Project for Art Gallery of Mississauga
Mississauga, Canada, 2009
and IDEA Space at Colorado College
Colorado Springs, CO, 2010
Collaboration with Wendy Red Star
In 2007 a living room rug was purchased as a gift from a US home wares company for my house. It was ordered from the Internet. The rug took a while to arrive, but the day after it did another identical rug was also delivered. The second rug was dropped off on the front porch when we weren’t there, so we couldn’t tell the delivery person that a mistake had been made. At first we weren’t sure what to do about the second rug. We considered contacting the company to let them know what had happened, but then we thought we could do something more interesting with the situation. We noticed that the tag on the rug said that it was made in India. This got us thinking about the global economy and the role we played in it as western consumers. We decided to sell the rug for the amount it was sold for in the US, which was $1500, and take that money to the rug factory where the rug was made. We would then “redistribute the wealth” to a factory worker who might have made the rug. That would also give us a chance to see first hand what the environment was like that our rug was made in, and hopefully give us a better idea of the implications involved in the simple purchase of a product made half a world away. The rug and the idea (which included funds for us to travel to India and document the experience) were sold to two art centers, The Art Gallery of Mississauga and Idea Space at Colorado College. The two organizations split the costs and agreed to exhibit the piece (the second rug and video documentation) and to own the work collectively when the project was completed.
We spent the next year doing research about the rug industry in India and related subjects to prepare ourselves for the trip. We also, after a long search, located someone in India who could help us find the factory and help with the project, Ashish Mahajan. Ashish works for an amazing media arts organization in Delhi called Sarai, which we also had an opportunity to visit and learn about, and he is an incredibly knowledgeable and resourceful person. The project could not have happened without him. When we got to India we met with Ashish and he took us around to talk to various people who were able to give us more first hand information about factory work issues and practices in India. We were also able to walk around a “factory slum” with a friend of Ashish’s and see the desperate situation the people living there were in. The factories in that area included many US appliance makers. It was a shocking revelation to realize that our refrigerator was made in a place like that by people living in those conditions. We were told that assembly line dismemberments and fatalities were everyday occurrences for workers at some of those factories.
Eventually, we went to the city of Panipat about three hours outside of Delhi where most rug factories in India are located and visited a factory that we think was the one where our rug was made. After seeing the operations at that particular factory, which were surprisingly less problematic than we had expected, we befriended a worker named Sandeep who showed us where he lived (a small cement room shared with two other works in a compound across the street from the factory) and told us about his life and what it was like to work in the factory. He had come to the factory five years earlier from an area of India that was a days train ride away, and his earnings helped support not only his wife and three kids, but also his large extended family. We ended up explaining our project to him and giving him the $1500, which we had converted into rupees. Coincidentally, $1500 was about the equivalent of the amount of money that Sandeep could earn in one year working at the factory. Ashish gave Sandeep his phone number and said that he would check back in with him at some point to see how he was doing, but we haven’t heard any reports yet.
We continued to use the original rug and have since bought various other products produced in developing countries (though we have thought twice before doing so). The shock and amazement of our visit to India has left a lasting impression on us and we think often about the people and experiences we had there, but some of the extreme feelings have faded, and we are still not exactly sure what to do about our role in the global economy. Our ideals tell us one thing and convenience tells us another. We realize that our tiny “wealth redistribution” project had a very small and limited effect on the larger systemic issues that we were trying to address, but at least for us and hopefully the people we interacted with it created a personal and significant connection within a huge and almost incomprehensible capitalist machine.