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?
We’ve been working on one of 12 ‘Grand Challenges’ that the University of Exeter runs each year for first year students. The idea is that academic staff introduce first year students from across the university to the Grand Challenges of the 21st Century, through some hands-on learning and with the help of visiting experts (who students refer to as ‘real people’, in my experience).
Challenges this year include Climate Change, Global Security and Mental Health, and the one that we’re running is on Fashion ethics after the Rana Plaza collapse.
There are four ways to find out more, to get involved, and to follow us next week:
1) Our blog
All the background information we’ve put together to prepare for this challenge. The Rana Plaza collapse and its ripple effects, and how we’re trying to appreciate and work with these ripples in the space of Exeter’s Guildhall Shopping centre, where we’re be occupying 2 disused shops and its main square for 4 days next week.
It’s great to hear from former students who took the Exeter Geography module that creates so much of our site’s contents. A few weeks ago, we heard from Aidan Waller. He graduated in 2011, and worked as an intern when we were designing and ordering our shopping bags, and getting the site ready for its opening. He was in Thailand, doing some business, when following things came to mind. Here’s what Aidan wrote (published with his permission!).
Whilst travelling through the north of Thailand I stayed in the old capital of the north, Chiang Mai for a week. Whilst in the city I stumbled across a small back street shop with a big dayglo hand drawn sign saying “T-shirts 100 baht”. That caught my eye instantly, brilliant cheap T-shirts, I’d been looking for some for a while now and this place looked perfect.
This post began as a contribution to a special issue of the journal ACME on the new ‘impact’ agenda in British Higher Education. Our shopping bags and ‘ladybugging’ activities seemed to fit this bill, although their ‘impact’ wasn’t measurable (and that was the point). In the end, another short piece on impact was written for the journal. We have revised that original paper to post here, and hope it may be interesting for readers who are keen to use our site and/or bags in their teaching and wider ‘shopping’ activities.
Update September 2016: sorry, we have no bags left to give away. They’ve all gone. If you have one, it’s a priceless collector’s item. If you see someone carrying one, please say hi.
“We need to develop forms of critique that inspire hauntings, feed feelings, come alive, leap out and grab us, … that are not just about vital materiality but are themselves vitally material” (Cook & Woodyer 2012 p.238).
We have recently started working with the Scottish Development Educational Council (SCOTDEC) who have invited us to run a followthethings.com workshop at a ‘development education’ conference in Krakow this week. This is the first teacher conference in the ‘Changing habits for good’ project which brings together school teachers from Scotland, Poland, Slovenia and Bulgaria (for more, see the project outline below). We’re taking part via a videolink, and this is the blog post that will hopefull organise what happens. We’ve been asked to introduce our website and the wider project, including our ongoing ‘classroom’ project, and then to talk through some of the shopping bag activities we’ve posted on the Guerrilla Geography education website Mission:Explore.
This is followthethings.com
What is followthethings.com?
- It’s an online shopping website, if you understand ‘shopping’ to involve betraying the origins of things, like you might ‘shop’ a person to the police.
- It’s designed to have the look, feel and architecture of familiar online stores.
- It’s stocked with examples of art work, documentary film, journalism, activism, academic, student and other work revealing the lives of everyday things, i.e. the relations between their producers and consumers hidden by commodity fetishism.
- It shows how their makers tried to make these relations apparent, visible, tangible in ways that might move their audiences to act by trying to make them feel guilty, shocked, appreciative, awkward and/or involved in other people’s lives and work.
- It researches what its makers and viewers have said online about each example: what it aimed to do, how it was made, what discussions it provoked, and what impacts it had.
- It’s full of quotations that are arranged so that they read like a conversation, a conversation that can move from the computer screen into the classroom as teachers create lesson plans and schemes of work with its contents.
- It aims to inform and inspire new ‘follow the things’ work (by teachers, their students, as well as artists, filmmakers, journalists and others), which we hope to publish on the site too. Some examples of new work have already been published.
- It has become a popular website for teachers looking to engage their students in North-South relations via the geographies of commodities. So, we’re working on a new ‘classroom page’ to bright together materials and ideas already developed for this purpose.
First: let’s browse!
Click the homepage image above and you’ll get to the store. Get a sense of what’s available by browsing its departments. Where do you want to look? I’ll talk about any page you choose!
