Andreia Alves de Oliveira / The Politics of the Office
The Politics of the Office is a photographic series about the office as space, investigating how space is used to influence the way people work and feel in offices.
The project documents the offices of financial, corporate, and legal institutions based in the City and Canary Wharf in London. These provide an interesting case study not only because, due to their size, historically they have originated a vast knowledge, materialised in disciplines such as organisational behaviour, environmental psychology, ergonomics or office design, that was then applied to offices in general. But also because there is a contradiction between the visibility of these institutions – occupying imposing buildings in urban centres, their activities impacting on the whole of society – and the invisibility of the space where these activities take place. Images of such office interiors exist mostly in the form of films, TV series and commercial photographs. Testifying to the poorness of its documentary representation, it took nearly two years and 500 companies contacted to obtain access to the offices of around fifty of such institutions.
The photographs reveal the new, post-Taylorist office, where discipline is achieved through rather subtle, symbolic means: spectacular, richly decorated receptions and clients’ areas which blur the lines between work and fun; colourful, stylish ‘breakout’ areas and staff ‘amenities’ provided as a trade-off for the loss of personal space in the now widespread ‘non-territorial’ offices, where there are no assigned desks; a system of spatial ‘status markers’ – quantity and quality of furniture, décor, amount of space per person, location within the floor and the building, – put in place to signal hierarchical relations of power, reflecting wider systems that influence life in industrialised society, where material possessions often signify social status.
Although the offices are shown devoid of people, human presence is felt throughout. The low vantage point of the photographs places the furniture at eye level within the frame, accentuating the chairs’ anthropomorphic qualities, making them stand for the people who inhabit these offices. The lower than usual camera height also has the effect of depicting space in a human scale, eschewing the spectacular, pleasing vistas typical of architectural and interiors commercial photography which define the common visual representations of these spaces.
In their emptiness and neutral mood, these offices may bring to mind what Walter Benjamin saw in Eugene Atget’s photographs of Paris’ empty streets: forensic photographs of crime scenes. Benjamin was referring to crimes that were social and political. Similarly, the scenes here would refer not to individual incidents, but to events that have the capacity to impact on the whole of society happening everyday in these hidden interiors – no less than what could be termed, metaphorically and perhaps less metaphorically, as the crimes of capital.
While questioning how power is exercised through the space in/of the image, The Politics of the Office offers the opportunity to witness photographs of offices that are largely inaccessible to the general public. By making these spaces visible and by addressing them in their totality, the work creates an expanded image of the office, that aims to contribute, following the philosopher Henri Lefebvre, to the production of this space – an everyday, overlooked, but defining space of industrialised and service-based society.
The work has been exhibited in an arrangement that combines sequence and seriality to stage spatial power relations: the horizontal sequence takes the viewer through the different areas of the office (reception, clients’ areas, meeting rooms, workspaces, and staff amenities), from which vertical series expand upwards and downwards. These combine photographs taken in different offices but referring to the same office areas to create hierarchical rankings between them based on the ‘status markers’ visible in the photographed offices.
Here, the work is presented in a grid that creates a vertical hierarchy between the different areas of the office represented in each row.
Andreia Alves de Oliveira (Portugal, 1979) is a photo artist and researcher in photography based in London. She was awarded her practice-based PhD in 2015 from the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM) at the University of Westminster. Alves de Oliveira holds an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster and studied at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, where she was selected for the Creativity and Artistic Creation Programme. Before pursuing photography full time, Andreia studied law and worked as a lawyer.
Alves de Oliveira’s practice and research explore subjects related to contemporary life in so-called Western, service-based society, employing photography and writing to investigate what is happening to us both as a society and as individuals in this moment and why, while questioning the mechanisms and power relations implicit in the process of representation.
Alves de Oliveira has exhibited internationally and is a regular speaker at artist talks and academic conferences. She is currently a co-convenor of Ph: The Photography Research Network.
Details of The Politics of the Office:
130 photographs, with captions
Diasec mounted c-type prints, 20x30cm