Softwear
Dittrich & Schlechtriem, 2018
The directors of our ‘new’ economy prefer a loose, informal mise-en-scène. Amid the beanbags of Palo Alto and a rash of Ashtanga Yoga, labour is dressed as leisure. Some see this camouflage as pointing towards the end of work itself. Others, in a more prosaic fashion, simply view it as fostering increased productivity. Either way, the spectre of control is repressed. As this repression spreads beyond the walls of offices, a contemporary question entails: Am I at work or not?

What to answer? Today, offices look like cafes (and playgrounds), while cafes resemble co-working spaces—filled with hot-desking freelancers. Two sides of the same coin, both are symptoms of a disciplinary complex so embedded (and strange) that it requires its own name. ‘Interdisciplinary’ seems appropriate. The term originates in academia, where it refers to activities that straddle traditional institutional divisions. While incorporating this interstitial sense, we use the prefix inter (verb: bury; entomb) to additionally express the smothering of what used to be non-work by a shroud of total labour—a nebulous, unlimited demand to produce whenever, wherever, that wraps itself around the contemporary social body. In an increasing number of Western metropolises this macroeconomic marching order has people driving an Uber in the morning, playing sublet pseudo-hotelier at midday, sending out unsolicited project proposals in the afternoon, from a coffee shop, before putting in a few hours as a barista (at another one) until sundown, then acting as cashier (for a few minutes) at a self-service supermarket checkout (no opting out) on the way over to a friend’s place to crash for the night.

We wear the schizoid character of this shroud on our sleeves. It is a coat of many colours, so to speak, whose best approximation is an actual garment genre: athleisure wear. Athleisure. The word itself is a telling combination of exertion and numbness that neatly encapsulates the pharmakon of prosumption: zero-hours contracts—always kind of on, never not playing or competing. It would seem there is no point in getting hot under the collar about it, though. For a start, athleisure eschews collars. Blue collar solidarity makes sense, but a no-collar union? Not a chance. In our interdisciplinary economy the logic of collective action gives way to connective performance, and quality politics are Trumped by the manifestation of huge quantities of whatever. Like this argument? Like it.

But who are you to like anything, anyway? It is only a short step from ‘Am I working?’ to the existentially disquieting ‘Who am I?’. This would appear to be Simon Mullan’s nagging suspicion. Just as the new economy has de-regulated what people wear, continually asking and answering its own question ‘What people? Where?’, its turn away from uniforms implies something counterintuitive: ditching dress regulations was supposed to liberate individual self-identity from a faceless, standardized existence. Take off the uniform and be yourself. Be free! But without uniforms there is no way to remove our workwhere—to ‘clock off’. Having cast off some outward signs of our economic subjection, we discover that virtually everywhere is a workplace. Under such conditions, being a ‘self’ is a relentless case of making sure your face bookkeeping is well balanced, across a raft of ledgers, owned, automatically scrutinized, and wrung for profit by whoever you aren’t. It is being anything, anyplace, anytime. It is enough, as Mullan’s recent series would appear to suggest, to make your average bohemian wish they wore a Blaumann (the blue-collar worker’s overall).

Mounted on the gallery wall is a rectangular grid whose 78 units are made up of blue-dyed cotton, stretched over subframes like so many paintings. If this arrangement immediately gives off a unified impression, further attention uncovers a play of differences—the ensemble’s monochrome merely a theme underpinning variations across individual elements. Each canvas is a patchwork, comprising irregular cut-off pieces from second-hand work overalls (some faded and worn, others fresh) which bear traces of their former use. In the smear of dirt across one plane, or a patch of distress where a knee must have been, both the contemplative function in art and the frictionless shibboleth of the digital run up against modern social identity’s analog signal, transmitting a remainder from another century. One that is, on what is supposed to be the ‘right’ side of the digital divide, fast becoming endangered.

