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MCAD prof questions how we work in “Labor Camp” series

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When you hear the words “labor camp,” you may envision a grim scene from the World War II era. Polish artist and MCAD professor Piotr Szyhalski wants to broaden that perspective to encompass the modern-day ways we work.

The proliferation of technology, he claims, has created a global immaterial labor camp. Physical labor, assembly lines, and the eight-hour work day are fading, only to be replaced by a 24/7 telecommuting workforce that creates value without producing tangible goods.

“Millions of people spend enormous amounts of time producing content for free and continuing to add value to Facebook as a commodity,” Szyhalski says. "[Google is another] example of the omnipresent source of labor, seemingly, on the surface, removed from any sense of commodity, yet we constantly fuel and enlarge its actual monetary value.”

Szyhalski has been exploring these themes for over 15 years as part of his ongoing project, Labor Camp. The latest installment of this project, called “Three Factory Pieces,” was inspired by a clandestine photograph of a Chinese Laogai Camp billboard that read: “Who are you? What is this place? Why are you here?” (The implied answers to these questions, in that context, were: “I am a criminal. This is a labor camp. I am here to undergo my re-education.”)

Szyhalski is intrigued by both the perversion and the beauty of those three questions. “Taken out of context, they are the stuff of philosophy,” he says. “We can — and sometimes do — ponder these questions on a regular basis.” Taking full advantage of the Soap Gallery’s space, Szyhalski will attempt to translate these elusive ideas into physical perception. One gallery, which he calls “the gates,” will feature surgical drapes (some embroidered or embellished to offset their clinical nature) that represent points of entry or exit. Another gallery will be turned into a print shop, where attendees can participate in the creation of massive banners. Another gallery will be lined with asphalt paper and salt, where Szyhalski will inscribe words meant to be destroyed by visitors’ feet.

Sound is also a major medium that Szyhalski uses to understand history, likening past events to the reverberations of a drum, resonating through time and space. On one of three Sundays in December, he will be in the Soap Factory’s basement, shoveling coal while wearing binaural microphones, tiny recording devices worn in the ears that provide a three-dimensional sonic effect. “It is literally inhabiting somebody’s head through sound,” he says.

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Through these various mediums, Szyhalski aims to process our proletariat history and contemplate our cognitariat present. As for the future ramifications of the digital age? They’re anybody’s guess, but “there is a sense of inevitability,” Szyhalski says. “There’s not much we can do except participate. That intrusion in our life has gone so far it’s almost unimaginable to think about our reality these days without social media and networks. I wouldn’t use the word ‘evil,’ but there is a sinister dimension that we willfully set aside.”

IF YOU GO:

"Piotr Szyhalski: Three Factory Pieces”

The Soap Factory

Free

There will be an opening reception Saturday, November 21, from 7 to 11 p.m.

Through December 20