Green Papaya


I spent 9 hours at Green Papaya finishing my installation: Produced by Marina Perez-Wong, Ramie J. Jiloco, Jose Reyes Jr., Jaime Antanacio for Megan Wilson.

Thinking about labor practices, I hired 4 painters to create signs that said "Produced by [their name] for Megan Wilson. The only stipulations were that they would paint this phrase of origin on each sign, create a flower design (Marina used a combination of my flower designs and hers), and use the color palette I had selected. I paid each of them a living wage for their work, rather than minimum wage or what I "could get."

(photo by Eliza Barrios)

During the opening, Ramie (Apeed), Jose (Boy), and I painted throughout the event. Through this project, I was interested in bringing visibility to the workers behind the labor/objects they produce and paying them a living wage for that work.

(photo by Eliza Barrios)

Some background to this project and thoughts I had while developing it:
Recently, I have surprised myself by thinking of Abstract Expressionism when I hear of sweatshops. The environmental movement has long asked us to think of every material object we encounter as just stopping in to visit us midway on a long journey. We are asked to take the origins and ultimate destination of the object into consideration: Thus, when filling a tank, we might think of the gasoline's origins under Alaska or Iran and of the carbon dioxide and other elements that the burned gasoline will add to the earth's atmosphere. It can be a rich and invigorating way to think of objects, when the objects don't speak of devastation, and artists - Joseph Beuys, Wolfgang Laib, and Ann Hamilton, among others - have made art whose resonance comes in part from the meaning of the materials. Environmentalists have focused on nastier stuff: phonebooks made of pristine British Columbia forests or deadly methyl bromide spread around strawberry fields. Indeed, the recent campaign against the use of methyl bromide was different from most earlier environmental campaigns (like those against Alar or DDT), in that it focuses on the consequences of the chemical to workers in the strawberry fields rather than to consumers and wildlife. As Willem de Kooning remarked, "Painting isn't just the visual thing that reaches your retina - it's what is behind it and in it," which our modern-day environmentalists may paraphrase as, "Strawberries aren't just those tasty things that reach your palate - they're who is behind them and what is in them."

-- Excerpt from Rebecca Solnit's essay "From the Studio to the Sweatshop, and Back Again," published in the Summer 1999 issue of Art Issues.

I read this essay by Rebecca Solnit eight years ago when it was first published in Art Issues; her sharp musings stuck with me. Over the years, I've found myself thinking back to Solnit's summations and speculations on the deeper meaning embedded in the process of making consumer products and works of art.

No doubt the questions of the origin of products and services are closer to the forefront of consumer minds today with the expanded practice of outsourcing to countries such as India and the increase of "made in China" labels. However, rather than outrage over the mistreatment of sweatshop workers, the concerns have centered on the loss of work for Americans, the frustrations of speaking with someone who has a heavy accent, and/or the rising economic and political threat of these countries to the United States.

(photo by Eliza Barrios)

Most striking to me is how complex the issues of origin and production really are; not as black and white as presented here, or elsewhere. I realize that Solnit wrote this essay almost a decade ago and her thoughts at that time do not necessarily reflect her current beliefs. My own thoughts on this subject have evolved and become less polarized.

(photo by Eliza Barrios)

Today the complexities of origin and production of consumer goods and services include:

  • The sweatshop laborers in the United States who have risked their lives to come to this country to work for a pittance in substandard conditions in order to provide for their families outside of the U.S.
  • The company American Apparel whose claim to fame is sweatshop-free clothing made in downtown Los Angeles, where it pays its employees an average of US$13 per hour. Employees also receive benefits such as paid time off, healthcare, company-subsidized lunches, bus passes, free ESL classes, on-site masseurs, free bicycles and on-site bike mechanics, free parking, proper lighting and ventilation, and the most up-to-date equipment. However, employees for American Apparel have also criticized the company for its sexually charged advertising and corporate culture.
  • Many of the critics are themselves the consumers of the products or services provided by the large corporations they view as the enemy.

Today the issues of origin and production of consumer goods and services have moved closer to home, or rather to a unified "global" concern. At the forefront is the subject of immigration, and more specifically "illegal" immigration. The picture painted by politicians from the two dominant parties in the U.S. is that brown people from south of the border or overseas are illegally entering the country by the hundreds daily to take jobs that Americans won't perform. What isn't generally included in this depiction of the folks coming to the United States and taking those jobs is: 1) they are sweatshop laborers paid far below minimum wage who do not receive any benefits, 2) they are living in substandard conditions, and 3) they are paying taxes in the form of sales tax, as well as other federal, state, and municipal taxes that aren't always obvious.

On the other side, what isn't generally included by activists and organizers, who are not the individuals performing the work of sweatshop laborers is: 1) while the laborers abhor the conditions they work under and risk their health and often their lives, they would rather earn what they can for their families than be unemployed; 2) the laborers would prefer that activists not bring attention to their cause for fear of losing their jobs; and 3) the laborers are living, breathing, thinking human beings who do not appreciate being viewed as helpless by activists.

And how does the art world fit into this mix today? Closer to Solnit's final thoughts on the subject:
And taken still further, one arrives at a question nobody thinks to ask: Who wove the canvas for all those paintings?

With the popular trend of Relational Aesthetics, it could be argued that some artists have found their free labor in the general public to complete their projects that in turn reap the rewards ultimately for the artists themselves. Most obvious in this regard is the sub-genre of "Generosity Projects;" examples include: public tours, cooking, sewing, cleaning for The People, and grant programs. And taken still further, the projects through which artists create the opportunity for lesser-known artists to become participants in their projects and gallery exhibitions by providing both the labor and creative force. While these laborer artists are acknowledged (generally through a thank you and recognition of their work in the project's accompanying text), it is still the "lead artist" who receives the final credit.

So the question still remains: Who actually created that work?