Mullan purchases his used apparel from online marketplaces, some of which wholly trade in items recovered from bankrupt companies. Each of his canvases is made from a single overall, cut up and sewn back together so that it can completely stretch across a subframe. Through this procedure, the fundamental organization of the found object is significantly altered, and many of its prior functions rendered obsolete. It is not too hard to discern a parallel, here, to the new economy’s reconfiguration of the (post)industrial fabric under the celebrated program of ‘disruption’, such that entire social topoi are subject (overnight) to new operating systems: interdisciplined. For young people beginning their working life this can be daunting. For older people it can spell redundancy. In light of this, Mullan’s statement that the installation might be considered ‘a whole company, staring at you’ assumes some pathos. Is it a portrait of the past, or a promise from the future?

In previous series Mullan has appropriated workwear like bomber jackets and police uniforms. While creating art out of them (cutting them up, sewing them back together and stretching them) he wears an example of the garment in question. Though he doesn’t especially document this part of his process, he does refer to it as a ‘performance’. Temporarily wearing a Blaumann, the artist annexes emblematic territory through the substitution of his own body for the blue-collar worker’s even before he physically creates a (symbolic/art) object. As items historically close to actual blue-collar bodies, bearing their traces, the source materials are like reliquaries in a quasi-pageant. If one considers Mullan’s ‘performance’ its opening gambit, the overall complex appears to display a symbolic structure consistent with certain forms of cannibalism: recuperating the power of a recently deceased ancestor or mighty opponent through the ritual act of consuming them; repurposing their identity by assimilation. This complex carries a double valence, whose first implication suggests overcoming the other (or the past): in a kind of predatory triumph, Mullan the exemplary interdisciplinary specialist (the artist) cobbles together his own contemporary softwear by digesting found (less nimble) identities. On the other hand, his art is an act of valorisation that elevates and sustains (endangered/posthumous) modern work and the stable social types (and relationships) that it licensed, through a kind of conciliatory portraiture. Both valences trade on the blue-collar uniform’s currency as a mortal token—recalling, qua memento mori, lost certainties.

Obviously, the topic of gender performance is latent in the ‘Who am I?’ of Mullan’s questioning work. As he is quick to point out, his uniform choices conjure up stock ‘masculine’ figures, such as fighter pilots, policemen, and factory workers. That his process deploys a cipher for ‘women’s work’ (sewing) is clear. Is his art, then, about unmanning? When one considers his naked bomberjackets (a studio byproduct, wherein a jacket that has been wholly stripped of its external fabric layer is signed before being permanently loaned to a chosen friend on the proviso that it is not a work of art and cannot be sold) the fundamental ambivalence of his performance practice is again manifest: the skinned jacket is a masculine token that has be castrated. Worn by the actress and anti sexual-harassment campaigner Rose McGowan, as it recently was, it comes across as an anti-patriarchal trophy (like a lion-pelt draped across the shoulders of a chief). Yet with Mullan’s signature in the lining, and an increasing number being sported by a hand-picked group, the jackets work to expand and mark his territory. Moreover, we again discern a cannibal triumph: the stock figures of masculinity which feature in his oeuvre seem to track images of ‘adult’ occupations presented to young boys in school (‘When I grow up I want to be a policeman’, etc.). In as much as Mullan takes these images apart, he is seizing the phallus: performing a functional adult (male?) within and despite the new economy; realizing a stable ‘I’ in his unique work with work. As such, his play with outward tokens of (male) gender opens up onto the broader question of civil self-realization and authority.

The interdiscipline of the new economy is nebulous, but the questions that it raises are concrete. ‘Am I working?’ and the consequent ‘Who am I?’ are symptomatic of a contemporary existential condition. For all the supposed conformity attending ‘old-fashioned’ uniformed jobs, the contours of their labour conditions were easier to discern, and the path to an associated social identity relatively clear cut. Under current circumstances, one’s inability to boot (and suit) up appropriate softwear is to be stripped—naked amid a storm of changes, alienated and atomized. In response, desperate attempts to recuperate hyper-‘traditional’ identities are trending worldwide, with childish patriarchy advanced as the only hope for community. In terms of symbolism, Mullan’s work with costume, labour, and gender attempts to suture a rupture in the Western social fabric, wrought by the new economy. Simultaneously, however, his art is emblematic of contemporary interdiscipline. At the juncture between pathos and mastery, Mullan walks a line.

Dittrich & Schlechtriem