The Austere Working Conditions of Michael DeSutter and his 9–5

The Austere Working Conditions of Michael DeSutter and his 9–5

Michael DeSutter in character for his project 9–5. All photos by New Collection.

Michael DeSutter clocks in everyday from 9 am to 5 pm. During his workday, he confronts and reconstructs imagery from his 208 issues of Fortune Magazine that his grandfather collected from 1954 to 1972. For a lot of Americans, this would be seen as a time of great prosperity and stability, both individualistically and for one’s family. For many others, it was the beginning of late-stage capitalism which posited commodity fetishism and the fear of automation, or the kind of ho-hum monotony of bureaucracy.

At the same, there was the pinnacle of American Style. The fedora. The suit. The coat rack to announce yourself home after another day in the office. While a time of great success for the White Western Male, the whole of American society was confronting a milieu of issues based in inequality. There was a war overseas, the Civil Rights movement, and many other incredibly important moments in American history. Please join us here at New Collection as we talk with collage artist Michael DeSutter about his artistic process, as well as how he confronts this imagery of the past.

The typically New York based DeSutter has been in residency at New Collection since late October. However, the pandemic interrupted the performance, and DeSutter has since been working from home.

Emily Owens: Your work attempts to bring your grandfather’s past and your present into a sort of lived experience for the both of you. You were obviously close. Do you feel like it’s the era which he lived in that you’re trying to “conjure,” his very presence, or both? Obviously, the nature of the making space: a desk, an intake stack and outtake boxes, and the way that you contextualize your work to be done within the rigorous structure of the 9-5 American work week recreates the experience of his time. But what is it specifically that draws you back to this time period?

Michael DeSutter: I want to first point out that the 9-5 office life is more of a nod to the subject of the material I’m clipping through and less about my grandfather. My grandfather never actually worked a traditional 9-5 job. After the Second World War he briefly went to business school on the GI bill and soon dropped out to start a business. He had decided that many people would want to build houses, so he moved to a town near where he grew up and started a lumber yard business. When my mom came along in 1959, my grandfather didn’t want to be the neglecting father that he thought his father was (his father ran a furniture business and was not around a lot) so he sold his business and retired to the stock market at age forty-five. He followed the market by reading magazines like Fortune, the daily newspaper, and watching the ticker on the television. He would travel thirty minutes to do his trading in person in the nearby larger town.

I’m definitely more interested in conjuring his presence than this specific era. I grew up around an old house full of old objects from all decades of my grandparents’ lives. Creating a setting that mirrors my source materials has helped me understand what I’m looking at, but even going through the process of sourcing pieces, I found myself much more drawn to things that reminded me of my grandfather and less strictly that of the period I was hoping to recreate. The Tanker desk, for instance, is probably more mid to late 50’s rather than mid 60’s which was more the target. That said I think it’s very much like my grandfather to keep using older objects well past their era of popularity. Even in the 90’s the suits my grandfather would wear were most likely from the 70’s. I inherited this set of magazines from my grandfather. Thus, it felt important to connect the project with the subject of the source material as I wanted the material to mirror the process.

I’m intrigued by the fact that you clock in and out of what could be seen as a mundane 9-5 experience, but within that experience, it’s art that you are creating, which is kind of the antithesis of dol-drum… Is this meant to be a retort to the mundanity of office life? A form of discipline and structure? Or both?

I have a need to create that’s probably larger than any need I have. It’s taken me a long time to harness this need into something that I feel is building toward something larger. At first I needed to sit down and make something everyday. That gave me the “fix” I needed, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t sustainable. Like any drug, after a while more is required to achieve the same results. When I came to this realization I was able to understand how to use this motivation. I started setting up a process that allows me to feel like I’m creating or achieving something every step of the way. “Harvesting” clippings in a concentrated way gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfies my basic needs while giving me time to be more thoughtful about what I want to explore. So anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that at this point my process is fairly structured so that aspect of office life doesn’t seem that jarring to me. The literal limitations of the hours, 9-5, are a challenge I enjoy. That’s where the ego comes in and says “I can win over these limitations.”

The bigger picture that interests me is about my existence as an artist (and freelancer to subsidize my art practice). Society seems to have a set way of working and living. In a city like New York, the “work-life-style” is very much the experience. Some of my favorite morning walks were brushing against the Williamsburg crowd as they hurried to the L train during morning rush hour. There’s an isolation of sorts to working on an artist’s schedule, or at least more during the day when everyone else is living their office lives. I always felt like I’ve been floating along and just trying to create enough structure for myself to be productive under conditions where no one really cares if I do anything at all.

And then this pandemic hits and suddenly everyone is working from their homes and dealing with isolation and checking in to see how I’m doing. My answer is always the same, “I’m great! I’ve got more than enough material to work with and space to make art in my home. I’ve got no complaints.” And then comes this project, in which I’m commuting to work on foot (a 50 minute walk) and working in isolation in an office, while everyone else is working from home. During my commute, I rarely pass anyone who looks like they’re ‘heading to work” and certainly no one dressed in a suit. I’ve essentially recreated my isolation, but had to flip everything I know.

