Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Artist Rachel Breen Highlights Garment Industry Injustice

<;     Carleton students were greeted in the library lobby on Monday, April 2 by an unexpected sight: a sewing machine surrounded by piles of colorful fabric. Rachel Breen, a visual artist from the Twin Cities area, was performing her work The Garment Solidarity Project in which she sews the traditional clothing of Bangladeshi garment workers. The performance is just one of several of Breen’s projects featured at Carleton this term, all focusing on injustice in the garment industry. Her artwork can be found in the Perlman Teaching Museum and throughout the fourth floor of the library.

      The impetus for the projects was the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh that killed over one thousand garment workers on April 24, 2013. Breen frequently uses a sewing machine to create her artwork, so upon hearing of the collapse, she immediately felt a connection to the workers who had died laboring behind a sewing machine. Breen also thought immediately of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which led to the deaths of 146 garment workers in New York in 1911.

      As a Jewish woman, Breen had long been aware of the stories of the many female Jewish immigrants who perished in the Triangle disaster. She drew a connection between the fire, which led to increased workplace safety regulations in the United States, and the Rana Plaza collapse, which exemplifies the unsafe conditions that continue to exist in garment factories throughout developing world. Breen wanted to create artwork that told the stories of the Rana Plaza and Triangle disasters in order to raise awareness of the plight of garment workers. After Breen spoke with Minnesotan poet Alison Morse, who was similarly interested in creating artwork connecting these tragedies, the two artists decided to collaborate.

      They traveled to Bangladesh for three weeks to conduct research. Breen returned from Bangladesh feeling overwhelmed by “the enormity of the injustice of how our clothes are made.” While in Bangladesh, she and Morse had spoken with survivors of the factory collapse. Feeling that one response was not enough, the two artists developed a series of projects focusing on different aspects of the experiences of garment workers. These projects are being displayed together for the first time at Carleton.

      The pair’s most ambitious creation is The Price of Our Clothes, which is debuting in Carleton’s Perlman Teaching Museum. The exhibit features Breen’s work “Shroud,” an enormous web of 1,276 white shirts hanging down from the ceiling, one for each garment worker who died in the Rana Plaza and Triangle disasters. While walking beneath the shirts, visitors encounter copies of Morse’s poems that powerfully capture the injustice of the garment industry. Visitors can also listen to sound collages of interviews with garment industry activists and survivors of the disasters.

      One wall is occupied by a wall drawing Breen created using stencils of fabric scraps, but the majority of the space in the gallery feels eerily empty, filled only with the presence of the shirts hanging above. Breen purchased all of the shirts used in ‘Shroud’ from a Goodwill outlet, where many clothing items are sent after being donated to local Goodwill stores. Breen describes the outlet as the last stop on the American garment supply chain before the excess clothing is either brought to the landfill or shipped by the container to the developing world.

      “The project is about how we’re paying workers, but it’s also about our overconsumption, our insatiable desire for more clothes,” said Breen. The project came to Carleton through Breen’s connection with Carleton history professor Annette Igra. Breen designed “Shroud” specifically for the Perlman, taking advantage of its unique ceiling light grid to hang the shirts. “I felt really lucky to have this particular gallery, because the design of the gallery really made this vision possible,” she said.

      Students can find two additional exhibits on display in the Carleton library. Cairns, displayed in the Athenaeum, uses pieces of concrete picked up in Bangladesh to evoke the aftermath of the factory collapse. Evidence Series incorporates scraps of fabric that Breen distressed by running them through an unthreaded sewing machine. She is interested in playing with the contradiction of using a sewing machine to destroy something, and then sewing it back together to speak to the possibility of repair after a tragedy.

      The Garment Solidarity Project is one of several events associated with the exhibits, with the next being a poetry reading taking place on April 12. Breen said she started the project because, “In some ways, it encapsulates the whole problem in a simple act.” By sewing the traditional clothing of Bangladeshi garment workers, Breen captures the irony of the fact that these workers do not wear the clothes that they make.

      She also calls attention to our level of disconnection from the people who work long hours sewing our clothes in unsafe conditions for poor pay. “We’re so disconnected from the whole process that we forget that human hands made our clothes,” said Breen. Alongside Breen’s artwork, visitors can find handouts describing what we as consumers can do to address garment industry injustice. Breen said that the solution is not simply to boycott brands whose clothes were produced in the Rana Plaza factory.

      When she and Morse were in Bangladesh, garment workers asked them not to tell Americans to boycott their clothes. They feared that a boycott would cause them to lose their jobs. Breen does, however, argue that a reduction in our clothing consumption is desperately needed, both to reduce the massive scale of textile waste and to put pressure on clothing brands, especially fast-fashion brands, to increase workers’ rights and safety standards.

      Also at the top of Breen’s list is support for organizations, such as Labor Behind the Label and the Clean Clothes Campaign, that both help garment workers unionize and pressure brands to improve their practices. She also recommends the use of apps that examine the practices of different clothing brands. When it comes to her library performance of The Garment Solidarity Project, Breen said she “has never had more people thank me for what I’m doing.”

      She hopes that Carleton students will visit the Perlman and “take some time and just be in the space and experience it.” She thinks of it as a physical, immersive experience. “It’s difficult for us to imagine, what do more than a thousand dead look like,” she said. “But when you look at the shirts, maybe it has an impact.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *