By Bart Gazzola
If you ask any successful man the reason for making good he will tell you that first and foremost it is because he likes his work indeed he loves it. His whole heart and soul are wrapped up in it…He thinks his work and he talks his work, he is entirely inseparable from his work, and that is the way every man worth his salt ought to be… McKinnon Doings (Journal), “Published for and by the employees of the McKinnon Industries, Limited”. Volume 1, No.19, St. Catharines, December 3, 1937
One of the ways Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is so powerful is because it’s common: the universality of the people whom speak history in a personal — yet overwhelmingly relevant way — is tangible. It illustrates that history is written by many in many ways. Sometimes the stories lock together seamlessly, and other times if you didn’t know better, you’d have no idea the same event was being described. Contested narratives can sometimes be violent in their disagreement. Think about our recent election, for example.
Photography has often compounded this “problem”: language is even worse. This is where Anna Szaflarski’s artwork, presented by Niagara Artist Centre, fits, as it “questions existential definition and expectation in the love-affair between American industry and its workers”.
A Man’s Job is ironic, despairing and foreboding. Job is comprised of two text based works. One’s more of an act of editing, perhaps, but isn’t that what “history” is? Both, in the end, are all about St. Catharines, but act as templates about issues like manufacturing, communities and the lies we tell ourselves and others about these – and other intersecting – things. It could also be seen as an historical “intervention.”
You’ll find the newsboxes within which Szaflarski’s works are presented (until December 6) at NAC (354 St. Paul), the NAC Flea Market Gallery (46 Turner Crescent), but one also sits in the Golden Pheasant on Ontario. The Pheasant appears in Steve Remus’ text “You Got a Good Job Right Out of High School, Or, How St. Catharines Had Dumb Luck” in a pocket sized pamphlet alongside Szaflarski’s less visual but equally evocative “Hard Day’s Night”, all under the umbrella title of Black and Incongruous Headlines: a story to accompany the poster edition of A Man’s Job.
The tongue in cheek irony of Szaflarski (with language describing a love and marriage gone wrong, all self help and day time talk TV metaphors) is more than matched by the angry, ejaculated spurt of Remus’ writing. His story is one you could imagine being shared between sodden and saddened former auto workers in the Pheasant righ now. Regret suffuses both.
Szaflarski’s poster for A Man’s Job is “comprised …of newspaper headlines, tracking the relationship between the employee and the auto industry in the Niagara region in Canada and span a time period of over 60 years (1940-2011). The role of the employees changes from “like family” to “like pest”, and the debate of who — either the individual or the corporation — becomes more ungrateful in the relationship. The text in the bottom corner [which I cited at the beginning of this review]is from a company newsletter [whose]rhetoric reflects the expected relationship between a man and his job in the 1930s. The image next to it depicts laid-off workers from the 80s; the lines between the eyes conveys the obvious hostile environment that emerged during the economic recession.”
Some of the choice headlines drip with drama: The line of despair lengthens, or Slumping sales idles GM workers (oooh, clever pun there), or Reality saps auto giants invincibility. There’s a cluster to the left side like a staccato series of punches: GM workers on ‘way to extinction’ / GM deal a ‘a great victory’ / GM closing foundry line / GM workers on strike / GM retirees fight for better deal… and then smaller text, like a relunctant post script Big earners keep cutting and Local strikes end grudgingly… the lower right hand corner seems to end it all, asserting that All’s quiet on the local GM front. Its done. Over. Leave your keys by the door and please don’t call me anymore.
The text and formal aspects of the poster are banal: no bright splashes of colour, no relief from the grey dishwater newsprint and hard blacks of the text. The work is ubiquitious, just like the sad narrative of decline. This oppressive monotone is apt.
It’s been said an age gets the art it merits: precarious employment is the norm, many — like myself — have moved across the country several times pursuing work, Temporary Foreign Workers create new serfs and most of us live paycheque to paycheque as working poor. I write this post Election 2015, as the Trans Pacific Partnership looms, like the final death blow on the tortured romance of auto manufacturing. Perhaps its slouching towards a final euthenasia: an overdue assisted suicide to the idea of the job you have for life, the nuclear family, and all those other myths of the mid twentieth century that stopped being realities generations ago, and now are as empty as inner city Detroit – or the GM plant on Ontario. Perhaps the most harsh aspect is that your job not only doesn’t love you back, but it never did….