(credit: courtesy of the artist)

UBS 12 × 12: New Artists/New Work: Anne Elizabeth Moore
Through August 28
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL
(312) 280-2660
Hours: 10 am-5 pm

Garment Work is Anne Elizabeth Moore’s performance project in which she and visitors deconstruct a pair of jeans. With the piece, Moore, a Chicago-based writer, artist and media critic, will create connections between Cambodia, where the jeans were made, and Chicago, where she purchased them. Running August 6 – 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s UBS 12 × 12: New Artists/New Work gallery, Garment Work requires audience participation — over the course of the month Moore and visitors will dismantle the jeans by hand. Moore, who will be speaking at the museum on August 9 at 6 p.m., recently talked to CBSChicago.com about Garment Work, Cambodia, and the connections between writing and art.

CBSChicago.com: How did you start working in Cambodia?

Anne Elizabeth Moore: In 2007, right as we decided to fold the magazine I was editing and co-publishing, Punk Planet, I was invited to live in one of the first all-girls college dormitories in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and teach young women self-publishing. My first project there, with 32 young women from all over the country, was really amazing, both from a sociological or ethnographical perspective, but also just as a 37-year-old living surrounded by people half my age I couldn’t understand anything about, from giggling about boys to language. They taught me about Cambodia, of course, but they also taught me, basically, the precepts of transnational feminism. In turn, I taught them about self-publishing and distribution and the importance of tracking and recording your own history. I’ve been going almost every year since then, and just returned from a Fulbright in February, but right now I’m doing two things: I’m establishing a comics-teaching project based on my work there with local artist Sara Drake, and I’m about to release the first in a series of four books about my work in Cambodia. They’re sort of part-memoir, part-journalism. The first one is called Cambodian Grrrl: Self-publishing in Phnom Penh.

CBSChicago.com: What inspired Garment Work?

AEM: Garment Work was a project I started in residence at the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei, formerly one of the largest and longest-running textile mills in the world. It was a site for early radical socialist organizing and a haven of sorts under the GDR [German Democratic Republic], but the Baumwollspinnerei took a heavy hit when the Berlin Wall fell. It let most employees go, eventually ceasing production entirely and opening its doors to artists and galleries. When the Wall fell, local demand for textiles did not decrease, nor the products they are made from. An international policy called the Multi-Fibre Agreement allowed the world’s most impoverished countries the chance to enter the garment manufacturing game. So by the time Cambodia began holding democratic elections in the 1990s, it entered the international textile industry since all other local resources had been destroyed or squandered under the Khmer Rouge. This leads to our present condition—Cambodian women now make t-shirts and jeans mostly for the U.S. and Germany, often under harsh and unlivable conditions.

I started piecing together the German participation in this confusing international trade situation when I was invited to do a residency at the Spinnerei, which is a totally amazing space. I had just gotten out of a relationship with a German academic who writes about jeans and had returned from a trip to Cambodia where, for the first time, I started meeting garment workers and labor organizers. I was totally heartbroken and feeling very meditative most of the time, so sitting down for 34 hours and 36 minutes over the course of three weeks taking apart a pair of jeans with my bare hands seemed like a perfectly normal reaction to a personal and political situation of devastation.

One of the things about it is that it is really taxing. The dye gets everywhere; the denim fibers get into your lungs. You can pretty easily start to see how difficult the material is to work with, how tough the women’s lives are that do it all day long. It’s important, I think, to appreciate that. I wear jeans.

(credit: courtesy of the artist)

CBSChicago.com: How exactly will the performance take place?

AEM: I’ll be in the gallery two days per week, Tuesdays and Saturdays I think, working the jeans in the space. Visitors are invited to come and sit with me and help – because the secret to this whole project is that tearing apart a pair of jeans with your bare hands is actually really fun. And I’ll simultaneously be tracing back the history of the jeans from the Michigan Avenue store where I bought them to the garment factory where they were made, and documenting this along the wall. So we can deconstruct the jeans, in both a physical and an intellectual sense.

CBSChicago.com: What comprises the full installation?

AEM: The MCA performance installation will be all in-process research and live jeans-tearing apart. The original installation included a ten-hour video cut from the 34 hours and 36 minutes I recorded in the Spinnerei in 2010 to mimic the average Cambodian garment worker’s day, inclusive of two ten-minute breaks, a short lunch and mandatory overtime; the giant pile of jeans thread, the little bits of jeans I couldn’t tear apart affixed to the wall and a little journal I kept in German about the experience. It’s sort of an intense meditation on capitalism, integrity, loss and perseverance. I’ve exhibited bits of it here in the U.S., and I had the original exhibition in Leipzig, but the most interesting exhibition so far has been at Meta-House in Phnom Penh in January. I was told it was the first conceptual art exhibition in Cambodia, and considering how people—garment workers, in particular—reacted, I can totally believe it. There’s a little preview video on YouTube:

CBSChicago.com: What do you hope people take away from it?

AEM: I think people will engage a little bit more in their unconscious fashion choices and start to think through the processes by which their clothing is made. I’m pretty lucky to have been able to meet some of the people that make your Gap or Old Navy or H&M jeans, your Puma or Adidas or Nike sports bra or whatever, and I can tell you first hand what their lives are like, and what you can do to support the super adorable ladies who make your cheap snappy clothes. Or, maybe they won’t and they’ll just get excited about the process of deconstructing jeans. It is pretty cool.

CBSChicago.com: What draws you to the performative aspect of art?

AEM: I’m very comfortable as a teacher, and so that mode of performing is really easy for me, but doing this jeans thing was pretty different. I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all if I hadn’t started studying meditation, which also allowed me to start thinking about approaches to cultural production that aren’t about enforcing change so much as considering potential for improvement.

CBSChicago.com: You also do a significant amount of writing – what’s the relationship between art and writing? How does each one affect the other?

AEM: I’ve always had a really hybrid practice-trained as a photographer, but working as a writer; self-publishing but teaching at an art institution. I just have a wide set of skills that I can apply to any situation that interests me. For sure I’m best known as a writer, but sometimes it takes a while for me to work through various issues visually, performatively or educationally, before I have worked out a language for them. Mostly, it’s about taking really hard and usually awful situations of intense poverty or emotional pain or whatever, and working at them for long enough that I can see the humor in them. I’m basically only in it for the jokes.