Think of the last meeting you were in. What did it feel like?
The Meeting presents a selection of recent work by New York-based artist Caroline Woolard (b. 1984, Rhode Island) that takes “the meeting” itself — the gathering of people for a formal purpose — as a site for artistic and social intervention. Themes of collectivity and political economy recur in Woolard’s work, and after a decade of working in arts collectives and creating socially engaged projects, she recognized that she had spent at least half of her artistic life in meetings.
Most people will spend over a quarter of their lives at work. For office workers, a large portion of this time will occur in meetings. In The Meeting, Woolard evokes the human body through its absence in the banal physicality of offices. Electrical outlets, ceiling tiles, and meeting tables intimate the power dynamics of meetings. A tongue hangs from the ceiling. This array of sculptural objects, as well as a series of videos and a game placed on a boardroom table, reflect upon the unavoidable antagonisms of working together.
As the first recipient of the Jane & David Walentas Endowed Fellowship, Woolard asks: Can a job be pleasurable? Does pleasure in work require self-determination? How do workers without bosses (i.e. worker-owners in cooperative businesses) transform workplace conflict? Woolard has taken the past year to learn facilitation practices from the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), the national grassroots membership organization for worker-owned businesses.
In cooperatives, unlike other businesses, workers share profits and participate in oversight, and often in the management of the enterprise, using democratic practices. Facilitation — the skillful guiding of the meeting process — is a key part of running a cooperative or self-organized group, because people in horizontal groups such as a cooperative share power and must attend meetings in order to make decisions together. Woolard has learned conflict transformation techniques from facilitators at USFWC while developing sculptural objects that are used to facilitate meetings. Sculptural objects like these will be available at the Free Library of Philadelphia in the spring of 2020 for library patrons to check out and use.
One set of objects is presented in framed nets. Cascading from the ceiling and hung on the wall, these nets “catch” and “trap” facilitation objects and make reference to both the fishing nets of colonial Philadelphia and to the minimalist, conceptual works of the artists Eva Hesse and Jiro Takamatsu. Here, square walnut frames mirror the shape and scale of ubiquitous ceiling tiles, suspended overhead in meeting spaces as “dropped” or “false” ceilings. By definition, the false ceiling is a surface that hides the infrastructure installed above it — air diffusers, smoke detectors, sprinklers, CCTV cameras, and neon lights — from the room below. In everyday speech, the ceiling acts as a metaphor for a limit which cannot be trusted. Think of a “glass ceiling” or a “debt ceiling.” The net sculptures fit perfectly in everyday office ceilings and have been installed in the gallery as well as in an unnamed office in the area.
This exhibition suggests that artists can bring studio-based sculptural techniques to an approach to art-making that emphasizes participation and dialogue.
The artist writes:
My approach arises from three desires I have: (1) to make objects that resonate in the field of art and that acknowledge the cultural specificity of the field itself; (2) to make objects that are used by facilitators in co-op and self-organized settings; (3) to allow myself to participate in a non-extractive way in facilitation settings and meetings with groups that are not concerned with the field of art. I want to offer my skills as an artist and honor existing, slowly developed, community-generated facilitation skills in the context of organizing for economic justice. For example, rather than putting co-op members on display for a museum performance, I will attempt to display objects that reflect upon co-op practices.
Woolard has determined to present sculptural objects as surrogates for the social practices of cooperative meetings.
While some objects are exhibited for contemplation on the wall, or trapped in the ceiling in a net, The Meeting Game invites interaction and rewrites the meeting script. Participation here occurs as visitors wait in the lobby at Moore, or as art classes gather around the table, rather than in a spectacular event in public space with the artist. At the boardroom table in the gallery, facilitation objects are available for use, to encourage new forms of interpersonal exchange. Viewers are invited to watch the video, learn how to play the game, and roll a ball that corresponds to a way of speaking. In doing so, viewers may become more aware of the flow of dialogue in any conversation. This game, developed in collaboration with USFWC’s Executive Director, Esteban Kelly, will continue to be refined by the USFWC in nonart settings and also throughout the semester in workshops and public programs with the artist. In The Meeting, viewers are encouraged to be present with their concerns or curiosity about work, and about working together.
Gabrielle Lavin Suzenski, Rochelle F. Levy Director of the Galleries at Moore, began her career in the Fabric Workshop and Museum's post-college apprenticeship program, which led to a full time position working with the founder/artistic director in coordinating the museums's relocation in 2006. She has an MBA in Entrepreneurship & Innovation and a BFA in Sculpture and Printmaking, both from Penn State University.