by Dilpreet BhullarSep 23, 2021
Total Office Environment by the American artist Johnathan Fletcher Moore is a complex piece, and one that is hardly easy to discuss. As the artist himself mentions, it falls broadly into the ambit of installation art, but is more accurately placed within the category of Gesamtkunstwerk, which is a form of artistic practice that combines several other mediums, including kinetic or interactive sculpture, choreographed performance, set design, filmmaking, graphic design and cinema, just to name a few. To complicate matters further, the installation draws heavily upon both, the artist’s experiences, as well as particular discourses that dominated the American socio-economic sphere during the time of its conception and undertaking. So then, perhaps, it is important to first understand Moore and the world he created this piece in, before Total Office Environment can truly be explored in a meaningful way.
Hailing from the rural American South, Moore tells STIR, “I was lucky to have a family who shared a love and passion for storytelling through family gatherings, reading, and trips to the cinema.” He mentions, in particular, his grandmother who took him to his state’s only independent theatre where he was exposed to films from all over the world. This sparked a love for animation and its emotional force within Moore, and he would eventually find himself at Savannah College of Art and Design, studying computer animation, visual effects and documentary photography. After graduating, Moore would begin working in the animation industry, wherein he worked with big name like DreamWorks and Walt Disney Animation studios. Eventually he would quit in order to develop his narrative-based approach outside the flat canvas of the screen, having become more fascinated with its potential in a more multi-disciplinary arts practice, and would eventually be invited to UCLA’s Design, Media Arts programme to further develop these ideas.
Returning to Moore’s childhood, he explains, “I grew up in the 80s and 90s, at the height of American consumer culture in a town that was aging on multiple fronts; the infrastructure, its services and even the people. The town was also shrinking in population and businesses were leaving or closing. As you can imagine, there was a sense of sadness under the surface as we watched our community slowly unravel.” He continues, explaining how many Americans have been trained to think that material goods and objects are the root of happiness, and that these conflicting thoughts caused him a great feeling of dissonance. Later on, while he was working as an animator, he would develop a fascination with “orphaned” objects - articles that are often ignored or that become invisible owing to their utilitarian nature. The artist explains, “My work became very preoccupied with these background objects that are witness to human experience along with the manner in which they show the passing of time, much in the way our bodies do. They start out life as shiny new-born objects, eventually becoming mundane as they fade into the background, and finally arrive at a state of decay, and disrepair.”
Eventually, Moore’s projects would begin to emerge out of the aforementioned fascination for mundane entities that slip out of our imagination. Total Office Environment is one such piece that combines the artist’s approach towards non-living actors in corporate professional spaces; filled with a childlike empathy and curiosity, with the anxieties surrounding technological progress and automation. The project was undertaken during a time of great discussion regarding the idea of “Universal Basic Income” as a means to combat worker layoffs resulting from jobs being overtaken by machines. As mentioned, discourse around this topic dominated socio-economic thought in the United States, and it can be imagined that it only served to intensify the anxieties surrounding layoffs for some. Total Office Environment is, at its heart, not truly about Moore’s office appliances that hum and function seemingly on their own, but rather about the plight of the lone human actor involved: a singular office “manager” whose job it has become to oversee the functioning of the machines. Moore says, “This work is really about exploring the poetics of uncertainty in the face of new disruptive technologies such as Artificial Intelligence / automation and how those caught in these industrial processes try to cope and navigate new possibilities.” The piece was created with the involvement of performer Elliot Reed who becomes the “beating heart” of sorts amidst Moore’s ever changing automated experience that shifts between work, stillness and chaos. In one video culled from Reed’s performance within Total Office Environment, appropriately titled What day is it?, Reed can be seen simultaneously and aimlessly sitting at a chair, adjusting potted plants and shifting languidly on the floor of the office, as the day-to-day workings unfold around him with little to none of his participation. The character he is embodying, must then be forced to contend with a certain sense of obsolescence in the face of mechanical perfection.
Total Office Environment is highly regarded, having won Moore the New Face Award at the 22nd Japan Media Arts Festival in Tokyo, and also exhibited and featured by Wired Magazine, Fast Company and The Hammer Museum among others. Its meditations on the socio-economic uncertainties of the future are disquieting, and force viewers to revaluate the parameters by which we judge human satisfaction. There is, without a doubt, a movement worldwide towards establishing a point of convergence nested with capitalist, industrialist values, which relegates whole groups of people to the position of functionaries, and then even further below, to obsolescence, in order to prioritise production efficiency in an ever more ravenous consumer market. In essence, Total Office Environment takes this to its logical, or perhaps illogical conclusion. However, when all is said and done, one cannot help but wonder if there is also a sense of mourning contained within this piece; mourning that speaks to the fate of fading middle-class, blue and white-collar societies such as the one the artist grew up in.