MOST people instantaneously shy away from Thomas Locher’s work. The reaction, particularly to his text pieces, is to surrender without reading a single line: another post-structuralist poking his fi nger into the crevices between perception, philosophy and politics. Yet the work is intelligent and critical, addressing pressing contemporary questions and offering refl ections on the ideas of theorists such as Wittgenstein and Joseph Kosuth, along with their political and sociological implications.

His series ‘Politics of Communication’ (2000), which won the IBM prize for new media art in 2003, consists of metal plates with photographs of offi ce spaces and furniture taken from sales brochures and catalogues of different periods. As this is offi ce furniture and not fashion, there is little variation in the aesthetics of the design. And it is precisely this homogeneity, emphasized by enlarged details, that shows the power of the normative at full swing, revealing the systems of social control at work that are belied by the elegance, friendliness and apparent democracy of the open-plan offi ce scenario. If you have a bigger chair, you’re higher on the pecking order, and in an open plan offi ce that’s for everyone to see. Combined with some rather banal-seeming texts – ‘there is no ideal message’, ‘the most importance important thing? in the message is its transmittance’, and so on – these images shed doubt on what might otherwise pass as truisms of communication. Even without a single human fi gure, the idea of people communicating in this context appears if not doomed, then certainly problematic.

Yet Locher is not concerned with design. The offi ce interiors are mock-ups of real-life situations that complement alternative readings of communication and language. The grammar of things objects? appears to overlap with that of language, and the logic of both systems is drawn into question. Locher allows the viewer to take on the role of subject, daring him or her to think independently, not in order to construct rules but to consider what the rules are about. In this respect they follow Locher’s well-known text-based work of the 1990s in that they criticize the system from inside its own language. His way of deconstructing order by supplementing it is based on Lyotard‘s idea that in post-utopian times language has lost its narrative: rather than serving to enlighten or produce consensus, language has become a tool to establish order and is therefore a game to win. And if language has no common goal, it no longer underpins the universality of ethics. In keeping with Lyotard, justice is now about staying alert to the power of the phrase, and to the threat of injustice that lies in every utterance. Or as Locher once phrased it: who says what and why.

The words and sentences Locher inscribes on photographs, furniture, doors, windows, walls and even complete rooms are fragments of rules or classifi cations, taken from books on grammar or law, like the Declaration of Human Rights. But Locher not only applies these to mundane settings, he opens them for discussion. Many of his works apparently consist of nothing but text or numbers with just minor annotations, but they carry within them the codes of social interaction that reveal often contradictory structures inherent to social, legislative or philosophical systems.