Dissecting the Human-Machine System - A Josh Kline Interview

November 22, 2016

A Human-machine system is a mechanism in which the functions of a human operator (or a group of operators) and a machine are integrated. This term can also be used to emphasize the view of such a system as a single entity that interacts with external environment. Following this human condition imprinting, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, in Turin, on the occasion of Artissima, presents the first Italian solo show by Josh Kline (1979, Philadelphia), Unemployment. The exhibition, focused on the loss of job due to the augmented use of technology and the vision of humans as trash, proposes a vision of a probable future over the next 30 years. Unemployment began with Contagious Unemployment sculptures that were suspended from the ceiling. Inside these glass objects are boxes that contain sneakers, family photos, and documents—the personal belongings of laid-off employees, or their useless data.

“Unemployment is a very dark project”, underlines Josh Kline. “While working on it, I felt strongly that it needed to incorporate a hopeful or perhaps even utopian message as a contrast to all the sadness and tragedy I was presenting. It’s no longer enough to just call things out or point at things that are wrong in our world. If you’re going to paint a vision of doom and devastation, I think it’s also important to offer alternatives—some genuine hope devoid of cynicism. To present the public with a vision of the future other than the apocalypse. The right presents a vision of the future: more neoliberalism. Authoritarianism. What about the left? We need to be able to imagine—to visualize—a better future in order to build one.”  

Josh Kline, Unemployment at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin 2016

Josh Kline at Artissima - The First Solo Show in Italy

Ginevra Bria: You’re exhibiting Unemployment in Italy, for the very first time. At FSRR you’re showing more or less the solo you installed at 47 Canal. How did the Americans react? Meanwhile, has your idea, your vision/projection of a near future (2030), been changed?

Josh Kline: I think many people who saw it in NYC connected the show with their own experiences losing a job or being unemployed. People told me they identified with different works in the show—particularly with the sculptures of unemployed professionals in trash bags or the Contagious Unemployment sculptures that contain file boxes filled with the sort of personal effects people take from the office after losing a job. When you’re fired, it can be hard—especially for people in middle age—to find a new job. Our society treats unemployed people like lepers. Like an infectious disease. Employment and career are central to our identities. Getting fired can feel like dying. For Americans, I think there was also a connection with the economic and cultural forces propelling Trump’s candidacy in our recent election.

My vision of the near future remains largely unchanged. I think that technological unemployment is going to be one of the defining political and economic issues of the 21st Century. The political upheaval getting under way in the West is likely to become even more extreme in the coming years as more and more jobs are automated. Once self-driving trucks hit the roads, I think it will become impossible to ignore the impact of these technologies any longer, or to blame them on immigrants or globalization. Our politicians seem unwilling to address the economic impact of automation on working people or its political implications. Instead, economic suffering is being used cynically as a way to further a slew of reactionary political agendas.

GB: Talking about “Productivity Gains (Brandon, Accountant),” a 3-D print of a laid-off professional, isn’t it a paradox, the fact that sophisticated machineries refined bodies of people fired for lack of employment (due to, also, a present-future technology development)?

JK: It’s not a paradox. It’s deliberate. The process of producing the works mirrors the processes at work in our society that I’m addressing. Human skills are digitized and then human beings are replaced on the job by software. Without much of a safety net, the people are thrown away.

The digitization of human lives is something that is constant and on going in our societies. People are actively creating astonishingly detailed images of themselves—digital clones—in the databases of social media companies, banks, government agencies, health insurance companies, Amazon, etc. To produce the sculptures of people in the show, the men and women were 3D-scanned using digital cameras. A 3D-model was then produced from the full-body photographic scan, which was partially 3D-printed and partially CNC-milled (carved by computers) out of foam. The resulting sculpture is then placed in a recycling bag and exhibited on the floor.

During the visit, in front of Productivity Gains, we talk about a sort of contrappasso’s effect: economic crisis affected the lives of people, shifting them suddenly, reducing them.

GB: Could you please explain this concept and which kind of parable we should learn from their stories?

JK: These sculptures are portraits of real people who have lost their jobs. They are unemployed middle-class (or formerly middle-class) professionals. Each of them had a job that is predicted to be replaced by software in the coming decades. Accountant (Brandon’s profession), lawyer, banker, administrator, secretary: these are jobs that currently form the backbone of a middle-class family life. But perhaps not for much longer.

