Desk Dilemmas

labour pains and pleasures

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Desk Dilemmas


Work is the lending of one’s time in exchange for a salary and for the right to enjoy the products of labour and nature. In scarcity contexts, people are obliged to work to buy their basic survival but in the Western context of excess, work has become something else. It is now a core element of our identity, a hybrid of dedication and alienation, power and oppression, pride and shame, fulfilment and drudgery. These mixed feelings and the introduction of digital media in the workplace are promoting a feeling of schizophrenia around work and, simultaneously, blurring the distinctions between work and leisure, producer and consumer. Material goods, services, supply chains, applications, software and hardware become part of a coherent whole — according to Bernard Stiegler symptoms of the hyper-industrial world we live in.

Desk Dilemmas: Labour Pains and Pleasures,invites the viewer to explore a digital archipelago of current work paradigms. The user’s interaction reveals an implicit critique to the exploitation and precarity that each of them perpetuates. Through the metaphorical potential of the artworks that inspired the process of representation, the critique is extended. Ultimately, the project aims to start a reflection on the influence of digital media in invisible labour, labour flexibilization, playbour, refusal of labour, remote labour and the end of labour.

Madalena Lopes — June 2020

This project was done in the context of the Master in Communication Design and New Media in the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Lisbon

The Refusal Desk


The production of knowledge is a contribution to humanity

Being a student allows you to abstract your actions from reality

It is difficulty to avoid opportunistic tendencies and dependencies

A search for autonomy

The starting point of organized social relations without the intervention and mediation of an alienated apparatus

A liberation from the enchanted cycle of production, productivity, and producers

A position in respect to the conditions of existence under capitalism and of all forms of conformist behaviour that the capitalist society demands

An increase in the value of life decreases the value of Capital

A new way to inhabit the world, time and space

An assumed level of exclusion from the current society

A redefinition of basic needs and re-appropriation of personal time

The common theme across the various images of Saint Jerome's Desk is the spectre of death, some deny it others acknoledge it, some open doors into a reflection about a celestial after life — the workplace becomes the site of battle against mortality.

The Independent Desk


The borders of work are now more diffuse and flexible and so are the objects and contexts that support it

A person with a laptop and internet connection can work from anywhere

A train cubicle holds an office meeting. A café is a workplace. And a lap with a perfectly balanced cushion is a desk.

Working from home means the home is the office, not having a separation from life and work encourages the tendency to work more

Freelance has its drawbacks, among them a lack of space where you belong

It is not easy to find a suitable space to put down a laptop that is non-sticky and has a socket nearby, a place that has free and fast wi-fi and that isn’t playing extremely loud music, a place that has a toilet nearby and that you will not feel scared to leave your things.

Electronic devices invade our privacy and transform our intimate spaces into workplaces.

Messages, emails and notifications that appear outside working hours, invite people to dive into cycles of self-exploitation

Platforms that facilitate the exchange of information without spatial restrictions, by email or videoconference, announce a new form of alienation that is opaque, omnipresent and infinitely more intimate

Through noises and lights that humans are unable to resist, rooms dedicated to rest, solitude and isolation no longer exist

Workers are independent but infinitely dependent on the network.

There is no paid time off and of course no health benefits, all responsibility falls on the individual

Workers or managers share feelings of dependence on a constant flow that cannot be stopped.

Electronic devices invade our privacy and transform our intimate spaces into workplaces. Messages, emails and notifications that appear outside working hours, invite people to dive into cycles of self-exploitation

work has become a multitude of islands that are formally autonomous but coordinated and infinitely dependent. Cooperation now means transferring, elaborating and decoding digital information.

Freelance work is unstable and the paychecks are inconsistent

Independence may sound seductive but it often leads to isolation and loneliness

Offset, Tomas Alonso, 2012
A collection of tables and accessories for the home, home office and contract environments designed by Tomás Alonso for Maxdesign. Customisable, innovative and flexible, Offset responds to the new spatial needs born from contemporary working habits in which the line between home and office is ever more blurred.

The project explores the idea of the work table as a microsystem with separate elements that can be combined into an array of possibilities. An object of common use, the table is broken down into its basic components to which a series of functional accessories can then be added. The configuration of all these elements is left to the user who can arrive to their own solution in response to their own functional and aesthetic needs.

Tapis de Sable, Marcel Broodthaers, 1974
When the 'Tapis de Sable' is set up, it is an extremely vulnerable work, but at the same time, the work is invulnerable because it can always be made again. After the exhibition, the sand is swept up and the potted palm is put in a different place. What remains is the towelling cloth and an exact description of how the work should be carried out again and what means should be used to do so.

