March 07/ WM issue #1: Active Witness (World Factory), SFAI
(World Factory) SFAI
by Anthony Torres
Chen Chieh-jen, Video Still, Courtesy of the artist
Active Witness at the San Francisco Art Institute’s McBean Gallery is the first installment of World Factory, a series of exhibitions that respond to conflicts and issues arising from capitalist globalization — exploitation of labor and natural resources, uneven economic underdevelopment, urbanization, population displacements and migration, and environmental degradation. The exhibitions’ thesis is that a world capitalist system has created global social structures and a world division of labor that result in huge economic disparities, centered in the exploitation of land and labor.
Organized by Hou Hanru, SFAI’s Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, the exhibition assembles works by fourteen internationally recognized artists, blending still photographs, film and video, and printed materials to establish inter-relationships among the artists, issues, and audience(s).
The installation is presented as an architectural configuration, an ensemble of sights, sounds, and texts that have traveled from a range of countries to interrogate how people and artifacts are impacted, formed, and socialized through processes of economic and ideological production, consumption, and related systems of knowledge.
The exhibition is concerned with articulating experiences of negotiating loss, exploitation, dislocation, exile, migration, and identity by examining globalization, linking these issues through an orchestration of the images, sounds, and texts presented within a language of exhibition display.
These multiple elements, derived from people living in diverse places, are brought together spatially in the photographs, videos, and testimonials. Here, locations, faces, and peoples’ stories — all too often separated, made inaccessible, excluded from recurrent media messages, or isolated by phrases like “made in China” or “hecho en Mexico” — make their way into our consciousness, and demand that they be recognized as real people concerned with pressing life issues, presented on their own terms through shared technologies that translate their languages and images.
In the videos, workers address the camera directly, relating their experiences as a means of sharing knowledge regarding labor and political processes aimed at self-determination. In this way, the works in the exhibition represent counter-cultural media interventions that delve into the political lives of working people in diverse contemporary locations.
Bench seat covers that reprint dictionary definitions of words like labor, capital, market, commodity, factory, etc., which are placed in front of video monitors, bring to the forefront the power of language and mass communication to either include or exclude people from various dialogues and to condition their ability to comprehend the world around them. These works also raise issues of how language is crucial in the construction of meaning, and by extension, how “languages” — both linguistic and visual — structure and define the way “reality” is represented.
In Jean-Baptiste Ganne’s Illustrated Capital, for example, forty photographs taken from everyday life of factories, offices, and laborers at work, while seemingly unrelated, represent chapter headings of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. This piece is intended to evoke the current relevancy of Marx’s analysis of industrial capital, as well as establish meaningful relationships among the words, images, and experiences represented.
At the heart of the exhibition is the interrelationship between words and images in defining and relating lived experiences, economic interdependence, and the interconnectedness of contemporary history.
Active Witness takes as its orientation the interrogation and contestation of the dominance of global corporate expansion. In so doing, it examines the impact of globalization while pondering the role of art and technology in social struggles and how art engages the world in which it exists, rather than simply interpreting or reflecting upon events. Through the objects, issues and people represented in the installation, the viewer becomes aware of the obstacles and distances that need to be overcome in order to achieve greater communication and dialogue. In so doing, the exhibition points to a shared human predicament that, however unequally, we all inhabit the world together.
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Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, art writer, and art appraiser. He has curated and traveled numerous exhibitions, and published extensively in Artweek, New Art Examiner, Art Papers and others. Additionally he researched and wrote the “Illustrated Chronology” and essay “Negotiating Space: The Sketch Books,” for the book, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (2003).
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