The rising tide of right-wing politics across the West is in many ways the result of an earlier wave of automation, the replacement of working class factory workers by increasingly sophisticated manufacturing robots. Even if Trump raises trade barriers and is somehow able to force corporations to reopen factories in the American rust-belt, the factory jobs aren’t coming back. Those factories will be staffed by machines. Cognitive jobs are next. Already many of the short articles on the Internet are written by algorithms. The question my exhibition Unemployment asks is what happens to the people when these jobs disappear—when most people are no longer needed to work? When the middle class ends. I also wanted to have a conversation about the necessity of work in a world with automation. Most work is drudgery—mental or physical—and most people hate their jobs. Can the benefits of that automation be distributed to the many instead of just to the few? Can we free ourselves from work?

Josh Kline, Unemployment at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin 2016

The Meaning of Unemployment

GB: Near the sculptured bodies you set are a series of shopping and granny carts, each filled to the brim with more disturbing relics of the future, also wrapped in plastic recycling bags. How could silicon in itself, as plastic material with its peculiar features,could reveal/represent a middle-class defeat? Why did you use this specific material to create casts of garbage (as tins, computers, ans so on) choosing also to represent a part of a multi-racial society? Could you please shortly describe your approach to this artwork?

JK: I cast plastic and glass bottles, aluminium cans, and various examples of typical office equipment in pigmented silicone rubber. This rubber (called Dragonskin) is what’s used in cinema special effects and prop making to create prosthetics—fake skin or fake body parts for the camera. It’s also used to make sex toys. In both cases (in the West) skin-colored rubber has become an almost universally recognizable stand-in for the human body. In my recent sculptures, these cast beer bottles, coke cans, and office phones are placed in recycling bags.

In New York, where I live—one of the most disturbing images of poverty is the common sight of an old woman or old man pushing a shopping cart overflowing with scavenged recyclable bottles and cans. In the richest country on Earth, there are elderly people forced to support themselves by picking soda cans out of the trash. This sight is a familiar one across the globe. In Unemployment—which is set in the future, I wanted to visualize the middle class as a site of poverty. To imagine the formerly prosperous American suburbs as a slum.

GB: Why did you choose to shoot a video where nothing, or nothing bad, happened? Is this video something close to a sort of hoped, inspired reassurance for the future? Did you enhance, by the dialogues, for example, a sort of fake message to the visitors/audience?

JK: It’s possible that political commercials might be the one kind of advertising that truly is country-specific. Universal Early Retirement, the video in my project is an American political ad from the future. I didn’t want to create a simulation of a commercial or an ironic parody of a commercial. I wanted to make a real commercial for a potentially viable political solution—Universal Basic Income—to the problems I’m exploring, which is mass unemployment due to automation. The style of the video is based on real commercials that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders aired during the Democratic primary campaign. This is what political messaging in America looks like now and how it will look like for some time to come there. In order to be real advertising, the video needed to harness the same forms and strategies used in real advertising. Otherwise it wouldn’t be believable for an American audience as something sincere—which it is. I collaborated with a writer I know who makes a living in advertising designing commercial campaigns and a director who shoots commercials, as well as a film crew that could realize the resulting project.

The content of the video was informed by interviews I conducted with the unemployed workers who modeled for the recycling bag sculptures in the other room. As part of the interview, I asked them for their thoughts on the idea of a universal basic income—a regular salary given to everyone from the government that would cover basic needs (rent, food, etc). Almost all of them thought that it would make people “lazy.” When I asked them what they would do if they didn’t have to worry about money, all of them described active lives volunteering, helping others, spending time with family, going back to school, or pursuing creative passions like writing, music, or art. In the video I wanted to attempt to rebrand—to reimagine—unemployment as a family values issue. And also to turn it into something positive. Instead of being about failure and laziness, the absence of work becomes about taking control of your own time and following your own dreams. Universal basic income is part of a path beyond capitalism.

Interview conducted by Ginevra Bria.

All images courtesy Ginevra Bria.

Follow These Artists

Josh Kline