Second: a preview of our classroom page
Our site isn’t intended for any particular group of people.But we know that school teachers and their students are keen to use it. This is a page whose contents we’ve been working on for the past couple of months, with a teacher trainer, student teachers, an educational consultant, and undergraduate students. It’s not published yet, but will be by the end of this month.
Third: workshop activities
To get a sense of the educational materials and activities on this page that could imaginatively engage students in ‘development’ issues, we were hoping to give out some of our shopping bags (they didn’t arrive on time, unfortunately). We had these made in a factory in China that makes them for UK supermarkets. They are made by the same people, in the same way, to the same specifications. And we have produced a series of missions based on their lives and travels on the Guerrilla Geography education site Mission:Explore.
To get a vivid sense of Guerrilla Geography and Mission:Explore are all about, this video is excellent ( you don’t have to be a geographer to find this interesting!)
There are six shopping bag missions, starting with ‘get the bag’, and ending with ‘go ladybugging’! You can complete the series to win the ‘followthethings.com champion shopper’ badge, and you can borrow and adapt these missions for classroom, fieldwork or homework activities for your students.
We’ll go through the missions this afternoon, and then try one or two now (perhaps even setting one as homework). These aren’t impossible if you don’t have the bags. We will have to improvise! And feed back tomorrow morning…?
If you want to find out more, please comment on this post or email us at email@example.com . Thanks!
PS: ‘Changing habits for good’
This is a 3 year project funded through the European Commission’s programme for ‘Raising public awareness of development issues and promoting development education in the European Union’ (details here). It brings together a organizations in Scotland (SCOTDEC), Poland (Polish Green Network), Bulgaria (Creative Effective Grassroots Alternatives) and Slovenia (Institute for African Studies).
In this post, I want to briefly set out ways in which High School Geography teachers in the USA (and elsewhere) could use our site with their students. Why? Totally by coincidence. We’re visiting the Watson Institute at Brown University this week. Across the hall, a conference for High School Geography teachers is taking place that’s organised via Brown’s Choices program. When they found out that we were here and have been working this year on our classroom project – creating resources for UK school Geography teachers – I was asked to talk about this just before dinner today (for 10 minutes). This is the blog post that I’ll be showing on screen, combining what we’ve already done and what’s coming next in the followthethings.com project.
1. the main idea
This is explained in the short paper circulated at the conference. This was published in a journal produced by the Geographical Association – the professional association of Geography teachers in the UK – for High School Geography students and their teachers. The paper begins:
Many of us pay little or no attention to where the things in our lives come from. We may be concerned about factory conditions in other parts of the world, but not feel any direct sense of connec- tion with the people working there. ‘Made in…’ labels and ingredient infor- mation don’t tell us much about these connections and relationships. But they can be starting points for ‘geographi- cal detective work’ (Hartwick, 2000). This can allow teachers and students to piece together their understanding of commodities and their complex geographies, and provoke classroom discussion about the impacts of con- sumers’ decisions, which inevitably draw upon the key geographical concepts including:
globalisation – uneven development – interdependence – scale and connection –
proximity and distance – relational thinking – identity responsibility
This paper includes examples of student ‘follow it yourself’ research on socks, chewing gum and an iPod. You can download it here.
2. the website
This is the spoof online shopping site that opened in 2011. It contains over 60 examples of films, art work, and activism that aims to show consumers who makes our stuff, and to encourage us to discuss the rights and wrongs of globalisation and international trade. Each example has been thoroughly researched, and that research is showcased here. There are also examples of original student work, including the 3 examples in the paper quoted above. Please click the image to get to the site and browse…
3. the missions
The site isn’t made for teachers and their students. It’s made for anyone and everyone who makes this kind of work, or wants to teach with this kind of work. But its core ideas and content fits into the UK High School Geography curriculum in many ways. So we’re now working with Geography teachers and teacher-educators to develop and publish ideas and teaching resources for schools. The first of these was a series of missions on the Guerilla Geography site Mission:Explore. Its Explorers do missions, earn points and can win badges.
