Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Interregna by John Pilson

John Pilson’s book title Interregna means “between the kings” or “between the reigns”, a moment when authority releases its hold. For 6 years between 1994 and 2000 John Pilson worked weekend and night shifts in an investment bank. It was during these hours of work when the building was operating as if on half power and half staff that Pilson brought along his camera.

The way the book is sequenced gives us the impression of sluggishness and distraction right from the start of our shift. From the moment we hang our coat (with its stitched logo that features an image of the corporate world we have just entered) we seem to treasure the freedom which is about to dissolve into 8 hours or more of work. We sit at our computer terminal but cannot focus on the monitor and instead stare out the window at the sea of other buildings (repetitions of our current workspace) and realize that there is no where to escape to even in day dreaming. We then make excuses to avoid starting the day (or night) of work. Trips to the bathroom, repairing the wrist rest of our keyboard with a series of staples or even falling asleep because there is no one around this “downtime” work environment to tell you to get back to work.

These are not photos of the cliché alienated worker in a passionless environment. Yes, the surroundings may be cool and calculating but the few people we meet on John’s night shift look rather out of place for their contentedness and strength. They defy the norm of what we would expect from such an overwhelming work-driving environment. What office building does not constantly remind you of its authoritative power over you? In one image a woman pauses to look down at the curvature of her pregnant stomach. Another falls asleep on a window’s ledge. In fact, for such a corporate environment bent on function and efficiency there seems to be little work getting accomplished other than by Pilson and his camera. Between the reigns.

The attention to detail and the attempt on the part of the workers to influence their environment is one of Pilson’s preoccupations. A leaf of a plant pinned to a message board is seen either as something to admire or perhaps as an act of cruelty. Knots and coils of computer cables ensnare objects that drop from the desktop. A disembodied arm hangs lifelessly over the top of our cubicle. A picture of Dubrovnik, Croatia is displayed potentially as an image of escape until we realize that that landscape is as densely packed with buildings as the one we are currently in. A piece of origami placed atop a cardboard box almost goes unseen as it is just another series of angles in this angular world.

Pilson is the kind of photographer that other photographers will admire. His subject screams boredom and languishment so who would want to be subjected to this world if it wasn’t for Pilson’s invigorating formal sophistication and commentary. His images do not show you all of their cards at once but quietly ask you to tease out their meanings.

For all of the naysayers who complain about the detachment and disconnect of contemporary art to convey real daily life and experience, here is a project that does just that. This is a project that speaks to those caught up in a work environment that (at least in these pictures) stifles passion and frustrates. The disconnect could be in the publishing of this book, for will enjoy pulling this title off the shelf who but other artists and photographers? Most of the people who spend the time whiling away days and years in that world would probably be the last ones to spend their coveted leisure hours looking upon these pages. For me though, it is one of the better (but perhaps overlooked) books published last year.

The book is published by Hatje Cantz and it is cleanly designed as is common with most of their titles. The printing is good and reflects the vast amount of grays in both Pilson’s photos and the office spaces he described. His choice of working in black and white over color perfectly expresses the lack of personal passion and energy drain of his experience in that corporate world. An interesting contrast would be to Lars Tunbjork’s vibrant color photos that are completely energizing to the viewer. Those photographs work in completely different ways. Tunbjork lets us off the hook through his use of color and seductive lighting. He gives us more to “enjoy” but in turn, less to experience. Interregna has a whole different hold over us.

Interregna enjoyably tires me out. Like the workers on the last page staring out on the oncoming day after a night of “work”, we too feel worn out and rub our eyes whilst looking forward to getting some sleep.

The computer terminals will slip into “sleep” mode too and their monitors will show fractal images of crunching numbers while waiting for our return.

Book Available Here (Interregna)

Buy online at Hatje Cantz