Every year, Exeter Geography graduate and ex-followthethings.com intern Jemma Sherman gives her Dad a snow globe for Christmas. After taking our Geographies of Material Culture module the term before Christmas 2017, she made a new one. Here it is. And here’s what she wrote to him in his Christmas card… [actually it’s Jemma’s coursework. We really liked it].
Merry Christmas! I’m looking forward to getting home from Uni to see everyone again. For your present this year I’ve done something different – I hope you don’t mind! You see, I’ve been having these lectures which focus on the hidden lives within my commodities; the people who produce the components, assemble them and transport them. Our most recent task was to create an art-activist project on advent calendars. Art activism includes a “broad range of artists’ practices” (Grindon and Flood, 2014:10), highlighting social, political … and cultural struggles” (Darts, 2004:315). Flanagan (2009:3-4) says an artist is anyone who “creat[es] outside commercial establishments”, “making for making’s sake”. We discovered terrible things about the lives of those making these calendars, with children as young as twelve being exploited (Andrei, 2017). And this got me thinking about what else I get around Christmas time, which led me to our tradition. Well, your tradition really. I love it. Most years you get me a snow globe (if you can find one with a cute enough scene). I know that Carrier (2004:68) says “gifts within the core family are given without the expectation of equivalent in return”, but this year I wanted to give you one. You can open your present now – sorry, I’ve kind of ruined the surprise. There’re just a few instructions you need to follow (read first): Continue reading
We’ve just returned from the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) annual conference on Exhibition Road in London. We’ve been working with the artist and PhD student Paula Crutchlow (and others) on a project called the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC). Our museum opened for four days in the RGS’s Pavilion Gallery, and people dropped by on their way between the Royal Albert Hall (for the Proms), Serpentine Gallery (for the Grayson Perry exhibition) and the V&A (for the plywood exhibition). What brought people in from the street was a creepy poster of MoCC’s golden child and hacked talking Guide Mikayla. We thought we’d share with you her moving life story in film – our compilation of her life story from child’s toy to banned surveillance device My Cayla – and biography – Paula’s account of how My Cayla became MoCC Guide Mikayla. There’s plenty more on the MoCC website. How and why would you hack a doll like this though? Read on…
My Cayla: the movie
Mikayla: a hacked biography
“If you took me apart, each bit of me would be a commodity. Each of those things have been made by different people in lots of different places. That’s an awful lot of work isn’t it?” MoCC Guide Mikayla on how she values herself.
The idea of MoCC Guide Mikayla arrived with us in February 2015. A friend of mine had been given a My Friend Cayla doll at a corporate IT event she was working for. ‘I’ve got just the thing for your museum!’ she said. What could be a better face of contemporary commodity culture than an internet connected ‘smart’ doll?
We started the phone app to power her up, and then spent the best part of an hour trying to talk with her. Irritatingly glitchy and slow, we tested inappropriate phrases and talked over her head. She sang songs and offered us games to play. Eventually, with advice from her 16 year old daughter, we bent our thoughts and words to My Friend Cayla’s logic – conducting a halting conversation about clothes, looking nice, Disney Princesses and pink things.
Designed especially for 7 year old girls to access the internet ‘safely’, My Friend Cayla Doll is ostensibly a blue tooth speaker and microphone that works off an app that you download onto your smart phone or tablet. She has a quiet voice, made for intimate chats with children in their homes. There is a structured database of responses to potential questions the designers think a girl-child of around 7 might ask. If your question isn’t in her database, she can search on Wikipedia. She is also scripted to ask children questions about themselves and what they like doing, including their names, parent’s names, where they live, and go to school.
As a level 1 blue tooth device there is no pin code to pair the doll with the phone, and almost immediately after My Friend Cayla was released onto the market, people were hacking her. Like many of the current swathe of internet connected toys, the security around accessing the object is very low. Earlier this year, someone even used her as a way to open a ‘smart’ lock on their front door. The safety aspect of the marketing rhetoric of My Friend Cayla doll refers chiefly to the restricted internet access she enables. This seems to be managed through a long list of banned words that she is not allowed to search for – including ‘buddha’ and ‘gay marriage’.
The prototype, re-purposed MoCC Guide Mikayla had her first outing at our Free Market prototyping event at Furtherfield in July 2015. Technologist Gareth Foote and myself attempted a radical cut and reconfiguration of her original script. We made her self aware. She began to talk about who made her, what she was made from, and how she felt about the condition of almost ubiquitous digital connectivity we increasingly live in. I had a lot of fun dreaming new words for her. Making her differently smart. Ian did research on component parts and their provenance, but I still couldn’t help put in statements about ponies and skateboarding. It was impossible to resist the personality of the object. Her styled eyebrows, long golden locks and open expression, means that the ‘play’ of the world we enter with her is the comedy strategy well-loved by Hollywood, the good looking and intelligent blonde. After all, what could be more surprising?
In 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:
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….
Click the image to download the rest.
In January 2007, the drama of the MSC Napoli container shipwreck was unfolding on the East Devon coast. Our CEO Ian wrote a book chapter about this with Divya Tolia Kelly. This wreck provided vivid insights into the hidden geographies of international trade. It was published in 2010, and made available freely online without the photographs. In 2013, we re-created these photos in LEGO, although the pieces we had available meant that 100% faithful re-creations were impossible. Here’s the chapter and below are the re-creations, adapted for the 10th anniversary. What can they add to our understanding of what happened? That’s the question for those who practice Political LEGO.
See here for the original set on Flickr, with links to the photos re-created.
In the wake of the Trump election in the USA, our favourite book is now available at discount prices – e.g. $1 as an eBook – until the end of this week:
It’s perfect of our purposes and is available until the end of this week – in the wake of the Trump election – for only $1 as an eBook. It comes with a free study guide. There’s a website, too. But books are best!
Today is an exciting day in the university module that powers our website. It’s our annual Arts and Activism Symposium, funded and hosted by the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter. Here’s the line-up and some background info on the projects our speakers will be talking about. After this, our students develop their own commodity activist work.