Desk Job at Open Eye: Photography that’s no job advert

Abby Kearney
Woman at a desk with fluffy toys

Photographic series Desk Job may verges on the absurd – but it’s also part of an in depth look at modern working practices. Our reviewer found out more.

In David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King, a character defines ‘real courage’ as the capacity for ‘enduring tedium over real time in a confined space’. The Pale King is set in a tax audit office. Under fluorescent lights, on identikit desks, the office workers pore over reams of data, performing tasks they think and fear could be executed more successfully by robots, for ends that are, largely, oblique. Governed by anonymised, God-like bureaucratic powers, how, asks Wallace, can the office worker escape de-humanisation? His solution to surviving and succeeding in an increasingly bureaucratised world, is to be ‘unboreable’; to transcend ‘the boring’.

Louis Quail’s photographic series Desk Job asks how to ‘survive’ the office

Louis Quail’s photographic series Desk Job, currently showing at Open Eye as part of Open 1, also asks how to ‘survive’ the office. Quail’s twelve images show office workers sat at their desks in different global locations. The basic layout of the office space across the images is, mostly, uniform; the same brands of computer re-appear, there’s the same efficient apportioning of space. By using flash Quail gives each of the images a sparse, sterile look. But the way in which the desk is decorated, or, Quail writes, ‘colonised’, by the subject, differs.

For Quail, this is a staking of personality, a means of resisting anonymization. One woman (Human Resources, Berlin) has a mound of fluffy animals crowding her desk. A man (Team Supervisor, Customer Services, USA), an immense US flag across his partition wall. Another, images of ski holidays and his children. Some desks, though, are blank – so what to make of this?

Aged 19, Quail spent two weeks working in a Croydon office analysing teachers’ pay slips. The experience – profound, he says, in its dullness – was the impetus for an ongoing photography project on the humour and visual aesthetic of the office, of which Desk Job is a part. This broader project has images of office badges saying things like ‘Subservience Rocks!’, people goofing around on wheelie chairs, and sarcastic signs about the ‘consumer’ and ‘their demands’.

Though the images of Desk Job are also comic, due to the types of decoration on the desks (hunk calendars, weirdly ornate lamps, a pencil tin of forks) and the activities the subjects are engaged in (sleeping open mouthed, sitting on an exercise ball), Quail does not want the series to be thought of as funny images of office life. Rather, as he writes in the accompanying materials and says in his artist’s talk, he wants it to fit into broader debates.

For instance, Quail identifies globalisation as a ‘homogenising force’, and argues that it is the cause of the office’s global uniformity, as evidenced across the images. There are a couple of problems with this. While, sure, globalisation makes the materials and ideas on show here available, it doesn’t in itself determine their use. In describing globalisation as a ‘force’, Quail also implies that it acts outside of human agency, that it’s something uncontrollable, weather-like. Because of the ways in which it is realised and enacted, categorising globalisation in these terms is reductive – it also clashes with Quail’s stated aim; that the images might invite people to effect change.

Quail considers the series a tribute to its subjects who do what he can’t; a 9-5 job

Quail considers the series a tribute to its subjects who do what he can’t; a 9-5 job. In ‘The Pale King’, the office workers who spend ‘hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity’, demonstrate, for Wallace, ‘true heroism’. Quail feels similarly, a breathy admiration for the office workers of his images, who are eating, drinking and sleeping, ‘living life’ at their desks, uniformly not having fun, looking blank-eyed or anxious.

But he doesn’t name the workers in the images captions, and it’s unclear whether this is deliberate. Is he aping the logic of the unseen bosses, defining workers as their work? Is he making symbols of the worker; the universalised ‘Metal Trader’? Or is he susceptible to the logic he purports to criticise?

In sharing Desk Job, Quail also hopes to engender a sense of camaraderie among disparate office workers. Might the office workers in his twelve images – including, for example, a financial analyst and a low-level administrative assistant – feel a real sense of camaraderie with one another? This doesn’t seem impossible because the real strength of the series, and what Quail captures with a bureaucratic keenness, is the bored, tragic, comic and vaguely imprisoned common experience of working in an office.

This article has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW), as part of a regional critical writing development programme supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England — see more here.

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