Project video documentation: https://vimeo.com/82201852
Invisible Threads is a mixed reality performance installation created by Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothenberg. The project explores the growing intersection between labor, emerging virtual economies and real life commodities through the creation of a designer jeans sweatshop in the online, 3-dimensional world of Second Life (SL). Simulating a real life manufacturing facility that includes hiring Second Life “workers” to produce real world jeans sold for profit, the project provides an insider’s view into current modes of global, telematic production.
In the physical space, a retail kiosk equipped with dressing room is set up to sell “Double Happiness Jeans”. Designer jean styles include “No Pants Left Behind”, “MyPants”, “LowRider” and “Casual Friday” in either boot cut, skinny leg, relaxed or classic. Prices range between $35-$45 USD or 11,000-13,000 Lindens (SL currency).
In the virtual SL factory, a textile assembly line is outfitted with Jaquard weaving looms, dye vats, laser fabric cutters, industrial sewing machines and quality control. SL citizens are hired through job recruitment ads placed in the SL classifieds to operate the various machines as well as serve as floor managers, supervisors and security. Workers receive 200 Lindens per hour ($.80 USD depending on daily exchange rate) and living quarters in the factory village for the duration of their tenure at the factory. Just as in a real life factory, workers are monitored and held accountable for their efficiency and production errors. The erratic flow of supply and demand and extenuating circumstances such as equipment failures and irrational dispositions may result in docked pay, layoffs and overtime.
Using a just-in-time production process, customers in the real world are able to purchase their jeans directly from the manufacturer, Double Happiness. A microphone and web cam connected to a computer creates a live stream of customer orders into the virtual factory. The audio/video stream, projected inside the factory Orwellian style, enables SL workers to see each customer and hear their order. On the assembly line, the first worker starts the production process that involves loading cotton bales into the Jaquard loom. Once the fabric is made it moves down the assembly line through each machine. Each worker stationed at a machine is responsible for selecting the correct option based on the customer’s order, men’s or women’s size for example. The worker also has a limited time frame in which to press the correct button otherwise the assembly line stops and the order has to start over. At the end of the production process, the jeans go through the SL to real life (RL) “portal” resulting in an output from a large format printer. Customers watch their jean orders being produced in real time in the factory via a computer projection in the physical space. Once in the real world, the jeans made from cotton canvas require simple assembly before being worn.
As real world customers watch their jeans move down the assembly line, the real lives behind the avatar “workers” stationed at industrial machines begin to emerge. This interplay between reality and virtual embodiment not only sheds light on the current politics of outsourced labor but foreshadows what has already become the future of capitalist production.
“Invisible Threads” premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival at the New Frontier Theater in Park City, Utah and was exhibited in “FeedForward: Angel of History” at LABoral Center for Art & Industryin Gijon, Spain and at the symposium closing event for Synthetic Times Beijing Media Art Festival sponsored by MOMA and Parsons The New School.
Additional programming support: Andrew Mahon
SL Building contractor and design: “Nix Sands”
Second Life Machinima: Annie Ok
Pattern design: Morgan Cooper
Printer supplied by Hewlet Packard. Project supported by Eyebeam and the SUNY Buffalo 2020 Scholars Award.
View full length 8-min version: https://vimeo.com/82201852
Second Life, large format printer, fabric
2008 Sundance Film Festival
LABoral Center for Art and Industry, Gijon Spain
Symposium closing event for Synthetic Times Beijing Media Art Festival sponsored by MOMA and Parsons The New School
DC International Film Festival
Dumbo Arts Festival