The Domestic Desk


being alive produces disorder and waste

house duties are feminized and invisible to the public and to employers

domestic labor is almost always the product of unequal social relations

hygiene depends on negotiations that relate to intimacy, boundaries and power

who cleans up after whom depends largely on physical autonomy, gender identity and familial and socioeconomic configurations

thanks to the smartphone and all sorts of apps, the functional tasks of living are increasingly outsourced

grocery shopping, food delivery, attendance to elders, cleaning and babysitting are just one smartphone-tap away

the humans who are summoned to perform the domestic tasks are invisible to the people who tap

the wealthy have the option of outsourcing house labor, thus being relieved from the tasks themselves and also from the exhaustion that results from the emocional discussions about who’s going to do it

the home is a workplace, as well as ground zero for all labour inside and beyond its walls

Hatstand, Table and Chair, Allen Jones, 1969
The series of erotic scupltures have always provoked controversy. Hatstand, Table and Chair comprise near life-size, hyper-realistic models of women squeezed into bondage gear, and incorporated into pieces of domestic furniture.

The artwork is almost the perfect image of the objectification of women. It explores the imagery of capitalism in which the female body does not act as a sign of the owner’s own sexuality and only exists for the sexual imagination of man.

The Invisible Desk


Thanks to electronic devices every second of our day is now profitable

The smartphone is typically the first object to be touched upon awakening and the last before sleeping

A large part of the population keeps their cellphone at a maximum distance of one meter from the body

Most of social life and entertainment takes place inside the small screens of electronic devices

Within the operations of 21st century capitalism, almost every possible use of networked tools is designed to be productive and monetizable

All the layers that attach humans physically and emotionally to electronic objects hide huge transaction systems that incessantly extract behavioral data resulting from our digital experience

Offline or online, electronic devices are in constant monitorization, through the applications that inhabit them, geo-location systems and through the way they are interacted with

All the collected data is used by the companies that collect them as raw material in the construction of psychological profiles and in the creation of predictions about the future behaviors of users. The forecasts are evaluated, bought and sold to other companies whose interests coincide with future markets

The extraction of residual data has ramifications that go far beyond the digital world. The biggest investments at the moment are exactly in investigating how the predictions can be used to manipulate moods and, consequently, human actions in the physical world

The work we all share in common, regardless of employment status, is the ceaseless output of actionable data

A small number of companies, mainly based in Sillicon Valley keep, analyze and create all types of behavioral models through the invasion of human privacy. The obtain enormous profits in doing so.

Behind seductive interfaces, convenient services and diverse forms of entertainment, smart devices become the main instrument of companies that naturally assume the compromise of individual privacy and freedom

The extraction, exploitation and expropriation of personal data paves the way for new forms of control, and also paves the way for a new order based on absolute certainties

User digital connection is used as a means for the commercial purposes of others

The bed is not exempt from labor. The bed is a unique horizontal architecture in the age of social media, a contemporary workspace transforming labor, in this contribution to the publication.

Bed-office,Hugh Hefner, 1960
Playboy turned the bed into a workplace. From the mid-1950s on, the bed becomes increasingly sophisticated, outfitted with all sorts of entertainment and communication devices as a kind of control room.

The bed as a site of action. The bed has become the ultimate prosthetic and a whole new industry is devoted to providing contraptions to facilitate work while lying down—reading, writing, texting, recording, broadcasting, listening, talking, and of course, eating, drinking, sleeping, or making love—activities that seem to have themselves been turned, of late, into work.

Bed-ins for peace, John and Yoko, 1969
Two of the most public people in the world, who had protested so loudly their lack of privacy in the face of a continuous media assault, suddenly inverted the equation and deployed the center of their private life, the bed, as a weapon, turning it into the most public platform for another kind of protest.

After years of complaining about the “fish-bowl” of the press and the resulting “urge for privacy,” they put themselves in a fish bowl, the glass box of the Hilton, and created a site for work beyond paid labor.

My Bed, Tracey Emin, 1998
The idea for My Bed was inspired by a sexual and depressive phase in the artist's life when she had remained in bed for four days without eating or drinking anything but alcohol.

The bedsheets were stained with bodily secretions and the floor had items from the artist's room, such as condoms, underwear with menstrual blood stains, other detritus, and functional, everyday objects, including a pair of slippers. The bed was presented in the state that Emin claimed it had been after languishing in it for several days; at the time she was suffering suicidal depression brought on by relationship difficulties.

Playbour: The New Workaholism, The Rodina,2015
This project investigates the dissipation of the divisions between work and play because of the prevalence of social media."Borders between play and labour are disappearing. Work time and leisure have become unified in one never-ending shift. This is especially articulated through our networked presence in multi-internet reality. Every hour of our play, minute of entertainment and megabyte of shared data generates profit.

This realm of the lost division between labour and play is called playbour. All of us have become players in this game. But who is the real winner? Playbour is an activity of work that feels like a play and leisure – attractive and pleasurable production. Examples of this phenomena are social networks as Facebook, Tumblr, fashion blogs, game modding etc., that function playfully but generate profit to others."

