Thursday, August 19, 2010

Portraits of global labor

Jane Duggan, Blacksmiths, Northern Pakistan, 1993.
Frank Hammer, Metal Worker, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2006.
I often feel a twinge of ambivalence when looking at so-called political art in a gallery or museum setting. Perhaps it's a hangover from my formalist studio training as an undergrad (my main influence as a painter in the mid-1970s was James Adley, a student of Clyfford Styll's and now at 80 still a committed flat-surface absolutist), but I also like to think that it has as much if not more to do with a healthy skepticism toward the privilege too many artists of that stripe seem to enjoy in criticizing the contradictions of one social world from the safety of another, arguably no-less-conflicted one called the artworld. Work that investigates identity representation and construction drawn from those in the margins would appear to be on firmer footing, but then there's the whole question of whether one really needs to, as George Clinton says, "dance in my feet" before being able to "walk a mile in my shoes."

The show up at Swords Into Plowshares Peace Gallery doesn't really resolve that question, but it does provide an opportunity to see images of global workers taken by two people who have danced in those feet all of their lives. And although they're billed in gallery handouts and press materials as "artists," a more appropriate term for them might be "cultural producers," agents who in this case use the visual medium not as a form of commodity exchange but as engaged communication.

The exhibition "Portraits of Global Labor" features the work of two longtime labor activists, Jane Duggan, secretary-treasurer of the Detroit chapter of the American Postal Workers Union, and Frank Hammer, retired president of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Mich. The images contained in the exhibition are drawn from their travels around the world. They were sometimes made in an official capacity, sometimes surreptitiously, and sometimes simply out of personal interest.

Most of Duggan's images of Asian workers come from the period when she was living abroad -- years before Eat, Pray, Love -- due to visa restrictions imposed on her then husband, a Pakistani. One set of photos, depicting batik workers in a seaside shanty in Malaysia, documents age-old techniques of craft production before the rise of rationalized factory work in the export processing zones of globalization. Another series documents graduates of a training development class Duggan ran at the Detroit post office to help foster upward mobility. Some of the graduates have since died and the pictures Duggan took are the only visual representations of them in their working life.

Many of Hammer's photos were taken to document trips to several South American countries over the past decade as part of union programs to witness and express solidarity with international labor organizing efforts. Images from Cuba and El Salvador capture workers striving to emerge from under the shadow of American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Photos from Porto Alegre, Brazil, document work and life in the year of the re-election of Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, himself a metal worker and unionist, as president. They should have special resonance for viewers here as Porto Alegre is where the first World Social Forum was held in 2001, the second US national iteration of which met this past June in the D. Photos shot in the US were taken literally from the front lines as Hammer participated in the labor actions they depict.

In her statement, Duggan writes: "Workers of all countries unite...and be seen." And to be sure, this is where these images have force.

In distinguishing between old and new social movements (for example, labor and civil rights vs. green and LGBT), social theorists and researchers, such as Alain Touraine and Alberto Melucci, typically draw the line between mobilizing for economic well-being and political franchise on the one hand and less materialistic objectives such as acceptance of lifestyle and culture on the other. But, as Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, in their book Civil Society and Political Theory, note, ultimately to effect change requires some level of resource mobilization and in the end material reconstruction of social and political reality. (Their most compelling quote in this regard: "Laws are frozen politics," and certainly the whole issue of gay marriage as it's currently playing out is a case in point.)

What identity politics, especially as it exists in the rarified atmosphere of the artworld, and new social movement theory see as a goal, Cohen and Arato recognize as part of a longer process. First is indeed the recognition of identity, bringing heretofore under-acknowledged publics into view. Second is inclusion, building a sense of solidarity among those who once felt isolated from one another (what second-wave feminists called "consciousness-raising"). But third is influence, a critical mass that demands attention be paid. And finally is enacting reform, which in modern democratic societies is made concrete through legislation, government regulation, and case law.

In bringing the workers of the world back into view, Duggan and Hammer make the case that so-called old social movements still have relevance (and in this age of globalization and in the wake of the recent economic meltdown perhaps now more than ever). Don't go to this show expecting to see perfectly cut mats, archival printing, and museum-quality framing. This isn't the savvy production of artworld posers; it's the real deal, pure and simple.

The exhibition "Portraits of Global Labor," featuring photographs by Jane Duggan and Frank Hammer, is on view until Oct. 9 at Swords Into Plowshares Peace Gallery, 33 East Adams, in Grand Circus Park near downtown Detroit. An evening of readings by workers is scheduled for Sept. 18, from 7 - 9 pm. Call 313 963 7575 for information.

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