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A Time of Their Own

– Curating the Corporate Event

Tick-tock. Corporate entertainment always runs on schedule. The ritual demands it, and the organizers deploy an array of technologies to keep the enchantment in check. Step in, but do not deviate. It’s business, imagineered. For the uninitiated, few things will seem more alien and socially intimidating than the internal company event: the teambuilding day, the strategic initiative workshop, the motivational seminar. Their very structure is such that it invokes a feeling of terror. The pieces that put it together are mundane and everyday, but the construction is such that sensations of hidden meanings and of being Other come to fore. Due to this they are easy to lampoon, as our horror in the face of them requires us to portray them as silly or meaningless, but their power comes from the fact that they invoke a very specific brand of magic — curated corporate time, a museum of the controlled mind.

A corporate event — and I should know, having both performed at and studied quite a few such — is a ritual of community and sodality. But it is also a tightly coordinated thing, one where the ritual performance is kept in check with all the tools the corporation has acquired during its hundred year reign. It is, for lack of a better analogy, a curated exhibition of how the company controls time. Into the event the throngs are led, freed from the factory/office, and presented with a choreographed sequence of informational goods. An audience, yet at the same time an integral form of raw material for the event. This is the new “free time”, the new museum — a thing dedicated to the muses of our late capitalist age.

The Event is a treat, a way to build community, to form teams, to motivate and entertain. For it to function well, the participants need to enter it in an expectant and suitably grateful mood. As it breaks the monotony of work, it is often seen as a reward and as a sign of corporate magnanimity. At the same time, it is supposed to develop us, make us better, more efficient. In many ways, it is actually reminiscent of how we were told museums were good to us when we were children, and how even a dull museum would seem a treat to a kid trained to sit still in class. It is/was another time, a time that was given to us, a gift. But a gift with a price.

The time that is created in the corporate event is one where the participants are transformed into efficient consumers of a very specific array of images and narratives. If we look directly at the structure of these happenings, we can discern a set number of “works”, specific instances of performances in the corporate museum. Some are strictly liturgical — the top manager’s speech, the explanation of how the day is structured — whereas others form a more defined product — the motivational speech, the external expert, the community-building exercise. The liturgy is highly important. In the same way a curated exhibition is like a factory with it’s interconnected parts and flows through the curated space (modern factories allow for many ways in which production and product can pass through the system), a corporate event is a factory of time. The opening speech details the time, establishes that control is and always will be in the hand of the company that has so graciously given this free (but from what?) time to the employees. The CEO is brought out first, to show that what comes after serves at the pleasure of the company. The coffee-breaks, the moderators, the time-slots, all important devices to curate corporate time.

Most important, though, is the headliner. All corporate events worth their salt needs one. Preferably, this is someone important, someone famous, someone from the outside. He or she can be a rebel, or a star, or an author — it matters very little. As long as it is an outsider, and as long as he or she can be “different”. The more different, the better. The best possible case is a speaker who can lambast the corporation, proclaim that it needs to “change or die”, tell stories of other companies that are doing much better. Rebellious, rambunctious, radical — these are words the corporate curator likes in an event speaker. It might seem odd for someone not trained in the logic of the corporation why this is so. Why would one want to invite in a person who will criticize you? Simple. It is not the message, it is the time.

The curated time of the corporate event makes every rebel a tool for the underlying message: We are in control. The rebel who sneers from the podium does so only at the leisure of the event organizer, and functions as a way to show how the corporation can both graciously invite criticism and yet exhibit control over it. We are treated to a respite, yet aware that this time can and will be cut and ended, and that the productive process will go on. The teambuilding exercise may seem like a time to break free from the shackles of control, but it is a measured time, a break as scientifically created as the short pauses introduced by scientific management as productivity enhancers in the early years of the twentieth century.

To stage these events is a new form of curatorship, and one that has rarely been studied. It may seem a little simplistic, even somewhat slapdash, but the corporate event is very much in tune with the development of late capitalism. The focus has gone away from controlling productivity, and instead focuses on controlling identity. When we are treated to an “event”, we are given a time of our own, a space within which we can reaffirm the bonds of organizational community. But at the same time, this time is one where the most valuable thing of all is produced — fealty to the corporate time. Curating this time, staging it in such a way that dissent becomes part of the production, that play in the service of the company becomes an integral part of the experience, this is a skill-set and a crucial part of creating the new kinships. Corporate cultures are not created, they are curated. As is the time of the event, the corporate museum.

Alf Rehn

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