“Bondage is work. Work is bondage.” Life captured still, Harun Farocki Estate and Hito Steyerl, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac

Walking down Oxford street, past Urban Outfitters and H&M, I take a left into Regents st, heading towards the Royal Academy. I glimpse into the shop windows of Ralph Lauren and Tiffany & Co. and find a large sign for Victoria Beckham across the road. Next door to her shop, engraved in the stone, states Gallerie Thaddeus Ropac, with a tourist family standing outside, in Balenciaga trainers and Nike caps. This seems ironic to me, when I step inside for Steyerl and Farocki’s first joint exhibition, whose films circle around notions of labour and consumption.

I sit awkwardly on a grand staircase that splits half way to give two paths to a floor above, as I join a group of people watching Lovely Andrea play on a square screen that sits on the ground. Combining documentary footage, music videos and the Spiderman cartoon, Steyerl and her team visit various shibari studios in Tokyo to look for a photograph of herself taken 20 years prior. Steyerl links together consumption of the female image, seduction and labour, with Spiderman acting as an anchor throughout the documentary, forcing us to make a connection between the physical rope that is used to tie up a model, and the interpersonal ‘web’ or ‘net’ that we exist within, both in real life and online. The cartoon is played on the 00’s TV screens within the studios as the ‘Master’ searches through an online portfolio of photography, simultaneously taking me back to my childhood through the use of cartoons, and reminding me of my present life as an adult who is into BDSM. Various scenes make me slightly uncomfortable as they search through pornographic images of woman in S&M scenes, and they are shocked as the translator, Asagi Ageha, announces that she is a self suspension performer – as if shibari doesn’t make sense outside of the explicit domination / submissive relationship. I enjoy the irony of watching the cameraman (unknown) ask Steyerl and Ageha to repeat the finding of the photograph to get the ‘right’ shot of it, highlighting how documentaries are still constructed versions of reality.

The footage of Ageha suspending herself with rope, moving gracefully through the air, is completely at odds with the documentary footage of models posing in tight skirts as if they have suddenly been tied up in the middle of their office day (a valid fantasy) and the photographs that have been taken for Japanese sex magazines. Ageha’s strength, skill, and pure dedication and commitment to learning an art form, is undermined by the perceived weakness of the models in these fantasy scenarios, that exist to feed a fetish, and do not correlate to the lived reality of rope bondage relationships between partners.

The film ends and I head upstairs, passing a room with two red recliners, with footage of a video game, through to what I soon realise is a room of Farocki’s video works. At first I sit down and watch Capitalism via a third and am engrossed in the various footage of bricks being cut in a very methodical and pleasing way, like those videos you get on Instagram of slime. It’s like meditation in the form of videos. I feel calm and content for a brief moment and am intrigued by this documentation of human inventions in order to mass produce bricks. The seamless production that draws my attention to the time spent making something that I wouldn’t otherwise give second thought to how it is made. But it makes me slightly uncomfortable that Farocki has documented the working lives of those in unnamed ‘developing’ countries. Is this another work that exploits the fetishisation of labour and the lives of those in third world countries? A stereotype of what life is like Africa? That those who live there haven’t developed the same technologies that we have? These questions race through my mind and the calmness disappears as I am confused by the intention of this work. The press realise states Farocki is ‘using the devices of split screen, montage and repetition to suggest relationships between images, but leaves these open to interpretation by viewers’. I am unsure what this means other than stating what the form of moving image works entail, and doesn’t add to my understanding of the work. Farocki also says: ‘I want to give the spectators something to consider…I hope to wash the spectators’ eyes’, which I guess in a way it does, but I think it could do so much more than simply make me consider how bricks are made.

Re-pouring, Harun Farocki, 2010

Lastly, I watch Re-Pouring, another aesthetically pleasing video of a machine pouring water from one container to another. It is a short video, and is meant to be a re-making of Schmit’s Fluxus performance (I’ve researched it and find out it was performed in Amsterdam in 1963) but instead uses a machine to replace the human labour previously apparent in the original performance. I figure Farocki is trying to point out how in 2010, we were turning more and more to technology over human labour, which left many people redundant of jobs that a machine could do, as it only required one or two people to operate the machine. But in 2020, this is too much of an obvious statement to have a lasting impression on me, as this is something we are all so aware of now.

As I leave the gallery (past two white woman working on laptops at reception giving up their Saturday afternoon) and back into the retail hub of central London, I consider the many hours of labour by people who are mostly my age, in order for Oxford / Regent street to be such a tourist and local attraction, where people spend their (sometimes not) hard earned money on clothes, and shoes, and bags and perfume. The world of work is indeed bondage, we sign into a contract that forces us to give four weeks notice to leave our jobs, and we are tied to the working day, starting and finishing at the same time every day of the week. And although bondage can be work for some by providing a means of income, it is also so much more than that.

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