The Electric Modern: Modernity, Labor, and the Visual Archive

The Electric Modern: Modernity, Labor, and the Visual Archive

This project explores the history of electrification through the lens of the visual strategies and representation techniques of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (General Electricity Company), one of the most significant international electrical firms of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The main premise of the book hinges upon the paradoxical relationship between representation and the systematic concealment of labor. Around the turn of the twentieth century, electricity was a newly viable commodity, and exhibition spaces, trade shows, storefronts, and publications became powerful platforms not only for industry insiders, but also for the public to experience how electrical techniques and applications could be both "state of the art" and user-friendly. Experimental and laboratory work double-tasked as commercial imagery, and visualization techniques in the natural sciences became coterminous with economic marketing interests. Diverging from existing historical accounts of the AEG, this project closely analyzes the company’s archive of photographs and films, tracing its rationalist drive to depict "meaningful" work by giving abstract scientific concepts, research, and inventions a visible form. With a focus on the pivotal period from the invention of photography until the onset of World War II, it examines the economy of work within modern visual culture—how representation of industrial work relates to conceits found within cinéma vérité, photographic reportage, and advertising.