Saturday, July 12, 2008
Luddites at the Robot Show?
Friday was the debut of "Meet the Made", the latest in the Mattress Factory's "Gestures" series. Curated by Ian Ingram and Carl DiSalvo, "Meet the Made" addresses "the relationship between robotics and all aspects of human culture." Stuart Anderson and I were invited to work with this idea for an exhibit, and combined forces to create a work about the Luddite uprisings in England during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It seemed appropriate to address a popular uprising against the mechanized workplace in the context of a show which celebrates the mechanized. Not that we wanted to cause a stink, but we were, at least, inspired.
We created a replica of a sledgehammer head, specifically the type commonly referred to as an Enoch Hammer (after its manufacturer Enoch & James Taylor). Sitting in a classic, museum-style vitrine display, the hammer head is alone and centered in a room kept dark except for one spot light on the case. Rendered impotent by its treatment as a relic of another time, the case is guarded by a security camera on each wall and a proximity-triggered alarm on the case. You can get close, but not too close. After all, this history should be important to remember, but it shouldn't be empowering enough that people get the idea that the same lessons should apply today... right? This is, as a friend pointed out, a piece about fear - the fear of a people rising up violently (or at all), the fear that tools like this sledgehammer will be used again. By rendering it safe in a plexiglass box in a quiet room, it's story can be manipulated as it is taught. I feel this way about most museum treatments of popular struggles for social justice - in fact this work is the first in a series of "relics" from past struggles I have been working on for awhile - I'll post pics of the other pieces as they are created.
The text on the informational plaque next to the vitrine reads "Iron head from long-handle sledgehammer, of the type used to sabotage knitting machinery in newly mechanized factories during the Luddite uprisings in England (1811-1813). From the collection of Joseph Radcliffe (1764-1819)." Radcliffe was one of the most vehemently anti-Luddite officials of the time, and presided over the trials and deaths of many of the accused rebels.
I also installed a vinyl graphic on the outside of the gallery space - an illustration of an old sledgehammer with the caption "down with all kings but King Ludd" (a line from a Lord Byron poem depicting the Luddite mindset, written to a friend in 1816). King Ludd, or Ned Ludd, was the mythical head of the Luddite rebellions, and many of the threats and public notices issued by various Luddite groups were either signed "Ludd" or referred to Ludd specifically as an arbiter of justice.
Recommended reading on the Luddites: Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale.