email@example.comCanned Laughter might not have been exactly what the city fathers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico had in mind as certification of their global creative-class prestige when they invited artists to create works based on their experience with the city.
While communities across the North Carolina Piedmont saw textile mills shutter one by one following the passage of the North American Free Trade Act in 1994, border cities such as Ciudad Juarez experienced the proliferation of maquiladoras, internationally owned factories that imported capital to take advantage of cheap labor and minimal regulation.
Yoshua Okón’s exhibit focuses on an imaginary maquiladora that produces soundtracks of recorded laughter for television shows. Entering the gallery at the Weatherspoon subjects visitors to a frontal, multi-media assault, beginning with a rack of uniforms and moving onto a row of televisions, cans of “laughter” and large mounted screens that produce a cacophony of sensory cues combining to produce a sense of mind-numbing desperation. The effect is exceedingly grim, not necessarily because of any physical hardship involved but because of the soul-deadening quality of the work.
The main point of the exhibit seems to be that when emotion is reduced to a commodity and broken down into its essential components for maximum efficiency of production it ceases to have any human tangibility. The cans of “laughter” — visitors can put on headphones to sample the product, labeled “hysterical,” “evil,” “manly” and “sexy” — are a clever and direct way to manifest the concept. Video footage of workers on an assembly line using stamping machines to seal the cans, performing quality control at listening stations and slapping on labels extends the metaphor. Additional footage showing an ensemble of workers producing a peals of laughter at varying pitches according to the direction of a conductor reveals how utterly untethered the process is from the emotions that the recorded output is supposed to represent. Look closely, and you’ll discover the workers are yawning, cracking anxious smiles and otherwise moving their mouths out of sync with the sound.The laughter, divorced from its context, sounds more mournful than mirthful. It’s adequate as far as pitch, tempo and contour go, but it might as well be the sound of a parent wailing in response to the death of a small child.
The fictitious company operating this laughter maquila is called Bergson and the conductor’s accent sounds as if it could be German or Scandinavian, so the concept of globalization is implicit.
The question of whether the exhibit suggests that work in traditional manufacturing is something like bad TV, cultural production has become cheapened by mechanization or the street runs both ways is left unanswered. That particular riddle points to the conceptual limitations of the exhibit. One can ask whether the product is designed for a global marketplace or specifically for the Mexican entertainment industry, but this question likely remains unanswered. How does the product condition its consumers, or are they even likely to notice it as a component of their media diet? Again, there was probably no intention of providing answers to this question.
And while the exhibit captures a frozen moment of nightmarish occupational drudgery, the broader contours of the workers’ lives are left to the imagination of visitors and what they may know about the subject of maquiladoras.
Where did they come from? Did they leave impoverished farmsteads in hopes of attaining a higher standard of living? What is the texture of their social and family lives outside of the factory? What kind of support networks do they have? What is the price of being separated from their families?
Maybe raising such questions is the best art can do.
Yoshua Okón will give a free lecture at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, located at the corner of Tate and Spring Garden streets in Greensboro, on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Okon’s multi-media exhibit, Canned Laughter, remains on display through April 14.