Depreciating Assets is a new artists’ book by Jessica Vaughn investigating labor, diversity politics, and the material environment of the American workplace. With a new lens to the artist’s multidisciplinary practice, the project examines how affirmative action and other office equity measures are intersected by corporate infrastructure and, specifically, the physical layout of office space.
Across four interwoven sections and related appendices, Vaughn assembles her photographs and critical writings alongside xeroxed images, diversity training video stills, and manipulated open source documents of the US Government. The project considers and distills the symptoms of late 20th and 21st century work culture produced by open office plans and modular architecture’s promise of malleability, compliance, and universality — provisions that bid for increased efficiency and productivity at the expense of visibility for Black workers and workers of color. Vaughn looks at how minimalist design gestures of the modern office (as envisioned by Rem Koolhaas’ formative essay “Typical Plan,” and Herman Miller’s Ethospace brochures) cannot exist outside the conditions of race, class and labor.
The project also includes an interview between Vaughn and curator Magdalyn Asimakis, in which the two discuss the structural failings of arts and cultural institutions to practice equitable inclusion of artists of color, or to develop a language and praxis in support of diverse programming that extends beyond compliance, optics, and concerns of the market. Vaughn draws connections between the operations of these institutions to that of the corporate environment, and discusses the ways in which she manipulates their commonalities through the material of her work.
In its design, Depreciating Assets intentionally replicates the style, materials, and colors outlined by the US Government Publishing Office—standards set to ensure design efficiency and the economical production of their internal documents. The book draws from the familiar copyshop palette of Venetian blue, tan pink, salmon, green and brown, and uses varied paper stocks in accordance with Paper Standard specifications. In doing so the project takes on and examines the homogeneity imposed by so-called ‘corporate efficiency measures,’ and the fundamental tension between diversity initiatives and one-size-fits-all approaches to office resources.
The publication concludes with an afterword by the author contextualizing the project’s themes within the contemporary reality of global pandemic, economic precarity, and protests against racist state violence. Here Vaughn explores how in the absence of an adequate governmental response to structural problems, workplaces implement ad-hoc solutions (such as plexi-dividers) that still leave workers vulnerable and at risk — most acutely, Black workers who are often underinsured.