in Features | 04 MAR 07
Featured in
Issue 105

Public Works

For over a decade, Annika Eriksson has made videos, staged performances and organized events that explore social relationships

in Features | 04 MAR 07

When I tried to imagine what an exhibition called ‘Frau und Auto’ (Woman and Car) might include, I pictured a woman draped on the hood of an automobile, or gently stroking the wheels of a display at a car show. But an exhibition currently on view at the Autostadt in Wolfsburg (a theme park sponsored by and dedicated to Volkswagen) attempts to highlight the role of women in the male-dominated world of car manufacturing. To do so, the company commissioned contemporary artists to profile their female employees. For her contribution, Annika Eriksson focused on Dr. Stefanie Jauns-Seyfried – one of the few women working high up in Volkswagen’s chain of command. Eriksson, adopting a framework she has used for videos in the past, created a video portrait of Frau Jauns and her team of 13 employees. The result, Frau Jauns und Ibre Arbitsgruppe (Ms Jauns and her Team 2006), perfectly suited the atmosphere of the Autostadt’s display hall, which resembles something between a museum space and a corporate hall-of-fame.

Eriksson’s video begins with Frau Jauns clicking down a metal spiral staircase in black, high-heeled boots and striding along the middle of the tiled floor of a generic, fluorescent-lit space toward the camera. She has a short, practical haircut and wears black trousers and a jacket, accented by a string of pearls and a tightly cinched belt. Arriving confidently in the foreground of the frame, she announces that she’ll be introducing us to her team in the department of ‘Funktionsentwicklung’ (Function Development) at Volkswagen. One by one, a procession of 12 men and one woman take turns stepping into frame and standing next to her, upon which she sizes them up with an efficient glance and a quick smile, then provides the name and title of each employee. ‘This is Herr Meyer. He works on driver-assistance systems,’ she says, as if giving a corporate presentation in the boardroom. It’s almost as if she is describing a new product line or a complicated machine whose functions she knows inside out.

While Frau Jauns is clearly in her element here, the male members of her team increasingly show signs of self-consciousness at the hands of her introductions. Though they only have to play themselves in the film, they seem uncomfortable with the job, not knowing where to look or what to do with their hands. One man, slouching with his hand in his pocket, seems to be pondering: ‘Should I have my hand in my pocket now?’ Her colleagues stand beside her, arms dangling by their sides like silenced ventriloquist’s dummies. Since I can’t interpret their complicated technical job descriptions, I find myself wondering if she likes some of them more than others (perhaps the only one whose first name she used to introduce him?). And I also marvel at how rarely a woman gets to talk about her male employees while they remain silent; would I see this as sexist if the gender roles were reversed? (Indeed, one reviewer compared Frau Jauns to a ‘mother hen’ with her chicks.)

The video culminates in a prolonged moment in which the team, assembled in a semi-circle behind their leader, awkwardly face forward as if waiting for a flashbulb to go off, but it never comes. This lingering collective portrait echoes countless promotional shots on corporate websites or the inside flaps of annual reports, and functions just as inadequately as those congenial group photos do – each member of the team is subject to his or her position within the unit. Beneath their sheepish smiles and stilted poses is a glimpse of the confining nature of such essentialist descriptions of identity, and the difficulty of representing a community as more than the sum of its members.

Eriksson has created similar tableaux vivant of groups ranging from immigrant bus drivers to bagpiping firemen. Since the early 1990s she has staged performances and events that expose or frame social structures, public behaviour or demonstrations in the public sphere. She is literally, as she puts it, ‘interested in what people do’. Her works are not collaborations, she says, but merely proposals or suggestions, involving minimal intervention. As she describes it, she works with ‘one foot in reality’: the situations she produces often bring the art world in close proximity to the so-called real world. But each work is still visibly choreographed and its participants clearly self-conscious of their roles as performers, while viewers conspicuously become voyeurs.

Arbeitswelt (Working World, 2003) is a series of interviews Eriksson conducted with a cross-section of 54 employees – from cleaning staff to upper management – working for Swiss Re, a multinational corporation dealing with the intangible field of re-insurance and risk assessment. The video comprises over two hours of ‘talking heads’ filmed against a backdrop of selected spaces in the company’s newly built Munich headquarters – an imposing structure of glass, marble and steel. Each respondent provides his or her name, a brief job description, and the reason they chose to be filmed in a particular location in the building. Some seem satisfied with the spaces they’ve carved out for themselves – like the data processor who spends time in the table-tennis room or the IT manager who likes the conference room ‘because it has a good view of the yellow area’. Yet within this atmosphere of professional pride, their testimonies belie other facets of their identities. To me, they faintly recall the baffled-but-plucky employees in the BBC TV series The Office. There is only a narrow space in which to transcend their confining job descriptions or the building’s endless corridors, empty conference rooms and corporate branding. But these small transgressions seem to constitute minor triumphs: Charlie Meierbeck, for example, explains, with David Brent-ish jocularity, that he is wearing lederhosen to work as a way of confusing his ‘Prussian’ managers.

