THE MIRROR FACTORY
The recent practice of Ainara Elgoibar is focused on her interest in various types of glass – especially Gold 20 and U-Glass – approaching them by harnessing the optical properties of the material with the methods used to record its manufacture and use. This relationship becomes more complex if we consider how unusual it is to have an artist with a video camera wandering around an industrial site, how awkward it is for the person in charge or the owner of the place to have someone recording “without any control” in spaces that are usually hidden from the view of others.
Nonetheless, the aim of her projects is not to record in an exhaustive and systematic manner the production process associated with these products and materials, as is the case in works such as Chauncey Hare’s A Study of Standard Oil Company or Alicia Framis’ more recent Inditex. The shots and editing pace that Elgoibar tends to work with relate it to other types of more suggestive, experimental approaches, such as Néstor Basterretxea and Fernando Larruquert’s Operation H (1963). The difference is that in that particular case it was based on a personal commission from the businessman Juan Huarte to produce a promotional document for his industries, and in the type of work we are dealing with in this text it is the interest and initiative of the artist herself who has had to negotiate with the companies the permissions and conditions of her recording sessions.
The first example of this set of works is Gold 20, a video made in 2013 dedicated to the glass of the same name, which is produced exclusively at the Guardian Industries Corp. plant of Koch Industries in Tudela, Navarre. The product immediately caught the eye of Elgoibar, who saw in the unusual golden hue of its surface an update of prior examples in which luxury or ostentation have been linked to systems of perception, such as the Hall of Mirrors in France’s Palace of Versailles. In Gold 20, it is as if the gilded mouldings and frames of that room have fused with the mirrors, diluting any lumps of ornamentation over the entire glass surface.
The artist obtained permission to record inside the Tudela factory thanks to a contact she had in the company. The conditions imposed by those in charge of the plant were that she would do so for a limited period of time – just under 10 hours – that certain, sensitive parts of the manufacturing process for competitors would not be recorded, or the workers, and that the filming team, made up of the artist, Usue Arrieta and Vicente Vázquez, all partners in Tractora Koop E, would always be accompanied by someone from Guardian. The agreement included that the company could “veto” any shots it considered appropriate after viewing the video, something the artist wanted to make clear in the final version.
Far from weakening the video, these limitations help to extract more from the images by focusing on perceptual lighting details, as well as by creating a contrast between what can be focused on and what, on the contrary, is shown in a diffuse, fragmentary manner, as in the case of the company’s workers. In fact, the virtual absence of workers in the video converts Gold 20 into the true protagonist. The sheets of this material pass through rollers like spectres or phantoms of light emerging from another dimension. In contrast to this evanescent presence, the vision of the architecture of the industrial site, general shots of the interior and exterior of the plant, sometimes reflected on the same Gold 20 surface, reveal the somewhat bland context in which this type of glass is created, something like the quicksilver of such an apparently pure, immaterial product.
En caso de duda: parar, pensar y preguntar (If in doubt: stop, think and ask) was the title of a talk given by Ainara Elgoibar in 2018 at the Tabakalera Centre for Contemporary Culture, located in San Sebastian. In it, the artist described her visits to another Guardian Corp. factory located in Llodio. Unlike the plant in Tudela, the factory in Llodio was not built from scratch, but was the result of the takeover of a previous company, Villosa S.A. Again thanks to the involvement of the same worker, Ainara had regular access between 2015 and 2017 to the old management offices of Villosa S.A., which were in a state of neglect. Once there, she was able to consult documents, plans, photographs and other visual records from the archive of the former company, perhaps because the documentation was outdated and therefore harmless. In the talk and subsequent text, the artist uses words to describe her movements within the premises of the industrial site and to explain how the change of hands from a family business to a multinational company had led to a transformation in its managerial methods. In the case of Koch Industries, this is based on Market Based Management, a continuous improvement methodology that applies statistical tools. Under the supposed objective of reducing accidents at work to a minimum, safety rules are drawn up that limit the actions of the operators in order to avoid any errors and accidents, and this de facto obliges them to repeat movements that eliminate any type of disturbance.
Ainara Elgoibar travelled to Bregenz, Austria in 2017 to record Glas Marte Cut at the facilities of the firm Glas Marte Gmbh, which is dedicated to the manufacture of architectural glass elements. Given that it is a smaller company, Elgoibar was able to record with greater freedom. This fact is reflected in the images, as in this case she was able to record the relationship between the high-precision machinery and the operators, between the parameters plotted in a computer programme and the manual modifications on the milling machine. This link with the machine, between automation and manual work, reveals another perceptual issue, which is that at both Guardian and Glas Marte the operators are ultimately still necessary because they are capable of appreciating and detecting what the machine does not see. On the other hand, the way in which the camera focuses on a trembling hand or a tattoo on the arm of one of the workers acts like the sound of a guitar that appears unexpectedly in the previous video, breaking with the apparent objectivity of the video format and the factory work per se, thereby introducing new ingredients linked to the subjective and the personal.
In the works described above, the artist intertwines productions systems with methods of representation. This mechanism explains the artist’s interest in the work of Dan Graham, who also used mirrors and glass in his works. Dan Graham called glass, to whose family Gold 20 belongs, “two-way mirrors”. He explored the aesthetic, formal and ideological implications of the use of reflective glass in corporate architecture in the United States in early works such as Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975) or in his later pavilions, implications that are now compounded by increasingly virtual technological conditions of visibility, at least in appearance, both in terms of production processes and image recording and viewing devices.
In the introduction to her PhD thesis – which Ainara Elgoibar specifically dedicated to Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975), understood as the result of the joint work of Dan Graham and Darcy Lange, an artist who produced long recordings of workplaces (which he called work studies) from 1972 onwards – the artist writes that her fascination with this type of glass arose because in it “nothing can be observed without a reflection that incorporates that which is observed in the gaze. Gold 20, Low-E and the two-way mirror are variable function mirrors that allow one to see through them while one sees oneself looking through them, in other words, they allow one to see the shot and the reverse shot simultaneously”. This is perhaps one of the keys to these projects, that of a kind of self-awareness of vision, both of the tools and of the person handling them, between the operator and the artist, between the sheets of glass and the camera lens, between what can be shown and what must be hidden. A playfulness that Ainara Elgoibar activates by curiously wandering through these factories as if they were labyrinths of mirrors.
David Bestué, 2022