Alumna Jessica Vaughn examines workplace space and culture in ICA solo exhibition

Artist standing in gallery in front of an illustration painted on the wall of people running a race
Artist and Weitzman School of Design alumna Jessica Vaughn examines the spaces, architecture, and cultures of the American workplace her first major solo exhibition, now on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Artist Jessica Vaughn examines the spaces, architecture, and cultures of the American workplace in her first major solo exhibition, now at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

The installation, “Jessica Vaughn: Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful,” is on view through May 9. “I wanted to explore not only my own personal experiences within these spaces, but also the structures that make this culture exist or gives it life,” she says. 

Vaughn received a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design in 2011, studying with the late artist, Professor Terry Adkins. Born in Chicago and now living in New York City, she teaches at The New School while pursuing her own artistic practice. 

The photographs, sculptures, paintings, and video in the ICA exhibition consider the systems that have shaped the places and cultures of work, labor, and affirmative action policies used to integrate the workforce, as well as modular designs and building systems that revolutionized the American office. 

two people talking in museum gallery, one seated and one standing in a doorway
Exhibition curator Meg Onli speaks with Vaughn during installation.

“Jessica’s practice is centered around an interrogation of materials that make up our world, but often go unnoticed: the fabric scraps from public transit, empty postal bins, and office lighting fixtures, and how these objects are inscribed with the history of American labor practices,” says Meg Onli, the ICA’s Andrea B. Laporte Associate Curator. 

“We are on the precipice of new ways of working if/when we return to the spaces where we work. This survey will be an opportunity to reflect not only on the shift that we are about to take, but the many changes that have occurred throughout American’s labor history.”

A video installation, “Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful,” repurposes and transforms employee training films with overlays of text taken from management manuals. Ten-foot-high paintings, “Problem Sets,” black on white walls, recreate illustrations Vaughn found buried in government reports. Other artworks are inspired by modular architecture, including her largest work to date, the light installation “Irrational Rest.” Neat stacks of fabric, discarded after production of upholstery for bus or train transportation seats, create geometric patterns in displays on the floor. Photographs of empty containers, “Empties,” line the walls around them.

artist walking through gallery with light installation behind
The ICA exhibition includes Vaughn’s largest work, the light installation ‘Irrational Rest.’

Penn Today spoke with Vaughn about the works in the new ICA exhibition and the influence of her experience at Penn. 

How do your fine arts studies at Penn influence your work today? 

When I came into the MFA program, I was primarily a 2-D person doing painting and printmaking. By the time I graduated I was really multidisciplinary and invested in media like sculpture, photography, and video. In undergrad (at Carnegie Mellon University) I studied both fine arts and social history, and continued this trajectory at Penn, taking studio courses and classes outside the art department. While in graduate school, I created photographs and videos of lots around Philadelphia. These temporarily unoccupied spaces were important connecting points to concepts of labor and political representation, which have always been central to my practice.

Race and gender are a thread throughout your work. How is your personal story reflected?

As an artist your personal identity informs the artwork you are interested in making and how you make it, but in my work it is not the only thing that guides my practice. The exhibition is about work, from the plethora of experiences I have had at day jobs to my own working opportunities I have had as an artist. I do feel that the work that I do outside of the studio, the life I have outside of it, all finds its way into this exhibition alongside larger political questions about how materials and images circulate in spaces of labor. A few of the artworks in the exhibition, such as ‘Problem Sets’ and the video ‘Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful,’ focus on the drudge and routine architecture of the workplace that, in my experience, makes connections between race and power to capital and efficiency at one’s job paramount to issues of equity or any sort of interpersonal connections. I do think that perhaps the artworks ‘Empties’ and the fabric works in the exhibition get closer to dealing with the mood, feelings, and attitudes of working rather than the aspects that are outside of a worker’s control.

How is that experience reflected in the video installation, at the entrance to the exhibition? 

The soundtrack for the video is generic on-hold music recorded for American business phone systems. The video footage combines training tutorials on diversity in American workplaces with footage shot in various contemporary office spaces. Animated text in the video is derived from the training directives in the video, such as ‘Diversity will manage us and retention means having the best talent perform to the maximum.’ Like the hold music, these directives to me float through the exhibition indefinitely as an overall poetic feeling in the space. Taking my own workplace experiences into account and research into how workplace training tutorials are produced, distributed, and conceptualized, I tried to find imagery and video that speaks to the culture of training, specifically diversity training, and technical training that you would do for certain manual and care work professions. From the videos I appropriated both the video and directives that were narrated. I was interested in the texts from these videos that came across as best practices directives that spoke directly to managing workers or implementing diversity measures.

Artist walking through gallery with fabric works on floor and photos leaning against the wall
The works created from the upholstery fabric cast off during production are arranged in stacks on the floor, surrounded by photographs.

The description of the works made with stacks of upholstery scraps from transit seat fabrication refers to the fingerprints of the factory workers who handled the material. What was your thinking in creating these pieces?

That material is the cast off, the residual, what gets thrown away, what no one really cares about in the production process. I was really interested in the material that is thrown out or cast to the side on the floor and not seen as important. I like even the way that that material is physically manufactured to unravel and separate with ease—you touch it and it sort of falls apart. And there’s this sense that when we think of machine-based production, there is no human labor there, but there are actually people making and producing that work and sometimes running those machines. No matter how many machines are present, workers still exist. So, there’s this relationship to the machine and the body, and working through space where oftentimes labor goes unnoticed or is treated as invisible that I wanted to make evident.

How are the works of fabric and the photographs hung on the surrounding walls related?

The hand is so important to how labor gets done. So, I wanted to create artworks that had to do with the simple action of touching, feeling, or carrying something. And the fabric works have a direct connection to being felt in public spaces and being touched within the process of being cut and fabricated. ‘Empties’ are a series of images of stacked USPS mail crates and laboratory specimen boxes. These are containers that require workers hands to carry it to the next workplace or destination.

What was your experience putting together the exhibition at the ICA, and during the pandemic?

I’ve always really enjoyed ICA’s space and exhibitions. It’s nice to come back to a familiar location and to have such a great opportunity to exhibit in Philadelphia. Although this exhibition was going up under difficult circumstances, the conditions of the space still felt familiar. That is not to say that it wasn’t a challenge working during COVID. The majority of the exhibition planning with the ICA was done over screens and not in person. Not being able to directly interact with people and sometimes even directly with the material was a new way of working for me. But it was really great to be able to trust and work so well with the team at the ICA. And, in general, the pandemic slowed down the pace of every aspect of creating work for this show. But you know, there’s also something great about being forced to slow down and really consider things in a different way. I think the slowing down was good for this exhibition.

artist looking up at light installation surrounded by construction equipment
Vaughn came to Philadelphia from her home in New York City to supervise the installation of the exhibition.