|The Ikea carpark|
For seven months I was unemployed but on a good day I had reason to cheer when the IKEA website finally announced what I had been waiting for: IKEA was hiring. The same day I wrote a polite and well-argued letter, in my head I had already written it, and I assumed they would be glad to add me to their team of sales representatives. IKEA’s first reply was an email in which I was thanked for my application and cautioned that the number of applicants already far exceeded the number of people they were hiring. It would not be unreasonable to expect that my application would end here, I read, but further information would be forthcoming within two weeks. Four days later I was emailed a three page questionnaire probing me about my life’s ambitions, my expectations of the job, my current domestic situation, and a few things more. Three days later I got a phone call from the head of human resources who expressed doubts because I lacked the proper work experience. After a few questions however my soothing voice and self-assured poise (what else could it have been?) apparently reassured the gentleman that I was in fact made of the right customer care stuff after all, and I was invited for a job interview Friday the week after.
At one in the afternoon of the given day I located the staff entry hidden at the back of gigantic pylon, I was buzzed in, took a gigantic flight of stairs that brought me straight to the second floor where, according to the traditions of immaculate Scandinavian bureaucracy, I was stubbornly ignored for an unnerving amount of time. Finally a spectacled man in his forties whose head was as round as a balloon and of a colour suggestive of high blood pressure spoke to me from behind a cabin with a closed glass top like you sometimes see in Eastern European apothecaries. After showing my passport I received a badge with my name on it through the slot in the window and was made to wait in the most uncomfortable sofa I ever sat in (a Lundia?). After twelve and a half long minutes I finally got to meet my future direct superior as she swaggered through the door. Her lunch break took longer than expected, she apologized. She was a brown-haired woman in her late twenties with a oily face who started working part-time at IKEA during her study and had became team leader after graduation. She wanted a career and she had one. I found it hard to think of her as a ‘superior’, she looked decisive nor commanding, but who knows what people thought of young Napoleon. She was very friendly and kind, getting me a cup of tea from the restaurant before sitting us down on a restaurant table. The restaurant was very busy, but IKEA lacked the office space to do the interview elsewhere, she again apologized. The job interview itself followed the protocol of job interviews (why did you leave your previous job, and the job before that, what are your strong points, what are your weak points, where do you want to be in 1, 3 and 5 years). After 20 minutes I had no further questions and the interview was over. I suggested I left using the shortest route, through the shop’s exit but fire regulations demanded that she escorted me back the same way I had arrived . I could not help to suspect that she loved cats and survived the day on one apple, 4 cups of herbal tea and 6 paracetamols. “We will be in touch.”
Two-and-a-weeks later she finally called and with a certain anticipation in her voice she informed me that several candidates with more appropriate work experience had come forwards and that I was REJECTED! REJECTED! REJECTED! I had worn down my only good pair of trousers for nothing!
In the Netherlands the law dictates that after three contracts or three years of employment you are entitled to a full contract or otherwise you’re your boss has to let you and your valuable work experience go. I had outlived my low grade office job and I was glad of it. The only reason why I lasted for three years in that shithole, apart from laziness, a masochist refusal to make something of my life and the fact that I barely did anything anyway apart from blogging, tweeting and reading stuff on Google Books, was the immediate surroundings. The office, a twenty-two floor high tower block, is located in the middle of an undefined, triangular space enclosed by a canal, a motorway, a busy city road and an oil transfer terminal. The term edgeland has been invented for such places and to most people it’s an area to pass by at high speed and for those people who do need to slow down and enter it, it’s a pointless interruption, an annoying corridor that becomes a nuisance when it rains. The first year I disliked it too. But slowly I started looking at it instead of disregarding it and from that moment I began noticing the adventures that lay waiting behind the tree line hiding the transitional zones where infrastructure and empty space meet. I had found my psychogeographical Eureka moment and I started to devote my lunch breaks to wandering around, walking into the many patches of unkempt quasi forest that turned out to be larger every time I set foot in them. What I thought I had found were places that nobody used, nobody appreciated and nobody even noticed, but as I got to know them over time I learned that no place is completely abandoned and that their near invisibility makes them attractive to others. 1800 People work in the office at busy days and all of them need to pass a tiny outcrop of undeveloped land covered by mature trees and elbow high weedy plants, nettles mostly, on their way in and out and all summer not a single one of them noticed that a homeless couple were living in a tent at the back of that forested patch. The tents were abandoned in September, only in May someone bothered to remove the wind battered remains of the tents and the countless of bottles of a particular brand of Friesian liqueur the inhabitants left behind. Some official body was monitoring it after all.
