A VERY CRAFTY AND TRICKY CONTRIVANCE
Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz
A rat has been equipped with a video camera and is running freely around a reconstructed nineteenth century office at the derelict Fish and Coal offices in King’s Cross, London. The inquisitive rat climbs up and down the furniture and between the feet of unsuspecting clerks, only letting us see glimpses of the systematic, formal activities that take place in the office. The rat is free.
In the next video, the rat and its camera have grown, or the office has shrunk to rodent scale. The rat is now captive.
With the simple gesture of attaching a camera to the back of a rat and releasing it, Greta Alfaro’s new project triggers a wave of socio-economic associations that connect the past and the present in an exponentially accelerated line. The late nineteenth century preoccupation with efficiency, productivity and hierarchical structures—embodied in the office as a place of work — has only intensified, empowered by the development of technology. In a highly methodical and sanitised society, the most instinctive and unseemly manifestations are either regulated and standardised or hidden away in basements and sewers.
Always adaptable, the rat anarchically navigates from busy offices to drainage systems, reigning over an elastic territory that alludes to our own ambiguous behaviour.
Rats are ambiguous creatures that flow between physical and symbolic borders. Skulking in the margins of human existence or exposed in Victorian rat-baiting pits; loathed and killed for spreading diseases or mass-produced in laboratories as unwitting scientific tools; castigated for embodying sexual lawlessness or venerated as a token of good luck, the rat’s status remains in flux, occupying a shifting place in societies’ scale of values. Adaptable and flexible, rats follow humans very closely, through progress and decay, foraging on our remnants and inhabiting our ruins and urban infrastructures.
The brown rat or Norway rat that squatted in the basements and transport networks of Victorian London was said to be larger, more voracious and better adapted to urban life than its precursor, the native black rat. These creatures were portrayed in literature as lascivious, greedy and cannibalistic; their accelerated fecundity was marginally restrained by their grim propensity to devour one another, and only the tricks of the professional rat-catchers could challenge their cunning. Armed with domesticated ferrets, poison packages and a mystical reputation, Victorian rat-catchers became successful entrepreneurs by selling captured rodents to public houses to fight against dogs in rat-baiting pits. And once this spectacle was banned for its cruelty — to dogs —rats were carefully selected, bred and sold to sophisticated families as fancy pets. It was the new standards of hygiene and medical advances of the nineteenth century that finally polluted our perception of rats. As societies were pushing dirt into sewers and out of sight, rats incarnated our own filthiness.
Thriving in the poorer and darker areas of London, the brown rat benefited from the progress of industrialisation and modernisation of the late nineteenth century. Rats utilised fast-expanding transport networks to spread across the globe, feeding on the growing surplus resulting from humanity’s activity, mass producing and mass consuming, moving at an accelerated pace that only parallels the rhythm of human evolution. In fact, since that period the laboratory rat has substituted for human beings in scientific and psychological experimentation, with the results extrapolated to explain our behaviour. Rat-based science expanded in the 90s and many laboratories switched to the albino rat with its docile nature. Since then, albinos have become a factory product, produced on assembly lines, bureaucratised and standardised. Reflecting the new industrial values of late nineteenth century, the rat stands as a twisted symbol for modernisation.
The Fish and Coal Offices
The Fish and Coal Offices’ building curves elastically, adapting its shape to the meander of the regent’s Canal. Its five Victorian blocks, formed of red bricks walls with long arched windows, taper towards the east, squeezed between the water and Wharf road. Flexible not only in form but also in function, the pastel coloured peeling walls and cast- iron chimneys have witnessed many scenarios, including the rise and fall of the powerful GNR (Great Northern Railway) coal-trade monopoly and the consequent growth and decay of its structures and status.
Strategically located behind King’s Cross Station, this listed building constitutes the last unaltered remains of a Victorian industrial complex, developed by the GNR, which integrated the train station, the Goods Yards Complex, and the Great Northern Hotel, all designed by Lewis Cubitt. The first two blocks were built in 1853 to accommodate the clerical staff that monitored the coal supplied by the GNR Cunningly, the substantial profits resulting from this trade went into the coffers of the company’s account disguised as profits from their standard railway operations. In 1860, during a court case against the company, the Chancellor described this as a very crafty and tricky contrivance; ultimately, the verdict brought the GNR’s monopoly to an end and prompted the growth of independent coal merchants trading from the Fish and Coal Offices and the expansion of the building to accommodate new businesses.
