The work of conceptual artist Jessica Vaughn, 36, challenges viewers to examine the power structures underpinning everyday materials and infrastructure. Case in point: The Brooklyn-based artist’s latest exhibition, Turnover Rate, critically examines the impact of office spaces on contemporary society, from cubicles to diversity training. The free exhibition opened this month at Patron Gallery in River West and will be open until January 20.
What does it mean to you to be a “conceptual artist”? What concepts and themes do you try to explore with your work?
For me, being a conceptual artist means I’m often starting from a set of questions and from there letting the ideas spring, [like] the material and the form that I’ll work with in the studio. My interests are mixed with thinking about institutions and bureaucratic structures that dictate how we operate in space, and how we think about restrictions placed on that.
How has being a native Chicagoan informed the way in which you take in and interpret the world?
I grew up in an urban setting on the North Side, in Lake View, and I feel like that definitely [influenced] the fact that I live in Brooklyn now. In general, I feel very comfortable in cities, where the way in which you work and operate is really dictated by larger structures. It’s made me aware of the ways in which resources are allocated.
Tell me more about the Turnover Rate exhibition.
I’ve been working on it for the last year or so. I was interested in taking infrastructural components of spaces where white-collar work is performed, like offices or sorts of bureaucratic institutions, and using that material as a placeholder for labor. So, in the gallery, there’s a series of cubicle frames, and instead of seeing the panels of the actual fabric, you’re just seeing the interior structure of those frames. Then, in the back room, there’s a looped video with a drop ceiling incorporated into the space. The video projects appropriated images from diversity training tutorials and places those alongside video images that I’ve taken in contemporary office settings. Alongside those images are directives from those tutorials.
Why focus on the workplace?
I wanted to use office work, as dreary as that sounds, as a starting point to think through how race is constructed in those spaces. You get a sense through the diversity training video text that they think about diversity through market concerns, rather than really, truly trying to [create] equitable spaces. Through these modular components of the drop ceiling and the cubicle, the work is thinking through that physical architecture’s relationship to diversity, labor policy, and rhetoric.