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), email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.