The future of work
This is a burning political question. Especially in Europe. Especially in France and Germany. There are opposing political and economic theories, and the worst thing we could do would be to try to sum them up directly. The universal dimension of Expo 2000 forces us to keep our distance and not to take a stand. Liberalism? State regulation? Work sharing? Protectionism? Cutting down working hours? Moonlighting? Exploitation of third- and fourth-world manpower? Exploitation of women? Of children? Unchecked growth? The end of the consumer society?
Is work a moral value? Is it indispensable to self-fulfilment? Is it a privilege? Is it a burden? Will a small minority keep the vast majority of the idle alive? Do we need to save ‘useless’ jobs?
All these questions could be developed in futurist theories, each one of which could form the basis of an exhibition…
We can’t tackle ideas this way if we don’t want to risk boring the public, creating confusion and being attacked for the choice of options.
Yet we have to say something. Something that is neither inanely optimistic or likely to drive the ordinary person to despair. After a lot of endless discussions with eminent philosophers and sociologists, I’ve opted for a ‘statement’ about different possible and evolving, often opposing, situations. Each of these situations leads to development of a scenario that covers duration and the fundamental notions of change, instability, and career advancement in the lives of men and women.
We’ll start by highlighting three states of work:
Living work: Illustration of traditional work as we know it and recognise it in the vast majority of cases that we’ve inherited from previous centuries.
Dead work: How can we not refer to situations involving lack of work, even if this lack is often temporary? How can we not refer to the behaviour lack of work produces?
Lastly, I also propose to illustrate forms of work not recognised today, behaviour that we can predict, but without really being able to tell whether it should be seen as work or not. We’ll refer to these fluid forms of work by the generic term ‘ghost work’.
The statement put forward here aims to provide a representative sample of contrasting situations around the globe.
The number of situations – around forty – should allow us to cover the six themes adopted by Expo 2000: Work and Living, Productive Work of the Future, Work and Environment, Employment and Social Security, Work and Health, Work Relationships of the Future.
Each of these forty situations is illustrated by a mini-scenario. The whole set of situations is subjected to various questions and ideas, contradictory aphorisms formulated by contemporary theorists, in the hope of provoking thoughts that could be voiced and debates that could take place in a sort of ‘super studio’ dedicated to hosting talk shows and round tables.
These options having been formulated, how can we give them physical form? The future of work expo is seen first from the waiting area located on a grid above the expo ground open to the public.
From this grid a cyclorama emerges, set up on an ellipse crossed by two broad axes about 80 metres long and 30 metres wide.
On this cyclorama we see a theatre appear, made up of shadows and keywords. This device is intended to surprise and trigger a desire to go and look inside at the actors silhouetted.
Access is via a long, gently sloping ramp about 100 metres long that runs down alongside the shadow-play cyclorama.
Visitors then come to the transverse axis of the ellipse, right next to the centrepoint. They discover a large arena surrounded over a height of ten or so metres by a light shallow structure (around 2.5m) that reveals itself to be a vertical stage. On it, several hundred actors move around (in reality there’ll be about 120 human actors, the rest being dummies and robots).
The first vision is clearly a metaphor for the planet that can be read as a sort of map refering to countries and continents.
Different ambiences build up, juxtaposed but with clear boundaries between them to keep them clearly distinct from each other.
The first question visitors ask themselves should be: what are all these people doing on this earth? By reading one of the forty situations depicted, they’ll clearly see that they are working. But the spectator’s attention is distracted all around by different simultaneous spectacles… There are more tracks here than in Barnum’s Circus! Yet it’s clear that the different spectacles really form one big spectacle, a gigantic choreographed performance that is presumably not happening just by chance.
Spectators will probably first look at what’s closest to them. But they’ll soon be drawn by the actors’ performances and move towards them. This is an inversion of the traditional theatre in the round, the Globe Theatre. The audience here is in the middle, the artists on the rows of seats. The audience will be standing, moving around, getting on with life the way they used to do in the theatres of centuries past which had stalls like this.
Overhead, numerous lighting circuits hang down from the roof: these are electronic bulletin boards that make assertions and ask questions about work in four languages. Not all the actors are mobile. Some are still, some in the shadows, with the lights gradually revealing shadow zones where other stages appear.
The different situations will be contrasted, going from archaic work practices in Africa to automated work in a factory of the future, dealing on the way with working from home, etc.
Spectators will be able to see most of the stages simultaneously, the cambered floor with its high point in the middle facilitating the view of the actors closest to the audience. The audience will stroll around then exit at one end of the ellipse’s main axis.
This approach to the scenography, putting men and women of flesh and blood on stage, aims to highlight the human side of work, to suggest the human condition.
Each vignette is the subject of a synopsis that allows the meaning to be revealed without the use of words. This spectacle is essentially silent. The props are as important symbolically as the actors. The overall mise en scène, based on progressive shifts from complete immobility to widespread activity, allows the emphasis to be placed on differences, contrasts, and similarities.
If the physical device is relatively simple – a minimal structure, possibly scaffolding? – the difficulty stems from using three casts of 120 actors and extras, with the casts taking turns.
The aim, like the symbolism, is also to give work to actors who are now unemployed…
Six or seven scriptwriters will most likely be needed to treat the themes selected by Expo or suggested by the sponsors, and we should be able to integrate those themes easily, whatever they are, given the diversity intrinsic to the device. Having a single mise en scène should harmonise the different scenarios.
This detached design should allow us to avoid the boredom that can arise from all the usual interactive devices used to cover technical questions and statistics to do with work.
The audience could nevertheless be given a chance to speak if we organise encounters in the super studio.