We have a series of six missions focused on the reusable followthethings.com shopping bags that we had made in China and are now giving away free to anyone who wants one (see our site’s Shopping Bag page here). The links for the missions are here (you don’t have to do the missions, some teachers just borrow and adapt the ideas):
These are the postcards that one trainee teacher asked her students to write based on Mission 3:
— followthethings.com (@followthethings) April 3, 2013
4. our classroom page
This is what we’re working in at the moment with educational consultant and soon-to-be-a-Geography-Teacher-again Alan Parkinson (see his excellent Living Geography blog here). We’re pooling resources in a soon-to-be published ‘classroom page’, which includes this searchable map (draft copy below).
5. get in touch!
About a year ago, we started to cut the ladybirds from our shopping bags and let them fly away to ask questions of other commodities in shopping and other spaces. Some of our first experiments were undertaken in Paris in March 2012. Click the slideshow photos for the captions:
@followthethings ladybirds love to spend time in Paris, and wanted to go there ever since they saw this video about a grafitti artist and his work there:
Swarms of @followthethings ladybird are expected to migrate to Paris in March this year…
we publish an article (never published) describing the site, its motivations, and its low key ‘opening ceremony’ in the Eden Project’s Humid Tropics Biome on October 2nd 2011.
‘What would you say to the person who picked the banana in your lunchbox?’
Ian Cook et al, Department of Geography, University of Exeter
This are just two of the touching personal messages written by Eden Project visitors during 2011’s Harvest Festival week. Three Exeter University students and I set up a stall by the smoothie stand in the Humid Tropics Biome. We talked to passers-by about the plants that they had seen that day. ‘Which ones had produced ingredients for your clothes, shoes, lunch, anything you have with you?’ ‘Imagine a person who had, for example, picked the cotton in your top, tapped the rubber in your shoes or packed the banana in your lunchbox.’ ‘What would you say to her or him, if you had the chance?’
Almost everyone stopped to talk to us. Many said that they hadn’t thought much about this before. We provided postcards and pencils, and people spent time talking with their friends and family about exactly what they should write. We collected the cards. At the end of the day, we had 160 heartfelt, friendly and sometimes humorous messages.
Among them were [click a photo to see the whole set]:
That spot among the banana trees, coffee bushes and sugar canes was great for getting people thinking and talking about the ways in which the travels of things connect the lives of people. What we tried to do there was part of a much larger project. It’s focused around a ‘shopping’ website called followthethings.com.
Created with colleagues and students from Exeter and Brown Universities, it’s a database of documentary films, art work, journalism and other writing that aim to show the ‘hidden lives’ in everyday things. It has the look, feel and organisation of a normal online store, with goods available from grocery, fashion, electrical and other departments. This is, however, another kind of shopping.
In the Grocery department, for example, you click on the bananas and end up watching a trailer for, and reading all about, a 2009 documentary film that followed a group of Central American banana workers as they took the Dole fruit company to court for using a banned pesticide that had allegedly made them sterile. It’s a gripping ‘David versus Goliath’ courtroom drama. They win. They lose. Who is right? Who is wrong? How do you prove or disprove a case like this? Dole’s lawyers tried to prevent the film being released. This stirred up a heated discussion about corporations’ attempts to censor films that are critical of their treatment of workers. The debate continues…
Dole spent considerable time, money, and energy trying to silence this Swedish documentary … Ultimately these efforts … proved a public relations disaster.
Also in Grocery, you could click on the packet of mixed nuts. That would take you to a 23 minute animated film called ‘The luckiest nut in the world’, first shown on Channel 4 TV in 2002. The nut trade is skewed because the production of US peanuts is subsidised while that of the world’s other nuts is not. An animated peanut tells the story, strumming his guitar and singing Country & Western songs about the inequities of global trade regulation. This has been shown to countless school pupils. Comments on YouTube show that many found this funny, and some admitted that they couldn’t help humming its song about the World Trade Organisation. It seemed to stick in their minds…
No longer stuffy, didactic or earnest, the new breed of documentary … is attracting audiences who would normally shy away from the genre.
Also in Grocery, you could click on the fresh papaya, and find an academic paper that I wrote in 2004 called ‘Follow the thing: papaya’. This is what ultimately brought me to the Eden Project’s humid tropics biome, encouraged me to put this website together, and sparked me to question what we might say to the people who make the things we buy. I did my PhD in the early 1990s when the range of tropical fruits on UK supermarket shelves was starting to expand. All of the papaya on these shelves were grown in Jamaica. So I spoke to supermarket executives and importers in the UK, and to government officials, farm managers, foremen, pickers and packers in Jamaica. I spent 6 months working on one farm, spending long hours talking with packing house workers, washing, grading, wrapping and boxing the fruit with them.
