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Robert Chase Heishman
November 14, 2020 – March 7, 2021
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All photos by Robert Chase Heishman
Robert Chase Heishman: Image Workers
Chicago-based artist Robert Chase Heishman’s practice explores the territory, periphery, and construction of images. Moving through ideas of image production, self-referentiality, and the everyday, ‘Image Workers’ presents new works that delve into the politics of global image production, authorship, and the commodification of labor, highlighting the artist’s creative engagement with photo-based outsourcing companies from around the world.
Through his photographic work, Heishman captures carefully arranged tableaus that suggest personal relationships to the subject matter. In ‘Photo by (Retouching Zone, Dhaka, Bangladesh; Fast Clipping Path, Dhaka, Bangladesh: Akram Hossain)’, a collection of images is cropped, edited, and pieced together, superimposed against a vibrant background of teal office cubicles and world clocks. Using photographs of the artist’s personal belongings as a point of departure, the images progress through a series of exchanges between the artist and the outsourcing company, where employees who specialize in mass digital photo editing at a rate of 29 cents per image retouch, repair, or remove until a desired level is achieved.1 The second part of the engagement includes a request for a cell phone photo from the employee, which the artist explains would be used in combination for the creation of an artwork. In this case, the aforementioned teal cubicles and world clocks, as taken by the worker, become discernable place-based markers which the artist has decided to use as a ground for the work. Next, the edited images are montaged–pieced together and layered–to produce a new composite from the fragments of pictures. Lastly the work is credited, with names appearing within the artwork titles; a clear call out to the lack of transparency with regards to authorship, appropriation, and attribution of labor.
Heishman contemplates our post-modern culture by exaggerating the Western tendency to “aestheticize and commodify markers of difference in other cultures for the narrow purpose of selling new products.”2 From the objectification of bodies to the innovations of industrial capitalism, the globalization of labor has created a “cult of the new,” a cyclical economy of mass production and consumption.2 In order to meet increasing demands, companies turn to outsourcing, an often contested practice where the same work is completed for far less, and often by underpaid and overworked laborers in low-wage developing countries. In another work entitled ‘Photo by (Fast Clipping Path, Dhaka, Bangladesh: Saif Hossain)’, the artist photographs his own sweatshirt similar to that of a product shot, a recognizable composition that might be a nod to the fast fashion and sweatshop industry, or perhaps it’s simply an exercise in self-portraiture. Here, you see the familiar triptych style with both the original and edited sweatshirt flanking a photo of a domestic setting. The original background, taken in Heishman’s studio, has been removed–a popular service often requested by large e-commerce companies—only to be reconnected to the very background by which the work was performed in, suggesting an aesthetic intelligence shaped by a desire to render visible the embedded labor of images.
Heishman, a self-identified “image worker,” (a term he uses for a person whose work is in service to the production, use, and dissemination of images), supports his art practice primarily through photo and video commissions. Reflecting on the amount of work he was taking on, found his way to outsourcing and began engaging with companies in India and Bangladesh. A desire to source assistance became an urge for connection—a shared interest of individuals performing similar work and sharing the common language of images and image assembly—realizing that the only marker of difference was location (and the privilege and politics thereof). Eventually, Heishman’s commercial photographic practice conflated with his artistic practice. This engagement might be considered unconventional as it is an attempt to deny asymmetric thinking around labor relations by exchanging personal cell phone photos and including names and texts from the often anonymous and overlooked labor involved in outsourcing. With prompts like “take a picture of your office” or “your favorite place,” the artist proposes a different kind of viewing. Questions of how, where, and who expose this transactional economy, how images travel, and the dialogue between time, memory, and place.
Through the use of montage, we are presented with a series of triptychs that show the relationship with the past and present. Time becomes visible as personal artifacts collide with first person photographs of place, resulting in the construction of something entirely new. German theoretician and playwright Bertolt Brecht would argue that a montage is a “political taking of a stand and a re-composition of the forces of image and time.”3 Heishman accentuates the cut and the contrast through the tangible application of tape and restructuring of images, creating a grid-like landscape that allows the viewer the experience of the visual field as something to actively partake in, an intervention of sorts against our Western tendency to take.4 Using the power of images to shape our reality, Heishman creates a shared, open, immanent world.
Understanding the montage as a tool of communication brings forth issues of the modern and the post-modern, with collective experiences of decline and chaos from war and economic crises.3 It is important to note that since the start of this project, the world has been enduring a global pandemic, displacing many from their places of work and home. In response, the backdrops which ground the work have transitioned from commercial to domestic. Akin to the transition of the edited images of personal belongings, we see a transition of labor. In ‘Photo by (Fast Clipping Path, Dhaka, Bangladesh: Saif Hossain)’, the landscape-grid of cubicles has shifted to the grid of a windowpane, inside looking out. This repetition is not coincidental, it is rather, a deliberate attempt to explore what is beyond an image, in the periphery. Heishman deftly engages the space between and around images to make literal the intersections between place and labor, and our ephemeral relationships with image-based consumption.
Over the course of the 4-month exhibition run at Elastic Arts, the work will function as research for an experimental documentary film, meditating on the outsourced image and politics of labor. In support of the artist’s continual image-based workflow, new work will be added to the exhibition periodically throughout, as well as a dedicated website, which will allow viewers to safely engage with the exhibition, research, and concerns from afar. At its closure, there will be a presentation of a trailer for his future film. It is central to the work that the significance of labor, especially atop a global pandemic, is acknowledged, therefore Heishman is pursuing legal advice in order to financially support the image workers in the creation of these works.
As a political and self-referential praxis ‘Image Workers’ cleverly navigates the ways in which globalization has influenced the economies of art and authorship. Heishman offers us a much-needed space to reevaluate the ways in which we share and engage with each other. Maybe this is an attempt to poeticize the relationships with the hard-working individuals who work to make our lives thrive, or perhaps it’s a radical call out to the inherent biases within these economies. Ultimately, ‘Image Workers’ allows us to consider our collective imagination towards a world in which equity becomes central to our models of living and where we make visible the work and bodies that remain unseen.
-Alyssa Brubaker, Visual Arts Curator
1As of October 22, 2020, this is the current starting rate for photo editing services of a single image from Retouching Zone in Dhaka, Bangladesh, accessed online, http://www.retouchingzone.com
2Oli Sorenson’s paper titled “Appropriation and Disruption in the Age of Immaterial Bondage” in the Canadian journal Esse discusses Deborah Roots’ ‘Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference’; and the “cult of the new” as they relate to the rapid growth of industrial capitalism. ‘Esse’, issue 97 “Appropriation” (fall 2019)
3Huapaya, Cesar. (2016). “Montage and Image as Paradigm.” Revista Brasileira de Estudos da Presença, 6(1), 110-123. Accessed online: https://doi.org/10.1590/2237-266055196
4Block, Anja. “Kendra Wallace: The Field of Appearances.” Esse, issue 88 “Landscape” (fall 2016), 33-35
ST(ART UP) OPENING PARTY
Saturday November 14, 2020
CLOSING RECEPTION + DJ SET
Saturday March 7, 2021