I will say if there’s another aspect of this project that is about connecting with my grandfather, it’s probably isolation. He had a unique schedule from forty-five years old on and I think that created a level of isolation and loneliness that he was always trying to work through.

As you just mentioned, your work involves the idea of isolation. For you personally, Is this due to the close familial contact with your grandfather? Is this a time to give gravitas to his absence?

My grandfather played such an important role in my childhood. I spent so many hours sitting at his desk and asking him questions about anything and everything. He instilled in me a strong curiosity for history, which has since become a serious part of who I am.

Even as a child I sensed a sort of melancholy in him, like his past had left him behind. This was possibly a result of being shipped overseas right out of high school and returning after the Second World War to a new existence as an adult. It felt like all the old objects I grew up around and his interest in history helped him stay connected to a world that had left him behind. I was around this so much growing up that in many ways I feel like I took on some of this burden. I love these old objects and probably have too many of them at this point. I don’t think my grandfather was debilitated by this, but I’ve always been careful to make sure my desire to stay connected with the past (even a past that’s not my own) doesn’t take over my ability to create a future. For instance when my grandfather passed in 2011, I got his name tattooed on my arm. The logic being that if I could always carry him with me in this way, he could come along with me into my future.

You’ve been working within the restraint of his 208 issues of Fortune. Do you often find that these materials are enough or do you find yourself remembering images from elsewhere that would be well suited for a particular piece?

Admittedly, this has probably been one of the more challenging restraints of the protect. Typically I would work with source material from a smaller period of time. Photography, for instance, changes a lot over the decades, at least, in so far as how it’s printed and shot. There was the vibrant rich colorful imagery of the late 50’s and early 60’s, to the more experimental 70’s and 80’s where color balance shifts and imagery gets a little softer and grainier. I’m also more accustomed to cutting up fashion photography. I gravitate toward soft corners and shapes which bend and allow movement to flow along endlessly. These Fortune magazines are all about power, sharp corners and exaggerated perspectives, which is a very different visual language than I am typically accustomed.

Talk to me about how repetition enters your work. You work from 9-5, in a process which is more or less repeated daily, but the output is always different.

Once I know what I want to create, I think repetition is a normal part of my practice. I spend a period of time clipping through materials and sorting what I find into categories, and then when I’m ready to compose I sit with one of these sorted piles and start to make connections--much like putting a puzzle together. What I didn’t anticipate is what repetition looks like when the source material isn’t as closely aligned with what I normally work with. Repetition, along with a three piece suit, took a bit of getting used to before I got comfortable enough allowing myself to “play” again.

A LOT happened in American between the issues of Fortune that your grandfather collected from February 1954 to August 1972. The Civil Rights Era, 2nd wave feminism, the Vietnam War... How do these major events find themselves reflected in your work? 

To be honest, I’m not sure. I know I’m affected by all the things I see while pulling clippings, but ultimately I work with more formal shapes and lines. My internal struggle at the moment is how to express these observations when they’re outside of the kind of work I’ve been making.

Secondarily, during this time, women and people of color are portrayed differently than they are now. Women are often depicted as secretaries or advertised to as housewives. People of color are treated with exoticism. This was a time in America that really only benefited white men. Does this play a role in how your collages are formed, and the messages that lie within the imagery? Do you feel that your work confronts or challenges this fact of North American history?

This is where my head is at and what I’m thinking about as I go through the motions of making work in the way that I do. The subjects of the magazines I’ve been digging through are probably 99% white males. There is clearly only one voice during this period and it shaped most of the technology (for good and bad) that our existing world is still building off of. For me, this reinforces that idea that progress is continual. Things don’t change overnight and we’re never done addressing societal issues. Historically my work hasn’t directly tackled these issues. I’m a white male. I’ve started down these paths on a couple occasions and then put them on hold not sure if it’s really my place to produce work that is a commentary on social issues like these. I’m at a place right now though where I feel like if I pass by these observations and say nothing, then I’m complicit. So while I still struggle with the best way to articulate what I’m seeing, I do believe it’s my job to pass these observations along. Because I know there are others, like a version of myself from the past, who may not be picking up on these patterns yet.

Have the recent protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain (to name just a few) changed your process of making, as you use material from an era that was “waking up” to racial inequality?

I’ve always had a strong desire to understand people’s experiences that were not my own. When my grandfather passed in 2011, I spent years reading about the 1940’s, and WWII. I wanted to understand why it seemed like that’s where my grandfather was “stuck.” I wanted to understand what it could have been like to leave small town America and see parts of the world you had never heard of before, all the while never knowing if you’d return home alive. My grandfather never saw direct combat, but I wanted to see if I could even understand what that experience would have been like. I read anything and everything that described the experiences of fighting in WWII. The more I read, and the more insights I gained, the more I realized I would never know. 

Anyway, it took me years to come out of that dig and in 2016, I believe, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Wow, I cried and realized there were a lot of things I wasn’t taught about the reality of American history. From that time forward I’ve made it a point to read more black authors, both fiction and nonfiction, and to continue to challenge my own perspective. This year has been devastating, not because any of these attitudes were new, but because it felt as though American leadership spent the year validating racist behaviours.

