Sowing art in the bitter soil of Boston since 2001

Heather Kapplow AIR Project Description (Before and After)

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BEFORE: In a recent discussion with the Berwick regarding her upcoming residency period, Ms. Kapplow was asked what she had in mind to do for her opening presentation. Or rather, she was told that her opening presentation was meant to explain to the not-quite-clear and the just-curious, what it is that she actually does. A chill ran down Ms. Kapplow’s spine when she heard this, but that’s why she’s doing the residency.

The “Help Wanted” project, in the Berwick AIR studios for the months of October-December, is about living with precisely this chill—the one that occurs in the moment between when you are asked to define yourself by your ‘work’, and when your mouth opens and stutters out its always-inadequate answer. “Help Wanted” will be exploring the achy contours of that chill in exactly the way that a tongue explores a cavity.

The main themes of “Help Wanted” are the nature of the marketplace; the commodification of identity, labor and creativity; and the relationship of these to both personal and societal definitions of mental health. “By contrasting my personal experiences of the unpleasantnesses of forcing myself to be things that I am not in order to earn money, with my experiences of the other extreme—doing things I love to do in realms that have no resources that can be lived on, I hope to create a space where people are allowed to question how values regarding ‘occupation’ are arrived at, and at what cost.” The title of this project references both the way that the phrase is used in the employment market and a more general need for (psychological? practical? spiritual?) guidance or assistance on the levels of basic and ego survival.

Ms. Kapplow will attempt to narrate some of the messy chaos of human failure with the seamlessly positive, cheesy corporate design templates of PowerPoint; use Excel to describe her entire (since childhood) work history chronologically, drawing attention to the problem of how to characterize the unofficial aspects of those experiences; and will illustrate the comings and goings of her mental faculties by means of whiteboards with ‘in’ and ‘out’ magnets. She will experiment with the boundaries of the media of competency and competition (resumes, business cards, etc.) and hopes to host an Exquisite Corpse-inspired resume workshop at the midpoint of her residency period. Ms. Kapplow will also be constructing a few “work” and “non-work” stations for visitors to interact with at the close of her residency.

If you would like more details about what Ms. Kapplow actually does, or would like to discuss any of these matters further, you are welcome to attend a Business Lunch at the Berwick on Friday, Oct. 15 from 7-9 PM and the closing on Saturday Dec. 4 from 7-9 PM. Please bring your business card (or anyone’s business card) with you to the meeting.


AFTER"Now one of two things must take place. Either you must do something or something must be done to you.” – from Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville (1853)


I’m quoting Melville here because this short story was a huge influence on me when I began this project. I know I’m hardly giving a sense of it here, but if you haven’t read it, you really should. It’s probably available online somewhere, it’s under 30 pages long, and it’s a great example of how good the short story form can be. Melville takes this incredibly complex problem that modern, industrial, capitalist and proto-capitalist societies present us with—the problem of having to do something—and creates a situation and set of characters that turn the problem around, letting you see it from every angle so that by the end, you can be absolutely sure that it’s a real problem because whatever is at it’s heart, it’s unavoidably linked to death and disconnection. The narrator is arch and tender and a bit ridiculous, but also like everyone you’ve ever met who just needed to get their job done. The central character is nearly silent, but a total splinter in your thumb that you can’t get rid of. And like all the best artworks, the story can’t resolve a damned thing and sticks the problem into your hands when you’re done reading it.


That’s where it should be.


My residency at the Berwick was initially intended as an exploration of why we identify ourselves in terms of our work. I wanted to know why we always ask each other what we do when we first meet. I wanted to know why our job titles, (or where we work, what we produce, how much money we make, etc,) are so tightly linked to our senses of ourselves as valuable.


When I proposed HELP WANTED, the unemployment rate was high, and almost everyone that I knew was struggling with job loss; the threat of job loss; underemployment; or the prospect of holding onto work that they didn’t feel good about because they knew that they were “lucky to have a job at all”. My plan was to use the media of competition (business cards, resumes, etc.) in the labor market, and the esthetics of the kinds of working environments I was familiar with, to draw attention to the distances between how we feel as creatures walking around in the world and how we are required to represent ourselves in the context of the labor market. I was particularly interested in the struggle involved in commodifying one’s natural abilities or creative energies, and in the idea that the phrase “help wanted” might be related in some way to the notion of “wanting help”, as the phrase is used in the mental health industry. 


I explored these themes by building two interactive “workstations” (MAKE MONEY FAST and MAKE MONEY SLOW); a “non-work station” (BED O’DEPRESSION); some (rather unsuccessful) PowerPoint presentations about my previous jobs, and my father’s complete lack of employment during my lifetime; a video based on a children’s rhyme about factory work called HELLO JOE!; several low-key, in-the-world performance-art-actions; and an untitled piece composed from the whited-out business cards of the 48 most important professional contacts I’ve made to date. I also wrote an entertaining series of memos about my experiences that can be read on the journal portion of my Berwick AIR page.


