Made in India

Made in India: Harrell Fletcher & Wendy Red Star: Made in India; still from a colour video (2009). Courtesy the Art Gallery of Mississauga and the artists.Harrell Fletcher & Wendy Red Star, Made in India: Still from a colour video (2009). Courtesy the Art Gallery of Mississauga and the artists.

American artists Harrell Fletcher and Wendy Red Star explain how a rug, received as a gift, transformed into an art intervention that took them to India

By Kerri Reid

Harrell Fletcher and Wendy Red Star are Portland, Oregon-based artists whose work often directs viewers’ attention towards people and situations that are typically overlooked. For example, Fletcher's projects have involved children, office workers, seniors and war veterans as collaborators and participants. Red Star's projects have included inserting herself into natural history museum-type diorama displays, thereby raising current realities of Native Americans into a context that usually suggests a distant and remote past.

In their latest project, Made In India, Fletcher and Red Star examine the labour that is an ubiquitous but invisible part of the world of everyday objects. The project began when the artists received two rugs rather than the one that had been ordered for them as a gift. Instead of returning the second rug, they attempted to find the factory in India where the rug had been made. The project became an effort to financially compensate the worker who had woven it, thus redistributing wealth and making this particular rug more fair trade.

The following interview took place by e-mail throughout September and October, 2009 as Fletcher and Red Star prepared for the Made in India exhibition at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

Kerri Reid (KR): When you received the second rug by mistake, did you know immediately that you wanted to find a way to compensate whoever made the rugs?

Harrell FletcherHarrell Fletcher

Harrell Fletcher and Wendy Red Star (H&W): Not immediately; we ran through a series of possible solutions. We could give the rug back to the company, we could keep it, we could give it to a friend, or we could sell it. But, it didn't take very long to decide that it might be more interesting to use the second rug as a way to create a project that would connect us, as Western consumers, back to the origins of the product that we were acquiring, and to attempt to redistribute the wealth invested in that product.

KR: Was there any point when either of you were worried about repercussions here regarding the extra rug? Was it possible that someone at the retail outlet would have gotten in trouble regarding the extra rug? Were you ever worried you would get in trouble?

H&W: We weren't worried, and we really doubt that anyone got in trouble because of the mistake. If it was a smaller operation, then that would have been something to consider though. Our sense is that when it comes to big companies, these things are absorbed into the cost of doing business.

KR: So, when and how did this endeavour become an art project? Did the notion of making this process into an art project come into being for financial reasons? Did you think selling the extra rug as an art work would somehow make it worth more than selling it as a rug?

Wendy Red StarWendy Red StarH&W: Yes, that's exactly the idea. We knew that selling the rug as part of a piece that we were doing as "artists" would bring in more funding to work with. We wanted to use the art world’s monetary system to support the project; of being able to structure everything the way we wanted to, which required about ten times the amount of money as the rug was purchased for, originally.

KR: At what point did art galleries (the Art Gallery of Mississauga, and the I.D.E.A. Space come into the project?

H&W: We were approached by the galleries to do projects with them a month or so after we came up with the rug idea. We proposed a few different project ideas, but they were both interested in the one with the rug and we suggested that they co-commission the project together.

KR: You both eventually went to India to redistribute the money, and ended up giving the money to a rug worker named Sandeep. How did you find him?

H&W: That's a pretty long story, but the short answer is that we worked with someone in India, Ashish Mahajan, and he found the factory. We then went there with him, toured the factory and, through some random events that seemed somehow synchronistic, we decided to give the money to Sandeep, a worker at the factory.

KR: Was he someone who had actually worked on the original rug, or was it even possible to find the original factory and workers?

H&W: The factory was outside of a city called Panipat, which is about three-hours drive from Delhi. It is one of several hundred rug factories in the same region. We did our best to find either the actual factory, or one that was similar to the one where our rug was made. At the factory, they made several different kinds of rugs — ours is a tufted rug and Sandeep works on tufted rugs. When we showed the factory manager a photo of our rug he said that it might have been made at the factory but, because they work on so many designs and because our rug was made a few years before our visit, he couldn't be sure. We also showed the photo of the rug to Sandeep and he said that it looked familiar; however, he worked on so many rugs — several a week and he’s been working at the factory for over five years — that he wasn't sure if he had actually made our rug. But, he said he might have.

Sandeep at work on a rug at the factory: Photo courtesy the artists.Sandeep at work on a rug at the factory: Photo courtesy the artists.KR: Can you describe your interactions with Sandeep, and your impression of how Sandeep experienced this project?

H&W: We got a good vibe from Sandeep right away. We passed by him during our factory tour and later he said hello to us as he was heading out for lunch. We asked if we could join him, and he was very friendly and sort of shy at the same time. He told us (through Ashish, who was interpreting for us) that he had three kids, and a wife and larger family that lived in another region of India that was a twenty-four-hour train ride away. He showed us the little room that he shared with two other workers. At first, we didn't mention the money at all so that wasn't influencing anything. He was a nice guy and we all liked him immediately. We decided to ask him if we could meet him after work to talk some more. He agreed, and we met privately in his little room. Ashish explained the whole project to him. Sandeep was willing to take the money and said he would use it for his kids’ education, some new clothes for them, and that he would give a portion of the money to his temple.

