Nina Katchadourian: Office Semaphore

About the Exhibition

Ever spot someone in a distant office window and wonder what is going on in his or her life? Part message decoding, part small-scale reality show, Office Semaphore by Nina Katchadourian (b.1968, Stanford, CA) is a signaling system in which one person, who works on an upper story of an office building, will communicate messages to people outside on street level.

Sited in Lower Manhattan, Office Semaphore is a sculptural work and a viewer-participatory installation that will change on a daily basis. A tourist telescope will be installed on the northeastern corner of the Chase Manhattan Plaza in a canyon of tall office buildings. Peering into the telescope, viewers will find it trained on an office in a building a few blocks away. Each day, the person who works in that office—the anonymous protagonist of the piece—will arrange a group of objects in his window. Each combination will represent a specific message, which viewers down at street level can decode using a visual key located beside the telescope. The objects themselves—office supplies and personal knickknacks found in the participant’s workspace—form a portrait of this individual, although he will remain largely unseen. Over time, these daily dispatches will register shifts in the mood in the office and in the person’s workday life.

Office Semaphore is an adaptation of traditional marine flag signaling systems, which are used by ships at sea to convey urgent messages to one another such as “I require a tug,” “Directions received but not understood,” or “Must alter course.” Noting the day-to-day relevance and poetic resonance of these standard nautical messages, Katchadourian has used them as the basis for the project. Some she borrowed with little or no change, while others she wrote in the same language and tonality. The phrases, both existing and created, were chosen and developed with the office worker in order to express the kinds of problems, victories and challenges he might encounter in a day on the job. The work also relates directly to its site, which is in a neighborhood with a rich maritime history.

Bridging public and private realms, as well as the distinct activities of sightseeing and working, Office Semaphore draws together Katchadourian’s interests in communication, urban experience and everyday interventions. It offers the viewer a glimpse into one of the countless worlds that exist within the city’s many office buildings, which typically seem so impersonal and impenetrable when seen from the outside.



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