New Words for Work: Garrick Imatani’s Invisible Weather, 2015

[Originally published in conjunction with an installation at the Southern Oregon University’s Schneider Museum of Art]

The servers labor under the incredible strain of our social interactions. Cooled by a sudden squall appearing in the concrete bunker around them, the labor ceases as if taking a welcome reprieve from the hot, dark work of the internet.

Garrick Imatani deals in social constructions and the ways in which we speak of them. He wants to investigate the intersection between art and politics, but at the same time find new methods for doing so. His installation, Invisible Weather, prods at ideas of labor and the worker and how they relate to the continuously evolving definitions of those terms. What is the place of the worker in an age so reliant on computer technology and the constant calculations of vast online networks? And more importantly, what happens when those processes are interrupted?

A soft, blue, electronic glow peeks through the cutout silhouettes of faceless workers in Imatani’s structure as the members of the performance collective Physical Education rehearse their movements in darkness. Lucy Yim pounds unseen on the wooden structure, creating a distant cacophony that fades to dull thumps and rhythmic textures. Keyon Gaskin braces himself against the wooden stairs, moving in a sort of aerobic repetition that looks at once like limbering up for a big race and a tribute to Vito Acconci.1 Allie Hankin sits in the middle of the concrete, watching the spotlight that comes on intermittently as Imatani fumbles with the lights, readying them for the performance. Taka Yamamoto, arm raised, vibrates back and forth in a sort of salute that mimics the large figure in blue coveralls in the center of the mural.

Coveralls. They’re all wearing coveralls. These worker jumpsuits recall grease monkeys and manufacturing plant workers, but they also bring with them allusions to Marxist and communist philosophies of social class and utilitarianism. “I’m also thinking about similarities between Diego Rivera (who was a communist) and Bertolt Brecht (who was a devout Marxist) through the mural’s exposure of artistic labor to the Brechtian idea of the fourth wall,” says Imatani, “I’m curious if plywood cutouts of workers (with faces and select body parts excised like carnival displays) might simultaneously represent and depart from concepts of alienated labor and spectacle.”2

In the early part of the 20th century, when Rivera was making murals and the workers of the world banded together under a common flag, there was a much different notion of what constituted a laborer, or even what the word ‘labor’ meant. Imatani talks about this interest in an almost universal notion of labor, and a certain solidarity among the working class. Talking about this shift, Imatani intones: “[Many people] can attest to the fact that [the idea of the laborer] is so much more precarious and itinerant now. And it’s always historicized differently, but at that time, especially in the teens and twenties, there was kind of an international solidarity around those ideas, and you knew if you were an artist, you were just a laborer. These ideas have become much more specialized, especially in the role of the artist. I’m kind of interested in getting back to thinking about or just having a conversation with people to open up that idea of how we talk about labor and tease out the fact that it is different now.”

The early 20th century artists working under the ideas of Marx, or at least influenced by those writings, saw themselves not so much as an exalted object/image-maker, but instead as workers. This was emphasized further by the sprouting of the Works Progress Administration and its subsequent involvement with many of the artists that would shape 20th century Modernism. Hiring artists to enrich the cultural cache of the country is seemingly at odds with current ideas about artists operating outside of or in contrast to the institutional structure (perhaps due in part to the defunding of the NEA individual grants and fallout from the Culture Wars of the early 90s, as well and the continued inquiries set forth by institutional critique artists).

Bringing the early 20th century idea of the worker to bear in the 21st century, Imatani draws compositional and conceptual inspiration from Rivera’s mural projects. Themselves studies in their own creation, works like The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) reference the very craftspeople who both made the original frescoes possible, and are also depicted in the scenes. Updating this for our communication-centric age, the scenes in Imatani’s installation speak to pervasive technologies hiding in plain sight. The coverall-clad laborers fashion cacti masks over cell phone towers in the upper right panel, while the server bank in the lower left speaks to the cloud made physical, and to corporate secrecy in the construction of these data farms in Eastern Oregon.

Imatani speaks to his interest in this local corporate influx when he explained: “A lot of this is inspired by this event in Prineville, OR where Facebook and other companies like Google have been moving. Because there’s cheap land and it’s right by water, they have these huge data farms, just rooms and rooms of servers. A couple of years ago, the air was coming in and before it had time to escape it was heating up so quickly and it was so moist, that it created a weather event inside the building and it started raining inside the server room and it shorted the servers. It was the first time [anything like this] had happened in Facebook’s history.”3

This interaction between the physical and the virtual, the natural world and the online realm, is something that Imatani sees as an illustration of our new conversations about work. On one hand, there are very real laborers using their hands to build and repair in a traditional mode (like the installers of the cell phone towers), but there are also computers constantly working and people updating and checking on those servers so that this invisible labor may continue behind the scenes. We only notice when something goes wrong, or when some kind of event (as in the server room rain) interrupts a steady stream of information.

Our infrastructure (whether that be communications, transportation or something else) is so complex that many overlapping parts and tasks are always happening at the same time to keep everything running smoothly. When a group of transit workers goes on strike, the city comes to a standstill. When a server bank goes down, a vast social network hiccups. The ability for the worker to interrupt and to make themselves known through non-work is relevant. The most noticeable figures in Imatani’s installation are those with cutout faces glowing with blue light. The absent workers draw your attention.

The members of Physical Education activate this idea of the unseen laborer and bridge the gap between the ideas built into the mural and the physical space that it occupies. We are made aware of something happening behind the scenes through visual and auditory clues. The heavy breath of an unseen figure in a back room is punctuated by the percussive pounding on the structure’s inner supports. Periodic flutters of the black curtain remind us that there is someone backstage. There is always someone or something behind the scenes. This tension is palpable in Imatani’s installation, but is really brought to the fore by Physical Education as they activate the mural’s faceless workers. Clad in Tyvek and coveralls, the performers are living avatars of the theoretical.

At its core, Invisible Weather is not about creating something new and parading it about the galleries. Instead, Imatani draws more attention to the process and the workers and the set up. The students who collaborated with the artist echo Rivera’s assistants. By creating a community of workers to rally around one project, Imatani brings a questioning of that type of labor to the fore. Noting the almost fantastical server room rain, Imatani sets his project in the realm of magical realism. “Within magical realism, these things are the thing, but they are also the potential for more. Glasses could be glasses, but they could also be for seeing into the past, and this rock could be a rock but also a server. Everything could have some alternative function. I’m trying to suggest that sort of magical potential.” This mural about work elicits new ideas about labor and how we think of it; Imatani’s installation is a brooding catalyst. It waits for you to strike up a conversation and take what you learn out into the world. Only then will the structure be activated and the work will be complete.

1.  See Acconci’s Step Piece of 1970 in which the artist climbed on and off of a stool until his body fatigued.
2.  All quotes taken from an interview with the artist and the project proposal, 2015.
3. For the news story about this event see: Jack Clark, “Facebook’s Data Center Drenched by Actual Cloud,” The Register, June 8, 2013, accessed August 13, 2015, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/06/08/facebook_cloud_versus_cloud.