Some of your recent Fortune collages remind me of German Dada collage artists, like John Heartfield and Raoul Hausmann. However, your earlier works prior to 9-5 take me back to members of the International Group (an early British pop movement) like Richard Hamilton. While the Dada boys I mentioned were severely political, artists like Hamilton were focused more on commodity fetishism in advertisements. Do you feel that your work tends to lean towards a political/cultural critique of either that era or our current one?

This is a tough question for me to answer because I, myself need to figure out what exactly I’m going to do about what I’m observing in these magazines. I struggled with abstract art for a long time, and while I knew abstract art was inside of me, it took a long time to understand that it was my vehicle for talking about the human condition. It was at that point that I was able to embrace it. Generally I’m interested in connecting with others through our shared experiences and art has been a great tool for having those conversations. 

Tell me about the role that fashion plays in your work. Your suits are impeccable.

Thanks! I guess I’ve always enjoyed feeling put together? I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but slowly over time as I clipped away at my collages, I began to gravitate toward how fabric hangs. This eventually led me to cutting up more fashion photography. I think it’s given me more awareness about fashion and the industry. A couple of years ago I did a series of work called “Goyard Dreams” as a way of trying to explore the power that luxury fashion brands seem to have on society. All that said, fashion in this particular project has certainly played a role. I feel very buttoned up at times and it’s taken a bit for me to get comfortable being able to play in this environment, because everything feels a bit more formal in a three piece suit.

There’s a cinematic experience to your work. The scene you have constructed takes me back to films like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, or stories like Bartleby: The Scrivener by Herman Melville. I understand you’ll be making a short film of your performance. Can you tell us what we might be able to look forward to?

Hopefully, banality at its finest :) Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was a big influence in thinking about how I wanted the space set up. I believe we have an idea of what a 9-5 office life is like, but that probably doesn’t take into account what pre-computing offices were like. There were rooms of people sitting at adding machines all day long. They were cogs. So many of the office functions of that day have been replaced by the computers at our standing desks. It was important for me to understand what office life and the attitude towards it were like during the period of the magazines I’m cutting up. I felt that the depictions from earlier film’s of a slightly darker version of the office mentality were probably closer representations, which certainly wasn’t always a positive one.

As I understand this project is still very much in conversation with your late grandfather… I see you’ve brought him into the scene in more ways than one. Obviously, there’s you, and his incredibly vast collection of Fortune Magazines, which he kept in perfect condition. Would you tell us a little bit about the chart that hangs behind your desk? It’s my understanding he created it.

Ah, yes, the chart. For most of my childhood, there was a particular point in the day, usually in the early afternoon, where after reading the morning paper and seeing the high and low for the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the previous day, he’d roll out the latest part of this large hand assembled chart. On it, he’d plot points and use his ruler to connect the dots. If you were to ask him about it, he’d unroll it out a little further and talk about how high the Dow was trading relative to the years previous.

In 1975, he saw a chart for the year that displayed the high and low value of the DJIA on each day. I think he became curious what this might look like over a longer period of time. From that initial 1975 chart, he added another sheet of graphic paper and started tracking these values daily until 1997. It became long, and unyielding, and I don’t think he ever really had enough space anywhere to roll the whole thing out. 

It was very meaningful for me to have the New Collection team roll out his chart and place it on the wall behind my desk. I love that it’s being treated with such respect. Given the opportunity to turn around and study it, I’m realizing that in some ways I'm following in my grandfather’s footsteps, making movements on paper.

Lastly, I’m curious about the process of deconstructing and recontextualizing objects that your grandfather very purposefully kept in good condition, collecting for over a decade and displaying proudly in his summer office. What is the emotional current like,  literally taking metal shears to something he held so dear in order to complete this project?

I think about this a lot. I didn’t go into this lightly. As much as I love history and feel the need to hold on to a lot of things that aren’t replaceable, I have gotten comfortable with cutting up old magazines. That said, I wasn’t going to just grab an issue and cut it up. I’ve had these for almost a decade now, and I wanted to honor the memory of my grandfather and work with his collection as a whole. I remember the first time I cut up his old LIFE magazines. Digesting them, in the way that happens when following the lines of images with scissors, felt more personal. It felt in some ways like I gave these objects a greater purpose than storing them in a rubbermaid container in a storage closet. Once I bridged that gap, I've never looked back. I’ve moved these Fortune magazines four times. They take up eight medium-sized boxes. After a while they started to feel like a burden. 

The ten year anniversary of my grandfather's death is approaching, and this seemed like the perfect time to use these magazines to explore our relationship. That anniversary arrives in February, so this felt like the appropriate opportunity to release the burden of carrying around these physical objects.

While not exactly related, some of my last memories of sitting with my grandfather, before he’d moved into a nursing home, was looking through these magazines.

I had been living in New York for many years at this point, and had been given the magazines years prior. I was still trying to figure out how I’d get them into my tiny NYC apartment. So, often when I’d visit, I’d pull some of them out and look through them. That’s the only time I remember my grandfather ever looking at them. I can’t ever remember a time when they were even touched while sitting on my grandfather’s shelf.

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