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Working on it

Exploring the inner workings of labor—through art


The artist Brett Wallace sits in front of cardboard boxes printed with words like “Empathy” and “Drone Delivery.”

Photo: Brett Wallace

From Amazon to the trucking industry, artist Brett Wallace ’99 has devoted his career to examining the underbelly of modern labor. A multidisciplinary artist, he examines ideas and exposes truths using whatever tool is best for the job—from performance pieces and installations to documentary film.

When he was a teen, Wallace picked up a book of Henri Matisse masterworks and, after trying his hand at copying the paintings, he was hooked on artmaking. By his junior year at UMass, he says, “I really started to get experimental.” In awe of his fellow students, who he says were “blowing it out of the water,” Wallace saw their work as an invitation to bring his best. His senior thesis project—a commentary on the intersections between humans and technology—combined sculpture made of recycled parts and intricate paintings.

Years later, Wallace can easily see the throughline to his current work, saying that the intersection of technology and labor is the focal area for his practice. Though his dedication to this subject remains steadfast, his artistic proficiency has broadened to encompass a wide range of media. His most recent solo exhibition, Working Conditions (NURTUREart, 2019), welcomed the viewer into installations modeled after workplaces, each accompanied by a video essay. The exhibit examined the effect of surveillance and artificial intelligence on workers. In one installation, viewers were invited onto a bed like those found in the cabs of long-haul trucks. Meanwhile, a video played that discussed the increase in surveillance on trucks and of truckers themselves, via cameras and GPS tracking.

A small bed, draped with a t-shirt reading “Good work!” A screen is propped on the mattress showing a person sitting in the cab of a truck.

Working Conditions, installation view, NURTUREart, 2019.

Photo: Nicholas Knight

For Wallace, art is more than expressiveness, it’s a way to document and understand the fabric of society. “Embedded in labor is the human experience of working people, and that’s the world I can most relate to,” says Wallace, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside of Boston. “Art makes the invisible world visible.”

Now, Wallace is neck-deep in a different project, but one that explores familiar themes. After hearing news of a unionization drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, he promptly drove south. This became his next effort—a feature documentary, American Union, that captures the parallel labor struggles of the Amazon workers and coal miners on strike at a nearby mine.

Wallace dove into the filming process, spending at least half of his time living in Alabama. He’s creating a film, but he’s also totally joining the movement. “I’ve been on the picket line at 5 a.m., and then at 5 p.m.,” he says. “I’m embedded.” If he’s not present to witness and capture the action, then no one else will be, since he’s a one-man crew.

Despite the sacrifices required for the project, he says, “I am all in on this film.”

And there’s another reason he wants to be where the action is: “I had to build trust within a community, which took months,” he explains. “My intention is to create a firsthand account of this labor battle,” he says. “It’s my documentary, but it’s not my story.”

Catch a first look at stills from Wallace’s upcoming film