One of these new tenants, a coal trader named Samuel Plimsoll, significantly influenced the geographical transformation of coal supply to London. Prior to the railway revolution, London’s endless need for coal was satisfied by boats arriving from the sea via the river Thames. Though efficient, coalships were often overloaded and North Sea weather conditions caused numerous shipwrecks with losses of cargo and lives. Plimsoll passionately campaigned for safety in merchant shipping while simultaneously advocating the demonopolisation of the GNR — probably to protect his financial interests in rail-freighted coal. His motives were ambiguous and still today his fame navigates in an ambivalent territory, fluctuating between altruism and ambition, his humanitarian endeavours shaded by his financial motivations.
From the early 90s, the Offices hosted a variety of other businesses, like the Yard Horse Department and the distribution of fish brought by train from the East Coast. In the 60s, with the decline of the coal industry, the offices were vacated and in 1980 a suspicious fire — probably an insurance fraud—gutted the building and blackened its walls, leaving it derelict, a ghost of those lucrative days. It recently became part of the king’s Cross Central Development Scheme, which also embraces the newly restored St Pancras Station, the Great Northern Hotel and the campus for the University of the Arts.
Gathering evidence from maps, historic documents and the building’s own features, archaeologists and historians have traced its many lives; stories that speak of speculation, ambitions and progress, and that have moulded and remoulded its configuration and appearance. At present it remains inert, a latent shell, waiting for developers to restore it and bring it back to productive life.
The variety of meanings covered by the Latin term officium include ‘service’, ‘ceremony’ and ‘courtesy‘, all of which imply ‘ritual‘: a series of actions dictated by a community to support a faith or perform a service. Rituals reveal a great deal about the societies that prescribe them. Likewise, offices foster their own dynamics, also revealing much about the societies in which they exist.
The role of the office throughout history has been to complement the centralised power of the state. It is the place where production and distribution are controlled to maximise profits. Thanks to nineteenth century technological developments such as the typewriter and the adding machine, information could be assimilated and processed more quickly, optimising resources. The American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor — leader of the Efficiency Movement, an early nineteenth century concept that endorsed effective and dynamic management to push growth — is one of the first people credited with designing an office space: the Taylorist Open Plan. The model is inspired by factory production lines and consists of a shared open space in which the arrangement of clerical staff in rows, performing repetitive actions, enables a continuous flow of work. Meanwhile, the senior staff, located in individual offices around this mass-production line, controls the rhythm.
Various visions of the office’s layout, politics and dynamics have been proposed and implemented through history. Deriving from philosophical, architectural and anthropological theories, these creative models have advocated non-hierarchical environments, flexible communication, warmer domestic atmospheres and the worth of the individual, all with the aim of challenging the typical ‘non-place’ status of the office and lessening any sense of alienation. However, the spirit of the Taylorist open plan — with efficiency, productivity and bureaucracy at its core — remains dominant, illustrating the quintessential values of our times.
A sudden camera movement shows us a coloured ceiling spotted by Edwardian lamps. Tilting downward, the lens lands on a piece of paper, systematically panning left and right before finally climbing up the legs of a solid mahogany desk. The rhythmic tapping of a typewriter accompanies the camera’s hectic moves. We hear a door opening and footsteps; then, after peering through a hole, the camera quickly moves down the desk’s bowed legs onto the wooden floors and under a black leather armchair. Darkness... chairs scrape along the floor, voices chat, silence... a telephone rings suddenly bringing the frantic journey to a stop.
We are in 1900 on the first floor of Block One of the Fish and Coal Offices in King’s Cross, London. A team of clerical workers files documents, processes accounts and answers telephones. By the window, seated at a heavy wooden desk, a bearded gentleman reviews drawings of a coal hopper and repeatedly lowers his spectacles to glare at the clerks around him. Next to him, a woman’s delicate fingers dance gracefully around the keys of a Remington typewriter. We are offered only glimpses of this systematic, rhythmical activity.
Curled up by the secretary’s feet, a rat observes every movement, waiting for the right opportunity to spring towards its next hiding place. It then moves unimpeded, ignoring the protocols and rules that reign in the office. Being both present and absent, its fluid body travels through time and space, easily adapting to and even profiting from human developments, yet remains unchanged. Through the almost invisible path of its journey the rat connects all elements and beings in the office to the dark sewers of the city, where filth and shame are concealed. Clever, fast and greedy, it consumes our excesses, multiplies and spreads, beside us and beneath us, like our disgraced shadow.
A rat holds command over an empty Victorian office. It has grown and usurped the managers and clerks’ posts. It sniffs curiously at the furniture and walls. Trapped by heavy tables and thick walls within the rigid arrangement of the workplace, caged and alienated in a world of routine and bureaucracy, the rat becomes a spectre of order and productivity.