“Taking Work Out of Its Night” Sheds Light on Exploited Workers

In a minimalist factory in Tetouan, Northern Morocco, women workers in caps, gowns, and gloves prepare shrimp for consumption half a world away in the Netherlands. In Manila, Philippines, low-paid tech workers censor cyberspace. On a cargo ship on an unidentified sea somewhere in the world, a Filipino sailor lives a circumscribed, contained life, moving far less freely than the goods he is helping to transport. Somewhere in America, a minimum-wage kitchen worker in a fast food restaurant assembles a sandwich that costs twice as much as her hourly wage. Of late, several contemporary artists have focused their attention on the largely unacknowledged labor of such people, exploring the plight of invisibility and shocking exploitation of countless laborers as a result of globalized capitalism. In Tour, France, a powerful exhibition titled, Sortir le travail de sa nuit (Taking Work Out of Its Night) centers not only diverse works by socially-aware artists but also the sordid travails of a scarcely acknowledged, shadow workforce. The show is on view at the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré (CCCOD) in Tours until September 1, 2024.

One of the most affecting features of the exhibition is the sense one feels instantly of being surrounded by ghostly presences; it’s as though the works themselves are summoning and giving voice to them. In Opératrices (Operators) (2024) by French artist, Celsian Langlois, for instance, two speakers placed about six feet apart, facing one another, are mechanical substitutes for the unseen women whose voices are emitted from each device. As they speak toward one another across the slight distance, their words are lost in what might as well be infinite space.  

In Portrait as Saint Lucy (Lesley Ann-Cao) (2018), by French artist Lauren Huret, an anonymous young Filipino woman sits for a portrait; the three-quarters pose is formal, traditional. She is framed by thick jungle foliage. Like Santa Lucia, the patroness saint of sight (and ophthalmologists, and stained glass workers, and now, also, TV) who is frequently depicted holding her eyes (which were gouged out by her torturers when she was martyred), the sitter, Lesley, presents her own holy attributes: a small, video screen of her eyes, staring, blinking, and winking at us. 

Lesley is a low-paid cyber-worker, one of a host of unseen laborers tasked with scrubbing the internet of violent imagery. Large tech firms use so-called “offshore workers” like her around the world to avoid paying fair wages in countries with stricter labor regulations. The frenetic, vigilant eyes in their isolated screen-within-a-screen testify to the horrors they cannot unsee.

Click image to enlarge.

Praying for My Haters is one of a group of works pertaining to what Taking Work Out of Its Night curators Delphine Masson and Marine Rochard call “dematerialized digital work.” The exhibition, they explain in the guide, is divided into “three thematic axes”: domestic labor and care work, particularly in the realm of traditionally female labor (persistently unrecognized as labor); globalized trade and migration; and tech work or “cyberspace servitude.”

Each artwork in Taking Work Out of Its Night approaches the problem of representing humans who perform such unseen, undervalued, and/or under-rewarded labor or relevant concepts. Focusing on “the notion of invisibility,” of “invisible work, of globalized, omnipresent and structuring mechanisms, which nevertheless remain opaque,” each artist, note the curators, has in one way or another set out to “examine the phenomena of disappearance and erasure from a more aesthetic, philosophical and poetic” perspective.

Citing Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Rancière, Masson and Rochard make a case for the almost divinely-anointed partnership of art and labor in the advancement of, as Rancière puts it, “the struggle of proletarians to bring work out of the night–from its exclusion from common visibility and speech.” 

Her voice filling a darkened viewing area around the wall from the entrance to the exhibition, groundbreaking American feminist artist, Martha Rosler, feels like one of the aforementioned ghosts. From the archives of feminist art history to the CCCOD gallery, Martha’s single-track, black-and-white video, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), parodies the unceasing banality of domestic life. Cataloging in increasingly angrier tones a collection of kitchen implements, the woman in the video (played by Martha herself) “names her own oppression,” as the artist blithely put it. 

Anna Kutera’s was nothing short of revolutionary in the context of women’s artistic production in the 1970s and, moreover, their efforts toward liberation and equality. 

Also included in the group of works relating to domestic and care work under the thematic title, “They Say it is Love,” is Polish conceptual artist Anna Kutera’s Feminist Painting (1973/2018). Like Rosler, her work was nothing short of revolutionary in the context of women’s artistic production in the 1970s and, moreover, their efforts toward liberation and equality. 

In the eight photographs from Anna’s series, which documented a performance she staged as a student in her studio in 1973, she is seen sweeping sheets of paper fastened to the floor with a broom first smeared with sooty black ink. The work is a commentary on the paternalistic way in which women’s domestic labor is consistently framed as an act of love at once worthy of the status of an art form and, conversely, ultimate denigration in comparison to the work of men outside of the domestic sphere. 

