A visitor to Yuri Pattison’s exhibition User, Space at the Chisenhale Gallery is confronted by a large, nearly empty, room that is, paradoxically, filled with stuff. Orange industrial shelving on two walls support stacking plastic boxes, miniature designer furniture and computer servers. In the middle is a long glass table flanked by semi-opaque room dividers, a profusion of transparent Eames chairs covered in plastic sheeting, and a pile of plants under a steel canopy. Rectangular panel lights, hanging overhead, come on and off at seemingly random intervals, and the room is filled with the hum of computer equipment. Monitors abound while electrically actuated bottles emit vapour.
The show is a product of an 18-month residency which allowed Pattison to spend time in London’s tech community: the non-profit Hackspace, as well as in Second Home, a ‘co-working’ business where freelance workers, writers, graphic designers, and coders use shared desks. The room represents a “speculative live/work environment drawing influence from Modernist architecture and science fiction”.
There is little physical transformation of materials – other than said plastic sheeting, quite a lot of dust, and electronics stripped of casings. Lighting and electric window-films are controlled by computer server, while cameras feed live footage from the gallery to a monitor. A large monitor shows a video based on the architecture of co-working spaces. Some notable contemporary art tropes are missing: 3-D printed objects, UV-printed plastic, casts of body parts (though there is a little finger stuck onto a server), crutches-as-sculpture.
In an accompanying printed interview, one learns that Dexion shelving units relate to Pattison’s interest in global logistics. He talks about an Amazon fulfilment centre in London, recalling for the viewer how work and labour have changed in the contemporary gig economy. The interview goes on to explain that transparency, surveillance, modification of sleep patterns, and the history of computing are amongst the ideas that occupy Pattison.
He also talks about the work-leisure slippage, a phenomenon that started with the mobile internet, and developed most famously in Silicon Valley offices with their bean-bags, ping-pong tables, and free food. On a related note, companies like WeWork, which started by developing co-working spaces, are now building ‘co-living’ spaces. In a co-living arrangement, millennials, finding city-centre housing unaffordable, rent rooms in a shared flat (often decked out as a loft with exposed brick, cable runs and concrete), complete with ‘concierge’ services like cleaning and laundry. Sounds like a conventional flat-share, except that the flats are owned by a large corporation; in WeWork’s case, valued at sixteen-billion dollars. Co-living and its economics have attracted mild incredulity in the venture-capital press, and apoplexy in the art press.
Pattison’s particular take is how these practices result in individuals who “isolate themselves…[and] create a physical filter bubble”, resulting in a “disengagement with the fabric of the city”. Moreover, the sharing economy means time gets carved up, as people rent desks by the hour or co-living spaces by the week, again to the potential detriment of the broader community. Yet this isn’t really picked up, visually, in the installation – the videos and CGI feel a little lazy and could have taken a more critical perspective.
The 14-page interview is fascinating in its breadth, touching on almost ever trendy topic in contemporary cultural and economic theory: Bitcoin-mining rigs, pop-up restaurants and stores, the new international style in interior design, coffee culture, mass-marketing of Modernist furniture, and so forth. These first-world concerns, arguably familiar only to the culturally-aware metropolitan, when combined with the visual poverty of the exhibition, fail to move or surprise the viewer.
The closest Pattison perhaps gets to eloquence, is in the dried sebum and dust covering many surfaces – the abjection of which somehow speaks to the absence of the worker, of the human. One misses the jargon, rituals of coffee, cigarettes or Soylent, inside jokes, backstabbing, gossip – all of which characterise shared places, whether of work or life.
To end with a counter-example, consider Simon Denny. He has similar concerns: intersection of corporate and hacker culture, surveillance, the physical and digital material of the work environment. In contrast to Pattison, Denny’s 2015/2016 exhibition at the Serpentine maintained a tight focus on organisational and software structures. He married, mediated, and abstracted the graphic and architectural elements of corporate and governmental intelligence entities, producing an installation of sculptures memorable as much for their totemic presence as for any politically-charged content.
The overwhelming sense of Pattison’s show was that of a research project rendered visible, almost a ‘core dump’ (computing term for the aftermath of a crash: the entire contents of memory are dumped into a file, to help programmers debug). That is not to suggest the collection or display were un-curated or arbitrary, and there were some clever twists, such as a circulating economy of Bitcoins that are mined using free electricity. Yet somehow, there was a whiff of incoherence, and it is not clear the interview, perhaps due to the sheer catholicity of Pattison’s avowed interests, helped. Most importantly, the social element that energises any working or living space, was missing. Yet one could argue, it was precisely that exclusion of the human that generated a pathos and brought forth the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the sharing economy.