Return to Sender

Return to Sender is a tactical media workshop, combining craft and technology to create a platform for embodied crowd worker protest. It bridges the spaces of the virtual job platform and the corporation that owns it. Workshop organizers burrough and Starnaman conduct 100 surveys with crowd workers on Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk website [1] during a year long investigation of how unregulated virtual labor affects their bodies. Workers were also asked to submit a tracing of their hand. In this workshop the workers’ sentiments are transformed by a participating public into “Hired Hands”—artifacts [2] sent back to Amazon.com headquarters. We facilitate a labor protest for twenty-first century crowd workers on the model of nineteenth century labor activism.

Workshop attendees become invisible laborers (like workers of the sharing economy) who craft, design, pack, and ship the voices of crowd workers to the corporate headquarters responsible for the most well-known unregulated, virtual job platform. We could amplify the voices of any configuration of workers from the shared economy, but as Bassam Tariq summarizes, “Turkers represent the Wild West of the crowdsourcing workforce.” [3]

Outcomes, Goals, & Timeline

First, we will create a space for public dialog about labor in a disembodied, virtual workforce in schools, makerspaces, craft circles, neighborhood groups, art galleries, and storefronts. We will demonstrate parallels between workers of the past and present. Secondly, we will send handcrafted works that amplify crowd workers’ voices to Amazon—creating an embodied protest for a disembodied workforce. The process of discussion, creation, and distribution will occur over four three-month cycles from Labor Day 2017 to Labor Day 2018.

Workshop as Art Project

If The Workers exhibition (2011) at MASS MoCA [4] is the “reader” for artists and humanists creatively investigating labor, Return to Sender is a monograph that asks specific questions about the relationships between the body, work, and technology in a time when an emerging, unregulated, peer-to-peer workforce parallels worker experience from the Industrial Revolution.

Digital fabrication (the above animated graphic shows the laser cutter firing holes into used boxes) allows us to repurpose flattened Amazon boxes, changing waste elements from one-click culture into a platform for critical communication in dialog with the Turkers, makers, the general public, and Amazon.

Enacting Social Change

By bringing the voices of virtual laborers manifestly into the public sphere, and in turn, asking those in that public space to actively engage or even become a part of the “virtual factory” as a site of protest in Return to Sender, this project not only makes us aware of the parallels between two disconnected historical eras, but also follows in the tradition of Progressive Era activism by bridging the imagined space between the physical and virtual bodies, just as activists of an earlier generation sought to bridge the spaces between class, race, gender, and nationality through an awareness of the common bond of labor.

Notes

[1] Amazon Mechanical Turk is a virtual job board.
[2] See images (coming soon) of “Hired Hands.”
[3] VIDEO: TURKING FOR A LIVING, Bassam Tariq, NewYorker.com, March 20, 2015
[4] MassMoCA, The Workers

Contact xtine [at] utdallas [dot] edu or Sabrina.Starnaman [at] utdallas [dot] edu for more information