Touring Seattle artist James Coupe’s exhibit “Exercises in Passivity” can be a disorienting experience.The sound of tinny voices filtered through speakers reverberates off gallery walls. On screens hung throughout the gallery, people ramble about, describing their daily routines in shaky, handheld videos. Cold, hard metal is the prevailing material, and reality is confined to boxes, including a human-sized cage.
“It’s not that different from the outside world,” said Coupe, who works with video, internet and emerging media forms to explore ideas like automation and its effect on humans.
“Exercises in Passivity,” on display at Moscow’s Prichard Art Gallery through Dec. 31, focuses heavily on the gig economy, a free-market system in which organizations hire independent workers for discrete tasks computers aren’t yet able to perform.
The gig economy exists outside the traditional 9-to-5 office job with salary and benefits. As work became digitized, people could work any time from any location. The website Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) is one place where businesses can connect with crowdworkers. Businesses are known as “requesters” on the website, and the jobs they post are tasks like reading and transcribing handwriting and filling out surveys.
“It’s a huge, invisible workforce,” Coupe said. “Ironically, the people doing these jobs are contributing to their own obsolescence.”
As an artist, Coupe wanted to make these people visible. As a requester on the website, he posted instructions to record a one-minute video at a specific time of the day. These videos appear in several works in the exhibit, including “Time Clock.”
In a physical business, a time clock stamps the hour and minute people punch in and out of work. Coupe retrofitted one of these machines with a screen displaying the crowdworkers’ videos, timed to the actual minute. At 1:06 p.m., a young man walks through a house explaining, “Just about to eat lunch, contemplating the day’s gardening tasks.”
“Almost everybody wants to share what they are doing,” said Coupe, who was in Moscow in October installing the exhibit. “There’s a desire to share, reach out and communicate, especially when engaged in lonely, isolated work.”
A row of portraits on a nearby wall shows Asian artists who create on-demand oil paintings. There’s a place in Shenzhen, China, known as the village of 5,000 painters, Coupe explained. Some of these painters do contract work for the website instapainting.com. People can submit photos to the site, and a real portrait painter will turn the picture into an oil painting ready to ship in about a week. Mostly they convert photos of western couples and children into paintings.
“I submitted a request for self-portraits of 10 of these painters, … the self-portrait being a keystone in art history,” he said. “Almost all have painted themselves in classical western style. These are the invisible workers.”
Coupe’s artistic reflections of the gig economy can show us how the technology in our lives is making us more or less humane, said Roger Rowley, the gallery’s director.
“Social media is actually a very passive means of communicating and accomplishing anything,” Rowley said about the exhibit’s title. “It does seem to be a very appropriate exhibit for this moment.”
The cage at the center of the gallery is one of the largest installations in the exhibit. Titled, “I Am Not a Robot,” it is built from a design patented by Amazon in 2016 to put its warehouse workers in cages atop mobile robots. It was a way the company imagined humans could safely navigate its highly-automated warehouses. The patent was revealed in a 2018 research paper on the ethics of artificial intelligence. Amazon never implemented the system, and has no plans to do so, but that didn’t stop public outcry over the idea.
“It became a metaphor, a symbol for a relationship between humans, machines and the labor practices I’m describing,” Coupe said. “Increasingly, we have to prove we’re human.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: James Coupe’s “Exercises in Passivity.”
WHEN: On display through Dec. 31.
WHERE: Prichard Art Gallery, 414 S. Main St., Moscow.
OF NOTE: A walk-through video of the exhibit is at vimeo.com/475673297. University of Idaho policy requires masks to be worn in the gallery. Gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.