“Where Is the Hidden Labor?” – On How It’s Made, Kara Walker and Infrastructure

Artist Preface A Subtlety Kara Walker

“A subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”

Last fall I took a class on “current controversies” in critical theory, which essentially meant we read what was “trending” in academic thought. Though we read some very disparate texts, throughout the class, under different variations, the professor repeatedly posed the same essential question: “How do things work?”

The variation of the question that stuck with me most vividly was, “Where is the hidden labor?” Much more polemic than “How do things work?” this particular variation asks what or who makes things work, and why exactly their labor is invisible. The reason this particular question resonates so much for me is that implicitly, it asserts that labor is a form of infrastructure and furthermore, that this labor should be valued. To put it bluntly, I was once an unpaid intern.

In her new installation, “A Subtlety,” Kara Walker takes this assertion seriously, taking the viewer into an old sugar refinery and magnifying the infrastructure that made – and makes – sugar possible. In the absence of machines, equipment and devices, there are instead sculptures made of brown sugar and molasses. Depicting weary and dirty little black boys at work, the sculptures have an aura of profound exhaustion, some even actually melting during the exhibit, as if even the display itself is a form of tiring labor.

Little Sugar Boy Sugar Baby

Stretching all the way down the factory’s incredibly capacious passageway, the sculptures form a meandering path to the exhibit’s prime feature: a giant sphinx made of pristine, refined sugar. The rub, however, was that this sphinx depicted a behemoth, buxom black woman, not the familiar mythical creature. Standing 50 feet tall with her genitalia exposed, her rump raised and an Aunt Jemima handkerchief tied tight, this sphinx was a grotesque and awesome sight. Her size and the sheer spectacle of the exhibit – which actually requested photography – only amplified both the grotesqueness and the awe. Even further, the fact that she was composed of white sugar, which contrasted with the brown sugar of the little boys, made her even more compelling. She was not melting or impure; she was purified, perfect, poised.A Subtlety Kara Walker Sphinx Sugar

A Subtlety Sphinx Sugar Nude Kara Walker

Yet she was also not a giant cube of sugar. This sphinx was clearly a black woman. In other words,she actually embodied the labor that made her possible: she appeared as a denuded, mammified, audacious, sugarcoated black woman. The infrastructure was the structure.

The exhibit points toward this revelation quite doggedly, asking us to confront history as it was made – through black bodies and black labor – not as it is presented in the form of tiny, delectable, processed granules. In the sense that the exhibit explicitly draws attention to infrastructure, it is strangely in the same tradition as one of my favorite tv shows, How It’s Made.

That said, what has struck me about “A Subtlety” is that Walker has actively reimagined the final product. In addition to rarely choosing products that are controversial or not mechanized, when How It’s Made shows the underbelly of familiar products, at the end of the process we see the product in its familiar form, infrastructure acknowledged, yet ultimately still not visible, as if we’ve learned a secret, but only to guard it more closely. In contrast, Walker reveals the infrastructure and forces it to the surface, like a muscle bulging through skin, becoming the skin. This is not defamiliarization or enlightenment or unveiling, all of which imply that we were looking from the incorrect angle, from an obscured perspective. No, this is metamorphosis. Through “A Subtlety,” sugar becomes a legacy of exploitation and devaluation of labor and life as well as a sweet confection. Every sugar crystal becomes a piece of the sphinx and the little children.

Of course, this becoming is never complete. Stephanye Watts at Gawker notes that unsurprisingly, the revelation I’ve outlined and experienced is one among many, namely one that manages to trivialize the entire exhibit in one phrase: “Sugar tits.” Even further, the exhibit is not permanent, so soon the labor and life embodied by the sphinx will be just as invisible as the labor that previously animated by the formerly productive factory.

That said, the value of “A Subtlety” is that it offers a glimpse of what things can look like when infrastructure, particularly labor, is made bare and made to remain that way. Seeing this exhibit gave me visions of The Great Wall of China with skeletons at its base; of Wal-Mart with its employees wearing name badges that also show their wages; of burger joints with cow heads engraved into the tables; of Qatar’s World Cup facilities littered with the corpses of dead workers; of iPhones with preloaded and undeletable photos of the people who manufactured them. These visions didn’t present a flattering portrait of the world, but the world could probably use less meticulously-orchestrated selfies and more detailed, unflattering accounts of what and who actually makes this world possible.

We have already began to view these unflattering accounts in the food and health industries. In fact, the ubiquity of nutrition facts labels shows how mundane of an idea it is for infrastructure to be apparent. There’s no reason not to branch out. After all, even though Walker herself is ironically engaged with a food item, she shows that food is always just one axis on a much more expansive grid, one that ridiculously connects us through time, space, history and memory, like a naked black sphinx in the middle of soon-to-be-redeveloped abandoned sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


P.S. Here’s a slideshow that Walker made to highlight some of her inspirations. It is also very attentive to infrastructure.

