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Bodies of Work
The photo series Bodies of Work was created in the last Austrian shipyard on the Danube, the ÖSWAG, which carries out repairs as well as builds new steel ships. It is located in the winter harbor in Linz. In the two distinct areas, “machine engineering” and “wharf,” highly technological machine-based production and industrial manual labor are tightly interwoven. Artistically engaging with an industrial production site that centers around a large workpiece – a strongly division-based manufacturing process that a large number of people contribute to – is appealing in times of great change in the vocational field and the increase of immaterial labor. Today, industrial forms of labor that are not fully automated are often falsely seen as outdated and fall out of public perception. For this reason, we tend to forget how much manual labor is still embedded in the process of industrial production. Predictions of a de-industrialization based on the belief that these forms of work have already been outsourced into threshold countries only further reinforce this disappearance from the public eye. This may partly explain the astonishment of a lot of people who would not expect a wharf in this location, also because of the image of Austria as a mountainous landlocked country.
The series shows an artistic exploration of the company over a span of one and a half years which involves the construction of a new sea ferry among other things. I often began the shift in the early morning with the workers and accompanied them throughout their workday. After having been on site almost daily during the first two months, I began to shoot at larger intervals and outside regular working hours. At nighttime and on weekends when the halls stood empty, the premises transformed into a nature reserve along the Danube, a haven for mariners and wildlife alike. The sensuality of the place is also impressive on workdays, when the noise of the machines is amplified by the large halls, metal dust glistens, and the smell of hot metal lies in the air.
In the wharf we witness interesting temporal entanglements. The anachronistic qualities of this place become apparent when a factory siren announces and ends the breaks from work, and are further reinforced by the connotations of manual labor on ships and the close connection of humans and machines. In many cases the almost 180-year-old history of the company shines through and provides flashbacks to a fluctuating past.
Yet the wharf also allows for leaps into the future when images of the ship’s hull from a heightened perspective bring to mind associations of science fiction spaceships, their designs inspired by the aesthetics of the manufacturing industry. In their protective gear, the welders are transformed into space travelers whose air supply is pumped into their helmets through tubes. Picking up on the analogies of the protective gear and space suits as well as the motif of the (space) ship as a symbol for adventure and discovery – but also for escape – provided the means to uncouple the specific place of the wharf and in some instances photographically remove it from gravity in order to reach another level of meaning.
It is the working body that allows for the ever present discourse about the importance and the change in labor to be negotiated. Not least the similarity of the technologically upgraded working body to the figure of the cyborg raises questions about ethics that have become a major part of the discussion surrounding changes in work due to labor migration and the industrial exodus into cheap labor countries.
Within the field of industrial production the workers merge with their workpieces or become a hinge between the machines and the workpieces. The flexibility of humans – the ability to act according to the specific situation, but also the means to adapt the body to the workpiece – seems to be their greatest advantage. At the same time this flexibility shows its wear on the body that becomes marked by its occupation. The work inscribes itself into the body. The protective gear hints at the vulnerability of humans and gives rise to fantasies of having the work carried out by machines, robots, and ultimately cyborgs. The bodies of the exclusively male workforce in the workshops are mostly veiled. The naked nymphs on the calendars in the midst of flying metal shavings and sparks are thus imbued with an air of invulnerability – and hence seem equally otherworldly.
The welding shields that protect the workers from the aggressive light have photographic qualities. The red color, the transparency, and the shielding function are something they have in common with photographic tools such as the red filter or the red light in the darkroom that respectively filter or screen light out, just as the welding curtains do. As a connective element to photography and like a stage curtain that emphasizes the fictional aspect of the medium, the red welding shields pervade the series and the book.
Katharina Gruzei 2018
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