In the summer of 2020, Geographies of Material Culture, the undergraduate module behind our website, was totally reorganised for online teaching and learning. As detailed in our recent post announcing the launch of its public archive, it brought together 10 ‘follow the thing’ films and 10 followthethings.com pages about their making, discussion and impacts.
This module was also redesigned – from the selection and sequence of these films to the content and appearance of its website – to try to decolonise its pedagogy. Over the past couple of years a brilliant decolonising network has taken shape at our university with all kinds of exciting initiatives involving staff and students all over the place. The changes made to our module were informed and inspired by this wider movement. Some were generic strategies for decolonising a module and others were more tailored to the module, its materials and its aims. Module leader and followthethings.com ‘CEO’ Ian has been trying to channel his white privilege through anti-racist education for over 20 years now (see this from 2000). But this felt like a step change for his research and teaching about the ‘follow the things’ genre of commodity activism which simply asks ‘Who made my stuff?’
If you check the module’s public archive, you will see how the following decolonising strategies helped to shape it. There were five aims:
- to disrupt the ‘white saviour complex’ of ‘guilty’ Northern (white) consumers wanting only to shop more ‘ethically to help exploited (POC) workers by trying to shift responses to ‘who made my stuff’ filmmaking ‘from guilt to solidarity’ (Young 2003).
For the past six weeks, Exeter Geography graduate Natalie Cleverly has been working as a nicely paid intern on the ‘follow the things’ project. She took the Geographies of Material Culture module that’s generated our site since 2008, but in its new 2020-21 online iteration. And, this summer, she read every ‘compilation’ page on our website, looking for timely events about each page to post on our Twitter and Instagram because they happened ‘on this day’. As Natalie was finishing up, we asked her what it had been like to read the whole site. We don’t know anyone else who has done this! What do you learn? What’s been happening to ‘follow the things’ activism since we first opened our store ten years ago? Here are her thoughts.
Last September, I began the Material Cultures module at Exeter University. Since I’d chosen the module five months prior, the world had turned so upside down and inside out that I’d forgotten what I’d even signed up for. But I was fascinated. Particularly by followthethings.com itself. It wasn’t like any research project I had seen before. I reached out to Ian – who ran the module and the website – ‘Is there any way I can help?’.
And here we are. I’m not a followthethings.com expert, but after reading through 70+ pages of the website (almost the whole thing!) I’ve gained a good insight. So, what did I take away from sifting through all these years of content around activism / filmmaking / grassroots organising / following-the-thing?
A lot.Continue reading
This post is by Talisker Alcobia Cornford, a student who took the Exeter University Geography module that is behind our website last term. At the start of the module, everyone to choose an everyday commodity, zero in on one or more of its ingredients, search online for human and other stories of its making, and then experiment with forms of cultural activism to make these relations public. It’s often more interesting to choose something we have absolutely no idea about, no preconceptions about, like something whose ingredients are chemicals, with names we don’t recognise, listed in tiny writing that’s hard to read, especially when we use them bleary-eyed, first thing in the morning. Like toothpaste. Whose lives are in these kinds of things? Once Talisker finds out, why isn’t her response to shop for a different brand? Why’s she making these spoof ads? Who does she want to see them? Where?
Every morning I clean my teeth, pick up my toothbrush, squeeze injustice onto the bristles and brush, blissfully unaware that my daily routine is part of a wider routine of injustice. The complex network of interrelations branching from my sink is unimaginable, all congregating to produce a tube of Colgate toothpaste. The irony is, the product that is supposed to make my teeth sparkly clean, is riddled with dirty secrets. My 5 minutes of brushing twice a day is a lifetime of suffering for supply chain workers.Continue reading
The pages on the followthethings.com begin as coursework set for groups of students taking a Geographies of Material Culture module at the University of Exeter. They also their own experiments of cultural activism, and write personal reflective journals on what they learn. Kate Brockie’s group were tasked to find a way to draw public attention to the work of mineral justice NGO Global Witness through cultural activism. They chose a talc mining report to work with. Sarah Ditty, the policy director for the Fashion Revolution movement, had kicked off that part of the talk. How could the work of Global Witness and Fashion revolution be connected? Kate scoured the internet, took out her sewing machine, and made her case.
Global Witness’s investigations into the ways in which talc mining finances insurgency in Afghanistan shocked me. How could products as harmlessly trivial as eye shadow be fuelling terrorism, disrupting the lives of thousands of civilians (Global Witness 2018)? The Global Witness campaign gave me an unsettling feeling of being entangled in global webs of exploitation, wondering whether everything else I use throughout my day contributes to some kind of injustice. Continue reading
We like to showcase original student writing on our blog. CEO Ian talks to students about Disobedient Objects on Exeter University’s MRes in Critical Human Geographies. This was student Mara Murlebach’s response. She’s in Bonn. In 2016. Part of the Right to the City movement. Where sandwiches played a part…
Type ‘disobedient sandwich’ into the google search, and your screen will be populated with images of sandwiches whose fillings were dripping, drooping and falling out – some in a rather pleasant way (melted cheese), others not so much (lumpy salad). Disobedient sandwiches are rowdy. They do not behave.
