In the wake of the recession and the massive loss of jobs and recent attacks on collective bargaining rights The Workers could not be better timed coinciding with events across the nation and the globe which highlight the crises tied to labor and immigration issues. Nor could the exhibition be better sited: MASS MoCA was a bustling factory until 1985 when union strikes during the previous decade are believed by many to have precipitated the closing of its doors, leaving nearly a third of the population out of work in a city that is still struggling. The situation in North Adams mirrors that of workers at home and abroad who have lost their way of life to the constant search for cheaper labor.
The 25 artists in The Workers variously embrace and challenge traditional representations of "the worker" while addressing many of the issues that particularly affect the working class today. While the economic and social circumstances that made a clear definition of the working class possible in the 19th through the late 20th centuries, today's definition of worker covers a range of possibilities, though work itself has almost become invisible.
The exhibition will include nearly 40 works by 25 emerging and established international artists including Claire Beckett, Osman Bozkurt, Camel Collective, Mircea Cantor, Almudena Carrecedo and Robert Bahar, Susan Collis, Sergio De La Torre and Vicky Funari, Jason Dodge, Sam Durant, Harun Farocki, Yevgeniy Fiks, Anthony Hernandez, Oded Hirsch, Hugo Hopping, Emily Jacir, Laboratorio 060, Mary Lum, Yoshua Okon, Adrian Paci, Jaume Pitarch, Oliver Ressler, Stephanie Rothenberg, Tyler Rowland, Allan Sekula, and Santiago Sierra. Dislocation, invisibility, misrepresentation, the dismantling of labor organizations, poor working conditions, and lack of work provide rich fodder for these artists who also present images of newer additions to a work force facing instability, including cultural workers, on-line laborers, and volunteers -- who are gaining recognition, but who are vulnerable to the same power structures as traditional workers - and often have fewer rights.
Camel Collective, Laboratorio 060, Mary Lum, and Santiago Sierra are all creating new work for the exhibition. North Adams-based Lum will present an installation made with fragments from the bottom of ordinary paper bags will travel across the wall of the gallery like workers exiting or entering a factory. Camel Collective’s new work draws on imagery from archival photographs of the 1970 strike at Sprague Electric Company and ruminates on the worker as an image subjected to a historical process of abstraction as well as an image-maker. Laboratorio 060 will also engage MASS MoCA’s past and the experiences of former local union members (including several who currently work at the museum) to consider both past failures and future possibilities for organized labor. Sierra, long known for his provocative work on the subject of labor and economic and power relations, will stage a performance featuring a U.S. soldier, perhaps the most invisible of at-risk workers.
Past and present strategies of representation are explored through works such as Harun Farocki's video installation Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades (2006). Composed of documentary and cinematic images of the space between work and home, the installation hints at the role images - or lack thereof - play in shaping societal attitudes toward the worker. Several of the works in the exhibition - including Maquilapolisby De La Torre and Funari -- were created in collaboration with factory workers who were given opportunities to participate in the shaping of their own image.
Incorporating both documentary and fictional approaches, other artists represent "work" and "the worker" in various guises, ranging from workers who challenge the status quo to those who harbor nostalgia for outdated frameworks of labor or try to resuscitate more communal forms of working. Oded Hirsch's video Totchka (2009), for example, draws on the model of the kibbutz, while Oliver Ressler's video installation captures the frustrations of former Soviet-era factory workers eking out a meager living in the post-socialist Republic of Armenia.
The exhibition considers the current condition of the worker through the lens of historical precedents as well as contemporary political and economic contexts. Sam Durant's installation Dead Labor Day (2010) - part gallows, part worker's break room, refers to Marx's concept of dead labor as well as Chicago's 1886 Haymarket Riots which provoked the hanging of peaceful labor activists who were protesting for an 8-hour work day. Emily Jacir's 2002 video installation Crossing Surda (a record of going to and from work), which follows Palestinians making their way to their jobs through an Israeli checkpoint, illustrates the worker's vulnerability to any number of geo-political conflicts and conditions.
Other artists present mythical and allegorical images of work such as Jaume' Pitarch's video Dust to Dust (2005) which pictures the artist sweeping the dust inside an abandoned industrial space in an endless loop, framing work in a more spiritual context.
In conjunction with The Workers MASS MoCA has invited the Bureau for Open Culture -- a nomadic contemporary arts program directed by curator and art historian James Voorhies -- to inhabit one of the museum's buildings for the first four months of the exhibition. Between May 26 and September 30 the Bureau for Open Culture will present programming related to The Workers, including exhibitions, lectures, film screenings, workshops, and a beer garden run by artists and other cultural workers.
MASS MoCA will publish a catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition with essays by the co-curators of the exhibition, MASS MoCA curator Susan Cross and artist Carla Herrera-Prats