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.
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
This year we have been working with Dr Carolin Schurr in Switzerland. Her new ‘Follow the Thing: Studying Transcultural Markets’ course at the University of St Gallen ran in parallel to our ‘Geographies of Material Culture’ course at the University of Exeter. To showcase the awesomely critical, creative scholar-activist work that our students produce, this year we’ve published student guest blogs about gun sights, iPhones and paint. This post contains two pieces of work on palm oil by Carolin’s students Gianmarco Zorloni, Harpreet Perhar, Julian Krauth, Leonardo Ehnimb and Milan Kuzmanovic. We start with a short animated information film (expertly put together using Videoscribe software), followed by a script showing how ‘the thing with palm oil’ can enter conversation and affect behaviour, and finishing with the research report upon which this work is based. How can you respond to ‘follow the thing’ research that finds that thing in, more or less, everything?!
The information film
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.
Here’s another excellent example of journal writing from the Exeter Geography module behind our website. At the start of the module, we ask the students to add to their phone homescreens this photo of an Apple factory worker which, it seems, was accidentally left on an iPhone bought in 2009. The person who found this and four other photos posted them online and the quest to find out who she was, why photos of her were on that phone, and what would happen to her after they went pubic went viral (as documented on our followthethings.com page). We ask our students to keep her photo on their homescreens until the end of the module, for almost 4 months. What can happen to you when she looks at you every time you look at your phone, wherever you go? Sophie Woolf explains… to the person who became known as ‘iPhone Girl’.
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