Centro canadese di architettura - Montreàl (Canada)

This week we are launching madskills: Self-Documenting Construction on Social Media, an exhibition and research project addressing the rising trend of self-documentation in construction work, which has led to a greater visibility of the industry, its workers, and their material culture.

As younger generations equipped with smartphones and internet savvy enter the construction industry, social media is becoming increasingly popular among contractors, operators, and tradespeople. They film themselves at work, their environment, the machinery they use, the skills they showcase, and the local construction techniques they employ, and share their observations on digital platforms like Instagram and TikTok. By doing this, they take control of how their work is perceived by others, giving their followers a behind-the-scenes look at construction sites and processes that are typically inaccessible to the public. These short clips are filled with pride, humour, showmanship, and concerns, and viewers often express their approval and respect with comments like “mad skills.” This content has gone viral in recent years and almost everyone scrolling on social media will have encountered it.

Can these instructive, performative, and often strangely satisfying videos shift the public perception of labour and workers in the building sector? Is it possible to control the image projected of one’s workplace by self-documenting its spaces and activities, despite the power of social media to dictate how that image is distributed? And can the constant scrutiny of the online community expressed in comments be leveraged to improve building standards and conditions for construction workers worldwide?

To contextualize these viral videos and the changes underlying their production and circulation, madskills, curated by Hester Keijser, CCA Curator of Photography and New Media, juxtaposes a cross-section of short clips with materials documenting the development of the modern construction industry from the CCA collection of photographs, including views by David Graham Powrie of Das Canoas House in Rio de Janeiro (1953–1954) and of the Palace of Agriculture in São Paulo (1953–1954) under construction; or Pierre Jeanneret’s views of construction workers in Chandigarh (1952–1966). Representations by architects, engineers, photographers, and artists often portray workers simply as labourers and not as individuals—if they are depicted at all. Alongside this documentary material, short interviews with construction workers relate their experiences and motives for sharing their offline work.

“The most important difference between an architect and a photographer making these videos is that construction workers can choose to document what they want to share about their work and how they portray themselves. I think there’s a natural match between social media and the construction industry, in the sense that there’s a performative aspect to construction, while Instagram and TikTok are very much about self-documenting and performing for a camera first and then an audience. In a way, the construction site is a stage, so it has this aspect of a performance space in which a worker or a machine can highlight a certain skill or outcome.” – Hester Keijser in Work Smart, Not Hard, a conversation with Luuk Smits, Charlie-Anne Côté, Emma Rath, and Victoria Addona, that we have published this week.

madskills is part of a longer, ongoing investigation at the CCA into the use of photography and new media to study the built environment. This new chapter on digitally produced content is framed as an open-ended research project engaging with questions on the agency of content creators, the concept of authorship on social networks, and the ethics of presenting and referencing such material.