19 July - 7 September 2019

The Stroker - Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, Dublin, IE

Pilvi Takala playfully challenges assumed, unspoken and culturally expected codes of conduct in a variety of communities and social settings. Her context-specific videos document the artist performing undercover in character, in a wide-range of everyday scenarios such as office temping, teaching, shopping, and recreation. These hyper-normal situations subtly break conventional boundaries of personal space and productivity, revealing surprising and inherently human responses from her unwitting participants. Her covert observations of our day-to-day interactions explore the systems in which we are placed (and place ourselves), and prompt us to consider how we engage and relate to those around us.

The Stroker (2018) is a filmed re-creation of research undertaken at Second Home, a trendy co-working space in London that aims to provide creative freelancers and startups with a flexible and innovative environment to work, network and relax. Second Home invests in the wellness of its members with group interaction solutions that enhance the value of its service. In a recent venture to bring unexpected and creativity enhancing experiences to the people working there, Second Home commissioned a number of performance artists, including Pilvi Takala, to engage with the environment and its occupants. Rather than a typical performative response, Takala posed as Nina Nieminen, a wellness consultant of the fictional Personnel Touch, in a two-week intervention following a period of on-site observational research. Nieminen is introduced to the community of Second Home by email and, subsequently, spends her time moving through the building, greeting individuals and expressing the benefits of physical contact in the workplace, blending seamlessly with Second Home’s existing programme of yoga and mindfulness. After witnessing and experiencing Takala’s friendly and gentle welcoming touches on the arm and shoulder, the members of Second Home secretly nickname her ‘the Stroker’.

Takala’s natural gestures of care and attention subvert established rules of office conduct, provoking some strong reactions from Second Home’s members, not limited to visible discomfort, bewilderment, nervousness, and tension. Those reactions are hilariously reenacted in The Stroker through facial expressions, bodily movements, silence, awkward verbal exchanges, and attempts at complete disengagement. The setting of a workplace designed at every level to embrace a spirit of creativity, teamwork and collective bonding amplifies these evasive actions and the negative attitudes of the members towards Nieminen. Consequently, Takala probes at the complexities of personal boundaries and individuals’ attitudes towards touch, particularly in the workplace with its inbuilt and longstanding hierarchies. The contemporary neoliberal setting of Second Home’s co-working ‘flat hierarchy’ structure adds further intricacy and nuance to The Stroker.

Traditional forms of labour and employment have undergone an extensive transformation, as business and commerce are increasingly reliant on global connectivity and instantaneous access to information and resources. Employment is becoming more insecure, with the gig economy (casual work, zero-hour contracts, internships, freelance self-employment) being used to fortify the workforce, particularly in creative industies. At the same time, work has become a lifestyle choice for many and self-management, interpersonal capability and work/life balance are now necessary skills for successful workers. There is an expectation that work is unquestionably meaningful and can be integrated into an employee’s free-time, as the company ethos is maintained, even outside of the work location. Balancing the formality of work with the necessity of a happy social-life can be strained in an environment such as Second Home and, while this emotional labour can be hugely gratifying for some employees, it potentially contributes to work related stress when the integration is forced, imbalanced or removed.

Takala’s earlier video, The Trainee (2008), also forms part of the exhibition. The artwork documents the artist, again undercover, in the offices of multinational financial firm, Deloitte, in Helsinki, posing as an intern in the corporate marketing department. Takala spends her time visibly idle in the open-plan office, library and elevator, to the obvious frustration and confusion of her co-workers. The fly-on-the-wall footage at first shows inquisitive and concerned staff members checking in on the wellbeing of the artist, and in particular to ask whether she has enough work to do. The video includes a number of email texts and voicemail recordings of staff members reporting the intern’s behaviour to their superiors, expressing their distress that Takala is not carrying out any visible tasks in the work environment. The act of ‘not working’ in the office becomes a disruptive and rebellious exploit, bucking convention and bringing about extreme reactions, including suggestions that Takala is unhinged. Throughout the video, Takala insists she is conducting ‘brain work’, a prospect so alien to her colleagues that they cannot accept it as work. The Trainee reveals unsettling norms about the inextricable link between work and production in the corporate environment. While artists may be accustomed to the importance of reflection, study and thinking as modes of production, these strategies appear to cause immense confusion in a business context.

Pilvi Takala’s exhibition, however, does not not simply contrast business models with artistic practice. Art galleries are also implicated in procedural contexts and have their own embedded hierarchies, operational structures and codes of conduct. The frameworks by which artists’ practices are supported, exhibition opportunites allocated, and institutional funding awarded, are akin to corporate methodologies in which competition and productivity are the predominant concerns of the gatekeeping organisations. This impacts upon how artworks are made, viewed and understood. Takala prompts us to pay closer attention to these dynamics in our roles as viewers and creators. She disrupts and undermines established systems, allowing us to imagine alternative ways of working and communicating with one another.

Pilvi Takala was born in 1981 in Helsinki, and now works between Helsinki and Berlin. Her exhibition in Temple Bar Gallery + Studios is the first solo presentation of her work in Ireland. Takala has held numerous important international solo exhibitions including Second Shift,Kiasma, Helsinki (2018); CCA, Glasgow (2016); Workers’ Forum, YAMA, Istanbul; Slight Chance, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm; and Centre D’Art Contemporani, Barcelona (all 2013). Pilvi Takala is represented by Helsinki Contemporary, Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam, and Carlos/Ishikawa, London.

This exhibition is supported by FRAME, and The Finnish Institute in London.