Virtual Assistance is great, and a great rarity: political art that’s poetic and elliptical. Without being heavy-handed or preachy, the videos, photos, printouts and objects in the show deliver a story of successful human interaction in the face of globalization and a corporate-dictated power structure.
Andrew Norman Wilson, a 27-year-old MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said at the opening that Virtual Assistance began when he heard about outsourcing of personal assistants to India. Intrigued, the (Caucasian, American) artist (who goes by Norm) contacted the Bangalore company GetFriday in February 2009 and was assigned to 25-year-old Akhil C. For a flat rate of $10 a month plus $15 per hour, Norm could ask Akhil for assistance with a variety of office tasks.
Norm didn’t need flowers delivered or flights booked—he wanted to subvert the whole enterprise. Instead his tasks were all about turning the tables on the power structure by creating activities that confuse the roles of boss and assistant and spark a more human kind of interaction.
For the first task, Norm asked Akhil to sit at his computer and write his thoughts for 40 minutes while he wrote his own thoughts at his computer in Chicago. The two lists are displayed via video, the words scrolling across the screen as if they’re being typed. (See the video.) Norm’s list is full of wordplay—“Extra excess,” or “Please mind the magma below.” Akhil is more rooted in reality, though with occasional philosophy thrown in. He wants to go to Kerala for a vacation. He had an argument with a friend. He should drink more water. “All truths are being told in jokes.”
Then Norm tasked Akhil with giving him a task. Akhil, who knew that Norm makes videos, requested one about fighter jets, and received a marvelous piece combining family home movies, YouTube videos of real fighter jets in action and virtual fighter jets from video games like Total Air War. Akhil’s voice can be heard in the piece and the dedication “To Akhil C.” is poignant—friendly, human and empathetic.
Even more poignant is the toy boat task: Norm asks Akhil to design a boat, and receives a penciled schematic of a battery-powered toy Akhil had played with as a child. Norm builds the boat and mails it to Akhil, who then takes it with him on that vacation to Kerala, and has his cousin video him playing with it in the waves at the water’s edge. You can see this video and a replica of the boat in the gallery. It shows Akhil’s level of commitment to the relationship even outside the corporate strictures. Another personal assistant might have balked at playing along with Wilson’s tasks.
Virtual Assistance is a triumph of communication, empathy and friendship over rigid corporate intent. The ideas raised about power, equality and technology are far from clear. Wilson is not advocating a corporate takeover or a revolution by the workers. He’s not saying technology is bad for human communication. But his point about taking something brittle and inflexible and transforming it through sheer humanity is a great one.
Akhil was on task at the opening—he was available to chat via gmail-chat on a computer in the gallery. He was away from his computer when I said hi and asked how many people worked with him. By the time I left the gallery, Akhil had responded, apologizing that he had been on a call. 150 people work at the company. Norm told me that he hopes to go to India and meet Akhil. I asked whether he’d continue the virtual assistant relationship if he was in India. He said one thing he’d like to do is have a tourist picture taken of the two of them together, Norm and Akhil, shoulder to shoulder, smiling.
Through Jan. 28. Closing reception Jan. 28 with Powerpoint presentation by the artist at 6 pm. Extra Extra, NEW location 1524 Frankford Ave.