(Printed Matter, 2021)
Artist Jessica Vaughn mines discarded everyday materials—from industrial and office sites—to create her installations, such as wall sculptures made from bus seats or freestanding sculptures made from the skeletons of cubicles. She continues this practice in her first artist book, Depreciating Assets, which examines office work spaces and diversity practices. The softcover book shows black-and-white and color images of open floor plan offices, banker’s boxes, and plastic storage bins. These full bleed photographs often run off-center across the gutter, with facts printed in standard corporate-looking serif font as captions or text-overlays on the blank walls of the interior pictures, haunted by specters of economic displacement. The book examines the human toll of corporate design aesthetics, the flattening effect of diversity initiatives, and the impact of productivity initiatives.
Vaughn opens the book with brief case studies of past office spaces. On the left of the image of 28 Liberty Street’s expansive vacant office space is a blurb giving a chronological history of the building, “With an open floor design and executive suites flanking the periphery of each floor, JPMorgan Chase and other finance and real estate firms occupied this building from 1961–2010s before it was sold to an international investment company.” For a period, there were artist studios on one floor, but by 2018 the building was converted to luxury apartments and retail spaces. This dry, factual language runs throughout the book’s images of coworking spaces and grainy black-and-white stills from human resources videos.
The book provides a constant juxtaposition of photographs, factual texts, and corporate documents. An image of a white shelf stacked with multiple copies of important African American literature with spines reading Malcolm X, Sister Souljah, and Alice Walker, is paired with text explaining the lack of tenure track jobs available in academia for “people from racially marginalized groups.” But some sequences of images and texts are less successful. Across the fold from the photograph of the white bookshelf is a green cardstock paper featuring a black-and-white image of a Quest Diagnostics medical box followed by green pages with black-and-white images of empty stacked postal bins. The postal bins are a recurring motif, perhaps as a means of underscoring the materiality of documents, paper, and communications as physical objects that were once printed and distributed through the mail (another heavily regulated organization). But the connection between these images and the texts is not clear, creating a reading experience much like moving through a maze.
In addition to the different colored pages, the book also includes several paper types. Heavier cardstock paper features xerox-style reproductions of cover pages of official government files with headings like, “Strategies to Increase Representation of Women and Minorities by US Government Accountability Office” (2019), the Federal Affirmative Action “Report to the Chairman, Committee on Government Affairs, U.S. Senate” (1991), and “Diversity Management Trends and Practices in the Financial Services Industry and Agencies after the Recent Financial Crisis” (2013). In an interview between curator Magdalyn Asimakis and the artist printed in the book, Vaughn explains, “In a sense, measures to address diversity become the invisible language of global bureaucratic and corporate structures.” Vaughn makes structures visible, weaving together photos and documents, paper colors and textures, and Appendices filled with employment data, to create a strange, disorienting, and somewhat perplexing reading experience—much like the practices she interrogates.
One of the most successful of the Appendices is the final one, “Appendix Three: Notes on Context, Structure and Production,” which explains the material choices made in producing this book. The page layouts, paper, and color choices all follow and respond to “guidelines and rules set out within three documents issued by the US Government Publishing Office (GPO): the GPO Style Manual, Paper Samples guide, and Paper Standards guide.” Flipping through the book, with its mix of glossy, cardstock, and lightweight papers is visually interesting. Many of the photographs do reinforce a connection to these materials, such as a strikingly beautiful closeup image of a white bookshelf stacked with pastel file folders that echo the color palette of the book.
The final text, an Afterword by the artist, brings this topic into the urgent present. The opening line reads, “George Floyd tested positive for COVID-19 in April, just over a month before his killing by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25th, 2020.” The impact of the rigid diversity and design standards replicated in the book’s materials are given human weight. Vaughn cites statistics from the CDC regarding the higher disease and death rates of Black Americans. In light of the current pandemic, much has been done to transform the previously popular open-floor plan offices pictured in this book, outfitting cubicles with plexiglass barriers. Alongside screenshots of websites selling these barriers, Vaughn explains that many companies opted for “adding transparent barriers but not improving worker’s health insurance, and ignoring that the majority of workers in low-paying customer-facing jobs, care work, or service work are overwhelmingly people of color, and (in the United States) Black.” She asks and answers, “Do minimalist design gestures and open floor plans exist outside conditions of race, class and labor? They don’t.”
Reading this book, the question looms of how its own production plays into this very system. Clearly, the artist’s design choices seek to disrupt and question this system. She notes that this book “allowed me to react, consider, and think through the labored, economic, and radicalized experiences that have constituted and continue to make up my experiences in workspaces.” What Vaughn builds while working within this system is a visual and verbal model for pushing boundaries and revealing seams. The book itself is hot glue-bound, and when cracked open wide enough, the binding begins to break—unlikely that this was intentional, but perhaps a poetic fit for the material—a book made within a rigid system pushing to break out.