Céline Berger: Best Practices
4 October - 16 November 2013
Review by Laura Herman
For Céline Berger (1973), art came as a late vocation. After developing computer chips as an engineer for 12 years, she made a rather unusual career switch. In 2009, she enrolled at the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne, and in 2012, started a residency at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam. Yet Berger’s artist’s practice is very much linked to her previous professional career, something which is evident from her artistic vocabulary, which is peppered with references to corporate culture. As such, ‘Best Practices’ is an appropriate title for her first solo exhibition in Belgium.
When Carsten Höller installed a giant slide at the Berlin Biennale in 1998, he aroused the interest of top companies around the world. Now, it’s not just Miuccia Prada who leaves her office sliding; Google, too, have replaced the stairs with a slide down several storeys. For team-building purposes, the workplace evolved from individual offices to open plan as far back as the 1980s.
Today, these offices have become playgrounds. Every morning, Google employees enter an environment where game elements and inspiring design are intended to encourage cooperation and creativity. Sounds tempting, but it begs the question - does corporate culture impinge on real ‘free’ time, as work and play increasingly merge into one’ And how should the artist, bearing in mind what Richard Florida put forward, relate to the business world now that creativity and flexibility appear to be essential skills for the average CV’
It is just this kind of question that intrigues Céline Berger. Without wanting to take a firm stand, the artist takes a fresh look at new management methods and communication strategies. Can these serve purposes other than boundless growth and profit’ According to Berger, the insights of the business world have a lot of untapped potential. Hence perhaps the move to art’
In the exhibition hall of the Beursschouwburg, the usual pedestals are replaced by communication tables, the prototypical furniture that you often find in ‘creative’ open spaces in companies. These multifunctional standing tables are used to fill waiting rooms, or are dotted around reception desks or areas where colleagues can have a chat during their coffee breaks. At one of these tables, Berger presents ‘Values, a project for high performers’ - a shirt composed of the corporate values of eighty random companies, printed on paper. An employee who embodies the average of these values can be deployed in any professional environment. This is all summed up in a white shirt with starched collar, the epitome of the hard-working business man.
Another motif is that of the handshake. On two computer screens, Berger displays dual video work which shows stock footage people shaking hands. Firms use this type of footage quite often to illustrate their ambitions and a promising future. To Berger, the handshake represents the sealed deal, the compressed space between supply and demand, between desire and product, with the consumer being left to play catch-up. Indeed, the latest novelties are served to him on a platter long before he is aware of his need. ‘Mission’, too - a Möbius ceramic strip - refers to this absurd creed of endless growth: ‘We continually exceed our customers’ increasing expectations’.
It is not only the archetypal images of corporate culture that feed Berger’s imagination. Management discourse, too, is significant. While it draws a clear distinction between ‘we’, the management, versus ‘the customers’, it regulates relationships in the workplace. The exhibition title ‘Best Practices’ is taken from the blog of Amy Gallo, editor of the Harvard Business Review. ‘Act like a leader, before you are one’ is just one of the tips and tricks she shares with her readers.
In the video work ‘La ronde’, a business woman reads out four of Gallo’s case studies in a neutral manner, inspired by possible scenarios in the workplace. She subsequently examines the ethical codes with a view to optimising the working atmosphere and performance levels. All well and good, but should employee behaviour and manners be dictated down to every last detail’
Berger’s work shows little in the way of irony. As an artist, much like the lady in ‘La ronde’, she adopts a neutral stance. She merely exposes the ambivalence of corporate culture. At the Beursschouwburg, Céline Berger is showing the humour and aesthetics of the business world as well as its eroded values and impossible goals as two sides of the same coin.