Here is a selection of photographs documenting my live work Shirt (2013), performed over two weeks during the Creative Sparks Exhibition at Sheffield Hallam University (UK) in June 2013.
I have worked all my life.
I started washing dishes around the age of four, and then advanced on to other domestic work –dusting, vacuuming, mopping, cleaning the family car and making the tea. Around the age of seven, my parents decided to make this an economic exchange of labour, paying me 50p a week for completing my chores.
I learnt that in order to gain money, you have to sell your time.
Leaving school at sixteen to study art at sixth form college, I got my first paid job working in a local cash & carry, earning less than £3 an hour, 25 hours a week. Since then I have stacked shelves, poured drinks, counted money, typed numbers into computers, cleaned up various bodily fluids, placed stock orders, unblocked drains, prepared food, scrubbed floors, bossed other people about, emptied bins, changed barrels, washed dishes, answered telephones, changed bed sheets, fixed clothing, jet washed walls, argued with customers, cleaned toilets, organised books, and dealt with some really horrible managers.
The commodification of time and labour has an overwhelming influence on my art practice.
I work with stitched textiles, attracted to the tactile nature of the materials and the close relation with the human body – fabric is intimate and organic, it wraps our bodies and, like flesh, it decomposes. Domestic textile techniques are strongly linked to female cultural traditions, like food preparation and childcare. Judith K. Brown writes:
‘societies are able to draw on womanpower be cause their subsistence activities are compatible with simultaneous child watching. Such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration; they are easily interruptible and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; they do not require the participant to range very far from home.’1
This echoes the cultural assumption that manual activities are of less value than mental ones. So I engage in skilled manual labour, exploring the tension between laborious, repetitive actions and a state of meditative ‘flow’, responding to materials in an unconscious ‘feedback loop’, in what is described by Richard Sennett as ‘the special condition of being engaged.’2
The production of objects has become a secondary consideration as I have become more interested in the act of making; I consider the objects I produce to be residues of my actions. These concerns sit in a wider social, cultural and economic structure, drawing attention to the human practice of building identity through the objects they use, create and acquire. My work for this exhibition highlights the commodification of the objects with which we engage – divorcing ourselves from the means of production, devaluing the objects, and opening manufacturing processes up to labour abuse.
In Shirt – 2013, a live performance work that takes place over the two weeks of the MArt Creative Art Practice final year exhibition, I deconstruct a £4 ladies shirt (size 12) purchased from Primark and produce a copy of the garment, employing hand sewing techniques and using organic, fair trade and recycled materials. The parameters of the performance emulate an abstraction of the working conditions used in the manufacture of the original shirt.
1 Judith K. Brown, (1970) 'A Note on the Division of Labour by Sex', American Anthropologist (Vol. 72, No 5) p1073-1978. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1525/aa.l970.72.5.02a00070/asset/aa.1970.72.5.02a00070.pdf;jsessionid=69C94DBE3F147F3044D04E94405D97D2.d03t04?v=l&t=hgnv8e0g&s=92f3a2432a6b012edaa191c0b25a574b5ldeaala [Accessed on 29th April 2013]
2 Richard Sennett, (2009) The Craftsman, Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 20.