Throughout the 2020 lockdowns, the world was in panic. Information was scattered and sirens blazed. While those of us fortunate enough to bring their offices home found some respite indoors, our interior lives quickly succumbed to external madness. A lack of childcare and school closings, among other factors, led to nearly two million women leaving the workforce; software designed to surveil workers, monitoring their mouse clicks and keystrokes, kept many locked into activity. People kept one eye on kids trying to finish Zoom-school and one hand clicking frantically to ensure productivity, and the pandemic revealed the layered, fraught realities of home-work, the oft-overlooked and under-compensated labor of care, and the dystopian panopticon of a collective future.
Shouldn’t You Be Working? a new exhibition at the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University (MSU) is revisiting not only the labor discourses from 2020 but also the myriad living conditions, technologies, and histories that are consumed by home-work. The exhibition is anchored by MSU’s history: The university began offering one of the first home economics degrees in the United States at its school of home economics in 1896, providing education primarily for women in bookkeeping, managing a home, and other practical skills. It was revolutionary not only because it was one of the first degree programs open to women but also because many of the graduates went on to other careers such as interior design and nutrition, according to exhibition curator Theresa Fankhaenel.
The museum, which sits on the former site of a home economics "practice house" that was demolished in 2008, now possesses many of the archived photos and ephemera from the home economics school. But it’s not only that direct geographic connection that spurred this exhibition, Fankhaenel says, but also the opportunity— two years post–Covid vaccine—to unpack the myriad ways that home-work has evolved.
The exhibition includes images from the home economics program, but much of what is on view includes the vastly more intersectional. "Even though we started out with home economics, which was a very white, middle class, field of study when it started out," Fankhaenel says, "what we're trying to show in the exhibition is all the other types of invisible labor that haven't been compensated, or that have been compensated."
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Included are works by Jaelyn Gomez, whose practice grew from nannying for families in Los Angeles. The artist uses pages torn from lifestyle magazines like Architectural Digest and Vogue—magazines she’d pull from the trash at her employer’s homes—and paints in the figures of domestic laborers onto photographs of pristine interiors and dazzling swimming pools, depicting the invisible laborers who make those images possible. Photographic works in the show include photo "tapestries" by Guanyu Xu, who photographs the homes of temporary US residents, as well as works by Won Kim, whose Enclosed: Living Small series depicts the cramped quarters of Japanese capsule hotels—addressing how issues of comfort, technology, and economy play a role in creating claustrophobic live-work spaces.
The exhibition’s broad range of perspectives are incorporated to "explode" the definition of home economics, not only addressing the erasure of domestic labor and nuanced conditions of domesticity but also including much darker themes pertaining to mass reliance on technology for such labor to operate. Filmmaker Keigi Matsuda’s video installation Merger addresses worker attempts to increasingly self-optimize in the face of artificial intelligence "bosses;" digital artist Chris Collins creates a virtual reality workplace game, in which workers must perform menial tasks and make purchases from an Amazon-like app while being battered by drones delivering their packages; and Marisa Olson’s Cream Screen installation addresses disability and a reliance on technology for employment.
Through these multiple entry points—history, technology, and intersectionality—Fankhaenel hopes that audiences will be able to look at their own working and living conditions with a critical eye. For students at MSU, which Fankhaenel describes as one of the largest live-on campuses in the US, those perpetually trapped in an environment designed for production could begin to imagine new ways of living. For the millions of us who also live where we work even after the pandemic’s peak, she asks—and demands we ask ourselves— "Is the way you’re living and working right now still serving you?"
Top image: Shouldn’t You Be Working? 100 Years of Working from Home installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2023. Photo: Vincent Morse.