Art Show Focuses on Garment Workers

At one time, New York City had hundreds of thousands of workers churning out much of this country’s clothing. Today, there are about eighty-thousand blue-collar garment workers left in the city. A recent art installation focused on some of them.

This past weekend, an old, empty Liz Claiborne store at the South Street Seaport was turned into a gallery for a few days, reflecting the lives and jobs of people like Joe Raco, a cutter for the past 40 years, and president of Local 10, the cutter’s union.

RACO: I cut quality garments made in New York—made in New York. If you were to buy a garment that’s let’s say a plaid, now you look at this garment, and you see all the lines lining up on the front and the back, I bet you never gave it much thought about how it got that way—well it gets there by an expert cutter.

In an alcove where clothing was once displayed, a video screen showed Raco miming a cutting motion with his middle and forefingers, cutting out invisible patterns, picking up invisible pieces of fabric and putting them in a pile.

Similar images ran throughout the former retail space. In the videos, cutters, sewers, and sample makers mimic the actions of their jobs and talk about what they do—mostly in Cantonese. Local 23-25, one of two unions the artists worked with, estimates that more than half of its members are Chinese.

[Chinese chorus]

That’s Solidarity Forever, sung in Cantonese by the Chinese chorus of Local 23-25. The singers were smiling, and not surprisingly, sharply dressed and wearing white caps with the UNITE HERE union logo.

The exhibition was part of a project called CAKE—Collecting Action and Knowledge about the Everyday. It was created by choreographer Ann Carlson and video artist Mary Ellen Strom, along with a team of six other artists. Carlson says it started with a pair of jeans.

CARLSON: We went to Mexico, we got into a jeans factory, and we saw a pair of Gap jeans being built from the ground up.

Then they turned their attention to New York.

CARLSON: A lot of the workers that are building Guess dresses and things that you see all over here, even in the Seaport, are being made just over in Chinatown. So it’s not all outsourced. There’s neighborhood workers that are laboring every day to make the dress you buy at guess. And we’re not looking at it from a heavy-handed, like, you shouldn’t be buying that dress, just, who makes it?

The artists spent about four hours with each worker, videotaping them and helping them shape the movements of their jobs.

CARLSON: They’re sort of personal dances in a way. We were thinking about 19th Century portraiture, like a combination of a visual formality, as well as a kind of the casual everyday-ness of gesture.

Ching Hang Lee, a seamstress who came here from Hong Kong 14 years ago, explained through a translator that she also teaches T’ai Chi.

LEE: So when she’s at work she almost feels like the movement is like practicing her T’ai Chi, so you’ll see in her film how the movement of pushing the material through the sewing machine is almost like pushing in T’ai Chi.

JOE RACO: They’ve taken an entire industry and put a face on it.

Cutter’s union president Joe Raco.

RACO: We needed that to give us some of our pride back. Not that we’ve ever lost it skill-wise, but we’ve been beaten down pretty bad lately.

Since federal import quotas expired in January, cotton imports from Chinas jumped fifteen hundred percent. The situation is so extreme that the government announced last week that it is considering bringing quotas back.

The project is a work-in-progress. Carlson and Strom are hoping to mount another installation in about year using a lot of the material shown at the Seaport, and taking a look at the past and the future of the city’s garment industry.

For WNYC, I’m Alicia Zuckerman.

[Chinese union Chorus]

(CAKE was sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Mix NYC.)