Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

This week I am travelling to the city of New York to premier the audio-visual installation Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that has been created and curated by Adeola Enigbokan and myself.

Terrible Karma is a mobile audio-visual installation exploring the global reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on its 100thanniversary.

Terrible Karma works from the premise that ‘sound is haunting… a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory’ (David Toop), meshing oral histories of Triangle fire survivors with audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China and protest songs of present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia to invoke the contemporary and global resonances of the Triangle fire.

The title – Terrible Karma – refers to both the title of a protest song sung by Cambodian female garment workers at a union rally in Phnom Penh (July 2010) and to the idea that events of the garment industry past continue to haunt the present, that they are always coming back. The work arises out of our mutual desire to mark the centenary of the Triangle factory fire whilst also exploring the constraints and conditions in which garment workers continue to work, live and die.

The work ‘takes to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011 when the audio-visuals will be projected out of a van driven through the streets of New York, stopping at various points to allow passers-by to experience the work from inside its claustrophobic confines. For those not in NY the work is available to experience by watching the online version of the work posted above (to get the best effect play it full-screen by clicking on the icon between the HD and vimeo symbols on the bottom right of the screen).

Adeola and I will be out this Friday morning and afternoon (10-2) in downtown Manhattan, at Cooper Square, and near the location of the fire, at Washington Place and Greene Street. Follow the path on the map, and look out for our UHAUL truck, containing the audio-visual installation above. If you’re in town, drop by and spend some time in the back of the truck, feeling the reverberations of the fire, 100 years later.

You can also download the work directly from: http://vimeo.com/21261887

To just listen to the sound component of the work here it is in .wav and .mp3:

.wavTerrible Karma_Final

.mp3

N.B. This work is self-motivated and self-funded. If you watch/listen to this work all we ask in return is that you leave a comment at the bottom of the triangle page stating where in the world you experienced it so we can attempt to track how far it reverberates. Thanks!

For full details go to https://merlepatchett.wordpress.com/triangle/

***

Background and Motivation for the Work

1.5 billion garments are sewn by an estimated 40 million people working in 250,000 factories across countries designated by the UN as the world’s least developed. This army is the engine for the Cut Make Trim (CMT) part of fashion: the point in the fashion chain where the garment is assembled and sewn. Life in the CMT army is grim, particularly in Bangladesh. A report last year by the International Trade Union Confederation gave workers there the inauspicious title of “most poorly paid in the world”. The job of a garment worker is also very dangerous. On the 14th of December 2010 a fire broke out at the That’s It Sportswear factory, in Ashulia, Dhaka, killing at least 29 workers and injuring 100 more.[1] The facility is run by one of Bangladesh’s biggest garment export companies, Ha-Meem, and produces for global retailers including Gap.

The events of the Ashulia fire, which saw female workers jumping to their deaths from the 10th and 11th floors as fire exits were blocked, horribly echo the events of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. March 25th this year marks the centenary of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster in New York. In that incident 146 young female garment workers were killed, again largely because fire exits were either locked or blocked. It remains one of the city’s biggest industrial disasters and marked the birth of the labor rights movement in the US. The victims are commemorated in a museum and many books. But in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia there are so many garment fires that they barely register. [2]

Full Description of the Work

Terrible Karma is a mobile sound and photographic installation exploring the transnational reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on its 100th anniversary. Terrible Karma works from the premise that ‘sound is haunting… a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory’ (David Toop), meshing oral histories of Triangle fire survivors with audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China and protest songs of present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia to invoke the contemporary and transnational resonances of the Triangle fire.

The work ‘takes to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011 when the sound and photographs will be projected out of a van driven through the streets of New York, stopping at various points to allow passers-by to experience the work from inside the claustrophobic confines of the van. Terrible Karma presents spaces and times as folded, allowing distant presences, events, and people to become more intimate and the contemporary resonances of the Triangle Fire to reverberate. This event, which mingles sounds and voices from different times and places, is not simply a memorial for the women killed in the New York factory fire, but an exploration of the constraints and conditions in which garment workers continue to work, live and die.

Urban areas like New York, Qingyuan, Dhaka and Phnom Penh fold into each other as we trace the rhythm of the needle’s stitch over a century. The work follows that rhythm, in its benign existence as women’s work, until the intensity of repetition, of needle-piercing-cloth catches fire. It is this repetitive quality—of machine rhythms, of  movement circumscribed, of fire, of no escape—that we draw upon to create a space where interactivity with the spectral might occur.

For full details go to https://merlepatchett.wordpress.com/triangle/

See also this documentary – Struggling to Stitch – produced by Nadia Sussman which takes a look  look inside New York’s contemporary garment industry, where day laborers are hard pressed to find paying jobs.

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This entry was posted in art in place and the place of art, Creativity in the City, Cultural Cartography, Cultural Geography, Curation as Spatial Practice, Curatorial Concerns, Exhibitions, Experimental Geographies, Experimental Historiography, Geographer-artists, Public Art, Sound Art, Spatial Encounters, Spectral Geographies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

  1. Andriko says:

    Congratulations Merle – This installation acts as a powerful resistance against the quick to forget and an even more powerful visioning of the unseen and invisible. Tarrying at the fabric of oppression and emergent women’s action, Terrible Karma serves as a relief gathered across a century. The fabric now pulled together to speak to a new generation becoming ever more aware of the haunting nature of human life existing at the margins.
    The finished video comes off clear with purpose. Saw this in Edmonton, Alberta – so I hope all goes well in New York.

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