The artist Sandra Erbacher’s current practice visually explores Edwin Black’s work of investigative journalism, IBM and The Holocaust. Published in 2001, Black’s book maps out the historical partnership between IBM and the Nazi Regime, including the sale and ongoing service of Hollreith punch card technology which expedited the efficient genocide of millions of Jews and other oppressed minorities throughout Europe. Across two concurrent exhibitions in Portland — Geometry of Oppression at SPACE Gallery and TIIC at Border Patrol — Erbacher’s work grapples with how this evidence runs counter to dominant narratives in our culture, in particular the United States’ moral righteousness during the World Wars and the supposedly benign nature of IBM’s omnipresence in modern American life. The results are aesthetically complex and deconstructionist in spirit, calling into question accepted mainstream truths and tugging away at any notion of a singular history.
Down the road at SPACE, Geometry of Oppression is more illustrative in its nature, featuring a diagram of Black’s claims in a classic bureaucratic flowchart as well as several exquisite pairings of archival imagery: one half drawn from 1970s era corporate office furniture catalogues, the other from diagrammatic and architectural plans of the Third Reich. These juxtapositions vibrate with tension, containing striking formal similarities and potent associative dissonances. It’s an effective framework that embodies vital strategies of resistance and inquiry, including how to read dominant visual culture against the grain and the subversive and counter-hegemonic potential within archival storytelling.
At Border Patrol, the exhibition TIIC — or “The Idiots in Charge” — moves beyond these pictorial and diagrammatic impulses, past the reconciliatory wrestling needed to process Edwin Black’s assertions. Through an installation of several uncanny, dystopic fictional office waiting rooms, the exhibition enacts Black’s uncovered history and gives it dimension. These spaces make adept use of Border Patrol’s past life as a dental office and perfect a generic aesthetic with acutely banal furnishings. Bland upholstered grey chairs, decorative plants, and puddy-colored walls welcome visitors with innocuous familiarity, trappings so mundane in their mass production that they foster feelings of complacency, instructing us to sit quietly and wait our turn.
Dotted across these rooms is a series of small, square, graphite portraits. Titled “The Faces of Fascism and Bureaucracy,” Erbacher sourced headshots of both IBM CEOs and Nazi or Stasi officials, then drew them all in uniform style and hung them in identical frames. A gallery checklist bears the subjects’ surnames as titles of the works: Watson, Von Ribbentrop, Becker, Anderson. Their easeful intermingling accentuates their homogeneity: You can’t pick out who's a fascist and who’s a corporate capitalist in this collection of somber-looking, middle-aged white men in staid business attire. This is exactly Erbacher’s point. That delineation is a falsehood, bound up in the romantic mythologies Western culture tells itself about how it has policed the boundaries of good and evil. TIIC manifests the fascist/business amalgam that our mainstream history refuses to acknowledge. It also underscores that these men all kneeled before ideologies which shared investments in hierarchical control, optimized efficiency, and designed submission.
Border Patrol’s backroom overlooks Congress Avenue, and a lit neon of the acronym TIIC is visible from the street. This presence is potent protest. Through fabricating the imagined waiting room of one of the most sinister mergers of corporate greed and authoritarian dictatorship in this country’s history, Erbacher is demanding that we not stick our heads in the sand. Beyond just Edwin Black’s work and its myriad implications, TIIC boils up questions in our current political landscape, reminding us that state power and the private sector continue their unethical symbiosis, and these collaborations continue to be disavowed and buried.
TIIC + Geometry of Oppression, installation by Sandra Erbacher | At Border Patrol, 142 High St, Ste 309 + SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St | Through May 12