Shown at Gray Area, March 2 & 3, 2062
We look back towards the early 21st century to understand the decline and eventual disappearance of the office as the main place to conduct business or complete work. What were the factors, aside from the COVID-19 pandemic of the 2020s, that lead to the extinction of the office? Were there other historical events that contributed to the decline of the office? How did “office culture” factor into the disappearance of the office?
The office as a place of work developed during the early years of the industrial revolution and European colonization of the Americas, Australia, and Eastern Asia. Driven by the need of managers to be in close proximity of each other with their support staffs and the records required for tracking accounts, the office rose to be the preeminent space for work and business. The more wealthy and valuable a company was, the more that wealth was reflected in the office space. The apogee of the office was found in the tech office of Silicon Valley in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as these were the wealthiest and most powerful companies that had ever existed. Their legendary amenities sought to induce armies of workers into long hours of dedicated enthusiasm for their corporate goals.
During the COVID pandemic, public spaces were largely abandoned until there was large enough distribution of vaccines to build up herd immunity and it became safe to congregate again. But when it became safe to do so, many office workers simply refused to go back to their old offices. There were multiple factors play at play driving those decisions, among them are: The continuing waves of COVID, specifically the Rho and Tau variants, lasting until 2025. The destruction of the Transbay Terminal, caused by the collapse of the Millenium Tower in 2024, which made commuting in the San Francisco Bay Area even more difficult. There was also the realization of the undesirability of certain aspects of office culture after such a long time away from it.
The stories that we present here are a small glimpse into that moment in time when cities changed. These recordings are the recollections of those office workers who are still with us in 2062. Please explore the office and put on the head phones and hear their stories.
What is the Museum of the Office?
It is a work of speculative fiction presented as an installation.
The installation itself was relatively simple- a conference room with a desk, 2 monitors and 2 headphones. Various office accoutrements like white boards and a water cooler were also in the room. The work itself is an A/V piece: a video with an accompanying soundtrack of voices telling stories about office and work culture. Viewers put on the headphones for a 3 minute video loop that is a montage/collage of video of the plaza surrounding San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal, footage of driving across the Bay Bridge, and still images of various tech offices. I did all the voices and wrote the monologues. I used Antares software to manipulate my voice. Recordings were done on my tula microphone.
My previous work for the Cine Chamber, 09/09/2020 – Day of the Red Sky, had sparked my interest in audio as an element to work with in installations and I wanted to explore possibilities of aural landscapes as a tool for narrative. At the start of this project, my original intention was to create audio devices that would tell stories of the particular place they were in. For example, when triggered by the presence of a person, it would tell the story of what a particular street corner may have been like 40 years earlier. Production issues just didn’t allow for a device to be completed in time, so I focused on the audio to create a narrative. The story is just as important as the device.
And what story to tell? The past is always enticing in San Francisco, as any resident will tell you: “It used to be better when I moved here”. While San Francisco may have an illustrious past, it is also a city of the future, or at least it’s the place where the future gets dreamed up and birthed into being. How the city will change became a more compelling narrative than how it had existed because we are confronted with the enormous challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. We know from the past that pandemics radically alter the societies they infect. Many places, businesses, aspects, and people of San Francisco have simply vanished. What will change in the city, and why it changed, became a part of the narrative that I wanted to ‘tell’.
I chose 40 years in the future, as that is a chunk of time long enough for a large enough chunk of the currently living population to no longer have a direct memory or experience of that era. Thinking back 40 years in the past puts us in the early years of the Reagan era (1982), which I find that I have to explain what that was like to more and more people simply because they were born after it. It is far enough away from us now that we are losing that direct connection of that shared experience.
Social changes are never the result of one event or factor, but rather by the combination of several coming together with almost karmic timing. For the office to truly disappear and become something unknown like the fallout shelters of the cold war, I imagined several different possible events with roots ground in reality: the COVID pandemic continues on for a few more years, San Francisco’s infamous Millennium Tower collapses and takes down other structures around it, and the general realization that the amenities offered in offices weren’t always what they seemed.