Rather than sweeping away the dirt, it accumulates, emphasizing the unceasing nature of housework. In the photographs, Anna has documented her efforts as Pollock recorded his gestures with paint. Yet, as Linda Nochlin, author of the revolutionary book, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (1971) might quip, “There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol.” Or Pollock, for that matter. 

In this regard, Anna’s reprise of her earlier work seems to beg the question, “How much progress have we actually made?”

Like the diverse other labor of women, the artistic production of women artists is still often ranked in importance below that of men, even as women have entered the artworld in greater quantity over the past 150 or so years. In this regard, Anna’s reprise of her earlier work seems to beg the question, “How much progress have we actually made?”

French artist Celsian Langlois’ work Operators, discussed above, underlines this persistent devaluation of women’s labor. The titular “operators” whose voices can be heard emanating from the conversing speakers, are opera stage managers, a profession that is predominated by women. As the curators put it, “these protagonists working in the shadows direct a whole invisible technical team who operate off-screen while the show takes place on stage.” The operators are the essential workers whose own art is overshadowed by the performers on stage.

Artworks relating to the other central themes, globalized trade and migration and tech work, help to shape Taking Work Out of its Night into an intelligent analysis of global labor practices, particularly exploitative ones, in the context of the accelerating climate crisis. 

Bertille Bak, an artist from Northern France, comments sardonically on egregious trade practices with her Boussa from the Netherlands (2017) in which low-paid women workers in Tetouan, Morocco clean shrimp that have been fished in the Netherlands only to be returned there for consumption. The joke is that the shrimp are tourists. The women collect their eyes, the only parts not used, and Bertille uses them to make attractive tourist souvenirs that resemble the small glass bottles of sand one brings home from beach vacations.

Paris-based Juliette Green’s flow chart, How Many People are Needed to Make a Sandwich (2022), emphasizes the extensive “chain of people, gestures and energy involved in making a simple sandwich.” The behind-the-scenes workers who get your sandwich into the bag and out the drive-through window have disappeared again into the night after being hailed as “essential” in the early days of the pandemic. Now we need you, now we don’t.

Near the exit of the galleries hosting Taking Work Out of its Night, Belgian conceptual artist Edith Dekyndt’s One Second of Silence (Part 1, New York) (2008) feels like an anchor for the other works. In her silent, fixed-shot video, an eerie, transparent flag waves in the breeze. The sky provides the backdrop for this unremarkable object, which constantly changes shape and sometimes seems to meld with the sky. A flag of no land, seemingly, it exists, write the curators, in “an idealized space where borders, nations, societies, individuals, and subordinations disappear.”  

In Taking Work Out of Its Night, no concrete solutions to the problems highlighted by the artworks are advanced, nor have the curators proposed next steps. As has been the case in the long history of artistic production, cultural production and social and political activism intersect here. On view are what Nato Thompson, in his Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century (2015), calls “the fruit of art and activism’s labors.” Still, you can’t begin to solve a problem until you can see it and visibility is the key here in this insightful show. 

The exhibition is part two of a series. The first part, Variables d’épanouissement” (Flourishing Variables), was presented at CCCOD in 2021-2022. Artworks examined “the relationships between work and the intimate part of our lives.”

© Debra Thimmesch (5/20/24) — Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Learn more about the exhibit from CCCOD.

Visit CCCOD to learn more about Variables d’épanouissement” (Flourishing Variables).

Read Linda Nochlin’s Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? 

Check out more information on Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).

Learn more about Art and Activism from Nato Thompson.

Read Jacques Rancière’s Sharing the Sensitive, Aesthetics and Politics.

Get to know Bertille Bak more through FF2 Media’s recent post by Debra Thimmesch.

Learn more about Saint Lucy (Sancta Lucia) on Wikipedia.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Video display titled Portrait as Saint Lucy (Lesley Ann-Cao) by Lauren Huret on display in Taking Work Out of Its Night.

Middle Photo: Photograph series titled They Say it is Love by Anna Kutera on display in Taking Work Out of Its Night.

Bottom Photo: Flow chart art titled How Many People are Needed to Make a Sandwich by Juliette Green on display in Taking Work Out of Its Night.

All photos taken by Debra Thimmesch on 5/5/24 for FF2 Media. Authorized for responsible use as long as user includes link to THIS post in photo credits.

Tags: Anna Kutera, Bertille Bak, Celsian Langlois, Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré, Debra Thimmesch, Delphine Masson, Edith Dekyndt, France, Jacques Rancière, Juliette Green, Lauren Huret, Lesley Ann-Cao, Marine Rochard, Martha Rosler, Taking Work Out of Its Night

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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