Mechanized Bodies: Anxiety and Healing in a Global Economy

Locating Technology

Mechanized Bodies: Anxiety and Healing in a Global Economy

By Genevieve Quick August 18, 2015

Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.

We tend to consider how technology and machines alter our bodies from the consumer's end, as with our daily use of wearable or smart devices (watches, fitness trackers, phones, and more) and the more fantastic, cutting-edge neuroprosthetics and artificial organs. Our products and technologies, however, are made by individuals on assembly lines whose bodies are also imprinted by the manufacturing process. During the rise of industrialization in the U.S., Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) presciently satirized the way in which assembly-line work automates the body, such that the body is disoriented when removed from work. As our economies globalize, manufacturing not only expands to different regions, but also migrates from one region to another. When manufacturing exits an area, it leaves its trace on workers' bodies. Jesse Sugarmann's We Build Excitement (2013) and Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre’s Maquilapolis (City of Factories) (2006) explore the plight of unemployed American autoworkers and struggling Mexican factory workers. As their video and film projects feature collaborators miming their assembly-line jobs, they reveal the automation of the body and the void left in the global migration of manufacturing. While Surabhi Saraf's Remedies: Capsules and Remedies: Tablets (both 2014) also use the physical gesture of assembly-line production, she transforms the manufacturing process into a ritual process of healing.

Jesse Sugarmann. We Build Excitement (Assembly Dance), 2013; digital video; 22:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Fourteen30 Contemporary, Portland, OR.

Each of these three films connects to Chaplin’s earlier critique of automation. The opening factory scene in Modern Times features Chaplin frantically and comically attempting to keep up with the assembly line while the factory bosses prod him to quicken his pace.  Consumed by his work, Chaplin becomes physically integrated into the machinery, his body twisting and turning within the conveyer belts and gears. Still focused on his task, Chaplin momentarily exits the factory and screws the bolts on a fire hydrant. When the line is halted at lunchtime, his spastic twitching signals his disorientation and loss of control of his body. With Chaplin physically and cognitively consumed by his labor, he faces an existential, yet comic, crisis in its absences as he shifts from machine back to man.

While Chaplin satirized the way that human action serves the machine, both literally and as a metaphor for capitalism, Western countries are now transitioning from manufacturing to service economies, leaving remaining factory workers anxious and many jobless. Sugarmann pays homage to the defunct Pontiac Motor Division in We Build Excitement (2013). In the project, Sugarmann created videos, makeshift sculptures of cars, and Pontiac Pontiac—his own dealership located in Pontiac, Michigan.1 Home to two assembly lines at various times, the city of Pontiac is both a suburb and a part of the supply and assembly network that constitutes Detroit's automotive industry, which at one point was a model of American industrialization.

Just as Chaplin continued going through the motions even when removed from the production line, laid-off autoworkers pantomime their jobs in Sugarmann's We Build Excitement (Assembly Dance) (2013). The workers seamlessly enact their jobs with expressionless faces as if on an imaginary assembly line. In the parking lot of Pontiac Pontiac, workers gesture as if turning wrenches, lifting wheels, replacing windshield wipers, and more; without the machinery present, it is difficult to parse what precisely their actions represent, rendering their actions suggestive, like dance. Lacking visible purpose, these movements speak to automated and ultimately displaced labor.

In addition to low wages and lenient enforcement of labor and environmental laws, in the 1960s the Mexican government began establishing free-trade zones to entice foreign companies to relocate. Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre's film Maquilapolis (City of Factories) (2006) documents industrialized labor in the Tijuana factories where workers regularly endure exposure to toxic chemicals, dust, and contaminated water in their workplaces and nearby homes.2 Operating just outside of the U.S. border, the predominantly female labor force assembles a host of products from furniture to electronics for internationally recognized brands like Panasonic, Sony, Sanyo, and Samsung.

The workers in Maquilapolis face conditions similar to those of Sugarmann's laid-off autoworkers. Just as U.S. autoworkers are laid off because manufacturing has migrated outside the U.S., Mexican factory workers scramble to find employment as production relocates overseas.3 The film opens with a line of women dressed in blue work shirts outside the factories. As a group, they uniformly and repetitively gesture with their arms as they mimic the labor they have performed. The filmmakers intersperse sequences of the women displaying the products they assemble and their heads rotating as if products on a display unit while the manufacturers' names appear in text. As Chaplin's body became mechanized as producer and part of the assembly line, these women's bodies have also become imprinted by industrial production as products within the manufacturing system.

Moving overseas, manufacturing is now firmly entrenched in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), which many speculate to be the next economic superpowers; their workers are also subject to the same process of mechanization, health hazards, and displacement as those in We Build Excitement and Maquilapolis. Surabhi Saraf's two video installations, Remedies: Capsules and Remedies: Tablets (both 2014), poetically explore the mechanization of the body with teams of performers in her family's pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in India.

Jesse Sugarmann. We Build Excitement (Assembly Dance), 2013; digital video; 22:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Fourteen30 Contemporary, Portland, OR.

With her title Remedies, Saraf suggests the ailing body and the healing process in the context of manufacturing medicines. Like We Build Excitement and Maquilapolis, Saraf's performers enact various parts of the manufacturing process. The performers push carts, and sort and package pills. The performers also throw and sift powders, alluding to the raw materials in the processing of medicines. The activity creates clouds of dust with an almost mystical atmosphere. The pulsing and mesmerizing soundtrack and the larger-than-life video projections render the installation immersive. While performers oscillate between moving like teams in synchronized choreography and doing their own individual gestures, there is a general organization to the larger group activity, even if it isn't as concrete as manufacturing. The flurry of activity and immersive qualities are trance inducing. While the factory workers’ bodies in We Build Excitement and Maquilapolis endure the trauma of manufacturing, Saraf has worked with performers who enter the factory space unscarred by industry. In this space of well being, they throw medicines, as powders, to mitigate pain or illness in their factory setting. Saraf's intense sound, choreography, and environment transform the robotic and alienated motions of manufacturing into a ritualized dance of healing.

While the works by Chaplin, Sugarmann, Funari and De la Torres, and Saraf address the legacy of assembly-line production on workers' bodies in their respective contexts, together they showcase the trajectory and casualties of globalization. The media occasionally runs stories about the cost of globalized manufacturing, such as the recent coverage of Foxconn—the Taiwanese multinational electronics manufacturer that assembles products, like iPhones, for major corporations and the U.S. market. As manufacturing becomes more distant from consumers, those who produce our goods are less visible. Whether in the U.S., Mexico, or India, workers endure the same cycle: becoming part of a larger network of production that can be disassembled and relocated, rendering them redundant. Assembly-line production has taken its toll on workers' bodies since the beginning of industrialization, and its absence is also felt as a traumatic experience.


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  1. General Motors (GM) declared chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. As a result, GM sold off assets, trimmed its product line, and reduced production capacity. As part of its restructuring, GM eliminated Pontiac Motor Division.
  3. The film documents Carmen's fight for severance pay after her job at Sanyo moved to Indonesia. Carmen has worked in nine assembly factories since she arrived in Tijuana at 13 years old.

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