I first met artist Mika Tajima (Japanese roots, LA-born, New York resident) during the 2006 Whitney Biennial, when her band (with Howie Chen) New Humans put on the most visually-striking performance I think I've ever seen -- sheets of pure white noise lit from below by pure white strips of fluorescent light. Mika is in the current Whitney Biennial too, with relics of a 2007 performance called Disassociate which ended with Eames chairs being thrown into a wall of champagne glasses.
Last week Mika opened her new painting show at COMA in Berlin, and it's full of the same visual intelligence as her performances with collaborators like C. Spencer Yeh and Vito Acconci. Like Disassociate, her Berlin show sees the gallery space partitioned by a row of sound-baffles -- double-sided paintings on wheels. Mika has painted angular Modernist modular forms onto the baffles (which look like swing mirrors too -- in fact, some of them are mirrored on one side), their purples and oranges derived from the late-60s decor of a San Francisco subway station.
The baffle-forms partition the COMA gallery -- not far, itself, from the site of that infamous partition, the Berlin Wall -- but make other references too. A very interesting mesh of references, in fact.
1. Mika told me she was referencing the Iraq partition currently being built in Sadr City in Baghdad. This isn't just to protect the Green Zone from rocket attacks, but to control the upcoming vote and try to diffuse support for Moktada al-Sadr, who looks likely to triumph in the upcoming Iraqi elections.
The Sadr City Wall is a concrete barrier which rises to about 12 feet. It's being built along the main street dividing the southern part of Sadr City from the northern part, where al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters are concentrated. Taking a cue from the Berlin Wall, perhaps, Moktada al-Sadr has called for his followers "to draw magnificent tableaux that depict the ugliness and terrorist nature of the occupier, and the sedition, car bombings, blood and the like he has brought upon Iraqis" on the partition.
It hardly needs to be added that the Iraq wall resembles the Israeli security barrier rising on the West Bank, and that there's a real double standard in the way the Berlin Wall is depicted as an oppressive relic, but the walls we're currently building to cage Palestinians and Iraqis aren't.
2. Mika is also referencing the studio sound baffles in Jean-Luc Godard's film about the Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil (1968).
This is a more positive, creative take on partitioning. In a recording studio, baffles allow the clean recording of sounds, free of reverberation and separated from ambient sounds.
Studio baffles symbolize creative collaboration, but also give each musician a semi-private space to work in, so there's a balance between teamwork and autonomy. And these screens are structures on wheels, designed to change the open layout of a studio's big live room quickly and easily. Partition can make things possible, as well as make things intolerable. Which brings us to the final reference Mika is making.
3. Mika could have referenced Japanese screens (also about quick, light room transformations) or hospital screens (about giving privacy to moments of agony or embarrassment in open hospital wards) in this work, but instead she's decorated the screens with photocopies of utopian articles about the Herman Miller Action Office, pioneered by systems designer Robert Probst in the 1960s.
In a project started in 1964 and brought -- with massive success -- to market in 1968, Probst devised the world's first open-plan office system of reconfigurable components. "Today's office is a wasteland," he said. "It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort."
"The new system included plenty of work surfaces and display shelves," reported Fortune. "Partitions were a part of it, intended to provide privacy and places to pin up works in process. The Action Office even included varying desk levels to enable employees to work part of the time standing up, thereby encouraging blood flow and staving off exhaustion."
But, as Time reported, rationalization and economic greed transformed the Action Office utopia, over the years, into a dystopia. "Today 70% of U.S. office workers sit in cubicles... A typical workstation in the 1970s measured 12 ft. by 12 ft., according to the American Society of Interior Designers. By 1995 it had shrunk to 10 ft. by 10 ft. Today's cubicles average 6 ft. by 8 ft."
Some people feel the Action Office is, by now, more devil than sympathy.
Spatial definition doesn't have to be malign, though. When I got home from Mika Tajima's opening I noticed that she's defined my own space: her imagery (you can see it on the left side of this photo) has been a part of my living room ever since I moved into my Neukolln apartment.
I initially thought this might be one of those posts where your comments lower - topic resistant thing, beautiful people in galleries with wine - but I read on and was enlightened.
Isn't it odd how Jagger and The Rolling Stones continue to haunt us? Godard's film has other stories within it like this work. It's other name is One by One - the ultimate reduction of office space.
Also the words baffle and screen are quite good too when tilted to the verbal. The former has the ability to perplex while the latter can project or block off. There's also the validity check. Like many interesting words it takes off on tangents of its own and excites the mouth and head. In the mouth of others it can sound odd. On the page it begins to become a shape.
I like that it allowed me to juxtapose the Rolling Stones with workers in office cubicles, and kind of suggest there was something parallel going on there. That's the same image I made in an old song recorded in 1990, which I might as well make available here:
i read recently about an unsolved disappearance case in the American south from the 1960s regarding a young woman who worked in a bank. the circumstances were quite odd and they found her bloodstained car but no trace of her. months later one of her co-workers who had occupied her desk was found brutally murdered. oddly enough, there is a psychologist who claims she has "solved" both cases and that they were direct results of dissociative fugue states, the onset of which was triggered by these women having to work at open desks with no peripheral obstruction. apparently in a small percentage of people this lack of narrow field of vision plays tricks on the brain. the psychologist theorized that by entering these states the women made themselves more prone to manipulation. it's a pretty out-there theory but worth a look. google mary shotwell little.
I'm not even a fan of the Rolling Stones, but Godard should've stuck with his subject in that film. The recording footage was fascinating. I really liked seeing their process in action. Then came the other stuff, hopeless dated and hackneyed-- even in its time it seems it would've come off as amateurish and silly. The point of all those skits, beyond being heavy-handed political statements, is lost on me.
I'm watching Pierrot le Fou tonight. I've only watched it on an inferior VHS copy, and look forward to seeing it as it was originally intended. Have much fonder memories of that film.
I think it's the odd communication processes at work simultaneously. Over here in Spain, you have locutorios (call centres) where typically immigrant workers go into little booths and make cheap long distance calls. So at any one time there's a shared space, yet with individual bidirectional audio communication going on, each person is sort of also dimly aware of the others in the surrounding cubicles. its' the sort of 'real world language lab'!
Ah, now you're talking! I was brought up in these language labs, my dad ran language colleges then started his own, and the lab was always the big investment. Many of my early songs are recorded on special language lab two-track cassettes, with English exercises punctuating them.
They were an enormous thing at the time, as you say especially money-wise: specially fitted classrooms, furniture, maintenance contracts and the structural- situational course tapes all played a part. Probably worth it though, most people I knew at school loved going in there recording conversations etc.
I always loved the aesthetics of those rows of booths, the mechanical sounds, the whole 'procedure' involved in their use.
The Audio Active Comparative system used in langauage lab booth decks is basically overdubbing under another name! I too recorded lots of my music stuff on modified language lab cast offs used like a 'portastudio.' Since both my parents worked in education, in the 80s I had a seemingly endless supply of bits as language labs were replaced by computer suites filled with then-popular BBC micros.
i don't get why these references needs to be in the work like that, in those paper sheets, explaining the idea. the work really looses the power it would have if was just the paintings in that disposition. the printings make it, for me, sounds excessively didactic in a bad way. it kind of killed the work a bit.