DALLAS — There is nothing sensational about Jessica Vaughn’s installation In Polite English One Disagrees by First Agreeing at Dallas Contemporary, nothing visually captivating. But this doesn’t mean that I want to walk away from the work. Instead, I feel drawn to her quotidian representations of listless, low-level, corporate office life — because the whole reveals the homology between the impedimenta of this kind of environment and the poverty of human agency and imagination I feel once I enter these spaces.
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Using worn and stained cubicle partitions obtained from the Texas Department of Education in Austin, Vaughn’s setup resembles a planned office airlifted from the 1980s. The upholstered Steelcase dividers in bloodless gray are mounted in lonely, three-sided sectionals under a drop ceiling missing several tiles. And that is it. Well, except for a central metal shelving unit with several black-and-white copies of reports, a stack of double-sided color handouts that convey information about the piece (a text by writer, architect, and historian Sadia Shirazi) and some video screenshots, and two large, flatscreen monitors flashing videos and aphorisms in white text on a blue background. A tree of knowledge in the middle of a desert.
The reports all seem to be produced by the federal government’s General Accountability Office (sometimes referred to in these texts as the General Accounting Office, a former name), the nonpartisan agency that reports to Congress on how federal monies are being spent. They have titles such as, “Board Diversity Strategies to Increase Representation of Women and Minorities”; “Water Infrastructure Information on Selected Midsize and Large Cities with Declining Populations”; and “Schools and Workplaces: An Overview of Successful and Unsuccessful Practices.” The oldest one I noticed is from 1987, while the most recent is dated 2019. The screens broadcast excerpts of workplace training videos with workplace nostrums spliced in. The phrases include, “Early retirement plans and outplacing services are lucrative businesses”; “Now teamwork is the key work”; and “Here is how to perform in corporate life.” But some are more pointed, such as, “You would not be alone to assume that the white men are talking about work and the others are wasting time.”
Vaughn’s handout attempts to spell out the intended meaning of the work. One passage reads:
The history of the cubicle, then, is also a hidden history of racial exclusion in America. If the Action Office was originally designed to enhance creativity and encourage spontaneity in a user-controlled reconfigurable space, its development into the fixed cubicle was justified through recourse to neoliberal discourses of optimization and efficiency.
These are the key meanings Vaughn seems to want the viewer to draw from the work. Yet the fact that the GAO has produced several reports evincing concern with equality of position and privilege in the (governmental and private) workplace suggests that how women and ethnic minorities are treated is of importance at the federal level. And importance is systematically mandated — though depending on the administration in power, rules and regulations may be ignored or followed with zeal. Given this information it feels that these reports either inveigh against or are not germane to Vaughn’s primary assertion that racial exclusion correlates with the development of the office cubicle. More pertinent evidence needed to be put forth. In its absence, the exhibition does not feel fully realized.
In addition, if the artist wanted us to more fully sense the soul-deadening miasma of these kinds of places, In Polite English might have benefited from installing some old, threadbare carpeting (instead of using the bare concrete floor of the museum), and perhaps a few office chairs and other indications of that state of being. I have worked in such environments and I know their quiet catastrophe. While the installation lacks key elements to make it feel convincing, it also fails to marshal evidence to support its historical claims. This is not to say that Vaughn is wrong, but rather that she did not get it quite right.
Jessica Vaughn: In Polite English One Disagrees by First Agreeing continues at Dallas Contemporary (161 Glass Street, Dallas, Texas) through December 22.
Editor’s Note: Dallas Contemporary provided travel and accommodations for the author.