… geographers require new techniques to provide consumers with resources to imagine their location in commodityscapes…
The way that they helped to get thousands and thousands papayas, of uniform size, quality and price from farm to shelf was a complex and often fraught business. Nothing seemed to be straightforward. Nobody along this commodity chain seemed to have a detailed sense of how its various parts worked together. They kept asking me! Everyone admitted partial responsibility, but nobody ultimately responsibility, for the farm workers’ increasing poverty and hardship. This was supposed to be Jamaica’s post-sugar, post-plantation, post-colonial export agriculture. It was. But also it wasn’t. The past was alive and present in the ruined plantation buildings at the centre of the farm, and in the conflicts that occasionally erupted between pickers, packers and their bosses. Meanwhile, these fruits were being marketed in the UK as products of some tropical paradise, where the fruit just fell from the trees.
This experience convinced me that stories of lives and trade shouldn’t be over-simplified. There was no straightforward right or wrong, cause or effect, supply and demand, ‘do nothing’ or ‘do something’ story to tell. When I returned to the UK, I went back in to the supermarkets, and looked for the papayas picked, packed and shipped by the people I had met. They looked and felt very different to me, now. They had much more ‘life’ to them. So, I wondered, how could I encourage people who read my research papers to appreciate papaya – or any commodity for that matter – in the way that I had learned to appreciate them? How could I write about what I had learned in ways that might grab people, stick in their imaginations, provoke thought and discussion, have the same effect on them that it had had on me?
Researching with my students the 50-plus examples showcased on followthethings.com has begun to address these questions. The ways in which different examples try to encourage deeper appreciations of global trade via courtroom drama, cartoon humour, reality TV (have you seen ‘Blood, Sweat and Tshirts’? [not yet on the site]), fake websites advertising things that should but don’t exist (a ‘conflict free’ iPhone?), and many more, is fascinating and important. Now that there’s so much user generated content on the internet, the effects of this work on its audiences is much easier to appreciate. By putting in one place these examples and what’s been said about them, we hope that followthethings.com will inform and encourage discussions about trade justice in schools, universities, and plenty of other places, as well as informing and encouraging new following work not just by filmmakers, artists and academics, but by anyone with a computer and broadband connection. FIY: follow it yourself…
Ian is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter [more]. He took part in the Eden Project’s Harvest Festival events on Sunday 2nd October 2011 with students Jack Parkin, Maura Pavalow and Alice Goodbrook. A shorter version of this article was published on the Eden Project Blog on 9 October 2011: here.
Dr Ian Cook and his Geography students share ideas about their work on the hidden social relations between the producers and consumers of iPhones, money and other things.
Criticisms of the working conditions endured by Chinese factory workers assembling iPhones and iPads have reached a ‘tipping point’ in 2012. Front page feature stories in the New York Times and extended news stories on mainstream TV channels have brought to widespread public attention what trade justice activists have been campaigning about for years. Apple have responded by committing to more transparency in their operations, publishing a list of the companies that supply them, and promising to be more open about the results of ethical audits of supplier factories.
This tipping point has been the result of persistent NGO and media exposés but also of persistent and inventive forms of cultural activism: tasteless iPhone apps, Broadway monologues, spoof Apple websites and more which have helped to make this story stick in the public imagination, to tarnish Apple’s brand and to finally force the company to act.
In this Gown Meets Town event, we want to discuss a website that we have created to showcase these and many other examples of ‘commodity activism’: documentary films, art work, cartoons, journalism, web resources, academic and student work that follows everyday things, making connections between the lives of those who make and use them, trying to show that all everyday things have these lives in them, and thinking about the consequences of these connections. We want to discuss the relative merits of more ‘traditional’ forms of activism that try to engage people in trade justice campaigns through blame, shame and guilt, and the more playful, creative, bitter-sweet forms of cultural activism that aim to engage people in more positive ways. This is where our work on money comes in, and where we will discuss our ’Money talks’ exhibition at the Hub on the Green last December, where we created new forms of money-art-activism to think about the human stories in our cash, credit cards, and bank accounts.
What we want to discuss with those who come along are the ways in which forms of cultural activism can help to engage people of all ages, across formal and informal education settings, in often difficult discussions about what we can do to address the problems of trade injustice.
