Narratives of production and supply

This is a blog post by Kat F. Austen – a scientist, an artist, a journalist and a writer welcoming a humane and environmentally kind future. Follow her work on @katausten and http://katausten.com.

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Do you know where all your stuff comes from? Your shoes? Your laptop? Your coffee? A new artwork raises questions about the sometimes questionable processes that bring everyday items to our homes.

Two years or more ago I heard about a project called sourcemap.com, a mapping platform that came out of MIT, headed up by Leonardo Bonanni, and allows you to pinpoint the provenance of each resource used to create different consumables. The content on the website is incredibly detailed in some cases, and has really caught on to the conscience of the ethical consumer.

Equipped with a text descriptor, space for image media and a carbon footprint calculator for each point on the map you can really get an idea of where things are coming from. Bonanni has even been approached by large companies who want to trace the provenance of their components – from raw materials, through processing, until it falls within their purview.

Fascinated with the hidden networks that supply the world, I decided to explore the concept of supply and production creatively, using sourcemap as the back end. The result is Flows/Flujos, which is being shown this week at OKFest.

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The front end of the artwork is a stylised map showing the global journeys travelled by six everyday household objects. What you’re looking at is examples of paths around the globe travelled by things you might use everyday – pencils, tea and so on. The map is linked (with a hint of irony) by QR codes to six online sourcemaps. For each point on the map, corresponding to an important point in the supply chain for an item – be it a Sri Lankan tea plantation or a Californian supermarket – there is a fact-based but fictional story in English (or Spanish if you’re looking at the Mexican version of the map), giving an idea of what might be the story behind the things we all take for granted.

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The OKFest installation of Flows/Flujos is printed specifically for the site. The physicality of the piece is important in bringing into the physical world the reality of the impact of our consumer behaviour. Keep your eyes open for some guerrilla presence of the work around the festival too.

It’s not my first foray into using sourcemap for art. I’ve also used it to map out the origins of bike parts for a Guardian article and workshop about ethical consumption of “green” goods. With Flows/Flujos, I want to harness the power of narrative to really engage people with the stories behind everyday consumables.

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