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Workshop of the World

I watched the film Manufactured Landscapes last night http://www.edwardburtynsky.com which was inspiring, depressing and slow moving. Burtynsky adopts a ‘neutral’ position to the subjects he photographs, neither condoning or condeming the industries he is documenting rather leaving them open to audiences to discuss and debate. There is an overwhelming feeling of foreboding as e-waste (computers etc) are disassembled without regard for the health of the workers or the environment. The film repeatedly uses shots of the hands at work, the body presented as a fragmented object. Presumably the rest of the body is in a rather fixed posture. There were similar shots of the hands in the British documentaries I have been watching from the 1930’s and 1940’s. (see yesterdays post).

I remember seeing one of Burtynsky’s images years back in Flowers East Gallery of chicken processing in China and I have never forgotten it. The production in those images is on such an immense scale it totally contrasts to everything I have seen at Hethel, which is by its nature (research and development) smaller and more detailed. I find repeatedly when people discuss first impressions of factories it’s the noise that’s often mentioned, how loud the machines are. What I notice most in the RP room at Hethel is not only the lack of noise but also the heat that is generated by the machines working away.

I cannot help thinking about our history as the ‘workshop of the world’ describing our outputs in the 1850’s onwards. Christine MacLeod puts historical production into a global context and says “No country was as specialised as Britain in manufacturing in 1901”. (1). Contrast this with a recent Guardian article where Ian Jack explored British Industry, he states

“The British economy is to be ‘rebranded’. The country – ‘UK plc’ will remember the source of its original prosperity and turn again to making things…..The manufacture and export of goods suddenly appeal as a way out of recession to a political class that has largely ignored industry for several decades. The phrase industrial strategy still evokes cold sweat memories of British Leyland, bad cars and bottomless pits”. (2)

With this talk of bad cars I recall something Helen Sloan said to me on Monday when we met up to catch up on the project. She mentioned the phrase ‘The Friday afternoon car’ which I had not heard before. It is used to describe substandard goods and lack of attention to detail with the implication being that on Friday afternoon the ‘workers’ would be winding down for the weekend and as such productivity would be less focused and lower. With how we produce goods now, I wonder if the Friday afternoon dip is less likely to be evident as factories work 24/7 on shift patterns, so the beginning and end of the week is unfixed. We have also moved towards being machine minders, where computerised systems monitor production quality. I remember Derek explaining that the CNC machines at Hethel monitor the force/power it takes to drill a part, as the force increases the implications the tool is becoming blunt and will need changing. I’m assuming a warning notice is displayed to the operator to take action to rectify the problem.

1.Christine MacLeod Workshop of the world Located online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/industry_invention/britain_workshop_world_01.shtml Accessed 6th August 2010.

2. Ian Jack Filling the Vacuum The Guardian on Saturday 24 July 2010 p. 26