We love the work of Dutch artist Christien Meindertsma, and have drawn on her work to explain what the ‘follow the thing’ approach is all about, and how to do it well on our Classroom Resources page. We were reminded of her work today in a seminar in the Exeter Geography series by Ray Chan called “Capitalist pigs: politics of meat production and animal diseases in China.” We’re posting her 2010 TED talk today because it’s awesome. Enjoy!
I think that, in order to take better care of what’s behind our products — so, the livestock, the crops, the plants, the non-renewable materials, but also the people that produce these products — the first step would actually be to know that they are there.Christian Meindertsma 2010 | TED Talk
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’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?
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
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.