Those Filthy Brits

So I’ve been reading The Condition of the Working Class in England for my history class. In the book, Engels explicitly outlines the extreme misery of the proletariat life in 19th century Britain. It’s fucking tragic. Seriously, it is fucking tragic. Nevertheless, what fascinates me the most about the book is not the horrid conditions that these people live in, but the fact that these conditions still exist. They haven’t changed at all. Read this excerpt.

“It often happens that a whole Irish family is crowded into one bed; often a heap of filthy straw or quilts of old sacking cover all in an indiscriminate heap, where all alike are degraded by want, stolidity, and wretchedness. Often the inspectors found, in a single house, two families in two rooms. All slept in one, and used the other as a kitchen and dining-room in common. Often more than one family lived in a single damp cellar, in whose pestilent atmosphere twelve to sixteen persons were crowded together. To these and other sources of disease must be added that pigs were kept, and other disgusting things of the most revolting kind were found.”

Today, if you visit any ghetto, slum, project, etc., the tale you hear may vary a little bit, but nonetheless, you will essentially hear the same story as seen above.

Capitalism has been producing the same inequalities since its inception and these inequalities have actually evolved in some instances. Why does capitalism still exist? Are we really this corrupt? Obviously, yes. We all participate in this system. In some way, some other person’s comfort is the opportunity cost of our comfort. Even we “Liberals” that view ourselves as champions of justice are guilty. After all, how many of us (including me) are doing anything other than discussing and thinking? How many of us are active? Honestly, even if we are active, after our marches are marched, our vitriolic emails are sent to representatives, our crazy protests are publicized and our incendiary notes are posted on Facebook, most of us go home and rest our heads on a pillow (and some of us feel like we’ve really accomplished something.) We may be less than selfish the robber-baron bastards waltzing down Wall Street, but we’re still selfish.

Notice that I always use quotations marks when I refer to “Liberals.” I use those quotation marks because I feel like most of us are sell-outs. We self-identify as “liberal,” but our actions prove otherwise. “Liberal” no longer means anything (if it ever did). “Liberals” are merely people that vote for [insert “Liberal” party].

Okay. In our defense, we cannot help others if we cannot help ourselves. On planes, the safety video played before takeoff always says, “In case cabin pressure drops, make sure you secure your breathing apparatus before helping anyone else with theirs.” This makes sense. However, most of us are not subsisting or living on the bare minimum. Most of us are taking extended, lung fulfilling breaths before deciding to help our peers, and even when we do decide to help them, we offer as little assistance as we can spare. It’s fucked up. We are Liberals*. We are liberal only under certain conditions. We help people only if we can still be comfortable while doing it.

So, basically, just in case you didn’t know, you’re just as accountable as the dirty politicians and mega-capitalists you criticize. You can either reform your selfish ways via authentic humanist liberalism, continue to ignore them as you do now and be happy and “Liberal”, or do what I do and acknowledge my selfishness and anticipate my death during the inevitable “Extreme Reign of Terror” that Engels predicts in this passage:

…The English middle-class, especially the manufacturing class, which is enriched directly by means of the poverty of the workers, persists in ignoring this poverty. This class, feeling itself the mighty representative class of the nation, is ashamed to lay the sore spot of England bare before the eyes of the world; will not confess, even to itself, that the workers are in distress, because it, the property-hold ing, manufacturing class, must bear the moral responsibility for this distress. Hence the scornful smile which intelligent Englishmen (and they, the middle class, alone are known on the Continent) assume when any one begins to speak of the condition of the working-class; hence the utter ignorance on the part of the whole middle-class of everything which concerns -the workers ; ridiculous blunders which men of this class, in and out of Parliament, make when the position of the proletariat comes under discussion ; hence the absurd freedom from anxiety, with which the middle-class dwells upon a soil that is honeycombed, and may any day collapse, the speedy collapse of which is as certain as a mathematical or mechanical demonstration; hence the miracle that the English have as yet no single book upon the condition of their -workers, although they have been examining and mending the old state of things for no one knows how many years. Hence also the deep wrath of the whole _working-class, from Glasgow to London, against the rich, by whom they are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate, a wrath which before too long a time goes by, a time almost within the power of man to predict, must break out into a Revolution in comparison with which the French Revolution, and the year 1794, will prove to have been child’s play.”

Hmmm, on second thought, I think I’ll go with reforming.

Incidentally, I am personally really disillusioned, so I know that any radical, potentially order-threatening revolution, thought, action(s), etc., would immediately be decimated by propaganda and/or sheer federal force, so even though I support such ideas in theory, I actually have no faith in their success. Nevertheless, I think that using that as an excuse is a bitch move, so do that shit anyway. I damn sure will.

Solidarity.