If the proletarian labourer is the figure par excellence of early industrial capitalism, then the service worker is the casualty of this economic and social programme’s contemporary form. In the factory workers’ bodies were often maimed, and on the assembly line they formed identical units of labour. Whilst service work can be just as damaging to one’s health, it also promotes a more metaphorical fragmentation and reproduction of self. It is this process that the multi-media artist Josh Kline and painter Caroline Walker explore through their very different practices.
In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe the process of managing feelings and their expression that workers in the service industry need to do to fulfil the emotional requirements of their jobs. This commodification of emotion results in the worker’s estrangement from them in the workplace, and a fragmentation of their sense of self, as they have to sunder control of their interiority (or at least its outward manifestations).
Hochschild’s term can be applied to Caroline Walker’s paintings of hotel workers. These images form part of a wider series entitled ‘service’, a title that hints at the legacy of domestic servitude that haunts these women’s work, and their expected attitude to the customer. The hotel cleaner is to be neither seen nor heard, when she meets a customer in the corridor or at their door the interaction is brief and polite; she must defer and corral herself into a position of subservience. This self-management is evident in Walker’s paintings: the viewer is placed in a position of power through their control of the gaze, whilst the maid bends over, intent on her task and making herself invisible. Just as she is expected to become part of the fabric of the hotel, she becomes part of the fabric of the painting. Walker creates a unified surface in which the figures have no more prominence than the toilet rolls, fresh linen, or vacuum cleaners that form their accessories, in a process which mirrors the diffusion of the service worker’s ego whilst on the job.
Josh Kline takes this diffusion further into a literal fragmentation of the labourer’s body. In Keep the Change, a waiter’s hands and feet have been sawn off and left on the serving tray. This dismemberment is technologically precise – the limbs are 3D printed replicas, grotesque and comic in their polymeric form. In this Kline alludes to how we upload our personal data to online databases, dismantling ourselves onto the internet, pixelating and dispersing our bodies and minds. Kline applies Hochschild to the digital world in which everyone, at every moment, can be considered a labourer, product or capital for the tech-giants such as Facebook or Google. In this economy we suffer not just the commodification of our emotions, but the monetisation of our entire private lives and selves.
Walker and Kline are both concerned with the impact of labour on the worker in contemporary society. Hoschild’s notion of ‘emotional labour’ is useful to connect them, but each manifests her observations differently. Kline, for his part, is self-consciously anti-historical. He projects his work into a dystopian future and eschews any critical efforts to pin him down via an appeal to art-historical movements which condemn his work to an intellectualised feedback loop (he has rejected neo-postminimalist, a label often applied to those in the ProBio show he curated at MoMA PS1).
Walker, however, does not refuse history, as challenges it. As a female artist dealing primarily with feminine subjects and labour, she understands the importance of engaging with historic representation. She doesn’t have the privilege of a blank canvas like Kline; she is not starting from the default (and therefore neutral) male, and instead must invoke the paintings of Manet in order to challenge the implicit assumptions of her medium regarding women.
Walker and Kline both produce ground-shaking work. Walker embarks on a radical reassessment of the past and an engagement with the continuation of historical problems in the present reality of the hotel cleaners. Their work and conditions continue much older models of physical and emotional labour, however they are forgotten or rendered invisible in today’s fast-paced society. Kline, for his part, embraces the speed of modern life, rushing ahead of societal change to predict a dystopic, entropic future. All that makes us human, including our bodies, has dissolved to leave us totally alienated, digitised corpses of our former selves.