The Quarentine Desk


Many lost jobs, others strugle to keep them while forcefully working in the confines of their homes, simultaneously balancing family pressing needs

Enclosure and the thought about the virus that lurks on the streets have caused an increase in anxiety, depression and stress

The living body of humanity became paralyzed by the presentment of the end: a global trauma.

Time and space become deluted, life becomes empty of meaning

The noisy city is silent, the schools are empty, the theatres closed. No students around, no tourists.

The virus is obliging everybody to stay home, but the merchandise keeps circulating.

In a moment where solidarity is extremely important, the other becomes a source of fear.

Technological devices become the source of mixed feelings. They are our window to the world but also the source of our stress and axiety

The market quickly adapts itself to the new demands

New Media, apps and platforms mantain the unsustainable levels of productivity demanded by Capitalism

The pandemic has significantly increased the amount of time that we spend working and sitting

When social distancing is the new law, one may think that the conjunction of individuals will be practically abolished, forgotten, and social activities will shift to the digital, connective modes

Will the pandemic intensify our competitive, individualistic, isolated and exploitative tendencies or will it lead us to associate sickness with the illusions of digital connectivity

Will the pandemic intensify our digital connection or will it make us crave experiences that are haptic, shared and void of digital mediation?

Oase Nr. 7, Haus Rucker 1972
Bubble for Two consisted of a transparent PVC membrane that inflated into a large bubble. Supported by a steel rack, the sphere projected into the street from an existing building facade. Inside, a man and a woman sat in two halves of a plastic bathtub.

Relating to the project Haus-Rucker-Co declared: "Our balloons will help you to discover an unknown feeling of tranquility, of security, of relaxation. And love. We want to heighten your sensitivity. You will take a journey. Together with someone you love. Into inner space. Like Astronauts. Only an inward trip. You will attain a higher level of thinking and loving".

Cushicle and Suitaloon, Archigram 1967
The cushicle by Archigram is a suit that covers all the basic necessities for living and it can become a inflatable chamber for living. The prototypes displayed the paradigm change in the postwar world with a more integrated and transparent society. Cushicle and the Suitaloon are not just a prototype for an utopian society but also a symbol to a more open and exposed humanity.

They prepare the space for a selective isolation (inflating and desinflating the bubble) turn the user into a socially autonomous person but dependant on the available technology. At the same time, the transparent plastic projects the user as a transparent figure to the exterior. A personal oasis.

Mobile Office, Hans Hollein 1969
An inflatable mobile office that could be carried around and set up practically anywhere. Prophesying what would later become a laptop, the project—part pneumatic architecture, part performance, part video art—involved Hollein landing a small airplane on a runway and setting up the portable, plastic space, in which he could be seen talking on the telephone and typing.

Sedentary Laboratory,Dorota Gazy,2017
Our modern society is largely sedentary. We spend our days sitting, at home and at work. This causes all sorts of ailments, from back pain and hernias, to osteoporosis and weak abdominal muscles. With the arrival of the covid 19 pandemic the time that we spend working and sitting has significantly increased.

Sedentary Laboratory by "is a vision of the future: objects tailored for bodies deformed by our current inaction. A cane maintains balance for weakened legs, a chair supports our bent backs, a table with integrated handles to pull ourself out of the chair, an oxygen mask feeds brains slowed by lack of movement and a suit is sewn with a hunched back and trouser legs shaped into a constant sitting position. You have been warned!"

The Opression Desk


Capitalism has condemned humanity to forced labor, regardless of the level of productivity achieved

Rather than freeing us from work, every technical, social, and scientific innovation has only tightened its control over temporality

Automation in poorer countries demands countless anonymous low-wage workers,who sit behind the machines that make the luxurious lifestyles of other possible

Looking at the rapidly growing dependency on electronic devices in so many areas at the same time, there is no immediate picture of increased freedom, but rather of submission

Contrary to the visions of the future for a society where the end of work would mean freedom for all, some theories defend that empathy is not humanity’s default mode of operation

left to its own entropy, a culture inevitably loses its grip on compassion and descends into hatred and oppression

Bored and with nothing to do humans would turn to violence

Automation leads to greater control and less freedom

Labour saving innovations are enmeshed with exploitation

Humans will be in charge of ever more advanced technologies. But this will certainly not apply to everyone

Automation will only intensify social inequalities

For most people, hard work has barely generated enough prosperity for a dignified existence

An elite of people who acquire influential jobs with all the associated status and power versus an ever-growing group of people incapable of competing with machines

Rythm 0, Marina Abramovic, 1974
A six-hour performancet sometimes used as an example that empathy is not humanity’s default mode of operation.
Left to its own entropy, a culture inevitably loses its grip on compassion and descends into hatred and oppression.

The audience was invited to do to her whatever they wished, using one of 72 objects she had placed on a table. These included a rose, feather, perfume, honey, bread, grapes, wine, scissors, a scalpel, nails, a metal bar, and a gun loaded with one bullet.

As Abramovic described it later: “What I learned was that ... if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you ... I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”