PHILADELPHIA — As an office-worker, I can’t remember the last time artwork felt so viscerally relevant to daily life. Jessica Vaughn’s latest exhibition, Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful, reconfigures materials from the corporate environment to reveal how capitalism colors all aspects of workers’ lives — most importantly, how we see and value each other, and how we respect ourselves. 

Vaughn’s video installation of the same name prescribes the emotional tenor for the entire exhibition. In “Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful” (2019), dueling rhythms of generic elevator music, text, and cycling videoclips of office spaces make for stressful viewing. My eyes dart to and fro, unable to keep up with the pace. Vaughn brilliantly conjures the disorientation of new employees, the process of acclimatizing to an unfamiliar workplace while deciphering the barrage of management’s coded language and the veiled warnings of peers. Success here is not only a euphemism for profit, but also a parade of etiquette, competition, and power.

Jessica Vaughn, “Empties” (2019), archival pigment print, 11 x 11 inches (Courtesy of Jessica Vaughn and Martos Gallery, New York) (Photo by Constance Mensch)

The pursuit of success at all costs harms everyone, and to illustrate this dynamic, Vaughn pits the perspectives of workers of color against those of white male supervisors. On one hand are the truisms that marginalized workers might quietly share. Statements like “If you don’t know how to manipulate organizational style you will try to out-white, white people or males if you are female and not succeed and not be very good,” speak to how workers are forced to bear condescension, racism, and sexism, and may even begin to police and judge their peers in an attempt to adapt. 

The other screen features a ham-fisted script that seeks to teach grudging white management how to acclimate to a globalized workforce. It is chock-full of derisive, condescending language: “You would not be alone to assume that the white men are talking about work and others are wasting time,” and “The white male is reluctant to give them an honest assessment of their performance, because they are not quite sure how the individual will react, for example: decreased productivity, bad feelings in the workplace, and even some very costly litigations.” The supervisor is mired within the smallness of his corporate horizons. His laser-focus on “success” makes him able to only think of workers in terms of productivity and liability. Human connection eludes him, leaving him suspended in a state of blunted emotion. Through these dual narratives, Vaughn poses the question: are any of the participants in capitalism fully at fault, or are they merely victims of a dehumanizing system?

Installation view of Jessica Vaughn: Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 2021 (photo by Constance Mensch)

“Problem Sets” (2021) and “Hope Floats, Flat and Folded” (2021) address the ways that government bureaucracy have shaped—and are shaped by—pursuit of success. In “Problem Sets,” cartoonish illustrations parody the indignities of a mid-century US workplace. Auditors and support staff tussle over deadlines, insults fly, and impossible demands are made. Horrifyingly, these illustrations originate from a report about abuses within the Federal Government itself, published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency founded as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their relevance, decades later, presents a bleak outlook for the very possibility of humane interaction under capitalism.

On the other hand, “Hope Floats, Flat and Folded” (2021) shows how the labor market creates incentives to measure a worker’s worth. These minimal sculptures are based on a tool published by O*NET, a database about the U.S. workforce published by the Department of Labor. An employee is instructed to demonstrate hand skills by folding construction paper into three-dimensional objects. Within each aluminum shape is the collision between the worker’s interior life—their hopes and dreams, the intangible stuff which makes us human—and the rigid demands of the labor market. Here, folding is an act of reduction, of becoming more like an object.

With “Irrational Rests” (2021), Vaughn turns her attention to the impact of office culture on the human body, and how the drive for success pushes us to work hours that are unnatural and even harmful. Affixed to a metal scaffold, fluorescent lights brighten as sunlight dims, extending the workday ad nauseam, chucking our circadian rhythms out of the window. Modern office design literally enables unhealthy work-life balance. “Irrational Rests” pushes me to wonder about what an office designed for a worker’s happiness would look like.

Installation view of Jessica Vaughn: Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 2021 (photo by Constance Mensch)

The exhibition’s last gallery pays homage to the blue-collar workers whose often invisible labor enables office spaces to function. With “South Beach No. 036,” “Dark Blue,” and “Boomer Gray #341” (2021), Vaughn stacks fabric cutouts leftover from the manufacturing of public transportation seating. Displayed on a low, long plinth, the voids in these cutouts immediately allude to the bodies of workers during their daily commute. Stacked, these cutouts eerily represent a whole labor force, conjured through their absence. These sculptures remind me of the American myth that we all reap what we sow, when in fact, capitalism demands a steady pool of people who do not reach white collar success, who are therefore available for exploitation. 

None of the topics Vaughn addresses should be truly surprising to the thoughtful, observant worker. Yet as the artist reminds us, it can be difficult to hold the daily grind at arm’s length, to criticize a culture while striving to conform. Vaughn’s sharp, smart works demand we reconsider what office culture has normalized, and confront the ways capitalism has hollowed out the contours of our lives.

Jessica Vaughn: Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful continues through May 9 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (118 S 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA). The exhibition was curated by Meg Onli. A virtual tour is available on the exhibition page.

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