PRINT March 1986


How Scale Works.

FOR EVERYONE TO HAVE a computer, or at least to contemplate getting one, the scale of the object had to shrink from room size to the dimensions of a smallish television set. Now that the computer has been shrunk some more, you can carry it like a briefcase.

Function dictates dimensions, but not without leaving room for thoroughly nonfunctional considerations. Ads for the Apple computer define it as “cute,” an unstated contrast to their competitor IBM’s “Personal Computer” campaign. Guess which computer looks—and, optical effects aside, actually is—larger. And there is no functional advantage to a super-slim wristwatch. That wafer-thinness offers advantages of a different kind. Functional meanings provide a cover, so that social meanings can elaborate themselves undisturbed.

Not that function is ever completely beside the point. Why are portable cassette decks/radios—ghetto-blasters—so big? Because they contain extensive circuitry, true, but also because a ghetto blaster is supposed to blast; much of the chassis houses a high-powered speaker system. So, yes, one of the functions of the ghetto-blaster is musical aggression, and the object’s size supports that function. But to understand the size of the object only in that way is to miss an implication of the phrase “ghetto-blaster,” a tag indicating the social status of the blacks and Hispanics (and whites who adopt their street styles) whose music reaches beyond the ghetto to every quarter of the city.

We hear the music, but the meaning of the image goes unnoticed: if it were more compact, the blaster would be easier to transport; one close look at the labor involved and you realize that size can also be deliberately antifunctional. I’ve seen ghetto-blasters so big their owners wheeled them around on luggage racks. In the street, the blaster’s inconvenience is a virtue; it provides the occasion for a display of work by those who often have difficulty finding a job. To lug an outsize cassette deck through the city is to offer, along with audio aggression, a highly visible image of work—and the lack of work.

Few see the idea of work in the behavior of an underclass that, according to the status quo, never learns the social reflexes necessary to hold down a job even if one happens to turn up. Even sympathetic commentators slide into the vicious cycle that concludes that the unemployed are often incapable of punctuality, reliability, or conformity to the rhythms of a supervised workplace. Of course, you don’t have to be unemployed or a member of the underclass to own a ghetto-blaster. Yet that’s the image, and those who saunter down 8th Street, box in tow, volume turned up, don’t contradict that image. What they do is make available an irony about work and its supposed opposite, leisure: to effect that kind of street presence takes a steady effort. The blaster is the emblem—and object—of a self imposed task, a job performed in mockery of the assumption that those who look like they don’t have paying jobs don’t really want to work.

Stationary, the box cues breakdancers. The labor of hauling a heavy piece of equipment gives way to a parody of life adjusted to an intricate routine. All lines, angles, and sudden reversals, break-dancing mimics the action on an assembly line or the patterns of a corporate flow chart—not that its mimicry is intentionally aimed at precisely those targets. Break-dancers have done what members of the underclass aren’t supposed to do: they’ve learned the pervasive electromechanical order of work in the late 20th century. And they’ve imposed that order on themselves, not for the sake of holding down a job but to provide an esthetic spectacle. Like any spectacle, it has form and content. You can read the visual pattern or the sociopolitical moral; or you could see form as content, the breakdancer’s moves as the triumph of order, a victory engineered by those whom societal and economic order is designed to exclude.

As break-dancers hold the image of electronic circuitry to a human scale, the circuits themselves, in computers and other high-tech devices, get steadily smaller. Shrinking dimensions theoretically signal the increased efficiency that produces more leisure. That’s why the wafer-thin wristwatch serves as an emblem of leisure, of absolute control over time. But the compactness and speed of advanced hardware simply clear time for more high-pressure work. The freedom of the employed does not increase; besides, even leisure has become hard work. Meanwhile, portable cassette decks stay large. Expanded dimensions provide the sign for un employment, or, rather, for the paradox of the enforced leisure—the surplus time—that blacks and Hispanics use to display their capacity for work. The ghetto-blaster transposes the idea of a job to the realm of the imaginary, as do the immense canvases that so many painters are now producing. From the corporate point of view, artists are also counted among the unemployed—even established figures like Kenneth Noland and Roy Lichtenstein, both of whom have most recently signaled their “jobless” status with gigantic murals in the lobbies of corporate bastions in Boston and New York (MIT and Equitable Life, respectively).

Carter Ratcliff is a writer who lives in New York. He writes on the topic of modern life for Artforum.