Talk: keeping conversations going with Political LEGO

At the end of 2015, followthethings.com CEO Ian Cook gave a talk explaining why we re-create scenes described on our website it LEGO, what our shoppers like about them, and what they add to our scholar-activist work. That talk was filmed and you can watch it below. He talked through a series of re-creations made in response to the controversy provoked by a TV documentary film called ‘Primark on the rack’ that was first broadcast 2008, and re-energised by Primark’s response to the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. It draws upon the work of Political LEGO artists like legofesto, whose conversation with Julia Zielke we published a few months ago. Ian’s talk outlines the argument being made in an academic paper he’s currently writing. Think of this talk as its Trailer….

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MSc Napoli Shipwreck: 10 years on

wpfc3c9ee5_0fIn January 2007, the container ship MSC Napoli was run aground in rough seas off the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site in South West England. The unfolding drama of oil spillage, containers washing up on shore and their contents being salvaged near the village of Branscombe was international news. The wreck and its aftermaths was also researched in incredible detail by a well established local history group called the Branscombe Project whose members produced and exhibited original art work in response to it. Much has been written by journalists and academics about the Napoli, and artists (notably Melanie Jackson) have drawn it into their work.  But it’s the inside story that emerges from this local research is perhaps the most interesting. At the end of her often-given talk, Barbara Farquharson – formerly an academic archaeologist and anthropologist and member of the Branscombe Project – has said that:

“When you think about it, the creation of World Heritage Sites are part of a global phenomenon involving the creation of iconic places that are both physical and cultural. So in a curious way the beaching of the Napoli hits the cross-wire between global cultural and environmental and economic and political issues” (Farquharson 2009, np).

The Napoli wreck is a brilliant insight into the geographies of material culture, the out of sight geographies of trade, and ways in which art and social science can make sense of its complexities. So the Napoli at Branscombe is worth revisiting for anyone who’s fascinated by these issues. We end with a reading list:
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New garment factory doc: Machines

Watch out for this new film coming to UK cinemas in 2017.

Moving through the corridors and bowels of an enormous and disorientating structure, the camera takes the viewer on a descent down to a dehumanized place of physical labor and intense hardship. This gigantic textile factory in Gujarat, India might just as well be the decorum for a 21st century Dante’s Inferno. In his mind-provoking yet intimate portrayal, director Rahul Jain observes the life of the workers, the suffering and the environment they can hardly escape from. With strong visual language, memorable images and carefully selected interviews of the workers themselves, Jain tells a story of inequality, oppression and the huge divide between rich, poor and the perspectives of both (source).

Reviews and interviews

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Commodity activism in a transmedia world: our latest publication

There’s an academic publications page on our blog that gives a taste of, and provides access to, our research papers about the followthethings.com project. A book chapter has just been published in an open access e-book that brings together a series of lectures in Switzerland asking if and how social scientific research can transform society. Our answer is a qualified yes.

Cook et al, I. (2017) followthethings.com: analysing relations between the making, reception and impact of commodity activism in a transmedia world. in Ola Söderström, Laure Kloetzer & Hugues Jeannerat (eds) Innovations Sociales: Comment les Sciences Sociales contribuent à transformer la Société, MAPS: Université de Neuchâtel, 50-61 Full Text

What we are keen to find out are what filmmaking, artistic and activist tactics lead to what kinds of public and corporate responses, and with what kinds of impacts on whom. There is an established argument that, when this work is didactic and tries to enroll its audiences through blame, shame and guilt, it tends to fail. Audiences feel powerless, overwhelmed, apathetic, and angry at those making them feel this way rather that at the injustices exposed (Barnett 2010, Sandlin & Milam 2008, Cook & Woodyer 2012). Even the most cursory examination of our website suggests that the elements of, and relationships set out in, this argument are quite narrowly defined. To illustrate this, we offer below a taste of what’s to come from the analysis of the followthethings.com archive. We provisionally outline one engagement tactic, one kind of consumer response, one kind of corporate response, and one kind of impact.

Foolishness: the spaghetti harvest of 1957

Here at followthethings.com, we’re fascinated by pranks, hoaxes and spoofs that try to bring into conversation the often hidden relations between the makers and users of commodities. Our whole site is intended to do this. It’s April 1st today so we thought it would be appropriate to mark the 60th anniversary of “one of the first times the medium of television [was] used to stage an April Fools Day hoax” (BBC nd) and “the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled” (CNN nd). On April 1 1957, the annual spaghetti harvest of a family in Ticino, Switzerland was reported in the BBC’s current affairs Panorama series. It was a bumper crop. This spoof was based on an assumption that people in Britain had no idea what spaghetti was, what it was made from, or where it came from. It arrived in tins.

Behind the scenes…

“Panorama cameraman Charles de Jaeger dreamed up the story after remembering how teachers at his school in Austria teased his classmates for being so stupid that if they were told that spaghetti grew on trees, they would believe it. The editor of Panorama Michael Peacock told the BBC in 2014 how he gave de Jaeger a budget of £100 and sent him off. The report was made more believable through its voice-over by respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. Peacock said Dimbleby knew they were using his authority to make the joke work, and that Dimbleby loved the idea and went at it with relish. At the time, seven million of the 15.8 million homes (about 44%) in Britain had television receivers. Pasta was not an everyday food in 1950s Britain, and it was known mainly from tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce and considered by many to be an exotic delicacy. An estimated eight million people watched the programme on 1 April, and hundreds phoned in the following day to question the authenticity of the story or ask for more information about spaghetti cultivation and how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”.” (Source: Wikipedia nd).

Guest blog: what is the thing with palm oil?

This year we have been working with Dr Carolin Schurr in Switzerland. Her new ‘Follow the Thing: Studying Transcultural Markets’ course at the University of St Gallen ran in parallel to our ‘Geographies of Material Culture’ course at the University of Exeter. To showcase the awesomely critical, creative scholar-activist work that our students produce, this year we’ve published student guest blogs about gun sights,  iPhones and paint. This post contains two pieces of work on palm oil by Carolin’s students Gianmarco Zorloni, Harpreet Perhar, Julian Krauth, Leonardo Ehnimb and Milan Kuzmanovic. We start with a short animated information film (expertly put together using Videoscribe software), followed by a script showing how ‘the thing with palm oil’ can enter conversation and affect behaviour, and finishing with the research report upon which this work is based. How can you respond to ‘follow the thing’ research that finds that thing in, more or less, everything?! 

The information film

The script

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Advice from Emma Watson: ‘always follow the thing’

We know from our research that the involvement of celebrities in activist campaigns raises their media profiles and impacts. We have been hoping that our ‘follow the things’ project would one day attract a celebrity to get behind what we’re doing, encourage others to do what we do. Yesterday we found what we were looking for. Emma Watson was exchanging advice for $2 in New York’s Grand Central Station. We’ve skipped to the part in the video when she’s responding to one young man’s question. If you take her advice entirely out of content, she’s giving us an endorsement. Her character Hermione Grainger has inspired activist members of the Harry Potter Alliance. Now she inspires us. The way she says our words is wonderful. Thank you Emma. 

Guest comic – Painting the way for change

Here’s yet another strange and wonderful piece of work from the Exeter Geography module behind our website. It’s Rebecca Jones’ cartoon strip in which she tries to humanise paint and its commodity relations, health, safety and ethics. It starts like a talk by a young woman, but other speakers soon appear….

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Click the image to download the rest.