Jessica Vaughn, Depreciating Assets

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Printed Matter (here). Softcover (28 × 21 cm), 130 pages with 52 color and black and white photographs. Includes texts by the artist, and an interview between the artist and Magdalyn Asimakis. In edition of 600 copies. Design by The Uses of Literacy. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of Jessica Vaughn, a multimedia artist from Chicago currently based in Brooklyn, examines the nature of everyday office space, considering its embedded layers of history, architecture, environment, diversity politics, and culture. Depreciating Assets is Vaughn’s first artist’s book, published by Printed Matter as part of their Emerging Artists Publication Series, and it explores the subtle interconnection between space, race, and labor. To build her narrative, Vaughn uses photographs, Xeroxed images, archival materials, government documents, and screenshots from videos. “I wanted to explore not only my own personal experiences within these spaces, but also the structures that make this culture exist or gives it life,” she says.

The image on the cover shows a frail office plant shot against a white wall, hinting at the intentionally banal content that follows. The design and production of the book is borrowed from the guidelines (and constraints) outlined by the US Government Publishing Office referencing the 2016 version of the manual of the same title (revised for the first time since 1894). There are various colored pages and different types of paper, including cardstock, lightweight, and semigloss. Overall, the book feels a bit cheap, and this is obviously intentional, as it reinforces its narrative and its message.

The book consists of four sections, and can be read in any order. Vaughn introduces her subject with a brief historical overview of office space. One of the first things we learn is that the Mecca Flats apartments, once central to Black Chicago, were demolished in 1952 to build the campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology, designed by Mies van der Rohe. The photograph next to the descriptive text shows a stack of unmarked banker boxes, a dreary symbol of office life.

Another photograph shows a shelf, with multiple copies of books – the spines show the names of Black American writers and activists like Malcolm X, Coe Booth, Alice Walker, and Sister Souljah. The text stresses that “many institutions do not make hiring people from racially marginalized groups a sustainable and focused priority outside of satisfying affirmative action requirements.” Vaughn is interested in the materials that surround us, particularly the objects that go unnoticed – there are shots of mail crates (often in stacks), binders, empty containers, and sections of office floor carpet. She recreates this world, with images of objects and spaces that appear depersonalized and mass produced.

Vaughn is particularly attuned in how race and gender feature in office life. A number of Xeroxed pages reference government documents related to equal employment opportunity, affirmative action, and the progress of women and minorities in key federal jobs. Printed on a heavier paper, they include report headings, fact sheets, and studies: “Strategies to Increase Representation of Women and Minorities  (2019),  “Strategies to Increase Representation of Women and Minorities by US Government Accountability Office” (2019), to name just a few. Vaughn notes that in reality “measures to address diversity become the invisible language of global bureaucratic and corporate structures.” Some of the pages are printed in reversed tones, switching black and white in resonant ways. 

The section in the middle of the book overlays screenshots from employee training films with quotes cut from management manuals. A shot of a man in an office environment appears next to the text reading “As a supervisor I am responsible for managing resources and those are equipment, materials and people.” Another full spread image shows two men talking with the word “objectivity” at the bottom. They bring attention to the gap between theory and practice when it comes to office work.

In the third section, Vaughn further examines the intersection of architecture, economics, and civil rights policies. Companies often optimize their operations for increased efficiency and productivity, but at the expense of visibility for Black workers and workers of color. The design of modern offices enables this unhealthy work-life balance. The repetitive and generic grid of open space never considers minority bodies, as a typical user of the space is a universal, white male. This typical user is envisioned in the Federal Government document known as the “Peach Book” (1975), by Rem Koolhaas in his essay “Typical Plan” (1993) about office architecture, and by Herman Miller in Ethospace brochures. Vaughn looks at modern design ideas, reminding us that the design of the modern office has to better consider and support differences of race, class, and labor.

Vaughn’s afterword starts with the mention of George Floyd and the high rate of COVID cases among Black Americans, connecting the issues of office space back to broader generational racism and inequalities. Vaughn, who herself has had a number of administrative positions, sees the connection between the architecture of the office space and treatment of workers. “Do minimalist design gestures and open floor plans exist outside conditions of race, class and labor? They don’t.”

Many of the issues addressed by Vaughn in this project are not surprising or new. Lars Tunbjörk documented the monotony, boredom, chaos, and sense of alienation that offices give the present-day office employee. In Out of Order (reviewed here), Penelope Umbrico recontextualized images of office desks and plants in her conceptual depiction of the 2008 financial crisis. And more recently Endia Beal explored many issues Black women face in the American corporate workplace in her excellent book Performance Review (reviewed here).

Depreciating Asset is a clever and forceful book, using a sophisticated mix of images and text to force us to rethink what we consider as normalized office culture. Vaughn’s project feels particularly timely – with companies re-envisioning post-pandemic offices, we now have an opportunity to reflect on the potential for thoughtful shifts and changes. 

Collector’s POV: Jessica Vaughn is represented by Martos Gallery in New York (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Jessica Vaughn, Printed Matter, Inc.

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