The amount that we gave him, $1,500, was the retail price of the rug in the US. It was almost the same amount that Sandeep makes in a year working at the factory. He was a little nervous at first, thinking that we wanted something in return, but we explained that, in our minds, we were just returning the money to him as part of an attempt at wealth redistribution — creating sort of a ‘kink’ in the capitalist system. After we reassured him, he seemed to relax and understand what we were doing. After we left, we discussed with Ashish what we had done and agreed that we were happy the money had gone to Sandeep.

Made in India: Harrell Fletcher & Wendy Red Star: Made in India; still from a colour video (2009). Courtesy the Art Gallery of Mississauga and the artists.Harrell Fletcher & Wendy Red Star: Made in India:  Still from a colour video (2009). Courtesy the Art Gallery of Mississauga and the artists.KR: For me, this project addresses how difficult it can be to show solidarity with working people around the world. Working people here in North America don't necessarily make enough money to purchase products that were made in fair and ethical situations. This can be very frustrating if we believe our shopping habits are the only form of political expression that will be heard. This aspect of your project intrigues me, but it seems even more resonant and urgent given the current state of the global economy. Getting to know the name and story of one rug worker such as Sandeep has extra significance at a time of several major factory occupations and shut downs worldwide. Can you talk about your thoughts on these issues? Did your views on the global economy influence this project, or did the project subsequently influence your views?

H&W: That is a big question. In going to India, we tried to limit our assumptions about what we would find. Surprisingly, we felt better than we expected about the conditions in the factory where Sandeep works. The factory was made up of a series of buildings and outdoor areas. The weather and air quality was good during our visit so all the doors and windows were open. In Delhi, where we were staying, the air quality was horrible, so it was a relief to be away from there for the factory visit. The factory was near nice farm lands that we walked to. Most of the factory workers wore masks because of fabric particles; those of us without masks found it hard to breathe after a while. The rugs were also more handmade than expected. We thought there would be more large machines, but almost everything was done using simple tools and small looms. It didn't seem like a job that we’d want to do but it could have been much worse, for sure.

Harrell Fletcher & Wendy Red Star: Made in India: Installation view at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (2009). Courtesy the Art Gallery of Mississauga and the artists.Harrell Fletcher & Wendy Red Star: Made in India: Installation view at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (2009). Courtesy the Art Gallery of Mississauga and the artists.On the other hand, the pay was very low and the workers’ living conditions were not pleasant, but those could have been worse, too. The management let us wander around and video tape, and we could talk with anyone we wanted to. In that regard, we were pleasantly surprised by the experience. How that factory compares to other rug factories, we don't know. We had a very specific and limited experience with that one factory, though we did go to another factory area outside of Delhi and had a very different experience. The air quality was really bad, the workers and their families lived in squalor and the water canal they used was astoundingly polluted. Ashish introduced us to a really amazing man there named Sher Singh who had been working with factory workers to make a free monthly newspaper for over 20 years. His descriptions of factory work and the lives of people in factory slums were horrifying. He took us on a tour of the area, showing us the US appliance factories and told us about the injuries workers get on a daily basis so we can have cheap refrigerators and washing machines. It was a disturbing experience.

KR: Were your own purchasing habits changed by what you saw?

H&W: Yes, we are now more thoughtful about the products we buy because we now have a better understanding of where things come from. But, without changing the whole capitalist system, we are left with more questions and frustrations about what should be done about this situation. Ultimately, our project was a very personal one between us and Sandeep. It was an attempt to close the gap between consumer and factory worker but, as artists, we wanted to share our experience with the public to encourage people to think about these issues.

KR: It sounds like your project came from a positive place; an attempt to suggest fairer systems of exchange, rather than an attempt to ‘stick it to the man‘, so to speak.

H&W: No, we weren't trying to stick it to the man in this case — not that we wouldn’t like to stick it to the man sometimes — but the project wouldn’t have had much effect in those terms. Rather, it was more about the system in which those kinds of companies work. Our focus was on educating ourselves in a direct fashion and redistributing the wealth in a small and personal way.

Harrell Fletcher and Wendy Red Star’s Made In India was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Mississauga from November 5 to December 24, 2009. The exhibition next appears at the I.D.E.A. Space at Colorado College in Colorado Springs from November 5 to December 17, 2010.

Kerri ReidKerri Reid is a visual artist living and working in Toronto. She teaches at the Toronto School of Art and the University of Guelph. Originally from Vancouver, she studied at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and the University of Guelph. Kerri has exhibited her work nationally and internationally, and is looking forward to upcoming residencies in Iceland and the Yukon. Visit her web site at www.kerrireid.com