In an office at night
after Burgin (1986), after Hopper (1940)
Victor Burgin’s series Office at Night from 1986 takes the relationship between a boss (male) and a (or: his?) secretary (female) as its starting point. Burgin’s initial interest for the series lay in an inversion of the woman in Hopper’s painting from being an object of sexual curiosity to become the subject of curiosity: ‘to transform showing into knowing, exhibitionism into epistemophilia’ (Burgin referenced in The Exposure Project 2008). His strategy is simple and powerful: an inversion of the subject/object relationship inside the picture plane and thus a shift in the identification of the viewer from the male to the female,a shift in the interaction between viewer and viewed upon.
The subject in Burgin’s photographs is stilled, unmoved and also does not show much in terms of facial expressions but instead seems focused on, taken in, by her doing. Looking at her, I am intrigued that as much as I appreciate Burgin’s intent about her pursuing her curiosity; could she not also simply fulfil her duties? There is nothing too obvious that tells me that she has autonomy over her actions (let alone that these acts are filled with epistemophilia — an (excessive) desire for knowledge). I wonder if this is due to the stillness of her pose, she seems almost caught in thought, more than anything else. There is an uncertain relationship between her in the frame and me, as viewer, watching her. Almost if I wanted to encourage her: go on, figure it out. All the while, she remains still, static; I have the sense that Burgin as author is still in almost complete control over her and me as viewer.
A couple of conversations recently had piqued my interest as to re-staging this series. This happens in the context of my going to have for the first time in a number of years a desk space (shared) in an academic institution. It also happens in the context of my departure from that institution a number of years ago due to work conditions and the absence of desire to pursue that type of work in that kind of intensity. And yet, there is obviously something epistemophilic that entices me back.
Two lines that relate the office as a workspace and night-time work:
(a) due to several rounds of restructuring, there are no longer any secretaries: secretarial work is increasingly part of knowledge work;
(b) the conflation – or in fact, possibly: the demand – to equate work and desire in an academic workplace: that work is not merely a job but a vocation; something that ought to be prioritised over most (all) else.
So far, this project has involved two colleagues, conversations and lens-based co-authored images. It also has acquired a fictitious Office at day division which explores the spaces of email surveillance, discipline and gossip in the contemporary academy.