Another favourite lunch time walk took me through a tunnel under the A12 motorway which led straight into the IKEA car park. I loved the contrast between the two verges of the motorway. On my side it was covered in 30 year old trees and its only function was to block the motorway out of view, on the other side there were also trees but spaced differently interspersed with garden plants. But the area had seen better days and the verge was as run down as the shopping area it faced. Large parts, trees and bushes included, were hidden under a carpet of clematis, and the rest of it was not much better. When I spotted the brown chickens in the camouflaging underbrush I was especially excited. Wild animals larger than snooker balls are rare in Utrecht and learning about the existence of wild chickens proximate to great numbers of human beings in a place that for most people appears more remote than Bangkok is thrilling. A friend had it on good authority that the chickens were dumped by animal rescue services after being rescued somewhere else. I could also stumble up the fire escape in the car park to reach the loading docks. When the weather was good I got myself a paper cup of that cheap cola water you can tap for yourself at the food kiosk, seated myself and enjoyed the spectacle. I know, I know… reading someone else’s overexcited descriptions of local nature scenes as if it was the last hectare of pristine forest in the entire world is as boring as watching grass grow but this was the first reason why I wanted to work for IKEA. It would keep me in daily contact with a part of town that I love but which would otherwise be too far to go to on a regular basis. I didn’t want the job, I wanted the strategically located lunch breaks. For your information: I do guided walks through the area with groups when invited but so far I have not made any converts; to all other people it remains a non-descript environment that fails to spark any interest. The presence of chickens, while surprising, does not shake them from the conviction that Thailand has more to offer.
A Daily Mail article published in January 2011 begins “If you've ever found yourself hopelessly lost in an Ikea store, you were probably not alone. The home furnishing chain’s mazy layouts are a psychological weapon to part shoppers from their cash, an expert in store design claims. The theory is that while following a zig-zag trail between displays of minimalist Swedish furniture, a disorientated Ikea customer feels compelled to pick up a few extra impulse purchases.”* The Scotsman goes even further and describes IKEA as a sinister ploy “confusing their customers into submission”.** Both articles are based on research done by Alan Penn of University College London who, as cited by The Scotsman, suspects conspiracy: “It is so well done and so cunningly done that I have little doubt that it is intentional.” From my own first visit to the IKEA I do remember a distinct sensation of being trapped, of being siphoned through a labyrinthine stage set and the fact that it is always immensely busy adds to the hallucinatory excitement in a Crowds and Power kind of way. But you get over it after a few times and the persistent portrayal of the IKEA as a place of deception, malice and evil intentions is actually as funny as it’s ridiculous when you think about it. Ikea would wish they could do half the things they are supposed to unleash on the unwary. That such outlandish claims can be made for a mere furniture shop does lead to one undisputable conclusion: IKEA stores are fascinating places.
In my understanding of its history psychogeography began in the 1950ties as a way to disprove and disrupt the architectural theories of high modernism that held that a rationalized city would inevitable produce an improved, rational, society. It’s an idealism that has not survived in its full form but it still lingers, mostly as negative inversions of the original. No mobster tyrants living today can believe that architecture can control human behaviour but the drummed-up fear for IKEA’s manipulation of its customers is uncritically taken at face value. The bottom line goes back to the underlying idea of modernism: you are made by your environment and free will is an architectural illusion. Wikipedia tells us that the effect IKEA bestows on its customers is called the Gruen transfer: “The moment when a consumer enters a shopping mall and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, loses track of their original intentions.”*** But I prefer to experience the IKEA with Arthur Rimbaud in mind: “The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet.“ This is the second reason why I wanted a job at IKEA: it would have provided me with the best vantage points from which to watch and study the way customers navigate the endless confusing path from entrance to exit as if on retrograde drugs. I would be the care worker talking people down from a bad shopping trip. But not without selling them a Billy bookcase first. Call it fieldwork, call it poetry in the best traditions of black romanticism, call it suffering for the greater good.
A year after my failed interview I met a drum’n’bass producer at a party who had the same job as the one I applied for. He had a Robby the Robot tattoo in his neck and he told me that he broke down in tears during his job interview but that he was hired anyway because “he showed promise”. He proceeded to tell me about the IKEA managerial cult where sheer incompetence was taken as a sign for unrealized potential. It sounded good fun to me, and I would liked to have entered the strange cultish world of IKEA and I would have done it like an anthropologist enters an isolated village in the Xingu. But it was not to be. In the end it didn’t matter because I found a better job and became a postman instead.