Sandra Erbacher at SPACE and Border Patrol
Sandra Erbacher explores the interconnections between corporate bureaucracy and fascism through two companion exhibitions in Portland, Maine – Geometry of Oppression at SPACE and TIIC at Border Patrol. Drawing on investigative journalist Edwin Black’s book IBM and the Holocaust, Erbacher’s work examines IBM’s partnership with the Nazi regime to implement the Hollerith punched card technology that facilitated the genocide of millions of Jews, sexual minorities, and other oppressed groups. Rather than offering a straightforward narrative of this history, Erbacher deploys imagery from multiple archives to create sparse formal juxtapositions that suggest deeper structural parities between corporate and fascist bureaucracies.
Both the exhibitions at SPACE and Border Patrol deftly adopt the bland design vernacular of bureaucratic spaces. Rational grids and diagrams, sensible topiaries set against a wooden screen, and shades of beige reveal themselves to be the trappings not of universality, but of cruelty within this matrix of capital, technology, and war.
Upon entering Geometry of Oppression at SPACE, the viewer is confronted with a large wall diagram that takes its title from Black’s IBM and the Holocaust. The diagram distills Black’s research into the form of a corporate organizational chart, demonstrating how IBM filtered its technology through a series of national European subsidiaries, ultimately implementing it within the concentration camps. The chart’s top rung draws a direct line between IBM’s CEO, Thomas Watson, and Adolf Hitler. While a company’s org chart typically conceals the daily abuses of power behind a rational display of hierarchy, Erbacher retools the format to render the precise means by which an American corporation helped carry out Nazi atrocities. The chart thus offers a framework through which viewers might consider the power relations and suppressed histories at play throughout the exhibition.
In SPACE’s main gallery, a group of three large-format photographic works each pair images drawn from two distinct archival sources: on the left, photographs from 1970s-era office design catalogues, and on the right, plans and drawings by Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer. Erbacher’s compositions conjure haunting formal resonances between the two seemingly disparate contexts. The curved shape of a lighting fixture is echoed by a classicist dome; the vertical thrust of a steel table leg mirrors Speer’s diagram of Greco-Roman columnar forms. In one of the show’s most harrowing moments, the third of these works pairs a high-contrast photograph of drop ceiling tiles with a plan of the Auschwitz camps; turning around, the viewer sees a metal wall vent with the same layout of the concentration camps etched into the surface. Erbacher’s intervention into the gallery architecture serves as a chilling physical reminder of the space of the camps.
These archivally driven works speak as much through their silences as through their parallels. Spanning temporalities and social systems, they encourage a speculative reading of the documents they present: each image pair functions like a sentence that the viewer must complete, suggesting the present as a possible third term. Furthermore, Erbacher’s mobilization of archival imagery underlines the foundational role of archives in constituting bureaucratic power and maintaining institutional legacy. Her image selections are perhaps proxies for the kinds of records that are not public, for the ‘dark archives’ that would challenge the legitimacy of corporate or governmental authority.
These lines of inquiry are extended through Erbacher’s concurrent exhibition TIIC at Border Patrol, a curatorial collective run by SPACE’s Visual Arts Programmer, Elizabeth Spavento, with Jared Haug and Meg Hahn. The show’s title is a corporate slang term that stands for “the idiots in charge,” and the acronym appears in a neon work that appears in Border Patrol’s window. Whereas Geometry of Oppression highlights how techniques of power such as rational planning, rigid hierarchy, and quantitative analysis undergird both fascism and private business, TIIC highlights the demographic similarities of leaders across both regimes.
A series of pencil portraits collectively titled Faces of Fascism and Bureaucracy, depicting IBM executives and Nazi and Stasi leaders, forms the exhibition’s centerpiece. The portraits are executed in uniform style and intermingled in identical brown wood frames, such that it becomes impossible to distinguish Nazi and Stasi officials from corporate heads. These images of middle-aged white men, with their detached gazes and sober business attire, suggest that hierarchical control of capital and violent political repression have benefited the same social groups within the west.
Erbacher’s installation also harnesses the Border Patrol space’s former existence as a dental office to showcase the administrative banality of evil. The rooms’ staidly retro physical appointments, such as a heavy wooden door and a flat-file cabinet, fuse with her additions of gray office chairs, decorative plants and tan walls to create the illusion of an oddly sinister waiting room. Like Geometry of Oppression, the show intermingles truth and fiction as a critical alternative to the ways that narrative history and the archive typically substantiate existing power structures.
While Erbacher’s practice has long considered how the neutral décor of office environments maintains corporate hierarchy and control, this most recent body of work takes a more sharply political approach. The active collaboration of companies that claim to be neutral, even progress-aligned, with authoritarian regimes is no artifact of the twentieth century: rather, it has only intensified in today’s context. Just a day after Erbacher’s exhibitions opened, The Guardian broke the story that Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm linked to the Trump campaign, harvested data from over 80 million Facebook profiles to develop targeted political advertising in service of white-supremacist rhetoric. The ideological obsession with the free market both fails to recognize corporate support of punitive state apparatuses, and leaves us vulnerable to the private sector’s lack of accountability to the public. By connecting these issues to the dark legacy of the Holocaust, Erbacher prompts us to consider what kinds of critical reflection on the past might prevent repeated harm in the present. While condemning specific events may allow us to believe we have overcome them, looking at the deeper structural continuities of power could allow us to imagine alternatives.