The Politics of the Office

Andreia Alves de Oliveira

1 Lobby. Advertising agency.

The office is a defining, everyday space of modernity, a space which is far from disappearing. Andreia Alves de Oliveira’s curiosity was not so much focused on what people spend their time doing in offices, but rather on the space itself. Office space is the default space in the lives of professional, corporate, creative, academic, administrative and civil servant workers. It upsets as well as bores people, it frustrates and enervates, it makes people feel inferior or superior, miserable or powerful. It rarely provokes indifference.

The project documents the offices of financial, corporate, and legal institutions based in the City and Canary Wharf in London. These provide an interesting case study not only because they encapsulate a vast body of knowledge, materialised in disciplines such as organisational behaviour, environmental psychology, ergonomics or office design, that has been applied to the architecture and design of offices in general. But they also reveal a contradiction between the visibility of these institutions – occupying imposing buildings in urban centres, with their activities impacting on the whole of society – and the invisibility of the space where these activities take place. Images of such office interiors exist mostly in the form of films, TV series and commercial photographs. It took nearly two years and five hundred companies conducted before the artist obtained access to the offices of around fifty of such institutions, which perhaps explains the general paucity of documentary representations of office spaces.

2Clients’ entertainment floor. Audit, tax, and advisory services firm.

3CEO’s office. Hedge fund.

Alves de Oliveira’s photographs reveal the new, post-Taylorist office, where discipline is achieved through rather subtle, symbolic means: spectacular, richly decorated receptions and clients’ areas which blur the lines between work and fun; colourful, stylish ‘breakout’ areas and staff ‘amenities’ provided as a trade-off for the loss of personal space in the now widespread ‘non-territorial’ offices, where there are no assigned desks; a system of spatial ‘status markers’ – quantity and quality of furniture, décor, amount of space per person, location within the floor and the building – put in place to signal hierarchical relations of power, reflecting wider systems that influence life in industrialised society, where material possessions often signify social status. Although the offices shown are devoid of people, human presence is felt throughout. The low vantage point of the photographs places the furniture at eye level within the frame, accentuating the chairs’ anthropomorphic qualities, making them stand for the people who inhabit these offices. The lower than usual camera height also has the effect of depicting space on a human scale, eschewing the spectacular, pleasing vistas typical of architectural and interiors commercial photography which define the common visual representations of these spaces.

4 Back office. Professional services firm.

5 Copy area. Reinsurance firm.

In their emptiness and neutral mood, these offices may bring to mind what Walter Benjamin saw in Eugene Atget’s photographs of Paris’ empty streets: forensic photographs of crime scenes. Benjamin was referring to crimes that were social and political. Similarly, the scenes here would refer not to individual incidents, but to events that have the capacity to impact on the whole of society happening everyday in these hidden interiors – no less than what could be termed, metaphorically and perhaps less metaphorically, as the crimes of capital.

While questioning how power is exercised through the space in/of the image, The Politics of the Office offers the opportunity to witness photographs of offices that are largely inaccessible to the general public. By making these spaces visible and by addressing them in their totality, the work creates an expanded image of the office that aims to contribute, following the philosopher Henri Lefebvre, to the production of this space – an everyday, overlooked, but defining space of industrialised and service-based society.

6Middle office. Insurance firm.

7 Staff bar. Advertising agency.

Technical specifications
Andreia Alves de Oliveira, The Politics of the Office, 2011 – 2014. 130 photographs, 20 x 30 cm each, with captions.

Andreia Alves de Oliveira (b. Portugal, 1979) is a photographer and researcher based in London. Her practice explores subjects related to contemporary life, more specifically life in Western, service-based society. She is interested in what is around; in the reality she is immersed in; in what makes life here, now.

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