This session is free and open to all. The Global Centre can be found at Berkeley House on Dix’s Field, opposite the tourist Information Centre, next to the Southernhay United Reformed Church.
Notes to Editors
The Global Centre is an award-winning community centre committed to promoting cultural understanding through projects in Devon and around the world.
Contact details: Ghee Bowman at the Global Centre (01392 438811) or at home (01392 422216), firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, Global Centre http://www.globalcentredevon.org.uk/
Facebook page for the event: http://www.facebook.com/events/294676847255444/
The Gown Meets Town series has been running since November 2006, and has covered a wide variety of topics, from terrorism to Fairtrade, via feminism and Human Rights in Russia. The sessions bring together Exeter University and the wider county, and are an opportunity for postgraduate students and lecturers to work with a non-academic audience.
Ian is a cultural geographer and the designer and coordinator of followthethings.com, a spoof online shop, resource, database and fieldsite stocked with provocative ‘follow the thing‘ work by academics, students, filmmakers, artists, journalists and others. Ian left Teignmouth High School in 1983 to study at UCL, the University of Kentucky, and Bristol University, then worked at the University of Wales, Lampeter and Birmingham University, before returning to Devon to work in Geography at the University of Exeter in 2007.
Four Exeter University students will also be taking part in this event: undergraduate Geography students Eeva Kemppainen, Eleanor Bird and Tom Surr (all of whom have created new pages for the followthethings.com website and contributed work to the ‘Money talks’ exhibition), and Masters student Jack Parkin (who worked as a followthethings.com intern in the summer of 2011). Also attending will be Doreen Jakob, a Research Fellow on a ‘Craft geographies’ project who has started a yarn bombing group with followthethings.com materials.
Exeter students understand the financial crisis through ‘making money’.
Local people have been enjoying work by University of Exeter Geography students at an exhibition at The Hub on the Green this week. ‘Money Talks’ features artworks showing the human stories in our cash, credit cards, bank accounts and money markets.
These works were produced by University of Exeter Geography students who have been trying to understand the ongoing financial crisis and the Occupy activism that it has provoked around the world. They were inspired by the giant Monopoly set made by the artist Banksy for the Occupation site outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London. They were challenged to rethink, modify and design new kinds of money that could tell us about the lives of the people who had made, earned, spent, borrowed and traded it. They discussed these issues with people participating in Exeter’s Occupation on Cathedral Green. Their class met there, rather than on campus, throughout the project. This exhibition was the result of the conversations that took place.
One group of students asked people to write on the back of a five pound note what they had done to earn it. ‘Sell two copies of the Big Issue, which usually takes an afternoon’ wrote one. ‘My Dad gave it to me’, wrote another. Another made a stamp for visitors to print the question ‘Whose is this?’ on the banknotes in their wallets and purses. Another designed credit cards that would stop them from using them so often, covered with ‘health warnings’ like cigarette packets for example, and hung like baubles from the gallery’s Christmas tree. Another created a new online bank (http://bank.dotbill.co.uk/) based on the recent Justin Timberlake movie ‘In Time’.
Student Olivia Bailey, one of the online bank’s creators, said “We want visitors to go away, look at their statements and see much more than the numbers”. Charlotte Edwards, whose group designed the banknote stamp, explained, “We want it to act as a catalyst to debate alongside the Occupy movement, to encourage people to think about their money. Where’s it from? What’s it been spent on? Who will have it next? What’s the true worth of that money? And what’s it worth to you, its temporary owner?”
Their lecturer, Ian Cook said, ‘Working this way is much more exciting and relevant for all of us than hours of lectures where I’m supposed to be the only expert on these issues. Students have had to understand and imagine things differently, get out of our campus comfort zone, try to find new ways to talk to people about the financial crisis that we’re all experiencing, and work like artists. This is so much more than learning what you need to know to pass an exam! Huge thanks must go to Occupy Exeter and the Hub on the Green for being such generous hosts. This has been an important example of what can happen when ‘Gown meets Town.’
‘Money Talks’ opened at the Hub on the Green, 8 Cathedral Close, Exeter on Saturday 10th December, and is open to the public from 12.00-1.30 every day this week, except Thursday.
To find out more, see what visitors are saying, and join the conversation, please see our Facebook page here.
Photos by Ian Cook, Maura Pavalow & Tom Surr.