New York

Beverly Naidus

Franklin Furnace

Beverly Naidus’ Apply Within—a simultaneously casual and elaborate installation about alienation, bureaucracy and illusion—was in the window of Franklin Furnace in March. A simulated room, curling fake wood contact tape on the walls, held two straight chairs facing out and a sign reading Please Be Seated. The window glass was haphazardly spotted with scrawled notices like those found on lower Broadway and in other small manufacturing areas: We Have What You Want; Opportunity Knocks; Fringe Benefits; Paid Vacations; Make the Future Happen; Jobs Jobs Jobs Jobs; College Graduates Welcome.

When one did apply within, one climbed onto the platform and sat in the straight chairs. When sitter hit seat, s/he activated an audiotape loop of a nine-minute conversation between six different voices: formal interviewer and interviewee plus informal commentary. The viewer/auditor could either identify with one of these voices or remain an eavesdropper in the waiting room, overhearing other applicants’ troubles. At the same time s/he could watch people passing in the street from this appropriately superior vantage point; the passerby could also look up to see the viewers in the same kind of goldfish-bowl the taped situation puts them in. What the piece exposed by this deft and easily accessible collage method was the malaise of our relationship to work in a capitalist industrial society. Back-up, quite literally, was provided by a bookshelf (and a vase of flowers) on the rear of the structure, where one could peruse some of the artist’s ironic sources in pop sociology: Person Planet/Organization Man, The Culture of Narcissism.

A lot of people off the street did come to apply. Though they tended to be a bit puzzled at first by what they found within, their final reactions were positive. They told Naidus she really understood what you go through, and said they didn’t feel so alone seeing the experience up front like that. And they laughed, too. (The more privileged art audience’s reactions were less affirmative, and finally less sophisticated). I was glad to hear about these responses since I recalled an unemployment piece done by an artist in a Times Square storefront about four years ago which, though well done and well intentioned, lost the connection between art and life and became exploitative by offering false hopes and denigrating work to those who desperately needed it.

Naidus’ art for about four years now has dealt with space and sound as indicators of less concrete social conditions. Hanging Up (Some Laundry) done in Halifax in 1977, was a “satire on the propriety of suburban female children” and used the storefront window as a tousled bed, or “security blanket.” This is Not a Test, 1978, also in Halifax, was an enigmatic and visually detailed “split-level installation” that concerned locks, barriers, signs, directives, a game, another bed—the values laid on people by an unfeeling bureaucracy, on lots of levels. It too included audio tapes of ominously fraught dialogues. In 1979 Naidus did Daily Reminder in raw office space in Manhattan’s financial district again on the theme of daily work and false authority, and again using tapes and space in a manner that was, like the work at Franklin Furnace, dramatic without being theatrical.

The tape for Apply Within satirized economic reality and bureaucratic insensitivity by interweaving questions from aptitude tests with more “natural” conversation. It exposed intimidation, boredom, and class hierarchies with humor that veils the underlying anger: “Would you prefer to be an airline ticket agent, or a pilot? A dog trainer or a freelance writer? A vocational counselor or a Lighthouse Keeper?” The replies are bewildered: “Gee, I haven’t really thought about it . . . I dunno, um . . . Well, I guess both, is that O.K.?” The wistful parallel dialogue between friends considers “alternatives,” with lines like “Good money and job security just aren’t enough” and “We didn’t want to go the establishment route”; “We had such high expectations”; “Maybe I’ll go back to school if I get too frustrated.” The interviewer is the classic disinterested processor of humanity. The interviewee is in turn pathetic guinea pig, patronized object, expectant citizen, dumb kid, hopeful adventurer. Life and work are presented as a great orgiastic smörgasbord—none of which is actually available, of course.

Maybe I’m reviewing a novel. This is an art piece because one is so firmly situated (so to speak) in the place and the physical experience, even while one hovers behind glass. (Exposure, it’s called.) Naidus’ work is rare for the way it departs from a real political issue rather than from the vaguer and more romantic or theoretical domains generally preferred by artists. (Terrorism! True Confessions! Philosophy!) It is a lot harder to make art about employment, unemployment, inflation, equal pay, the right to choose, housing, etc. Naidus has accepted the challenge, though the inevitable criticism has to be that after exposing the gap between economic reality and personal hopes her piece doesn’t say what to do about it. I know art isn’t supposed to have to do this, but Naidus hasn’t tackled the subject without being aware that this is part of it. In the meantime, Apply Within is an effective piece of esthetic consciousness-raising.

Lucy R. Lippard