suggests things to us about the space it is in, about ourselves, about our desires, but of all the things that it does, it does not allow any sitting. There is never anyone sitting in the chairs of real estate interiors - they would be a kind of squatter, ruining the fantasy of our self-projection - no there are never any people at all. (Parenthetically, the real estate interior is, in this sense, like the genre of the art installation photograph.) These images are both for humans (well, for the eye, which is attached to a bank account, or access to credit) and totally anti-human (after all a body can never actually be in these images, physically speaking as well as by convention). The empty image, populated by signifying industrial designs and artworks, is proudly apocalyptic. It is adamant that no one should be here, the images are well and truly cleansed of bodies and bodily traces. When seen in series, one after an other on billboards on a drive through the suburbs, the empty interiors seem like an epidemic, bodies evicted by the rush of property values, spaces purged, and cleaned, and photoshopped into a generic, well-lit surface, devoid of history and use.

If manufactured objects - now virtual renditions - and places of industry - now spaces for creative living - are what's become of the dead 20th century, we could add work to that list. Amidst the development of “gas-works, telegraphy, photography, steam navigation, and railways,” Karl Marx described how the progressive mechanization and automation of industry resulted in the irreversible expansion of an ultimately redundant “industrial reserve army.” It is difficult not to read his theory—and these technologies of connection and communication—against the background of our present moment, in which the rise of the Internet has been accompanied by the deindustrialization of cities, increased migrant and mobile labor, and jobs made obsolete by computation. Of course work still exists, in fact work might be said to have triumphed over any other reason, or justification, for living. From a person's self-definition ("what do you do?") to the rhetoric of job creation and getting people back to work, to the objective growth of productivity (and often, hours worked), work is king. Only, the jobs have changed.

Karl Kautsky describes this phenomenon about a century ago: "As productivity rises, the number of unproductive labourers required to service and maintain the growing capital establishment also rises, for example, members of traditional unproductive workers like clerks, bookkeepers also increase. This process in due course calls into being entirely new branches of unproductive work such as the banking system, the credit system, insurance empires and advertising…" David Graeber wrote about this recently in "On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs."

It is most certainly an unproductive laborer who lives here in these images. The Invisible Committee write that this individual, this unproductive laborer, is "like a carpenter who’s been evicted from his shop and in desperation sets about hammering and sawing himself. All these young people smiling for their job interviews, who have their teeth whitened to give them an edge, who go to nightclubs to boost the company spirit…" These houses are machines for working on ourselves.

I began with the dubious metaphor of the zombie. Now I don't know where to stop with it. I don't know who or what is a zombie anymore. Are these photographs zombie images? Have these houses - once places for living and now investment properties, or just simply growing in price without any attachment to material production - become zombies? And what about us, the inhabitants?

William Seabrook, the American who popularized the Haitian folklore of the zombie described his first encounter like this: "The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there were nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but also incapable of expression." Zombies weren't a supernatural phenomena, although they were presented that way in Seabrook's account and subsequent films - they were, rather exploited workers, essentially slaves, of HASCO, the Haitian American Sugar Company during the American occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934.

My project began by looking at this building and the space of the gallery - and how Art comes to occupy this building and how a viewer might come to relate the the rooms within it. The real estate image seemed like a useful way to do this, and naturally, I began to wonder about who it was that would be living in a place like this. Who is the one who is always absent? Who is the missing person from these photographs? Perhaps it was the person who lives and works in the same place - who loves and lives their work, which is how many artists would describe themselves. But as I went through the process of having the images made, the story around the image, rather than in within it became more interesting to me. The Melbourne-based companies that produce these images, don't actually make them - they do marketing, invoicing, and project management - but the actual work is done by a Danish-owned company in Vietnam - digital files travel at light speed through cables below boats intercepted in the Timor Sea. There is a world in front of the image and another behind the image.

This is a common situation for us unproductive ones, the ones who are being kept occupied with bullshit jobs, Facebook updates, and administration. The material basis for our immaterial lives, from Cobalt mines to Foxconn factories to digital sweatshops, are behind smooth devices, interfaces, and images with production values so good, you would almost think they weren't made, but just happened.

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