Manuscript for performance lecture ‘Circuit’
First, a loom to produce fabric was manual. Weaving are threads crisscrossing to form the surface of a piece of fabric, and in front of a manual loom, a person would use pedals to simultaneously lift all the threads crossing in one direction and then manually, row by row, adding the perpendicular thread. It took a lot of time and effort to produce a piece of clothing.
So the power loom was invented in England. And this was in fact the beginning of the industrial revolution. In the first try-outs the looms would be powered by horses. This has to be a very significant difference. To move from producing just at the scale and power of your own body, to introducing a secondary source of power. Through the machine, to expand the power of a human body to the power of a horse.
Then looms would be powered by water. Streams and rivers and waterfalls. The natural environment itself is like this massive circuit of energy. The continuous flow of water moving from one location to another. The secondary source of power in the water-powered looms are no longer just extended beyond the human body but into the infrastructure of the landscape.
A big limitation to this technology was that the factory had to be located somewhere near a river. But then the steam engine was invented and a steam engine can be set up anywhere. The industry was released.
The technology kept on getting more advanced, especially with the invention of the punched card loom. Using just a piece of cardboard with holes in it, looms could be programmed to make patterns and other details.
I grew up in a town, founded on textile industry. Right in the center of Jutland. In Denmark. My father and my grandfather had a carpet factory.This city is new – maybe just of hundred years old.
To begin with, it was just a couple of small farms. On such a farm there would be sheep and during the long winter, socks and other pieces of clothing would be knitted from the wool.
The grass and the sheep and the wool and the hands that were spinning and knitting.
The sons of these farming families would wander the country with the knitted goods to sell. They would just carry the products in a backpack and travel by foot. They couldn’t sell them faster than what the hands could knit and they couldn’t sell them further than where their legs would take them.
So the scale of this production was quite local. The natural resource, the sheep, existed right outside of the windows of the little houses where the wool was prepared and the goods were knitted. And a body would carry the finished goods for limited distribution.
But things wouldn’t stay like this. Capitalism had originated. People had started to either own factories or work in factories. And because factory owners would always be in competition with one another, production would be optimized wherever it was possible. Any kind of small, traditional way of living, and producing and selling would quickly be taken over by the forces of industry.
The city that I grew up in didn’t have a river running through it. It didn’t have a coastline. In other words, it didn’t have the conditions for infrastructure. So, something that really set the scene for development was the introduction of one track, two tracks: A railway!
When you look at the center of Jutland, any town of a certain size, probably had a railway station. Infrastructure is absolutely essential to create capital. Resources and products need to be able to get in and get out. To be produced, manufactured, sold and consumed at different locations. If the flow is blocked, someone else will beat you to it and take over the market.
At first a lot of houses were built around the railway station where people would both live and have a production of garment. Everything was carried by bike to the railway station. A bike is still so close to the body. This was of course a limitation. So, to optimize and expand and grow, the production moved out of the houses and into the outskirts of the city where the industrial quarters came to be. And instead of the railway station and narrow city streets, infrastructure was now based on trucks, that would reach the factories by way of bigger roads. And the roads were part of a bigger network.
So, distribution is one thing that will optimize production and profit. Another one is to make labor more efficient. To make people work faster. So, in the factories they started to do different things to optimize people’s performance. Someone with a little stopwatch would come and monitor the performance of the women who worked at the sowing machines and every little movement went into a bigger study of work performance and efficiency.
The thing is that it was hard to push these workers beyond what was more or less reasonable, because they would unionize and demand certain rights. One solution was to avoid as much manual labor as possible and automize as much as possible. To invest in machinery.
Another important factor to make profit is to sell as much as possible. And to sell as much as possible you need people to buy as much as possible. And something that will really make people invest in clothes is fashion. The idea that your wardrobe has to change with every new collection.
The production of clothes requires many little variable stitches and positions –only very advanced machinery is capable of taking care of such details. And since the details would change every season with new lines of fashion, the machinery wouldn’t be worth the investment. When it comes to clothes it has to be in the hands of the worker. It has to be touched by someone. And since manual labor was getting expensive in Scandinavia, the next step to raise profits, was to send production abroad to countries that had an economic disadvantage because of war or colonialism.
So, the design and the order are made in Denmark, the cotton is produced in India or maybe Texas, the fibers are spun in Myanmar, the fabric is woven in China, then made into clothes in Turkey, then consumed in Denmark.
Almost 3000 liters of water is used to produce one t-shirt. That’s enough drinking water for one person for 2,5 years. The chemicals that are used to dye the textile are damaging the health of the workers and are rinsed out into river-systems and pollutes the environment. Since the year 2000 the annual production of clothes has doubled. The textile industry is responsible for 10% of global emissions of greenhouse gasses, making it the second most polluting industry after oil and gas.
A big part of this clothes is worn very few times before it is trashed or recycled. A lot of it the recycled clothes ends up in Africa where it turns out that most of it doesn’t have a high enough quality to be reused and governments end up having to spend a lot of money getting rid of it as waste.
Going back to the water powered loom, it gave the geography of the landscape a lot of significance. In the United States cotton was produced by enslaved people in the South but the manufacturing of textile was set up in the North because of all its rivers and streams. There is a place just North of New York called Pawtucket – This means falling water. Here the first cotton mill opened. This mill is said to mark the beginning of the American industrial revolution. There was a big river running through the landscape. To be able to control the power of the stream, a damn was set up and a lake would form on one side. And then you would make a second, smaller stream that went around the dam and into a turbine. And by lowering and lifting the dam, you could control the power of the waterflow going through the turbine. If someone else set up a mill and a dam further up the river they would disrupt the flow and steal the power of the stream.
Of course, rivers are part of much bigger circuits. When heat from the south and cold from the North meets at the Atlantic Ocean, the temperature difference sends weather systems in over Europe. Problem is that, as the Arctic is heating up, weather systems are not send in over the European continent and the lack of rain dries out rivers that are essential to animal life, agriculture and transportation.
When it comes to the circuit of money, there is of course the simple way that money works: A means of exchange, the price of a commodity. And then there is money as capital. Money becomes capital when money is used to create more money. And essentially profit will come from the exploitation of wage labor.
So, you have some money, and with this money you can pay someone to work for you. In the workplace. Like a factory. The worker gets a wage and with this wage they consume. They buy things like clothes and food and take it into the living space and care for themselves and their children so the children can grow up to also become workers. And the profit created when they buy things go back to the business owner who can employ more people and increase production.
So, this is a circulation of capital. And the worker is inserted into this system in different alienating ways. But in fact, it is not really a circle but a spiral. To be competitive means to be one step ahead. And so, if the economy flows and everyone are taking small steps all the time for cheaper and faster and more expansive production, it means that the economy grows and it spirals.
Perhaps we could imagine a society with a circular economy. One where production would be organized around human wellbeing rather than profit. Where we would distribute resources for the common good rather than letting them accumulate on fewer and fewer hands. Where we would produce within the limitation of what the planet can sustain and let less go to waste.