A cluster of withered red ‘SALE’ balloons slump in the corner of Peter Martin’s first solo exhibition, Self Service, organised in partnership with Bloc Projects and Sheffield’s Off The Shelf festival. The work, entitled ‘Sale Sale Sale’ (2016), started out as an upright sculpture pumped with helium, but even one day into the running, the balloons have crumpled to the floor as if sapped of energy. With retail being the key theme of the show, there’s an implicit link here between the unsinkable buoyancy demanded of shop staff, and the exhaustion lying just beneath the surface.
The term ‘self service’ appears to have been coined in 1917, when for the first time customers could select their own goods from the shelves, rather than wait for staff to assist them. In this context, however, Martin examines the idea of the self as it relates to the employee, rather than the consumer, and the strain of existing within a rigidly structured corporate environment.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is ‘Dead Stock’ (2016), a new video work which deconstructs the expectations of retail companies by selecting key segments from old staff training videos. The training is delivered, for the most part, by white men in suits, whose imperious encouragement to generate profit comes across like a presidential address, with conflating advice such as ‘Let compassion, and your manager’s instruction, be your guide’. The language is designed to evoke a world of choice and optimism — a world painfully at odds with the one experienced by staff. The footage is accompanied by music resembling that of a chiming service announcement, throughout which a computerised voice intones the lyrics from a 1972 McDonalds training video (‘Climb to the moon, take a walk on a star . . .’) as halcyon home movies flit across the screen. It’s worth noting that these training videos were created with only internal distribution in mind, granting the speakers license to be as domineering as they like.
The misery of a retail shift is perhaps all too familiar to most people, and Martin is no exception. The exhibition has a strong autobiographical thread, found in the nostalgic holiday footage woven into ‘Dead Stock’, and a work titled ‘Nobody Likes A Grass’ (2016): an enlarged post-it note written by the artist’s former manager after he arrived late. The note explains, with unmistakable relish, the decision to place him on womenswear that day as a punitive ‘shock to the system’. The post-it is a reminder of the passive aggressive strategies and power trips at play in many retail environments.
Generating profit can be a noisy and discordant business. The audio work ‘Come On Ladies . . . ’ (2014) samples a tape played outside some of Liverpool’s discount stores, a shrill sales pitch blasted from a loudspeaker promising knockdown prices on fishtail skirts and jelly shoes. Re-housed in an industrial warehouse in Sheffield, the piece takes on an added layer of meaning, reflecting the endless march of units of stock from storehouses to the floors of discount shops. Addressing the contrast between alienating sounds and spaces, and the people that work within them, Martin peels back the layers of retail experience to expose its deep-seated claustrophobia, questioning how much of the self can be retained within the submissive roles and alienating environments they are required to occupy.
Self Service runs until 22 October at Biggins Brothers, 154 Arundel Street, S1 4RE.
Image: Peter Martin, ‘Nobody Likes A Grass’ (2016), courtesy of the artist.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.