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The Work Programme.



TODAY IS BRIGHT and cloudless in the Uplands B Business Park, which overlooks the Lea Valley and its sunlit reservoirs. I lock my bicycle to some railings near the rubbish bins in the car park of Landmark House. I could have come by bus, but I’m trying to keep fit.

Landmark Ho.Landmark House is a three-storey sixties style block, with stairs and lifts situated at either end. I always use the entrance at the far end. Its battered doors are shaded by a sloping rectangle of concrete jutting out from the brickwork, supported at the front by a single, slightly angled, white-painted metal strut.

Just to the right of the door, is a stainless steel wall plate with 20 evenly spaced numbered bell buttons.

Stuck to a reinforced glass panel in one of the doors is a sun-bleached A4 sheet. This lists the bell numbers for some (but not all) of the various organisations operating from inside. It’s many felt-tipped corrections and alterations, give some idea of the building’s turnover of occupants. Most seem to be consultancies or training courses. They have optimistic or forward-looking names like something-or-other “Plus”, such-and-such “Tech” or something-something “Solutions”.

The company I’m here to see is called Seetec. It is not mentioned on the list. Seetec’s parent company, A4E, or Action For Employment, is also unlisted.

ON MY FIRST visit to Landmark House I tried pressing all the buttons on the wall panel. I got no responses from any of them. Ever since I’ve always assumed the bell board to be either busted or not wired up.

Gaining access is nearly always a matter of luck. Sometimes, if you are fortunate, the door is held slightly ajar by an old house-brick or by a small piece of wood used as a wedge. At other times, like today, you have to wait until someone leaves the building or comes outside for a smoke. Then you can quickly slip inside.

Once through the door, and situated in the gloom of the unlit stairwell, you may (or may not) notice a paper sign sellotaped to the wall. Written in biro and with a sloping arrow pointing up the stairs, it says “Seetec on top floor”.

In the dark and functionless space to the right of the stairs stands an old flip-chart easel with a large printed sheet pinned to it. This states that Build-Tech has now moved to new premises in Edmonton, and there is a contact phone number given underneath. Build-Tech has an awkward-looking logo; its words form an L-shape and sit inside the outline of a muscled arm bent at angle. Each time I see this sign I wonder; is it a heavy-duty construction company or is it a course in bodybuilding?

Six flights up, at the end of a drab grey corridor you arrive at two hospital-like swing doors. This is Seetec.

The push-buzzer entry system is sometimes a bit hit-and-miss. Again, it is usually the act of somebody leaving that provides the easiest way of getting in. Today though, it is working properly.

I WALK PAST the glass-panelled doors of empty and featureless interview rooms, through a corridor to the main reception area, which has light grey walls, blue carpets, dark blue seating and an arrangement of new-looking pine-veneered tables with computer screens on them.

This room is a hive of activity. Smartly dressed people (staff) and scruffy people (the clients) are in busy interaction everywhere.

Situated near the door at the far end of the room, is the reception counter. Its Formica top is at about chest-height and has three ring-binder folders and a box of pens on it. All that can be seen of the receptionist is the top of her hair-do poking up.

I open the black “daily register” folder and enter in my details.

“Visiting” – I write “Seetec” (obvious).

“To see” – I write “Mohammad”.

“Purpose of visit” – I write “Interview”.

“At” – I write “11.20”.

I look for my name in the “appointments” folder and notice that I have been put down for AIMS. I’m not sure what the capital letters A-I-M-S stand for. If indeed they stand for anything, other than a bold statement of what it is I am perceived to be in need of.

I LEAN OVER the counter and show the receptionist the letter requesting me to attend an interview. She tells me that Mohammad is not in today and that, on checking the files, they have me down for an AIMS session.

“What exactly is that?” I say.

“Oh it’s the usual thing. Speak to one of the advisers next door and they will log you on to a computer for a job-search. Then—”

And just then, a very loud siren goes off, shattering the atmosphere. It is a mechanised series of high-pitched and deafening squeals, repeated at one-second intervals.

Nobody moves. Conversations cease. People look at each other with raised eyebrows. All job-seeking activity is suspended. Members of staff group together and confer. The lady behind the reception counter stands and reveals herself. The siren continues relentlessly.

Then, heavy footsteps are heard approaching. Thump, thump, thump. Doors crash open on one side of the room and two security guards come charging in. They march straight through the central area, side by side like a dance act, and leave by the doors at the opposite end of the room.

Shouting and hollering comes from outside. Then a blue-suited male member of staff comes in backwards, through the same doors. He turns to all of us in the room and announces:

“It’s all kicking off in the corridor.” His face is a mixture of serious concern and barely concealed glee.

“What is it?” Someone asks.

“I don’t know. This guy… he’s freaking out. He just took a swing at one of the advisers. They are trying to talk him out of the building. He is really having a go at them.”

I AM STANDING with two or three others in the queue at the reception desk. We are told to sit down and wait until things get sorted out. We move to the row of chairs by the wall. We sit; passively lettings things take their course, waiting to be told what to do. The siren drones on.

A stylish Seetec worker, with fair hair in long dreadlocks and dressed in a smart blue blazer, short black skirt and black stockings, walks confidently by, using her phone to obtain updates on the situation. Other members of staff move to the windows to scan what’s happening outside. The woman with the phone announces that the police have been called.

