London artist GEORGE MORRIS discusses corporate culture's role in modern day society, performing art and power.
Words by Hugo Dufour
Approx reading time: 6 mins
George Morris’ most recent installation gives the strange feeling of laughing at a joke but being unsure at what expense. A single speaker on a stand condescendingly says “pity” without any obvious reason, two television screens teach each other public speaking tips, and a projector takes more space in the room than its projection of people fake-laughing in what seems to be a bonding workshop for employees.
“I use the corporate world because it obviously affects us all in some way or another. Everyone’s aware of it. We recognise corporate culture and its awkwardness when we see it, however, I think we dismiss its deep presence in our lives far too easily,” he explains.
“It makes my art very approachable, they are quite easy to acknowledge because of the familiarity that comes with the corporate visual, but it also allows me to work with the collective unconscious linked to it. It is about exploring these images and these corporate training strategies and seeing how they present themselves in the everyday.”
For his Mirror Match Mimic p.8 / Mirror Match Mimic p.8 2016 video piece, George Morris has used training manuals about how to act during a business meeting as the base for the choreography, and the actors performing it teach body language professionally. There’s something uncanny and subtly disturbing in seeing them teaching mechanically how to act like a human.
“That’s the thing though; corporate culture’s training methodology is trying to assume a certain language, which gives it authority and power. It also gives its power humanity, makes it relatable in a twisted way.” As he explains, “This language is about stripping back the unnecessary; it’s getting rid of erratic. It’s like everything becomes censored; everything becomes rigid, standardised. What is being a good employee in this context? Is it performing the gestures? It is completely ridiculous.”
All of George Morris’ work involves performance in one way or another, despite his rejection of the performance artist label.
“I’m not very much interested in the question of “performance art” but more in the performativity of things, like Judith Butler, like gender being an assigned role for example. We are all performing things. Theatre often tries to imitate life, but my work says that we often try to imitate the theatre.”
“My work is about witnessing performance,” Morris explains. "It’s about acknowledging where these gestures that we mimic come from. It’s about the structure behind it. It may seem flippant but actually they are often from a dark, more sinister place.”
The frantic People Said You Were Easily Led (2016), involves the camera triggering frenetic movement and laughter whenever it stops its gaze on a person, filling the space with manic noises, all the while competing for attention with the office projector it originates from. It’s intentional; in George Morris’s work, the pieces of furniture perform as much as the actors.
“The human body performs differently than the object’s because of the aura it has. When you see my work, you see the objects (a speaker, a projector, a TV screen, etc.) for what they are even before you acknowledge the images and sound they emit. They are not hidden in the background; you stay aware that they are not human.”
Indeed, Morris believes this is what makes the performance interesting. “Objects give the viewers a safe distance to interpret. The fact that they are machines make the repetition of the gestures much more natural than if it was a real person doing them while also keeping the awkwardness.
“For example, if I had somebody in the room saying “pity” it would be completely personalised. It would be this specific person’s action, whereas when it’s an object saying a word, its originator becomes much more ambiguous and global."
In keeping with the ambiguous nature that informs much of Morris’ work, the effect of having objects perform instead of humans is that they will do so whether there is somebody to witness it or not. They inhabit the space but they do not really interact with the audience to a point where it is easy to wonder to whom are these objects performing. The lack of functional purpose behind the character’s actions verges on the absurd and makes the whole situation somewhat humoristic and surreal.
Artists have used humour as a treatment for the exploration of our relationship with corporate culture. The recent Berlin Biennale, led by DIS, was filled with accelerationist and post-capitalist art attempting to tackle capitalist decay with irony and visual gags. Their common tactic is to embrace corporate culture and subvert it.
Morris, on the other hand, keeps his distance with his subject and mocks its tactics, as he says, “It’s because I refuse to look at these activities that are presented to us every day as if they were normal. There is an element of humour in that.
“An employee would encounter that kind of corporate language to learn a set of skills, but they actually are in an acting class isn’t it? It’s about laying it bare. It’s about getting to the actual bone of what these activities are about. I’m all about deconstruction. I’m not taking a position where I am above it or part of it, it is more that I’m deconstructing, challenging and questioning by working through it.”
And deconstruct he does, as Morris says, “The hope is to reveal that these things are a part of us and it is not a given. It’s about challenging. It’s about the workplace; it should always be challenged.
“From there, it’s a choice to either resist or accept it. By revealing the mechanism behind a certain power you set the ground for people to do something about it.”
One way this philosophy is visually translated in his work is how obviously fake and insincere all the performances are, a somewhat twisted mirror of our own body language.
“None of these are about the conviction of the performance. They are about dismantling and becoming aware of the forces behind the gestures. How you learn through watching and repeating things as well as the compliance of all of this. The performances in the video look erratic or they look unfamiliar, but as you watch the video go on, they become very repetitive, familiar.”
In a way, the dehumanisation he portrays in his work, only serves to heighten our own awareness of what it is to be human and somewhat the anaesthetised participants within this society he critiques. “Corporate language is basically something inhuman trying to communicate with humans. Its power to influence our gestures is a testament of its prevalence in our society. When isolated and deconstructed like in my work, however, it becomes obviously fake, unnatural. It creates this push and pull with the viewer.”
As Morris explains, “It tries to get close and personal but is not actually human and quickly falls within the uncanny valley. The distance created by the fact that they are unthreatening objects makes this comical and gives us the psychological headspace to analyse them. That comical push and pull is absolutely fundamental to my work.”
Though carefully considered, Morris’ pieces allow a lot of room to interpretation. They are thematic sandboxes that reveal everybody’s unique link with their content. With a single condescending word, Pity (2016), cleverly plays with the idea of power. Whether it is class struggle, colonialism or even art world authority, how people choose to read into his work is a mirror of their own insecurities as much as the artist’s.
“I think it’s important to be able to navigate the space, these objects. When you are looking at something engaging, there’s always something else breathing down the back of your neck, casting doubt, shifting the meanings, making you double-guess yourself, and that is my practice. Art is not just there to be witnessed; it’s there to be experienced.”
Words by Hugo Dufour