Professors’ Collaboration Highlights Plight of ‘Invisible’ Workers

Dallas Museum of Art Project Links Progressive-Era, Internet-Era Labor Exploitation

Dr. Sabrina Starnaman (right) and xtine Burrough stand with the digital Korl woman, a face covered with snippets of text from Life in the Iron Mills.

When Dr. Sabrina Starnaman first heard xtine Burrough speak about the strains of modern-day labor conditions, she knew they had to talk.

The interdisciplinary working relationship that followed was unexpected, yielding a collaboration for all to see.

The UT Dallas faculty members teamed up for “The Laboring Self,” a participatory visual arts project relating industrialization-era worker conditions to the plight of many members of the global workforce in today’s low-wages, online workplace. Their exhibition will be on display at the Dallas Museum of Art through the end of the year, where visitors can contribute their own thoughts to a compilation of submitted reflections from online laborers.

The Mechanical Turk workers traced out and measured their hands, where were cut out of cardboard by the Laboring Self team. Each hand has a message about the impact of work on the body and mind of the worker.

Starnaman and Burrough compared Mechanical Turk, a rating-based internet labor market, to Life in the Iron Mills, a 19th-century realist novella about Civil War-era factory conditions.

In the fall of 2015, Burrough — an associate professor in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication — gave a presentation on her work on the underpaid, dehumanized state of many online to members of the UT Dallas Feminist Research Collective. Starnaman, a clinical assistant professor from the School of Arts and Humanities, saw the presentation and drew an immediate parallel to her own research on the Progressive Era of American literature, which incorporates parts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“These questions about unsafe, oppressive working conditions were very similar to what is discussed in Life in the Iron Mills — questions arising from that era,” Starnaman said. “With industrialization, new technology created new working conditions. I couldn’t wait to talk to her.”

“After the presentation, she came up to me and she said, ‘You’ve got to read this book,’” Burrough said. “She was right — it embraces those themes of the invisibility of the worker and striving for humanity.”

With that conversation, Burrough found a new way to explore the platform she had been studying for the past eight years.

“We didn’t know that we were going to embark upon this long-term collaboration in that moment, but that’s where it started,” she said.

The Laboring Self exhibit will be at the Dallas Museum of Art through the end of the year.

In the Mill and on the Computer

Mechanical Turk casts itself as “artificial artificial intelligence” — work you wish a computer could be programmed to do that instead is typically farmed out to people who are working for minimal compensation. Typical Mechanical Turk “HITs” — or human intelligence tasks — include verifying online information, categorizing content, responding to surveys and testing website functionality.

“You have people who agree to be the figurative ‘ghost in the machine,’” Burrough said. “It’s all ratings-based, so when they start out, many work for nothing just to increase their ratings so they can later get paying tasks.”

Burrough first began requesting creative tasks on Mechanical Turk in 2008. She viewed it as an oddity that would quickly come and go, but that hasn’t been the case.

“So, I began to focus on projects that would bring attention to criticisms of the platform,” Burrough said. “To give the workers a voice.”

Starnaman, a 2017 Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award winner, planned to incorporate Life in the Iron Mills as part of her curriculum. A central concept in the novella is the Korl woman, a statue the protagonist makes from the waste of the mill, expressing his longing for fulfillment amid the mindlessness of industrial labor.

“I visited Sabrina’s class to talk about unregulated work in the 21st century, and I showed them the Mechanical Turk website,” Burrough said. “We then asked the students to hire Turk workers, and ask them to express the idea of a 21st-century version — what a digital Korl woman would be.”

The second component of the project was the students’ physical manifestation of the message — a cardboard model of a head upon which the students pasted selections of text from the novella.

“My students were receptive to doing something rather unusual for a literature class,” Starnaman said. “Afterwards, they recorded their own reflections on the project, and I was really shocked at how meaningful it was for them.”

Visitors to the exhibit are invited to write their own message on a pre-cut cardboard hand, expressing their own sentiments about work and their body and mind.

To the World at Large

Burrough and Starnaman then offered Mechanical Turk workers an unusual, self-reflective task.

“Each month, we ask nine workers how this virtual platform affects their bodies,” Burrough said. “They respond, and trace and measure their hands for us. The hands are laser-cut from cardboard or wood and the sentiments are embroidered on those, or if the written response is longer, it is shined through a light box.”

As a socially engaged artist trying to highlight the workers’ experience, Burrough tries to remove her own input as much as possible.

“I’m depicting what the workers send to me,” Burrough said. “I am trying not to speak for them — I’m a conduit for their sentiments.”

Since the statue in Life in the Iron Mills is constructed from a byproduct, the cardboard hands used for “The Laboring Self” come from a modern equivalent — recycled packing boxes.

“All this stuff gets shipped with so much packaging, and you remove one little thing that you ordered,” Burrough said. “These donated boxes allow us to take the workers’ voices and put it on the byproduct of our era.”

Starnaman has observed the exhibit’s effect on museum visitors — and UT Dallas students.

“We meet an amazing cross-section of people at the DMA, and talk about their jobs,” Starnaman said. “And whenever we’ve brought up this project with UTD students, we learn many of them work via the sharing economy. You’ll witness this moment of connection — sometimes, it’s not until you see how your work interacts with the world that you really understand what you’ve made.”

As part of the exhibit, there are cardboard worker hands that visitors can write on to tell their stories.

“We ask the community, ‘How does work affect your body?’ People respond in Sharpie, some people even embroider, and that gets added to the exhibit,” Burrough said.

Beyond the reward of her “Laboring Self” experience, Starnaman is thankful for a cooperation she never anticipated.

“It is such great fortune that my life gets to open up in this way,” Starnaman said, “and that I have found somebody with whom I have this special kinship in terms of ideas and work. I don’t think many people get to experience that.”

Research funding was provided by Humanities Texas, a nonprofit that serves as the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and an award from Puffin Foundation West, Ltd.

–Stephen Fontenot