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
What’s the role of labour rights NGOs in mediating relationships between brands, workers and governments? How do they make a difference to the lives and working conditions of the people who make our things? In this ‘Labour Behind the Label’ video, a labour union president from Bangladesh visiting the UK provides some answers…
Our CEO Ian went on a countryside walk earlier this year with colleagues in Exeter’s Geography Department. Their aim was to follow the flow of electricity by walking the route of a power line. Their social media posts about this journey prompted discussions about electricity and difficult-to-follow commodities. One was Peter Forman – from the Institute of Political Science, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen – who had just finished his PhD on natural gas. We asked him to share his experience of following a commodity whose materiality is especially challenging.
Natural gas can be thought of as natural in two senses of the word. First, it forms deep beneath the ground, independently of human action (as opposed to the manufactured gas that was used in the UK before 1970 – this gas was the product of hard labour, workers feeding iron retorts with coal), and second, it is naturalised. Whilst gas plays a crucial role in many people’s daily lives – we heat our homes with it, cook with it, and use it to warm water for bathing comfortably – most of us never give it much consideration. We come home from work, twist the tap on the hob, give it a press, then click! A spark. An eruption of yellow-blue flame. It is there, ready and waiting. It provides heat in an instant and is worthy of no further thought.
Yet in other ways, ‘natural gas’ is far from natural. Its presence beneath the earth is made knowable through a multitude of technologically complex devices, and it is only through the deployment of established knowledges, bodies and technological instruments that it is securely extracted, processed, pressurised, transported, and consumed. This is what Bridge (2004; 396) refers to when he describes how “a whole industry has emerged … dedicated to corralling the waywardness and variability of gas and rendering it a commodity compliant with the workings of the market”. Indeed, it is as a consequence of this dense assemblage that we can understand gas to not simply be there, ready and waiting. Far from it! For without the practices of these diverse actors, it would remain deep beneath our feet, trapped between layers of rock. As it travels (the direction and nature of which is likewise defined by said actors), it could also come to realise a series of what Dillon and Reid (2001) call ‘dimensions of dangerousness’. From it realising its flammability and explosiveness, to it causing significant societal disruption through the interruption of its supply, or it having severe ecological impacts of different kinds (for example, affecting global climate or contributing to marine crises such as in Puchuncavi, Chile – see Tironi et al. forthcoming), across its travels, natural gas can come to present a series of dangers that generate myriad attempts to perform security around it. Continue reading
It’s Fashion Revolution Week 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. On Tuesday, we showcased the gentle Shop-dropping activism of the Craftivist Collective. And yesterday we showcased the power of Disobedient Objects like Fashion Revolution Germany & BDDO’s €2 T-shirt vending machine.
Today’s post focuses on a strategic impact documentary called the True Cost. This aims to unravel fast fashion’s grim and gritty supply chains in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse. It juxtaposes scenes of fashion models strutting catwalks, YouTube shopping hauls, footage of Black Friday shopping chaos, TV news footage of garment workers sewing clothes in cramped factory spaces, talking head interviews with factory workers and owners, farmers, former corporate executives, academic experts, famous activists and ethical fashion royalty, brands working ethically, key people from NGOs like War on Want, and champions of free market economics.
What’s distinctive about the True Cost and the impacts that it has had is that it was crowd-funded, released via iTunes and Netflix, and tries to channel its audiences’ concerns to ‘do something’ through public screenings with panel discussions, its website and associated social media. This film enrolled its audiences from its crowd-funding forwards. It was a conversation, a collaborative ‘do something’, from the beginning. Despite its lack of mainstream funding or cinema listing, the making, reception and impacts of this film in relation to the Fashion Revolution have been nothing short of stunning. We’re posting this today because CEO Ian is on a True Cost panel in Portsmouth tonight. It’s a textbook example of the emerging genre of strategic impact documentary.
Judith Hefland & Anna Lee (2012) Put movies in the hands of movements. in Andrew Boyd (comp.) Beautiful trouble: a toolbox for revolution. New York: O/R, 164-5
Kate Nash & John Corner (2016) Strategic impact documentary: contexts or production and social intervention. European Journal of Communication 31(3) 227-242
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
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 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).
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.
‘Would people still love a bargain if we bought these issues closer to home?’
‘Money is the journey we send it on.’
It’s fairtrade fortnight, the time of year when companies and NGOs make the relations and responsibilities between the producers and consumers of everyday things mainstream news. In this post we highlight two contrasting videos in which these relations are a) brought close to home through the delivery of food and b) stretched out through investing money (perhaps the most fascinating commodity) in an ethical ISA. Watch and discuss…
Follow the produce: the home delivery service they weren’t expecting
Follow the money: the most rewarding cash ISA in the world