Deconstructing the International Garment Trade
The Museum of Contemporary Art collaborative performance project continues apace, and as of yesterday around 200 people had come in to sit with me for a while to talk about my research into the international garment trade. I’ve become pretty lax about actually addressing Cambodia, workers’ rights, or the various trade agreements in place; I’ve found that it doesn’t take too long before people pulling apart a pair of jeans by hand start asking of their own accord who made these jeans, and if it was as difficult to put them together as it is to take them apart.
In the mean time, people are really deeply enjoying themselves in this meditative space, doing something seemingly pointless—at least, the physical end results of which are, at best, unclear. But they come in and sit and pull jeans apart with me anyway, even if they say they don’t want to at first, even if they tell me they think it’s kinda dumb, even if they “have a lot to do” and “only have a minute to see everything.” Usually I’m not even the one to say, “It’s really fun.”
We had an amazing conversation yesterday with a 10-year-old, a number of museum visitors, and about 30 Californians who had stopped by in a group from the Sonoma County Museum of Art. Or somewhere. They were all about the sustainability thing; the water waste of cotton production. And they wanted a lecture on the project instead of to do the project. They asked what I had to teach kids about Cambodia and the international garment trade. I asked the young girl what she already knew; she had participated in a school activity last year to raise money for a well in Cambodia. So what I got to say was, Look. I don’t have to teach anybody anything. You already know that the reason the garment trade needs examining is because the women who made these jeans can’t afford to dig their own well. That the system we support, as consumers—because we are all wearing clothes—is keeping the people who make them for us from water.
Later, things got a little quieter. The rain had let up and people were spending their Saturday afternoon at the Air and Water Show. I assume.
A woman came in to sit at the table with me and a few other visitors, and became very engaged in asking about Cambodian garment workers. After close to an hour, she asked me: “Do they even know they’re oppressed?”
I waffled. They don’t. In fact, in context, the factory workers have jobs. And all the things that jobs come with here: a sense of freedom, a sense of independence, a sense of duty. A fitting in. The way I explained it was really problematic: it would be possible to hear and walk away from and think: then the garment trade is awesome.
But I guess the real point I would like to find a way to explain is not about their responsibility for their own awareness as oppressed peoples. What I need to find a way to explain is that those of us who are asking the the question need to be responsible for responding to it. Yes, the international garment trade is a global system, and it is everywhere. But the beneficiaries of it mark themselves: we mark ourselves. Willingly. And while I would never ever respond to her smart and innocent query, “Do they even know they’re oppressed?” by saying: “As well as you know that you are oppressing them,” I would like to find a way to try.