Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Artist interview: Tsz Yan Ng's "Factory Setting: the space of labor"

"Factory Setting: the space of labor" An installation by Tsz Yan Ng at 2739 Edwin (Curated by Steve Panton)

1. In the project description of your project, it is described in part as a "case study", what did this mean?

Tsz Yan Ng: It is a case study in that it stems out of both my own direct experience of designing a factory/headquarter building in China for the fashion label Lafayette 148 New York and subsequent research in textile manufacturing in the contemporary global context. The photographs are from documentation of the building and the activities within, highlight the labor of handcrafting and the value of these skills that’s fast disappearing in mass production. This company is exemplary in how they take care of their work force by providing them with a great space to work in along with medical care and education to some of the workers’ children. It is not always the case for textile manufacturing companies to provide social benefits so I wanted to distinguish what is shown in the weaving as a particular case that I have access to rather than a comprehensive survey of the subject matter. The weaving is more a project that opens up the conversation about the value of labor in the 21st century rather than focusing on extreme living and working condition polarized in the media. I was interested more in a nuanced look at the lives of these workers. Hence, I included a set of black and white photographs of factory workers in the 60s, not only to suggest the trajectory of textile manufacturing from a different historical period, albeit at a smaller scale, but also that there’s a strong social bond between the workers, talking and laughing, becoming lifetime friends through shared experiences. Nowhere in the exhibit did I mention that one of the seamstress in the black and white photographs is in fact my mother mainly because I wanted to keep the conversation as a general discourse rather than a personal narrative that others may not have access to. But in a way, the photographs discuss the other side of labor, one that is not necessarily defined by economics but more about human relations. This aspect is not visible on the surface when we talk about textile manufacturing so the aim is to highlight aspects of labor that is not always apparent.


2. There were two shows in a sense, can you speak to the importance of this?

Tsz Yan Ng: That’s actually interesting that it seems like a two part show. It’s true that the performance aspect of weaving, as in actually weaving in the gallery during the course of the month, is one part and the finished textile exhibited at the closing reception is another. I actually saw it as a continuum. The size of the weaving was intentional to point to the labor and time it took to make it. It’s so large that it’s palpable to understand the object in question as intrinsically tide to human labor. So even though at the closing reception, I wasn’t weaving, one can imagine that there’s an entire production involved before calling it finished. It’s not that different than analogously understanding that the clothing we have on right now, as a manufactured product, embodied a tremendous among of human labor before we purchase them in the stores. That whole side of manufacturing is invisible to us. So part of weaving at the gallery was to expose this other side. What was fascinating was that at the closing reception, Joel Silvers showed footages he took of me during the weaving process. The focus on the hand movement, the sound, the strips of lines crossing were mesmerizing for some. What was clear was that the people who only saw the finished weaving, without seeing the process, wanted to know how it was done. Only after seeing the video did they understand the scope of the work. So it was pretty interesting that it may seem like there’s two lives to the exhibition, but in fact they were really expressions of different stages that make the visitors wonder about the other aspects that are not immediately present. This was quite satisfying for me in that the object, while necessary to bracket the subject matter, was just a vehicle to discuss what it means to make and produce things. The response from people who saw the weaving process that came to the closing reception was less focused in the finished object but more astounded by the amount of effort it took to make it. So it came back to labor and that is where I wanted the discussion to reside. There is of course an aesthetic to the weaving - the colors, and texture, the different scales one is supposed to see it, from a distance and up close in detail. But this crafting is very much a part of labor as well.

3. How did you use the concept of an exhibition as architecture?

Tsz Yan Ng: As far as treating this as an installation, the sense of inhabitation was important. It wasn’t justmaking the gallery the site of production that was the spatial transposition but also the precision of designing the set up itself. I actually deployed an illusion technique called faux terrain (literally means false ground) that was used in 19th century panorama construction. It essentially is a 3D staging in the foreground of the canvas that is matched perfectly with the 2D image behind. This gives the illusion that the physical space is part of the perspectival extension of the 2D image. The view used for the weaving, the interior of the factory floor, was chosen specifically so that the custom loom and the working surface in the gallery would blend together when the viewer stands in front of it. The series of continuous horizontal cutting tables in the factory within the image is in perspectival alignment with what is in the gallery. So when people are checking out the loom and the working surface, standing in front of the weaving, they unknowing are co-opted into the perspective. There are two workers in the image, facing the same direction but deeper in space. This positions the gallery visitor to be in the foreground of that perspective, allowing others to see their inhabitation within the space of the factory. The installation as an inhabitable space relies on participants and the set up is intended to underscore the presence of people. But it is also important that it’s not about one looking at oneself, rather, is about seeing people OTHER than oneself. This type of spatial transposition or illusion has a long history within architectural design such as theater stage sets and natural history dioramas. While the subject/object relation is maintained for these precedents, I was trying to insert for the exhibition different criteria for viewing and contemplation – same technique but under very different circumstances. Beside the exhibition itself. I think perceptions of architecture as a professional design field is really skewed in terms of the emphasis on the final building. The actual ‘design’ of any built artifact is but a small fraction of the amount of work and effort in design development, management, and coordination. Even for this project, what was necessary in terms of production before anything is fabricated consisted of an entire month of material testing, prototyping, and calibration. This is labor too and it’s also invisible. The invisible intelligence of any ‘design’ work, whatever scale it may be, is a form of architectural thinking and production. Even conceptualizing the order in which things has to happen is itself a form of complex navigation. So while there may not be a physical object of interiority and exteriority that constitute ‘architecture,’ though I would probably argue for a conceptual and experiential one, I actually think the entire process of this installation, from ideation to its final outcome, is in keeping with architecture as a practice.

4. What was it like to work with Steve Panton?

Tsz Yan Ng: Steve is a careful critic and curator. He actually was the one who suggested for me to use the gallery to produce the work as a performance instead of hiding out in some other space to make the work where that labor would be rendered invisible. I think he saw the significance in relation to this issue of labor value that is critical to the project. That is for the public to engage the process itself and to reflect upon their own mode of production in life and in work to ask where value lies in one’s own form of labor. The gallery being in Hamtramck is great given the diversity and historically as home to industrial manufacturing workers. Steve by design was literally establishing a public forum by opening up a space for people to engage and reflect. It wasn’t just people coming in and absorbing the work. People stayed for long periods and some even came back multiple times throughout the month to track the weaving development. Conversations with Steve about the work made it that much more richer and as a true curator. He brought out the best in the work.

How will the project expand from here?

Tsz Yan Ng: Well, this project actually marks the second in a series. The first one is a 4 ft X 6 ft weaving of satellite views of highway interchanges called Shuttling the Grid. One set of spaghetti is from LA  century panorama construction. It essentially is a 3D and the other from Shanghai. The former, exemplary of urban formation based on car culture of  century, and the latter, of the continued valorization of car ownership in the 21stthe 20thThe context to which this was produced was a group exhibition called Un-Privileged Views, in WUHO Gallery in Los Angeles in 2012. It was highlighting images of the city outside of that iconic postcard image. The weaving technique developed from this project was intended to resist the focus on any singular image but to focus on a blended third image produced by the weaving. The simultaneity was an extremely interesting visual effect. But I wanted to explore this technique further, especially in scale, since there are very specific material concerns in terms of production. I usually like to develop each installation project based on context and venue. For the last eight years, I’ve been looking at different aspects of global textile manufacturing and industrialization/urbanization in China. I’d imagine that there will be other studies, just depends on what space I’m working with and if there’s a larger thematic question.

photographer - Cedric Tai

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