By Carla Rapoport • September 7, 2020
It’s not often that an artist longlisted for the Lumen Prize is an alumnus from Harvard Business School. I figure this might be a first. Many Lumen artists have degrees in computer science and art or have studied both coding and painting, for example. But Brett Wallace must be the first Lumen artist whose education included labour and economic studies as well as studio art.
The New York-based artist and filmmaker explains he attended Harvard Business School in 2008, during the financial collapse and housing crisis. He explains: “My goal was to understand better how businesses and the economy functioned from a variety of viewpoints. I also learned what was left out. For example, despite how much we discussed the role of capital, I never heard Karl Marx come up once.” His MFA, he says, provided a necessary balance to business school, allowing him to spend significant time diving into theoretical studies and concepts of labour.
Intrigued by the documentary film and experimental video work by artists such as Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, and Harun Farocki, Brett engaged moving image and installation for the ideas he cared about – exposing the invisible asymmetries in labour and the economy. His video works, he says, are part-documentary, reporting on major cultural events while amplifying workers’ voices, and part-installation, providing a tactile reference to the physicality of labour.
“Growing up in a working-class family outside of Boston shaped my belief that the subjects and territories of labour and the economy are potent sites of exchange, reclamation, resistance, and revolution,” says. The projects he works on are research-based and tend to be constructed over extended periods at multiple sites. These projects make use of observational documentary and ephemera to critically examine the struggle against capitalism and amplify the voices of workers within it.
He’s also keen to explore how new technologies like artificial intelligence are reshaping work, the often unseen and obscured material conditions of work, and the socioeconomic shifts impacting worker’s rights, livelihood, and dignity.
On The Road
His Lumen entry, Truckers, comes straight out of these concerns. A documentary film and installation exploring the impact of artificial intelligence on long-haul truckers. The installation is comprised of a bed, as seen in long haul trucks, and personal items from truckers, such as gloves, a headset, and a logbook. Viewers can sit and watch the film, which explores how new technologies are reshaping the working conditions, economic provisions, and lives of America’s trucker drivers. “Just about everything we own is delivered by trucks,” he says. “Truck drivers were once known as the mavericks of the open road. But, with the rise of artificial intelligence and the speed of the Amazon economy, truckers are facing changing working conditions, new privacy regulations, and new forms of monitoring.”
Brett says he’s not particularly interested in the commercial side of art – he sells specific works, such as photographs and documentation, but it is not a significant part of his practice. “I don’t think about the sale of work in how I conceptualise, produce, and present my work. I am more interested in how art can interrogate financial systems, industries, etc. For years, I have supported my practice by holding various jobs independent of the art market,” he says.
His other works have mapped the rise of algorithmically managed labor platforms, such as Uber, and Amazon’s expansion and labor record, listening to workers, and those most impacted by the changes reshaping work. These exhibitions were composed of physical, material work stations, including video essays that examined the underlying shifts and systematic inequality workers faced.
Other projects include AMAZING INDUSTRIES, an ideological think-tank and research engine that fosters dialogue about work and technology. And his ongoing interview series, The Conversation Project, dives into the practices of writers and artists centred on issues around art, technology, and culture.
Enjoy Truckers FILM UNDER BRETT WALLACE / VIDEO