An Outstanding Work of Art and Ethics

WORLD FACTORY. Made in China. Sold in Britain. Worn by You. A Metis Arts creation. Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA). Tuesday 15th November 2016.

This production succeeds in its aim: jarring the consumer psyche. It is an astounding work of art and ethics that deserves attention.

A co-creation with a Cambridge University research project into the global textile industry envelopes audiences in an interactive theatrical game. First trialled in 2015, this production is now touring the UK, with five nights at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, Brighton.

The World Factory performance is one aspect of a broader campaign that includes an educational workshop programme and an open source consumer-industry awareness database called Digital Quilt. Together these forces break consumers out of passivity, and offer some practicable pathways for change.

Entering the World Factory performance is just that. You enter into the performance - a grid of tables and chairs, a chicken coop of divided work centres. Our hosts, dressed in electric blue uniforms, carry an air of sickliness, an air-host, cocktail-waiting inhumanity. Though perfectly friendly, their stiffness lays a ground work theme: this evening’s unfavourable terms of trade. We are seated and one explains himself - “Welcome to the World Factory. I will be your dealer”.

The play begins. The four hosts burst into a chaotic, glitzy catwalk parade. We receive a briefing on the world of fast fashion, the insatiable turnover of clothing and the mindset of disposability and identity that drives it. It is the first step in our orientation.

Next we are whipped into a stark world of machines and soundbites of neoliberal leadership, broadcast all around us by four imposing screens. Reagan and Thatcher have claimed the bodies of two of our hosts while another one becomes a Chinese politician. Their messages converge to give permission to the evening’s unhinged individual pursuit of wealth.

The centre piece of the show is a game. The audience occupy tables in groups of four or five, representing the Directors of a Chinese textile factory. Each factory is given 100,000 Yen, a bar code scanner, and a folder of unknown Chinese employees.

Based on real life market situations from the Digital Quilt research database, there are over two million possible pathways through the game. Our ‘dealer’ leads us through. We are given a card with a scenario on one side, and two options on the other. These cards are our management decisions, each time raising an issue of profit margin and ethical practice.

Do you reduce wages by one for third for all your employees, or do you keep wages the same but sack half? 

Do you adopt costly wage increases to win a deal with an ethical brand? 

With each decision, it seemed, our account balance and confidence waned. As such, the game’s scenarios were so extensive, undergirded by such depth of research, that our attempts at original thought always seemed undermined by reality.

For each order we completed we were given a garment to hang on a clothing rail. In true game show fashion each team stacks their garments against each other. Each garment a measure of output, the dealer heckles: “time is money my friends, efficiency is life!”

Wrapping up, the audience’s attention reconvenes under the leadership of the hosts, who are dressed garishly in the bazaar garments we have produced. The game show climaxes with a leadership board comparing each company by various measures: total output; profit; average wage; employee welfare. Banter breaks out as the factory with the lowest employee welfare achieves the highest total output. No one is really sure why they are laughing.

To the audience as a whole, the hosts broadcast our collective productivity: profit; tons of finished goods; tons of cotton used; litres of water consumed; gallons of crude oil extracted. Though lacking a clear relative measure to consumer need, these indices were a punishing signal of the textile industry’s resource significance. One host draws, through comic impersonation, the consumer attitudes of fast fashion in which we have just participated. As individuals, we are reminded, our number is among the shocking statistics.

The audience began to murmur and seemed to wish they could undo the game. As had been clearly explained, however, in interview footage of a worn out Chinese factory owner: “Once you start a business you must see it through to the end. There is no turning back”.

The hosts enter into a hurried queue of pleadings, each to a gunpoint count-down attempting to explain the virtue of four alternative, responsible business models.

The options are thrown to the audience in the form of an auction, dividing our money between the four given causes. The hosts chase around the room appealing for donations. We vote with our feet, the money is gathered, counted and results close. The room’s top priority is: relocate manufacturing to the UK; followed by workers’ cooperatives; setting-up in Africa; and finally textiles recycling.

How telling a list of priorities, from looking out for number one, through to the most foreign and finally the non-human. Is this the lesson they wanted to teach us? Is this the logic of the consumer? The results were chosen by the audience. Is this the barrier of otherness and respect we are trying to overcome through ethical consumption?

The hosts lead us into one final disfigured journey of our political and cultural context. We see an interview with a textile worker who has no idea who wears her creations, and who has perhaps even less time to think about such things. Segments of defining political rhetoric return - Reagan, Thatcher, Jeremy Hunt - punch around the room, making clear to us the civic agreement of our liberal society.

If we are truly so keen to relocate industries to the UK, are we ready to accept the labours of manufacture? The thought hangs in the air uncomfortably.

The World Factory ‘game’ taught a great deal. My group, it turned out, qualified as the most humane factory of the night, while remaining moderately competitive. This highlighted the value of ethical products and standards. These higher cost products do genuinely provide some escape from participating in modern slavery and natural resource destruction. An equally strong message put forward by the show was of the value of cherishing our possessions for longer, and seeking higher lasting quality.

In a final epilogue, the hosts’ voices begin to merge, forming a spiralling, depleting noise - perhaps the millions of voices of workers we will never meet. Into darkness the audience is drawn and left. As we sit, one rude phrase resounds in my mind that the show provokes me to wish silent for ever - “The World Factory will always win in the end”.

Hugh Reed

(Hugh has recently completed an MA in Innovation for Sustainable International Development, SPRU)