Brett Wallace: If This, Then What at ART 3/Silas Shabelewska Gallery
October 3 to November 6, 2016
109 Ingraham Street (between Knickerbocker and Porter avenues)
Brooklyn, NY 646 331 2368
Piles of Amazon cartons sit in the center of Bushwick’s ART 3 Gallery. Salvaged from curbsides around the city, these boxes have been laser-cut with a variety of aphorisms sourced from Amazon’s ”fulfillment centers,” as their massive warehouses and shipping depots are euphemistically termed: “Your margin is my opportunity,” “Lift bend squat reach and move,” “Growth mindset.” Empty of goods but filled with meaning, these containers were shipped through the postal service to the gallery for Brett Wallace’s solo show, “If This, Then What.” Wallace’s work examines the relationship between digital and physical labor in a world where corporations like Amazon move physical goods around using algorithmic and human processes of command and control.
Amazon’s fulfillment centers, some of which can be larger than six football fields, are algorithmic beehives in which worker productivity is tightly controlled through digital surveillance and the quantification of labor. Each worker is expected to maintain a particular rate of productivity at whatever their task may be, and their performance is automatically monitored. According to Wallace, these centers have an annual turnover rate greater than 80 percent: only one in five employees lasts more than a year.
Some of Wallace’s works reference specific fulfillment centers: BS-i2-1.0_2016, a wall-mounted mixed-media assemblage, contains an Amazon fulfillment center-branded t-shirt and hat, each sealed behind Plexiglas in a little wooden reliquary. These are attached to a main panel emblazoned with a corporate logo that resembles Amazon’s but is in fact Amazing, a parody startup company founded by Wallace that appropriates the visual and corporate language of Amazon. Amazing ships around empty Amazon boxes inscribed with the company’s empty slogans. Against the gallery’s far wall is a wooden desk covered with more Amazing-branded materials such as rolls of black Amazing and pieces of thin cardboard. These are prints, each unique, that were created using a low-powered laser to engrave text and images into the cardboard without cutting through it.
The automated process of laser cutting, used on the boxes and the prints, has parallels to Amazon’s automated processes of employee surveillance and control. Two wall-mounted pieces were created using such methods and draw attention to the gap between ideal digital forms and imperfect material manifestations. These pieces were based on the maze from Pac-Man; its walls have been cut out of the wood or Plexiglas substrate. Intersected and disrupted by the maze’s negative space are colorful inkjet prints of integrated circuit layouts, the physical basis of digital computation. But even at a distance a viewer can see where the laser cutter burned the Plexiglas, or where the automated router bit cut out too much wood. These imperfections serve as a kind of material allegory for corporate contingency: the labyrinthine systems of command and control that power Amazon may seem perfect as digital abstractions, but the uncertainties of the material world, such as worker satisfaction, can interfere with the corporation’s virtual ideals.
Amazon began at the dawn of the Internet age as an online bookstore. After expanding to include other media products, like CDs and videos, its inventory exploded in size to encompass the material entirety of existence under late-capitalism. Its latest ventures, such as grocery delivery, streaming video, data centers, and potential expansion into drone-based package delivery (pending approval from the FAA) move the company closer to becoming a “mega-corporation” straight out of a cyberpunk dystopia. Behind the shiny digital veneer, however, is a workforce that toils unseen and unappreciated by Amazon’s customers. Wallace doesn’t necessarily give these workers human faces, but he does take Amazon’s objectification and quantification of the individual as a starting point, building a body of work that occupies the uncomfortable gap between lived experience and digital immateriality that these workers inhabit daily.print