Garment Work: unpicking the global garment industry

Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Garment Work unpicks the denim trade

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Garment Work, 2010, photo: Elizabeth White

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Garment Work, 2010, photo: Elizabeth White

The current resurgence of craft and hand making — especially among a new and often self-taught generation of makers — is often theorized as a contemporary reaction to (indeed as an act of resistance against) the forces of economic globalization, mass-production, and consumption. But as Julia Bryan-Wilson astutely observes, the relationship between craft and mass-production is much more complicated, for craft ‘is also a thriving enterprise that exists within a larger geopolitical context of mass production’ (2011 p.73). While craft is an artistic practice, it is also ‘dominated by women making consumer objects in factories in China and elsewhere’ (ibid). Bryan-Wilson’s points help shed light on the complexities of hand crafting in the larger context of economic globalization. Consider for example, that all of Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and iPods are assembled exclusively by hand in Chinese factories, raising compelling questions about the distinctions between the hand crafted object and the mass-produced one, and about the value of hand work itself. Do we truly appreciate the toll this method of assembly takes? The hands that craft these objects belong to a person — to a factory worker — thousands of whom suffer serious, debilitating, and preventable injuries sustained performing the endless repetitive gestures required to produce them.

The ongoing project Garment Work by artist and writer Anne Elizabeth Moore considers these questions in the context of the global garment industry. In Garment Work, Moore methodically takes a pair of mass-manufactured jeans apart by hand, and in the process exposes the harsh labor conditions under which textile workers toil to produce the garments we purchase.

It is estimated that during the manufacturing process, each individual pair of jeans can be touched by as many as 60 pairs of hands that guide it through the various production stages: cutting cloth, sewing seams and hems, adding pockets, belt loops, buttonholes, labels and grommets. Moore deconstructs this process, taking the jeans apart until nothing is left of them but neatly organized piles of threads. Using one’s hands to tear apart industrial-machine stitched seams is a strenuous job, and in so doing, Moore calls attention to the labor required to produce the jeans, and by extension, to the appalling labor practices that dominate the global garment manufacturing industry: relentlessly long hours, low pay, risk of injury, exposure to toxic chemicals, lack of benefits and healthcare, precarity, harassment, and the absence of collective bargaining rights. Garment Work — with its emphasis on the artist’s labor — examines the abusive working conditions in the factories that produce the majority of the world’s garments, and connects them back to the American retail outlets that sell them.

Moore first performed Garment Work in 2010 during an artist residency at the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei in Leipzig, Germany, formerly one of the largest textile mills in the world. East German textile manufacturing shifted overseas following German reunification in 1989, when the state subsidies upon which the industry was dependent were cut — leaving it vulnerable to global economic forces — and abetted by international trade agreements designed to facilitate the entry of Third World countries into the garment industry. Moore’s taking a pair of jeans apart served as a metaphor for the destruction of East Germany’s textile industry but also, to embody current working conditions in the global textile industry — conditions once endured by workers at the Baumwollspinnerei.

More recently, Garment Work exposed working conditions for women garment workers in Cambodia, where Moore spent time as a Fulbright scholar, artist and writer. Her ongoing collaborations with Cambodian garment workers — Cambodia is home to over 350 000 of them — provided the raw material, so to speak, for the performance of Garment Work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2011. This iteration of the project examined working conditions at H&M — the second largest clothing retailer in the world — by taking apart a pair of H&M jeans, manufactured in Cambodia and purchased by Moore at H&M’s flagship Chicago store, located around the corner from the MCA. Garment Work exposed the links between difficult working conditions in the Cambodian factories that manufacture clothing for H&M, and those endured by workers in its retail stores here in the USA.

Garment Work at the MCA was participatory, with members of the public invited to join Moore in taking the jeans apart. Viewers would sit around a table as they picked the cloth apart, all the while discussing abusive labor practices in the garment industry and at H&M in particular. Many visitors to the MCA often shop along Michigan avenue before or after their museum visits, and Garment Work brought people together to reflect upon the working conditions in the garment industry both here at home and abroad. Poignantly, a group of former H&M workers discovered and subsequently participated in Garment Work on a visit to the MCA. They had resigned en-masse to protest abusive working conditions at the nearby H&M store: understaffing, low pay, long hours, and lack of benefits.

Garment Work is performed — whether individually by the artist, or collectively with viewer participation — by hand. The hand is central to the garment’s manufacturing process, as well as to that of taking the jeans apart. While mass-manufacturing and artistic crafting (considered here in the form of unraveling and unpicking) are vastly different processes that unfold in dramatically different contexts, Garment Work reveals the overlap between them. Through the act of unmaking, Moore draws our attention complexities of production and consumption; in so doing, she asks us to value the labor of the workers who make and sell the garments we buy, and to make informed decisions about the products we consume.

Citation: Julia Bryan-Wilson, Sewing Notions, Artforum vol.49, no.6, February 2011, pp.73-74.

A 10 minute edited version of Garment Work can be seen here.

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About Lisa Vinebaum

Lisa Vinebaum is an interdisciplinary artist, critical writer, curator and educator. She is an Assistant Professor in the department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She holds a PhD in Art from Goldsmiths, University of London (UK), an MA in Textiles also from Goldsmiths, and a BFA in Fibres from Concordia University in Montreal. Prior to joining SAIC, she was Visiting Lecturer in Textiles at Goldsmiths (2003 - 2006), and a part-time faculty member in the department of Studio Art (Fibres and MFA Studio Art) at Concordia University in Montreal (2009 - 2011). Lisa Vinebaum’s current research, writing and artistic investigations explore contemporary fiber art projects that mobilize labor, performance and collectivity in the larger context of economic globalization, the unraveling of worker’s rights, and modes of resistance. Ongoing projects include a series of site-specific performances dealing with labor histories in the garment industries, with upcoming performances and conference presentations in Chicago (Sprouting Off: the performance lecture, SAIC) Montreal (“New Demands” - in conjunction with Articule Gallery), “Assembly” (Open Engagement: Art and Social Practice, Portland OR), “Performing Globalization” (Psi 18, Leeds, UK), and “Material Matters: The Politics of Making and Materials (Textiles and Politics – Textile Society of America Symposium).

5 thoughts on “Garment Work: unpicking the global garment industry

  1. The conditions of chinese factory workers making blue jeans are atrocious .check out the documentry “china blue”. I do my best to make most my clothes and support local artists. Get Creative and find another way!

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  4. Dear webmaster, thank you for writing that article on Garment industry. I had a good time while reading this. I wish you all the best, Nuria!

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