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).
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
Every year, Exeter Geography graduate and ex-followthethings.com intern Jemma Sherman gives her Dad a snow globe for Christmas. After taking our Geographies of Material Culture module the term before Christmas 2017, she made a new one. Here it is. And here’s what she wrote to him in his Christmas card… [actually it’s Jemma’s coursework. We really liked it].
Merry Christmas! I’m looking forward to getting home from Uni to see everyone again. For your present this year I’ve done something different – I hope you don’t mind! You see, I’ve been having these lectures which focus on the hidden lives within my commodities; the people who produce the components, assemble them and transport them. Our most recent task was to create an art-activist project on advent calendars. Art activism includes a “broad range of artists’ practices” (Grindon and Flood, 2014:10), highlighting social, political … and cultural struggles” (Darts, 2004:315). Flanagan (2009:3-4) says an artist is anyone who “creat[es] outside commercial establishments”, “making for making’s sake”. We discovered terrible things about the lives of those making these calendars, with children as young as twelve being exploited (Andrei, 2017). And this got me thinking about what else I get around Christmas time, which led me to our tradition. Well, your tradition really. I love it. Most years you get me a snow globe (if you can find one with a cute enough scene). I know that Carrier (2004:68) says “gifts within the core family are given without the expectation of equivalent in return”, but this year I wanted to give you one. You can open your present now – sorry, I’ve kind of ruined the surprise. There’re just a few instructions you need to follow (read first): 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.
There are two weeks to go before our latest pedagogical experiment begins: the free online course called ‘Who made my clothes?’ which we have put together with Fashion Revolution and the University of Exeter. To help to spread the word, CEO Ian will front a small number of ‘Who made my…?’ films which show how we can imagine and find traces of labour in everyday commodities. The first film is about mobile phones and ends with a request. Please try this out and let us know what happens. Then watch the others in this playlist.
Not sure if this is or is not the ‘norm’ but I just received my brand new iPhone here in the UK and once it had been activated on iTunes I found that the home screen (the screen you can personalise with a photo) already had a photo set against it !!!! (Source: markm49uk 2008, np link).
I hope she doesn’t get fired, she looks so bloody happy! I will dedicate my iPhone homescreen to her for the rest of this week (Source: vegasdodger 2008, np link).
markm49uk (2008) iPhone 3G – already with pictures ! (aka “iPhone Girl”). macrumors.com 20 August (https://forums.macrumors.com/threads/iphone-3g-already-with-pictures-aka-iphone-girl.547777/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
Cook, I. (2011) iPhone 3G – already with pictures! (aka ‘iPhone Girl’). followthethings.com (http://followthethings.com/iphonegirl.shtml last accessed 13 June 2017)
Cook, I. (2013) The 14 best examples of shop-dropping… ever. followtheblog.org 23 March (https://followtheblog.org/2013/03/22/paper-activism-in-store-in-things-on-things/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
Woolf, S. (2017) Dear iPhone Girl. followtheblog.org 11 February (https://followtheblog.org/2017/02/11/guest-blog-dear-iphone-girl/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
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.
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’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’.