During the HELP WANTED closing, I dressed in catering garb and wandered the room serving the event’s visitors wine and snacks from a platter.


The “workstations” allowed visitors the opportunity to either MAKE MONEY FAST or MAKE MONEY SLOW. The MAKE MONEY SLOW booth was constructed to evoke the sensation of being in some sort a sort of oldfashioned workshop space. The booth was made from one of the Berwick’s wheeling plywood “pods”, and was lined with brown shipping paper and industrial carpeting. There was a giant clock on the wall from an old elementary school—the kind that makes a lot of noise when it ticks the minutes away slowly—and a calendar from the American Veteran’s Association on the wall near a pocket of filled-out time cards. Workers sat on a metal stool at a beat up wooden table under a bright lamp and were instructed to select halves of pennies from several piles, and to glue them together using epoxy that took 5 minutes to set. They were allowed to keep all of the money they made and the estimated average amount that could be made this way in an hour was 7 cents.


The MAKE MONEY FAST booth was also constructed in a Berwick “pod”, but was decorated to look like a motel room. The floor was covered in cheap blue carpeting that almost, but didn’t quite match the equally cheap blue fabric covering the walls. The booth was liberally doused in vodka and closed off from the general public with curtains, and a red lamp outside signaled when there was someone inside wanting to make money. The inside of the space was divided in two by a cheap velour stanchion. A low-watt bulb swung from the ceiling over one side where the instructions for making money were propped up against a bottle of vodka. Near this, in front of the velour rope, was a velour pillow, and above on the wall, a framed sad clown painting hung near a switch for the lamp outside the booth. Next to the vodka was a bowl of condoms. The instructions for making money explained how to give a blow job, and estimated how much money could be made in an hour if one charged $15 for each blow job and worked fast.  


If neither of these types of work appealed, visitors were referred to the non-workstation, BED O’DEPRESSION. This piece, a single-sized futon in a dank corner under a stairwell, was built collaboratively with Katya Gorker. It had a pillow filled with dirt, and a quilt that had also been filled with dirt, making it heavy to lift and lie under. Once in the bed, the non-worker was instructed to put on a pair of headphones. These played a looping soundtrack of negative affirmations which were reversed versions of affirmations for becoming successful by an inspirational speaker named Og Mandino. Two deadpan voices, alternating between the left and right channels, read 75 statements such as “All of your efforts will be futile”, “Your very nature makes you unemployable”, or “There is something unspeakably wrong with you and everyone can sense it.”


These three pieces were meant to illustrate by exaggeration and through the placing of one’s body in the exaggerated positions, three of the most common experiences in the traditional labor market that I and the many others that I discussed work with during my research have had: working very hard at something that pays very little and is repetitive or feels arbitrary, but which preserves creative energy for free time; prostituting oneself in one way or another but making better money; and opting out or failing to opt in properly and making no money/feeling isolated from the general population which is immersed in a culture of productivity.


An unexpected piece, created by the visitors at the closing, was my favorite product of my residency:


I had left post-it pads and pens around the exhibit space so that people could give me anonymous feedback on works in progress that I was showing. At the time, the Berwick had a large map of Metro-Boston pinned up on the back of a door. At the end of the night, I discovered that this had been covered in post-its with the names of companies, years, job titles, unpleasant tasks, names of cute co-workers etc. written on them. Metro-Boston had been transformed into a map of real-life worksites of people attending the closing. Rather than take the post-its down when cleaning up, I added few of my own, including one representing my residency at the Berwick and then I realized that this object was the ideal fruit of my labor as a Berwick AIR.


I had succeeded in making an environment where we could all put our work-lives into proper perspective. Representing the many jobs (shit jobs and good jobs) we've had by sticking scribbled-on post-its on a city map is such a different thing than gathering them together on a resume. There's something anti-competitive (an attribute sorely missing in the work-world) about everyone sharing one giant, visual work history mapped out in space rather than in time. There's also something very liberating about the esthetic—having all of that time and effort and success and failure and boredom (in meetings and behind counters) summed up in a messy bunch of post-its. And we spent time and energy making something that had no potential for commodification—no lasting value at all. It was made—like art is meant to be made—for the pure hell of it.       


My true research ended up being about what an artists’ work might be in relation to other types of work. Though I was thrilled about creating art-products officially for the first time in my life, the best result was that I was able to genuinely experience the value of process as greater than that of product. I also let myself follow impulses to create in ways that were whorishly collaborative and interactive. Perhaps in resistance to the competition and ego-centricity that drive the labor market, I found myself coming up with plans for pieces that implicated anyone and everyone, whether participating actively or passively, before, after or during the fact, as an utter co-artist. At heart, I “wanted help” playing around in the spirit of art, and I got it.