Last week CEO Ian was a panelist at the last ESRC-funded seminar series on Ethics in Consumption: Interdisciplinary Perspectives at Birkbeck, University of London. The main speakers were Jonathan Porritt and Danny Miller, and the panel included Kate Soper, Jo Littler, Frank Trentmann and Terry Newholm. Drawing on Louise Ashcroft’s artist in residence (self invited) work at London’s Westfield Shopping Mall, Ian’s contribution to the panel involved reading out one of the cards from Louise’s Mallopoly game. His point – that debates about research-inspired change need to involve more-than-rational argumentation. And that Louise’s work should be required reading. Starting with this interview about her residency’s retail poisoning in We Make Money Not Art. Enjoy!
In January 2017, artist Louise Ashcroft invited herself to be an artist in residency at Westfield Shopping Centre. That’s the mega mall in Stratford, East London. Its retail area is as big as 30 football pitches (says wikipedia), it has famous chains of fast fashion & fast food, screens budget-bloated blockbusters, rents kiddy cars and boasts some seriously boring ‘public’ artworks. Because there’s nothing remotely boring, mass manufactured nor glittery about her work (and also because she is quietly plotting the demise of capitalism), Ashcroft spent her time there undercover, pretending she was only looking for a bit of shopping fun.
The artist will present the result of her stealth research this week at arebyte in Hackney Wick, a five-minute walk from Westfield. Some of the works she developed at the shopping mall include a transposition of words from slogan fashion T-shirts on traditional narrow boat signs, offers to exchange ‘happy’ meals toys with more ‘soulful’ artist-designed toys, seditious retail therapy sessions, bookable tours of Westfield where she will guide participants through playful (pseudo)psychoanalytical activities, ‘mallopoly’ cards that invite shoppers to use the mall and its contents as a material, etc. Oh! and, since the Westfield area is the home of grime she also compiled words from Argos shopping catalogues into a cut-up text and grime artist Maxsta recorded it as a track.
This is not Ashcroft’s first incursion into the magical world of retail poisoning. She regularly smuggles unfamiliar-looking African vegetables into supermarkets and then throws the store in disarray when she attempts to buy them (Vegetable, 2003-17.) …
Regine (2014) Retail poisoning: a disruption of materialism. We Make Money Not Art, 19 November
PS Louise’s website is here.
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?
Good news. On Monday, CEO Ian was awarded the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) ‘Taylor and Francis Award for Excellence in the Promotion and Practice of Teaching and Learning of Geography in Higher Education’. He was nominated for the whole ‘follow the thing’ appreciation of the the social relations of trade and its application across school, university and wider public pedagogies. The ‘et al’ in his name signifies his permanent, heartfelt appreciation of everyone involved in the project over the years, and those who may join it in the future. As he explains:
“I am very happy and humbled to be given this award. My research began in the classroom where I miserably failed to encourage students to be interested in what was happening in other parts of the world. I was desperate to find a way to show how their lives were connected to those of the people and places we were studying. Finding out how some of our things are made, in some of those places, was the answer and that’s how the ‘follow the thing’ idea originated in Kentucky in the late 1980s. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed developing ways to help students follow their own things, to think empathetically about their relations and responsibilities to others in the process, and to play, have fun, make mischief, be activist with their findings. I’ve learned as much as I have taught as we have done this together. I’ve been constantly surprised by what I have learned from the students who have taken my modules and worked as interns on the followthethings.com project. Being ourselves is a massively collaborative effort. I truly appreciate everyone’s contributions.”
This work continues -> next we’re working on our ‘follow the things’ Subvertisement project in Finland with Eeva Kempainnen – researching and adding 10 new pages to our website – running our free Fashion Revolution ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ course that starts on 26th July, and opening the Museum of Contemporary Commodities at the RGS(IBG)’s Pavilion Gallery on London’s Exhibition Road from 24th – 27th August. Please join us.
Fashion Revolution week finished yesterday. It’s call to arms is the question ‘Who made my clothes?’ Here’s how you get involved, do this yourself.
On June 26th, there will be another way to find out ‘Who made my clothes?’: that’s when a free 3 week online course led by our CEO Ian begins. Here’s the trailer. You can sign up here.
It’s Fashion RevolutionWeek this week. To mark this, we’re showcasing our favourite examples of cultural activism which have supported its #whomademyclothes call to action. On Monday, we showcased the Guerrilla Projections of documentary photographer Ismael Ferdous. Yesterday we showcased the gentle Shop-dropping activism of the Craftivist Collective.
Today’s post shows how disobedient objects can contribute to the Fashion Revolution. In this case, Fashion Revolution Germany and BDDO took a shopping experience with which people are familiar- inserting money to buy something from a vending machine – and introduced information about who made these things at the point of sale.
What happens when people are asked to think about this then? That was the experiment. Buy, boycott, donate? What would you do? How is your choice structured? The debate was lively. This video was the viral hit of Fashion Revolution 2015.
Olivia Boertje, Jo Ryley, Alec James, Tori Carter, Becky Watts and Rachel Osborne (2016) The 2 Euro T-Shirt – A Social Experiment. followthethings.com
Catherine Flood & Gavin Grindon (2014) Disobedient objects. London: V&A Publishing