Documentation of Terrible Karma: U-Haul truck as Mobile Exhibition Space

Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a mobile audio-visual installation exploring the global reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (in which 146 garment workers, mostly young immagrent women, were killed) on its 100th anniversary: March 25th 2011.

It brought together photographs detailing working conditions of garment factories at the time of the Triangle fire and oral histories of Triangle fire survivors with audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China and protest cries and 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 – refered to both the title of a protest song sung by Cambodian female garment workers at a union rally in Phnom Penh (July 2010 – click for translation) and to the idea that events of the garment industry past continue to haunt the present, that they are always coming back.

The work arose out of experimental geographers – Adeola Enigbokan and Merle Patchett’s – 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 installation ‘took to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011 when the audio-visuals were projected out of a UHAUL truck parked in downtown Manhattan locations associated with the events of the Triangle Fire. Passers-by were invited inside the back of the truck to experience the work from within its claustrophobic confines.

Below are some selected photographs documenting the day. While viewing why not listen to the audio component of the work: 

In the following short documentary Charles Kernaghan, Director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, makes a passionate plea that the legacy of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire should be legislation that bans the import of child labour and sweatshop goods into the United States.

The documentary highlights the fact that the events of the Triangle fire continue in today’s global garment economy by reporting on a garment factory fire on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh on the 14th of December 2010, which saw female workers jumping to their deaths from the 10th and 11th floors as fire exits were blocked. As the documentary makes clear, the events at the Ha-meen factory fire in Bangladesh horribly echo the conditions which brought about and exacerbated the Triangle Shirtwaist factory tragedy.

The events of the Ha-meen factory fire partly inspired Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its focus on marking the centenary of the Triangle Factory Fire on its centenary in New York whilst also highlighting the struggle of garments workers in places like China, Cambodia and Bangladesh (we did this by meshing audio recordings of a mega-scale garment factory in China and the protest cries and songs of garments workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia with oral histories of Triangle fire survivors and photographs of garment sweatshops from the Triangle period).

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6 Responses to Documentation of Terrible Karma: U-Haul truck as Mobile Exhibition Space

  1. erikwdavis says:

    Dear Merle and Adeola, I’m so very pleased that my translation of the Cambodian unionists song “terrible karma” was helpful to you in the production of this amazing-looking work of art/action/mobile education station/commemoration (!). Your take on the relationship between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 100 years ago and the ongoing factory fires throughout the world is dead-on – as a global humanity, we remain haunted by the crimes and behavior of those who feel that murder can be moved without repercussion. You probably know that one of the owners of the Triangle factory was found locking his workers into a different factory less than a year later.

    These workers are the courageous people whose self-organization and actions in their own defense (quite often, literally physical self-defense) are my heroes, and I’m extremely impressed by your actions in support of them.

    In respectful solidarity,

    Erik Davis

  2. Merle says:

    Great to hear from you EriK.

    It was the women at the Phnom Penh rally singing Terrible Karma that really motivated us to make the connections between the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and it’s present-day echos in places like Cambodia, Bangladesh and China. The playing of that song in the back of our truck really resonated with our audiences too.

    Thanks again for getting in touch and keep up your great work!

    Merle & Adeola

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