In 2013, the artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen traveled to Zhongshan, China, to create an artwork at the White Horse Electric Factory. There, they made a film in which workers at an assembly line perform choreographed movements while constructing an enigmatic object. On the occasion of the MoMA exhibition Energy, Anna Burckhardt, a curatorial assistant in the Department of Architecture and Design, asked the artists to discuss bringing their work, 75 Watt, into being.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Burckhardt: Can you start by describing 75 Watt? What motivated you to make the object and the film?
Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen: In 75 Watt a group of factory workers use an assembly line to put together a flow of identical objects in a series of elaborate movements. Designed in collaboration with a choreographer, the object’s only function is to dictate the laborer’s movements. The work questions the nature of mass-manufacturing products on various scales, from the geopolitical context of labor to the biopolitical condition of the human body on the assembly line.
We look at design and manufacturing as political in nature, regardless of the objects produced. The division of labor has been a predominant force in shaping contemporary society and culture. In the United Kingdom, the 20-pound note reminds the nation of Adam Smith’s assertion about the benefits of division of labor. Marx, on the other hand, indicated that division of labor can lead to workers’ alienation, leaving them “depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine.” But perhaps it is the laborer in the condition of a machine who best fits the engineering logic that underlies the increasing complexity of industrialization today.
By shifting the purpose of the laborer’s actions from the efficient production of objects to the performance of choreographed acts, mechanical movement was reinterpreted into dance. We wanted to bring into question the value of an artifact that only exists to support the performance of its own creation. And as the product dictates the movement, does it become the subject, rendering the worker the object?
The title 75 Watt derives from Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers, a manual first published in 1916, which states, “A laborer over the course of an 8-hour day can sustain an average output of about 75 watts.” What interested you about this text?
Since our work is occupied with the deconstruction of industrial systems and the consideration of production processes as political, personal, and social practices, [this text] brought up many questions that resulted in this piece.
The quote sums up how engineering logic seems to reduce the factory laborer to a man-machine, through scientific management of every single movement (going back to early-20th-century landmarks like F. W. Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management and Frank and Lilian Gilbreth’s use of time-lapse photography to study the inefficiencies in workers’ motions). Engineering logic provides the abstraction and hierarchy necessary to design for increasingly complex industrial processes because the designer/engineer thinks of what he doesn’t (need to) understand as a “black box.” When using the right standards, this abstraction allows for the design of ever more complex products in ever more complex processes, resulting in a belief that there is very little we cannot engineer. However, it also creates multiple layers of disconnection: disconnection between the designer and maker, disconnection between producers and suppliers, disconnection between technology and people, disconnection between head and pin.
This “black box” logic only works when everything is meticulously characterized: every part in the process must behave in a predictable manner. And within the huge complexity of industrial manufacturing processes, the biological behavior of human bodies on an assembly line is not always predictable enough to fit. We wanted to question this quantitative hypothesis, which seemed both absurd and inhumane, and feels relevant again in these times of neo-feudal economies and precarious labor.
Why did you decide to work with a factory in China, and how did you choose the factory?
At the time the Pearl River Delta in China was the center of global production and manufacturing. We wanted to make the work at the source of this global supply chain, where minerals become everyday objects, hotels keep packing tape and shipping scales in their corridors, and market traders manually paint the little red dot on dial buttons.
We chose to work at the White Horse Electric Factory in Zhongshan because we were looking for a fair working environment and—as often when working in a specific context—we developed a relationship with the factory owner, who also turned out to be an art lover.
Can you describe the process of making this work and the significance of collaboration?
The objects were given their form through a long process of experimenting with assembly and disassembly movements. We began with a research trip to Shenzhen in 2011 in which we visited and gate-crashed electronics factories (manufacturing joysticks, tripods, screens, electric toys), observing and documenting the laborers’ movements—soldering, assembling, wire looming—as well as a range of product testing rituals. Back in London, we bought a selection of made-in-China electronic products and filmed [with choreographer Alexander Whitley] ourselves disassembling and assembling them.
The next stage included testing material manipulations with Alex and a group of dancers in the studios of the Royal Opera House, and slowly narrowing down a list of components and a sequence of movements. We ended up being granted only three days for rehearsal and filming in the actual factory, which meant the factory workers had to help us refine the stages of assembly, dividing the tasks and figuring out how to keep the line running smoothly based on their expertise.
All the parts and components for the final object have been manufactured in the Pearl River Delta, as we wanted to use the existing mass manufacturing infrastructure of the region to make a small batch artwork. As ever and everywhere with producing, many things turned up wrong. However, nowhere are these mistakes rectified as quickly as in South-East China: Parts were remade overnight to arrive next morning through the extensive logistic network of trucks, cars, and scooters that transport raw materials or half-finished goods. The effects of this rapid ecology are all over the objects, in tiny blemishes, misalignments, and greasy fingerprints.
We also set up an impromptu workshop in our hotel room, and every night after filming sat around making small repairs with Alex, who had to learn how to solder. We became close friends during the process and later collaborated on his piece Frames, in which the dancers continuously construct and dismantle their own stage set.
Does the object produced by the workers in 75 Watt serve any useful function?
The essence of the work is that the object’s only function is the choreographing of the movements of its assembly. Any other function would have canceled the work from existing. Its design was influenced by many references (both conscious and subconscious); materially, the use of threaded electroluminescent wire was a visual reference to the chronocyclegraph images produced in Gilbreth’s Time & Motion studies, while the fan blowing the worker’s hair at the end of the line is a small wink at Pina Bausch, whose Seasons March was a great inspiration as a simple sequence of repetitive movements. During the long process of making this work we were also filming and editing Kingyo Kingdom, a film about the breeding of Japanese goldfish, and in retrospect you can probably see some traces in its form of a Ranchu goldfish.
This interview appears as part of MoMA's free online course What Is Contemporary Art? on Coursera. Energy is on view through January 26, 2020.