More staff rush to the windows.

“Here they come. The police have turned up.”

“What are we supposed to do?” I ask the receptionist.

“Just stay there for the minute. We’ll get this sorted out, and then we’ll log you in and stuff. Just stay where you are for now.”

We (the clients) are calm and have “switched-off” looks on our faces. Some begin to send text messages from their phones. Some look at wristwatches. Most just stare into space, letting the sound of the siren wash over. Letting it cleanse away the anxious sense of incompleteness and not having a role in life.

For us now the situation is quite okay. This is a turn of events we are comfortable with and can deal with. Everything is beyond our control, and we have now acquired the temporary status of “legitimate bystanders”.

The Seetec staff are sprinting this way and that. The ear-piercing alarm system continues relentlessly. There is much discussion about what is the “right thing to do”, about what is “proper procedure”.

Suddenly, the siren ceases.

There is complete silence and no movement.

Three seconds of suspension in limbo is upheld, until a voice speaks the word: “Okay…”

And almost immediately, the room is filled with everyone talking at once, the frantic finishing-off of previously aborted conversations. The sound, dry and deadened by the acoustics of the thickly carpeted interior, is like warm air rushing back in.

I JUST SIT, watch and wait. I allow others to do the first responses. I let them ask the questions and assume the roles of “doing something” or of “getting somewhere”.

A pregnant mother with a child in a pushchair is hassling the reception lady. A man in white trainers, black tracksuit bottoms and an army parka stands, feet apart, bristling with a kind of faux pride, and laughing into his mobile: “Nah, no one knows what the FUCK is going on. I’ll tell you what, I’ll ring you back in about ten minutes…”

“I’m supposed to have a training session at 12.30,” says someone else. “I don’t know who it is I’m supposed to see?”

“Could Mr Said go to the interview rooms please?” Shouts a Seetec person holding a blue plastic folder to her chest. “Is there a Mr Said in here? Mister Say-eeed? Is there…?”

By the windows, people are still staring at the activities three floors below, at the on-going drama being enacted in the car park.

The receptionist rises from behind her desk again and calls to me.

“Mr B? I have someone here who will show you where to go.” Turning to a colleague she says: “Serena, show this gentleman, to the computer room, could you?”

Serena comes over to where I’m sitting and instructs me to follow her. She is shorter than me and has a blazer jacket with padded shoulders. Her long brown hair is in a ponytail tied with a green scrunchie. We walk down the corridor and enter a room that has high windows running the length of one side. The view is of the reservoirs and Tottenham beyond. Under the windows is a row of tables with flat screens, each with a seated jobseeker busily in the process of job seeking.

I follow Serena to a vacant table and chair. She logs me on to the system using a USB stick attached to a bunch of keys she has on a long chain.

“Have you watched all the training videos Mr B?”

“I think I’ve seen most of them.”

“Well you can either watch training videos or do a job search. It’s up to you. You’re expected to do one session, and that’s supposed to be roughly one hour. After that you can go. But remember to go to reception and sign yourself out. You must sign out. Is that okay Mr B?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

I SIT LOOKING at the screen for a few minutes.

This is ridiculous.

I am empty of thoughts. I am not in the right frame of mind. But from somewhere I manage to conjure up the image of myself working in a craft shop.

I see myself talking to a customer. The customer is a woman who wants to make her own greetings cards. She is asking me what the best glue is for sticking metal foil to cardboard. I am a smiling sales assistant. I can handle this job. It is not too bad. The woman is telling me her idea. I tell her what a good idea it is. The customer is always right.

“Okay listen up everybody, we are having to close the offices,” a Seetec worker announces. “Could everyone please make your way out of the building? And, please, make sure you sign out at reception.”

We (the clients of Seetec) inwardly relax. At last the pressure is now completely off. An elderly Asian man sitting at the next computer turns to me and says: “Oh dear. What a shame. I was so enjoying my job-search. Oh dear. What a bloody shame.” He is blissfully smiling and being totally sarcastic.

“You’re telling me,” I say. “I don’t know. How am I going to get a job at this rate?”

We shake our heads in mock-disappointment.

an Bourn‘THE WORK PROGRAMME’ is one of a series of artworks, created by Ian Bourn in various media and which form part of a larger ongoing project called ‘Placement’.

Developed from diary notes over a seven-year period, the project creates the portrait of an artist working without supplementary income or savings, trying to survive on state benefits, and residing in a country which itself is supposedly living beyond its means.

‘Placement’ explores the notion of ‘artist’ as a social role, whether as perceived individual status or merely a state of being, and is conceived as an ‘embedded’ activity, rather than a work of detached observation. The term itself refers, historically, to the notion of artist placements in social or industrial contexts but also, more poignantly, to the experience of being ‘placed’ on the government’s Community Work Placement Scheme — Ian Duncan Smith’s solution to the problem of long-term unemployment.

‘Subjective Interfaces’, first in the Placement series, was published in a limited edition by Piece Of Paper Press and launched at PEER Gallery in September 2016.










One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Great stuff. In my experience
    Job seeking schemes were always part of the system.
    There’s nothing new in hopelessness but Ian Bourne’s
    descriptive powers bring this ‘job’ Centre to life

    Tuesday, 6 December 2016 at 13:24 | Permalink

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