Why office art?

Most of us have worked or will work in an office during our lifetime. My last office job was copyediting for an advertising agency in New York City. Like the many other artists I worked alongside, I considered this my “day job,” longing for a time when I could quit and pursue my dreams full-time. Whether or not this was realistic is not the point; we were creative and felt the drive to create. Still, I was surprised by the mass evidence of solitary creativity I found in the offices and cubicles of my fellow workers: collages, miniatures, drawings, new media and Photoshopped pieces, and in one case, paintings hidden under a desk, slaved over during lunch breaks.

My space had no windows, and one day I found myself bored and alone, my officemate out for the day. They'd been cracking down on internet-for-personal-use, and the last time I picked up a book at work I'd been given a stern talking to, so I was essentially left with nothing to do but wait in silence for the same small project to route from copywriter to art director to account executive to the art department and back to editorial, where I sat slumped in my chair, studying a few small objects I’d collected in the course of the day spread upon my desk. For some reason on my way to work that morning, after pausing to view several street art pieces by Swoon and Os Gomeos (this was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), I'd stopped to pick up a feather outside the subway entrance. Something about the way the vanes were splayed caught my attention; it looked like letters clipped off at the midway, a coded message of some sort. Later, sitting on a bench during my lunch hour, I found a twig with a small green and red vine wrapped about it like a python. Nothing special, just interesting. Apart from these items sat other objects I had collected for no real purpose other than an inkling that they would somehow be important to my day: a wheat penny, a flower fallen from an office plant, a bottle of White Out, several multicolored index cards, a blue paperclip, Post Its. I started arranging them in various patterns, waiting for something to click. What could I make from this? A collage? Was I going to post it on a wall somewhere near my house, or tape it to a bathroom stall at the office? Hearing footsteps coming down the hallway, I quickly piled the items into a tray and hid them behind the desktop computer. Turning the screen sideways, however, I found resting in back a stack of business-sized plastic laminating cards. I had no idea where they came from, probably just left over by a previous employee. The job I’d been waiting for landed on my desk, which took all of ten minutes to complete and reroute. It would be two or three hour before I saw it again, so I wrote a note for the traffic person, telling her how to contact me, and headed out. I needed to find a laminating machine. If the agency did have a laminating machine, I expected it would probably be enormous, which wouldn’t help me any. Moreover, I couldn't just laminate things right out in the open like that; I needed something small, something I could hide. I asked everyone I knew in the office, maybe 50 or so people, if they had seen or heard of such a machine in the office. Nobody had. It struck me that I could probably purchase one from eBay, so I headed back to my room. On the way I paused before the office of the VP of Marketing, an intimidating woman who spoke in rising platitudes and worked a wicked stare. Once in a meeting I’d seen her actually accuse the representative of a major client of ours of being either lazy or stupid, for which the client, terribly embarrassed, began apologizing. For some reason, however, she liked me. We talked poetry once, a poem framed on her wall, Frank O’Hara I think it was. After which she let her guard down--I was a copyeditor, and hence not after her job. Turns out she had kind of a nutty side. One time in the coffee room she pulled me over to the microwave. She’d put in one of those horrifically pink marshmallow Peeps and punched the minute button. We watched the smiling creature rotate and inflate like a balloon, finally exploding in a rain of gooey plasma. She held my shoulders and giggled to tears. And then left me to clean it up. Anyhow, I peeked into her office, rapping lightly on her door. She was speaking into a headset but waved me in, putting her hand over the talking piece, her eyebrows raised. I realized only then that I had no explanation for why a copyeditor might require a laminator. HR would have me out the door by day's end. But bravery prevailed. "Do you by chance have a laminator?" I asked. She blinked a few times, her expression unchanged, and then reached under her desk and pulled out a small, book-sized laminating machine. It was perfect, made specifically for business cards. The episode was entirely strange, but she resumed her phone call and I left quickly and returned to my space. I retrieved the items I’d gathered from my day and began sorting through them. The twig with the vine was already a finished found piece, it seemed to me, a symbolic pairing of otherness that teamed with metaphors. But how would the heat of the machine change it? And what did it mean, theoretically, to subject a finished piece to an equalizing agent? What would it become, beyond my wishing? Would it leach the colors? Would it catch fire? I had to find out. I stuck the twig and vine between the two pieces of plastic, turned on the machine, and ran them through.

I did this every day for 6 months, using everything from plastic utensils to tea bags to cut-up magazines to taco sauce, the latter of which reeked so badly after it popped in the machine that other employees were coming around asking if I smelled something burning. Some days I couldn't wait to get to work, having forced myself to compose my pieces only while on the job, never at home. After 6 months, I had created 250 business cards. Two months later, they debuted in a group show at an art gallery.

I share this story because I believe that there are many people out there making art at work and I wanted to create a place to exhibit these pieces. I've come to believe the office environment lends itself to a certain genre of art the way that city streets lend themselves to street art. The spaces we inhabit inform our participation in those spaces, restricting our consciousness in certain ways but expanding it in others. I'm working on an essay about it and will post it when the time is right.

In the meantime, I want to see what kind of art people make in their workplaces, specifically the office environment, but really any workplace, using elements that are found only in the workplace or on one's way to work. It can be anything, 2-D, 3-D, installations, drawings, paintings, marquetry, anything. Just make sure to limit yourself to working on the pieces on while on the job. Oh, and take good pics.

Looking forward to seeing what’s out there,
Joe Pan