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
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 Revolution week this week. Today is the fourth anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in Savar, Bangladesh. We’ve been working closely with Fashion Revolution almost from the start, our CEO Ian being a member of its Global Coordination Team. followthethings.com brings to Fashion Revolution a keen interest in cultural activism, its creation, discussion and impacts, This week we will be sharing each day a form of cultural activism that has made significant contributions to the movement.
Today’s post shows how photographs from the Rana Plaza site in the hours and days after the collapse were used to engage consumers and shame brands and retailers who refused to acknowledge that their clothes were being made there at the time. In this 2014 TED talk, Bangladeshi documentary photographer Ismael Ferdous talks about those he took on the day and what he did with them when he took them to New York. Guerrilla Projection is the activist tactic. This is moving, inspiring, troubling work.
Samantha Corbin & Mark Read (2012) Tactic: Guerilla Projection. in Andrew Boyd (comp.) Beutiful trouble: a toolbox for revolution. New York: O/R, 52-53
Hannah Harris Green (2014) Photographer Ismail Ferdous On Documenting the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse. The Aerogram 15 May
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
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.
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).
This is one of the questions that drives our work at followthethings.com. We tend to find our answers – yes, no, maybe, depends, etc… – in the user-generated comments on video-sharing websites like YouTube and in the comments on newspaper reviews. We’re currently wading through thousands of comments on a 2015 ‘follow the fashion’ film called The True Cost, and came across this powerful video response. We’re giving a paper about the True Cost and fashion activism at a conference next month. There’s an argument in the literature that work like this makes prescriptive arguments about responsibility that are so infinitely demanding they can generate a sense of powerlessness in consumer audiences. This doesn’t seem to be the case, at least for this viewer. Watching this film was a powerful experience. For us, this kind of response changes the question that’s asked. Now it’s ‘how do ‘follow the things’ documentaries affect their audiences? What vocabulary can we develop to describe this? That’s what we’re working on.
Passengerfilms – a London-based ‘car crash of cinema and geography’ – invited Ian to suggest a film and panel discussants for a screening in February this year. He chose Sasha Friedlander’s documentary Where Heaven meets Hell in which audiences get to know four men who mine sulphur from inside a live volcano in Indonesia. A new followthethings.com page was published on the film and he recommended it again as part of the film programme for the Museum of Contemporary Commodities in Exeter. The screening is tonight. Is all sulphur mined in volcanoes? NO! Says London panellist Prof Gavin Bridge in this guest post. It is ‘mined’ in more surprising places…
Where Heaven Meets Hell conveys the aspirations, social relations and hard physical labour of a group of men who earn their living by prying chunks of sulphur free from the mouth of an Indonesian volcano. Viewers are drawn into a world of work one can scarcely imagine exists – a world of cloying smoke, hacking coughs, scarred muscles and bodyweight-loads hauled up over the volcano’s rim and down the mountain to be sold. The filmmaker, Sasha Friedlander, artfully works a trope familiar to other ‘revelatory’ commodity stories, exposing the social lives through which natural materials become objects of economic exchange. Continue reading
We’re involved in running a session at the Royal Geographical Society (Institute of British Geography) annual conference this summer whose aim is to bring academic fashion experts into dialogue with the Fashion Revolution movement. We’re asking how fashion research can contribute to what is becoming a worldwide movement for a more ethical / sustainable fashion industry in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013. We’re looking for academic research from any discipline that can contribute to Fashion Revolution’s five year planning. Here’s what we’re doing. Please get in touch with Ian, Lousie and/or Alex to discuss any ideas. The deadline for abstracts is Friday 12th February.
– Call for papers –
Scholar activism and the Fashion Revolution: ‘who made my clothes?’
The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex on April 24th 2013, which crushed to death over 1,000 people making clothes for Western brands, was a final straw, a call to arms, for significant change in the fashion industry. Since then, tens of thousands of people have taken to social media, to the streets, to their schools and halls of government to uncover the lives hidden in the clothes we wear. Businesses, consumers, governments, academics, NGOS and others working towards a safer, cleaner and more just future for the fashion industry have been galvanised.