Pilvi Takala On Discomfort
CCA Goldsmiths, London 19 March – 4 June
In a classic Pilvi Takala video, a high-concept situation is arranged and unwinds in excruciating detail. The aesthetic experience involves figuring out the nature of the prank and cringing as unwitting participants fail to cope with someone else shirking social expectations. Among the works shown in On Discomfort, a survey of Takala’s distinctive oeuvre from 2006 to the present, are The Trainee (2008), in which the artist confuses colleagues by idling aimlessly in an oce; Real Snow White (2009), in which security is provoked as she attempts to enter Disneyland Paris in the character’s costume; and The Stroker (2018), which sees Takala irking strangers in a coworking space with excessive friendliness in the name of wellness. All this builds towards creating a captivating counter-iconography of contemporary life – one keenly attuned to the ways communal spaces are shaped by profit and productivity.
Yet in a recent three-channel video installation titled Close Watch (2022), the target is less clear. Much of the format of previous works is present – infiltration as an artistic mode – but the video itself records a workshop held after Takala has completed her stint as a security guard. Where earlier works revelled in the texture of corporate life – lanyards, emails, copyright infringement, marketing lingo – with a heavy dose of ironic detachment, in this lifeless conversation clichés abound. Security guards defend racist jokes as a form of camaraderie while in an accompanying screen the ¢ÅAE assures the artist that this is not in line with their values. An encounter of sorts has taken place but it never gets beneath a surface of stock phrases. Critics who’ve described this work as addressing the role of private security firms are mostly reading the press release, as the actual content hovers in a generalised space of workplace misconduct and takes on the form of a Ç© training session.
It’s uncomfortable how often security guards feature as the poorly paid representation of unseen, unaccountable corporations in Takala’s work. By contrast, in Workers Forum (2014), an animated text conversation where microtaskers for a ‘fake relationship’ app vent their frustrations regarding managing customer expectations and the emotional demands of playing a persona, we glean a deeper sense of the texture of their lives and the reality of this strange digital phenomenon. The meeting of cringe and spectacle in Takala’s work can be understood as a navigation of attention and empathy. In this setup/payo¨ format, tension is teased but never fully released; pangs of sympathy breathe life into absurd situations, as does the sheer unpredictability of abandoning social norms. We watch these narratively dense yet unresolved scenarios, waiting for the next thing to happen and, perhaps, to understand the world anew.