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Stephanie Rothenberg

Blurring the lines between real and virtual, art and work

One of Stephanie Rothenberg's job recruitment posters created with avatars in Second Life.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/14/2010

Are oppressive labor laws and expensive real estate getting in the way of your dream of opening your own sweatshop? That's the curious question asked by an introductory video to "Invisible Threads," a 2008 collaborative project by artists Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothenberg. But the oddity of that consideration--you know, now that I think about it, since my dream of being a slumlord has gone nowhere I think I do want to own my own sweatshop--doesn't come close to touching the out-of-pocket solution Crouse and Rothenberg propose. "Invisible Threads" creates a sweatshop in Second Life, the interactive online virtual world, and the piece's installation includes a first-world storefront.

If it sounds like something out of Philip K. Dick, it is (just don't sleep on its absurdist humor). But the truly alarming aspects about "Invisible Threads" and the past decade of Rothenberg's interactive, multi-reality work is that what might at first feel very alien ends up being entirely too familiar. "I've always really been interested in the relationship of the body as it interfaces with digital culture and sort of the subjugation of the body in that," Rothenberg says by phone from Buffalo, N.Y., where she is an associate professor of Visual Studies at SUNY Buffalo. A MICA graduate, Rothenberg went to graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she started reading about scientific management strategies such as Taylorism and the motion economics of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. These were techniques designed to increase factory productivity by reducing the number of motions and the amount of time needed in performing a task.

To contemporary workers, forcibly adapting the body to work's physical demands is a no-brainer when considering assembly-line piecework, but isn't as obvious to the desk-bound cubicle jockey, even though it's eerily more appropriate. What are keystroke shortcuts if not reducing the time and motions involved in achieving a desktop-publishing task? What is a mouse if not a tool for interacting with the technology to do your job? Why are repetitive motion injuries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among the nation's most common and costly occupational health problems? Just because office workers aren't unionized and working in manufacturing doesn't mean they're not performing specialized physical tasks to do their jobs.

Even more Dickian, the technology-mediated tasks people do at work are the same sorts of technology-mediated tasks people do all the time: to socialize with friends, to play games, to consume media. Technology is fully integrated into identity. "Look at the iPhone," Rothenberg points out. "Everything we're doing is kind of like a game. We're not really sure when we're playing or when we're working."

The world of gaming, especially, piqued Rothenberg's interest. "Because most of my earlier work was sort of performative and participatory, I got really interested in the use of games," she says. "One, it gives the user more incentive to participate. And because it's become so pervasive, I really got into looking at the culture of computer games and, of course, the labor within that--both within the labor of playing a game and how, in a way, they start to glorify menial forms of labor. It's this repetitive motion, which is analogous to factory work. And then also looking at the labor of the 3-D modeling and that end of it, but if you really look at the labor in the global computer video-game industry, it starts to get into the electronics industry, it's all outsourced, it's all taking place in Asia, and you have to make the physical machines to run the information economy."

Rothenberg's work itself can be rather information heavy--visit her to get a sense of her projects over roughly the past decade--and experienced over a number of integrated platforms, suggesting permeable membranes between first life and Second Life. In fact, in her ongoing "Best Practices in Banana Time," Rothenberg has created a mixed-reality talk show where her Second Life avatar talks with Second Life workers. "There's this intersection with the type of jobs and their interest in real life and how it starts to really manifest in Second Life," she says. "And some of them are making part of their livelihood in Second Life, because there is this economy of it. So I'm sort of developing this talk show where I interview these guests. I mean, I am really interested in this mixed reality as the physical body interfaces with the digital and this relationship of physical labor for virtual gain."

As of this conversation a few weeks back, though, Rothenberg was still devising what her Transmodern project was going to entail. "One possibility is I've been really interested in setting up either a virtual unemployment office or a virtual kind of psychoanalysis center," she says with a noticeable mirth in her voice. "I want to set something up where people coming to the festival could consult with specialists that would be conjured from the past, such as Confucius or Karl Marx or maybe Che Guevara, people that have been very influential, that could maybe be conjured from the past through cyberspace and give some advice on what to do in terms of people's virtual economic and existential crises due to the current climate."

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