Installation shot, The Fulfillment Center at the Black Cube Headquarters, 2019; image courtesy of the artists and Black Cube. Photo: Third Dune Productions
Fetishizing the warehouse in America feels like it began with the birth of the warehouse retail experience in the early 1980s. Shopping in a warehouse is masterful marketing (buying tube socks off of a pallet is fun and cheaper!), but, of course, why it not only stuck around but continues to outpace traditional retail is because this type of shopping generates high sales for the companies. Add to that friendly neighborhood warehouse appearance a bit of Silicon Valley and a few decades, and we (and our politicians) find ourselves fetishizing these buildings in different, more complicated, ways. Our city councils, mayors, and governors court corporations, promising them the riches of tax breaks and semi-skilled workers, if only they’d build their headquarters, outposts, and fulfillment centers in our cities. As Emily Peck suggests, we are duped by the jobs these corporations will provide and how much money their workers will potentially make, among other economic boons, and perhaps duped, too, by the esteem they may bring our communities as fulfillment centers have the Zuckerbergian sheen of startups.
Amazon, Apple, Walmart, any business that does hefty online commerce, call their warehouses “fulfillment centers.” Fulfillment centers are places in which product is stored briefly before it mystically makes its way to you, to me, to our homes, and into our lives. To get batteries delivered right to your home, how modern! And yet how Sears & Roebuck! How then and also how now! How fulfilling! But it is just different shimmer on the same increasingly hungry consumer experience. This current love affair between the corporate fulfillment center and society is the backdrop of Black Cube’s The Fulfillment Center.
Black Cube is a nonprofit, art museum in Colorado that typically installs shows and curates work nomadically, meaning not in one location. Black Cube has had exhibits in parking lots, in libraries, in waste water treatment plants, in art galleries, in cabins, in alleyways, and myriad other locations. In late 2017, Black Cube opened a headquarters in Englewood, a suburb of Denver. The Fulfillment Center is the second show to appear in the headquarters space which is itself located in a warehouse. Certainly, a self-reflexive location for an exhibit featuring commissioned artwork from 18 artists “respond[ing] to the hidden aspects of ecommerce logistics. ” Cortney Lane Stell is the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Black Cube and the curator of this show.
The exhibit takes up at least half of the main Black Cube space; a room with soaring ceilings, huge windows, and remnants of its industrial past. Before you see anything, you hear Mauricio Alejo’s A Suitable Song for a Final Defeat. Its sound fills the room. The piece is an instrument made of a table holding several flutes and a fan oscillating before them. The melody is played forward and backward with each sweep of the fan, again and again. It never stops. You think of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in fact Alejo’s and the film’s tunes may share a note or two. But the intent of the melody is not to communicate nor to reach out and touch someone, because the effect, even after ten minutes, is loneliness. The repetition and total mechanical production seem to evoke solitude—more than solitude, in fact, solitude minus the soul. How obsolete humans could (or have) become for not even our breath is needed. This loneliness followed me and grew as I wandered between the two towering pallet racks full of artworks, arranged meticulously like merchandise in an IKEA warehouse or, of course, the fulfillment centers of Amazon.
So much of the art in the racks hints at human obsolescence. There are only bits and pieces of humanity. There is evidence of us in Joseph Coniff’s Pallet Driver—an assemblage of a pallet jack, a safety vest, and a half guzzled sports drink abandoned in the middle of the space—there are brazen replicas of us, as in Momoyo Torimitsu’s robotic man, Miyaya Jiro, shelved in one of the racks, heck, there are even actual pieces of us like in Adam Milner’s Not a Pact, But Not Not a Pact in which pairs of gloves, stiffened with the blood of Milner’s friends, sprout up from their stands. And of course “sprout” is the wrong word here because all vitality has evaporated. The piece looks like a graveyard where the dead awake, begin to un-dig themselves, and as soon as their hands reach fresh air remember that it actually isn’t much different above ground than below, and so give up.
We find the hands, though, in Kate Casanova’s video pieces. In Preservation, rupture, expiration, rapture, we watch a woman push, in slow motion, plastic bags filled with water down stairs. In Unbox-xobnU, we see hands play and fondle delightfully textured objects in a kind of split screen mirror. I think of the recent popularity of ASMR videos; a collective need to relax. In Nina Sarnelle’s video piece Big Opening Event we watch America gaslight itself over and over again in a collage of local news clips; reporters and citizens both gushing over announcements that Amazon is opening fulfillment centers in their town—everyone donning their best evangelical preacher, Thank Jesus! We are saved! The clips are intermixed with Sarnelle’s own video that speaks to the reality of what happens to the local economy after Amazon moves in. These pieces, along with Stephanie Cantor’s Robots 0937365896-0937365901, large ceramic “robots,” tug the show away from its straight arrow conceptual directive. These pieces that directly feature human beings (either in physical form or through their material work) move the show from works that act as analogs of ecommerce logistics toward conversations about what humanity loses when it embraces so heartily this particular kind of commerce.
The Fulfillment Center is very smart and tightly bundled. I’d say it’s a nearly leak proof concept, from the QR codes you can scan next to the works to the exhibition program that channels the look of IKEA assembly instructions. And something about this meticulousness makes it move beyond itself, beyond a group show, beyond its immediate social commentary, to a wider view of Black Cube itself and contemporary art. The Fulfillment Center also asks us to contemplate what a nomadic museum now situated means to the local art scene. And not only just situated, but situated in a suburb like so many fulfillment centers. It asks us a global question, What does it mean that the contemporary art world has adopted the shimmer and marketing of ecommerce—complete with commercial galleries that exist entirely online . Where are we in these logistics? Where is our art? Where is our city, our community—if, in fact, we are anywhere? Like a bolt of lightning, I remember buying CDs with my sister in Los Angeles in the 80s. We frequented a chain retail store called The Wherehouse. Sitting here, 30 years later that spelling finally makes a bit of sense.
Sommer Browning is a poet and writer living in Denver. Her books include Backup Singers (Birds, LLC; 2014), Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC; 2011), Poet-Librarians in the Library of Babel (Litwin Books, 2018), You’re on My Period (Counterpath, 2016), and several others. She is the founder and director of GEORGIA, a non-commercial art space she runs out of her garage when it’s warm. She works as a librarian at Auraria Library.