Green St. Gallery is under construction. With saws, Vacuums, scraps of wood, and tons of dust, Douglas Weathersby’s newest installment resembles a construction site as much as an art exhibition. Commissioned to complete an office that eliminates a desk and adds a wall with some shelving, the efforts of Environmental Services are in constant progress over the course of this exhibition.
Having recently shown at the ICA and the Rose Art Museum, many are already familiar with Weathersby’s work. In short, Environmental Services was created as a pseudo company that basically cleans up after you. Performing janitorial duties as well as small construction, Environmental Services comes to your place and does the chores you have either forgot or simply don’t want to do. I shall emphasize the word perform here, as Weathersby’s services are theatricized far beyond what you would expect for humble labor. Accumulated dust that form the shape of shadows and removed objects are sometimes isolated in the gallery as discreet sculptures, but the primary result of his efforts, beyond a job well done that is, are photographs and videos picturing some of the more poetic moments from the process of labor.
Weathersby’s work calls to mind a Mike Kelly quote describing his work as a janitor, which was importantly not an art strategy but a job he had when young. He explains:
"It was a very boring job and I worked for long hours and I would find myself fixating on small things and going through certain kinds of mind games in order to make the experience more tolerable. For example, I’d be sweeping the floor and I’d fixate on one little piece of dirt that I would be sweeping because I would be sweeping floors all night by myself. So I’d start to play games where I said this was the best piece of dirt- that one. So this piece of dirt becomes more and more important and aestheticized.”
Kelley’s work of this period does not coalesce into a determined whole, but rather, are informal negotiations on the function of the artist and his relationship to work. To paraphrase John Miller, Mike Kelley- the artist as janitor- identifies with the insignificant as a condition of his employment. Weathersby’s project differs on several key points. Most importantly, Environmental Services is advertised and promoted to the fullest. With catchy slogans and beautiful graphics, the corporate branding operates to distinguish the less than desirable work he performs. At the same time, the slick prints and polished videos that represent the company resemble normal art objects. Environmental Services does not exactly symbolize artist as janitor, but janitor as art- all through the familiar devices of high capitalism: design and managerial services.
However, the current Green St. show differs slightly from this model in that half of the gallery is still a work in progress. One half of the gallery is dedicated to the fetishized products of his labor- videos, elaborate dust displays and a nice vacuum in a vortex of debris. The other half is occupied with Weathersby and gallery curator James Hull, essentially just doing work. On a monitor is some rough footage of them playing loud music and being goofy employees. An attempt to make the work “art” is withheld and is replaced by evidence of the very practical job of producing a new office area with storage shelves and flat files. There are still parts where the dust is accentuated and plywood is propped in an attractive manner, but these gestures seem to be the product of workers allowing themselves to indulge in their own idiosyncrasies than workers trying to promote product.
What both Kelley and Weathersby have in common is the refusal to heroicize the working class. Kelley identifies with but never ennobles the “common” man while Weathersby seeks to brand it- capitalize it. Oh, and what a market he will find. A friend remarked to me that he thought Weathersby’s work was the ultimate bourgeois activity. All he could picture were rich socialites bragging to their friends that they do indeed have the most interesting and, probably, the most expensive cleaning service in town. Imagine their bragging rights! While my anonymous friend was dismissive of this catering, I think the commercial appeal of the work is crucial. Weathersby’s work insists on a certain level of enjoyment and excess in the model of the worker. By arranging dust and taking photographs he certainly spends a surplus amount of time on a job, especially compared with the ideology of capitalism where getting the most out of your workers is the aim. Environmental Services is here to promote aesthetic labor where getting the most out of the work and not the worker is the goal. In this sense, Weathersby carves out a space for him to enjoy and make a little more money doing it.
Green Street Gallery
"Environmental Services" is on view September 17 - October 23, 2004 at the Green Street Gallery.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Green Street Gallery.
Micah Malone is a founding contributor of Big, Red & Shiny.