Eriksson does not edit her subjects’ responses, and this somewhat detached strategy allows the ambivalence that most people feel toward their occupations – something between professional pride and alienation – to filter through. Ironically, though, Arbeitswelt seems like an exhaustive anatomy of the corporate structure – both the building and its employees – over time, rather than coalescing into a coherent overview of the company, it dissolves. Most of the workers can barely describe what they do, or seem detached or alienated from their work. But this might be my own cynical interpretation, already infused with the stereotypes of the corporate world. Despite the arcane subject, the deadpan formula and the self-conscious participants, the portrayal feels authentic. I am compelled to listen to their earnest talk of daily tasks and health and safety measures, if only because it provides a glimpse into a professional world as rarefied as the one I belong to. And this is exactly the contrast – between the art world and the ‘Arbeitswelt’ – that Eriksson’s oeuvre draws attention to.

In fact, Eriksson originally applied the representational model she used in Arbeitswelt to create portraits of staffs of art institutions (including the São Paulo Biennial, the Moderna Museet, the Malmö Museer and, most recently, the Mori Art Museum). In this ongoing series, Eriksson portrays the art world as just another microcosm with its own set of behavioural codes and hierarchies. In her portrait of the Staff of Moderna Museet (2000), the procedure of lining up for the portrait is stiff and tediously drawn out – each employee is very conscious of following the instructions. The procession of introductions is filmed in a single take, so it includes the unsure glances and awkward pauses that become symbols, such as those we might decipher from a painted portrait. Though Eriksson’s staff portraits aren’t formulated as explicit institutional critiques, the cracks in the choreography seem to reveal that those who present art professionally are not necessarily comfortable with having the frame flipped around.

Eriksson is interested not only in the way people define themselves in the professional world, but also in how they represent themselves in the dwindling and elusive ‘public sphere’. In contrast to the private, regulated space of the Swiss Re building, in Folkets Park (2006) Eriksson turned her camera on a recreational ‘People’s Park’ in Malmö that was originally conceived by a group of Swedish socialists in the early 19th century, and eventually built and funded by local workers. The video is a compilation of vignettes of kids on amusement rides, people participating in informal dance lessons, or teenagers smoking on benches. As a portrait of a public arena that began as a utopian vision, the video seems to suggest what a broad and indefinable idea the Social Democratic concept of ‘the public’ actually is. Though Eriksson’s representation of the place seems neutral, the underlying mood of this communal space is one of melancholic atrophy.

When she installed a classic beach-boardwalk amusement arcade outside the Giardini at the Venice Biennale (Games Machine, 2005) Eriksson wanted to insert a social space for the local teenage audience into the touristic, historic Venetian landscape. But inevitably, the tiny spray-painted structure full of flashing lights and amusements seemed to implicitly stand in contrast to the events next door in the pavilions of the Biennale. Being inside, I felt the thrill and relief of being in a place that was distinctly not-art, and there was something carnivalesque in this inversion of hierarchies and priorities. But after a short game of air hockey and a look around at my fellow Biennale visitors, presumably enjoying the same feeling, the Games Machine became not only a space for public behaviour, but also a stage for it. As visitors, we became performers within the artist’s framework, but because of the work’s proximity to the pavilions of the Biennale, it was also the visitors at the nearby pavilions who suddenly submitted to this frame. Instead of art mirroring life, the mirror was turned around so that, as viewers, we saw ourselves seeing ourselves. Games Machine raised questions about the degree to which we can control our own images or project our own identities (‘be ourselves’ in other words) in a collective or artificial situation – not only as actors in the public sphere but also as the subjects of an artist’s portrait.

At the opening of Eine Probe (A Rehearsal, 2006), Eriksson’s recent installation at the Kunstverein Langenhagen in Germany, she divided the long narrow room into two halves using a wall containing a square, window-like opening, behind which five local amateur actors rehearsed a script from a 1970s TV family drama (chosen by the artist). I was surprised how unconcerned Eriksson seemed to be about what transpired, only setting the situation in motion and letting it develop – like introducing two strangers and then walking away. While watching the actors rehearsing the scene through the open window, I experienced a similar sense of detachment to that of observing my family at a party and realizing that I don’t know them at all. But there was plenty of theatre going on amongst those attending the opening. At some point the two halves of the room were reversed, or reflected back on each other. Leaving the exhibition, I had a lingering sensation that everywhere I looked I was watching a bit of amateur theatre.

And this is ultimately the effect of Eriksson’s proposals and framing devices. Whether profiling the art world or the ‘real world’ next door, one space inevitably highlights the other. Experiencing her works, I find myself asking how the art work stands up next to real life, or what Eriksson calls ‘the ordinary’. On one hand, it barely differs – the situations that arise from Eriksson’s proposals evince only the thinnest layer of the artist’s intention. As she puts it, ‘At some stage, I stop being in control of how things will develop’. On the other hand, the works inevitably reflect the limitations of any kind of representation – artistic or otherwise: her subjects sometimes seem engaged in an almost physical, visible struggle for self-definition, trying to carve out some space in the social fabric or some distance from their professional identities. But even when these public demonstrations or collective portraits seem to expose or rearrange an established hierarchy, another set of rules – that of the artist’s framework or the circumscription of our own social roles – stubbornly assembles itself.