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).

Made in Haiti: “free” trade versus fair trade

Tailor Jonas La Base with the project’s first completed garment, Port-au-Prince, 2009; photo credit Carole Frances Lung

Tailor Jonas La Base with the project’s first completed garment, Port-au-Prince, 2009; photo credit Carole Frances Lung

Free trade and the expansion of Haiti’s garment manufacturing industry are being promoted as a vehicle for economic development in the Western hemisphere’s poorest country. Free trade, it is argued by lawmakers and corporations, produces a trickle-down effect: the creation of apparel manufacturing jobs will ease poverty and unemployment, improve living conditions, and even promote democracy and ease political disenfranchisement. Increasing corporate profits is seamlessly aligned with political and socio-economic development objectives.

These claims are contingent on the degradation of the term “free” in the context of the free market (Rogoff 2010), and on skewed understandings of “local” manufacturing. The term free trade suggests the free and unfettered movement of goods across international borders. Yet in reality, “free” trade is strictly and minutely regulated by a complex network of regional and international trade agreements. For example, trade preference levels govern duty-free benefits on apparel manufactured in specific countries, and can impose benefits or penalties worth millions of dollars at a time. Further, duty-free treatment for Haitian-made apparel is granted under very strict stipulations that are calculated based on, for example, the cost and origin of the fabric used to assemble the garments, and the country from which the garments are directly imported. As well, international quotas govern tariff designations worldwide, so that apparel manufactured in Haiti is granted duty-free status at the expense of apparel manufactured in another developing country. As Jane Collins observes, “To call these labyrinthine measures ‘free trade’ is to stretch the meaning of the term beyond recognition” (2003 p.52).

For Yannick Etienne, director of the Haitian workers rights’ organization Batay Ouvriye, “this model of development with free trade zones as its backbone for creating jobs is a failure. It creates wealth for the foreign investors and local factory owners but more misery for the workers” (Erkert Depp 2010). Garment workers in workers in CODEVI — Haiti’s only fully operational free-trade zone — earn less than many other Haitian workers because minimum wage laws don’t apply there. Free trade may spur job creation, however, those jobs remain low waged and precarious at the local level. Because the key actors in the global apparel industry are multinational corporations, they have no long-term commitment to the places where they operate — and so production and job creation remain mobile. While Haiti’s garment sector doubled to 25,000 workers between 2006 and 2009, it contracted overall from 100,000 employees in previous years, with those jobs having moved overseas to Asia.

The project Made in Haiti, initiated by artist Carole Frances Lung in 2009 and continuing today, also seeks to create jobs for garment workers in Haiti. MIH operates at a much smaller scale and on a more local level than do the multinational corporations currently operating in Haiti. Lung is a former garment worker whose art practice exposes the abuses of the global apparel industry through collaborative projects that harness sewing, skills sharing, and collaboration. Made in Haiti privileges a fair trade model for Haitian garment workers, investing in long-term relationships with Haitian workers, paying fair wages, and engaging in ethical modes of production.

The first iteration of Made in Haiti took place during the first Ghetto Biennale, held in Port-au-Prince in 2009. Lung collaborated with local tailors who used repurposed “pepe” or second hand clothing imported from the USA to create a small collection of garments and accessories, sold locally in Port-au-Prince and later, the USA. The Haitian tailors were paid a fair wage for their labor, and their creations sell on Etsy, at galleries and pop up shops in the USA, and at a dedicated shop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. MIH was exhibited at the second Ghetto Biennale in 2011 as a pop up shop in Port-au-Prince. Currently, MIH works with a lead tailor, Jonas La Base (who brings in other workers to help him as needed), a translator, Junior Casseus, and two to three t-shirt embellishers. It recently completed a large order for artist Theaster Gates, and regularly exhibits at pop up shops around Los Angeles. MIH is in the process of recruiting investors and developing a larger product launch.

Made in Haiti promotes sustainable, local manufacturing as a viable alternative to free trade zones and the low-waged, precarious, and fleeting employment opportunities they offer workers in developing countries. As Collins (2003) notes, when garment workers enter into production, they bring along their own ideas of what is fair. Unlike the free trade model explored earlier, Made in Haiti supports local economic development and job creation in Haiti by tailoring its modes of production to local imperatives, rather than the other way around. MIH provides Haitian workers with a fair wage for their labor, together with agency in the production process. MIH invests in the local Haitian economy by ensuring that profits are channeled back to the workers who produced the garments in the first place. Fair labor practices provide the foundation for successful fair trade relations. As the Made in Haiti label proudly states: “100% Good for Garment Workers”.

Made in Haiti is one of a growing number of art projects that mobilize craft techniques — here, sewing — to resist late capitalist, post-Fordist modes of production. Antonio Gramsci, writing about the process of industrialization in the USA between the two world wars, notes a struggle that pitted “craft rights” against “industrial liberties”, as industrialists attempted to curb the labor unions that represented “the rights of qualified crafts” (1971, p.286). Gramsci’s notion of “craft rights”, continues to be relevant in the context of economic globalization and deregulation in the garment industry today, for it implies an understanding of “craft” and “rights” as implicitly linked to workers’ well being. The right to a fair wage and an adequate standard of living have yet to be achieved in the context of the industrial piecework system that dominates the global apparel industry. Made in Haiti provides an example of how “craft rights” — skilled and well-remunerated forms of labor — can replace the abuses of piecework. MIH also demonstrates that fair trade, not free trade, will spur true economic development in Haiti.


Works cited

  • Collins, Jane L., Threads: Gender, Labor and Power in the Global Garment Industry. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Erkert Depp, Alexis, “Made in Haiti: A Good Thing?” Washington Memo, November 2, 2010
  • Gramsci, Antonio, and Hoare, Quintin and Nowell Smith, Geoffrey, Eds., Selections From the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers Company, 1971
  • Rogoff, Irit, “Free”, e-flux journal #14 March 2010

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.