Q & A between Sharon and Maryann about their collaboration ‘My Samsung, My Best Fiend’ for Samsung Masterpieces digital art platform. It was rejected based on legal grounds. Read about it here

Sharon: When I approached you with the idea of collaborating, I’d already done some research and found out about Samsung workers getting cancer. I remember you being skeptical about being anti-corporate and anti-Samsung because that was an easy position to take. Actually it was your natural skepticism that made me want to collaborate with you in the first place! What was the progress of your thoughts and feelings as you researched and developed the script?

Maryann: I think the more accurate description of my feelings then would be wariness. When we criticise actions of others, if we’re not careful we let our fervour take over and then it becomes a battle to win the argument at all costs. I feel responsibility to think carefully about the messages we put out there; whether we’re perpetuating false ideas, especially since these bits of information are given material form and will presumably survive forever or at least for a much longer time than ink and pulp. Like conspiracy theories, some ideas become so convincingly burned into people’s imagination that no amount of reasoning and evidence can persuade them to consider otherwise.

I was also feeling a bit strange that as a regular smartphone user, and of a Samsung, at that, that I would be hammering the company. I felt like a hypocrite. I still do. I’ll admit to being very seduced by these devices. Have you seen the new-generation flexible screens? They are fantastic.

Sharon: Can you list some of the info sources, like news articles and documentaries, you looked at?

Maryann: This story has been big news for several years in South Korea so finding sources was not difficult. We have Bloomberg Businessweek, the Wall Street Journal, a documentary by Al-Jazeera and of course the very vocal, SHARPS (Supporters for Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry).

I also searched the chemicals used in semiconductor manufacturing to look for other opinions. I found an article by Elizabeth Grossman to be fairly objective. The direct link between cancer and clean room conditions is still being debated although there certainly is an unusually high number of cancer cases with Samsung. Some of the chemicals used like benzene, are known human carcinogens while others like trichloroethylene are strongly suspected to be carcinogenic. Some epidemiologists note that the cases in Samsung fit a pattern observed in a study of IBM workers but the Semiconductor Industry Association contend that those studies were flawed. Another study commissioned by the SIA and conducted by Vanderbilt University found no conclusive evidence of a causal link. It may take a really long time before we know for sure. But even though we can’t be unequivocally certain of the cancer link, Samsung still acted in bad faith as evidenced by underhanded moves like intervening in workers’ claims from KCOMWEL, a quasi-government worker compensation agency.

Thumbnail layout during first discussion.   

Sharon: Why was it important to make the story personal as well as a very blunt critique of Samsung’s labour practices?

Maryann: I think that’s related to the conflicted feelings. While I’m unhappy to know that people are suffering to make these wonderful things that I enjoy as a consumer, I’m also very dependent on it and I don’t wish to discard it. As much as I’m criticising Samsung, I’m also criticising myself and observing how bewitched I am by modern technology. I think many of us will feel this dissonance if we’re aware of what happens in the supply chain and production line. When it’s personal and relatable the story becomes more meaningful.

I remember asking you: ‘what am I to do as a consumer?’ If we bring attention to this through art, what are we telling people to do? You pointed out that it is enough to raise questions, which seems to reflect the thinking of the 19th Century Russian author, Anton Chekov. In a letter to A S Suvorin, he writes:

“You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.”

What’s great about this information age is that news travels quicker and it’s harder to hide bad behavior. However, I think this problem with Samsung would have remained a domestic issue if not for the relentless campaigning by the families of the victims, and worker groups.

As for why be blunt with Samsung, well, this is a Samsung campaign which we know is an effort to associate the brand with creativity and positive attributes. But then here’s something not so positive that they did and it deserves attention. If we want things to change in the manufacturing of smart devices the best place to start is with the world’s largest maker.

Sketchbook page. With most projects, I start drawing without a plan or much research, to see what images come up. This process is important to find the emotional thread of the subject, which I can never get by thinking. I have to find it with my hands. – Sharon

Sharon: The three victims you choose for the memorial portraits section happen to be all young women. Was this a conscious decision?

Maryann: No. It was driven by the availability of their portraits. We needed the faces. There were a lot of faceless names. There were also suicides reported of male workers working in different plants, not in semiconductor lines and not necessarily due to exposure to hazardous chemicals. I also wanted to pick from the category that represented the large number of people who died from cancer induced by exposure to toxic materials.

Historically, more women than men have been hired to work in the assembly and routine work of electronics factories, for a variety of reasons (that also raises an interesting discussion). So I think having more women was just circumstantial.

One thing that disgusts me now that I’ve learned about this, was the sort of positive perception of chip makers that media and advertising had impressed upon me. I was reminded of the “Intel Inside” campaign featuring people in “bunny suits”. It was paraded as cool, geeky, intelligent, and high-tech. I knew vaguely that the suits were meant to protect the chips from contamination, but I had no idea that the people inside were handling carcinogens and breathing recirculated toxic fumes every day while on the job.  It’s easy not to care when no one kicks up a fuss and you don’t feel compelled to investigate if there really is any link. I think the people in Korea did the right and brave thing. I wonder if I could be as devoted as Hwang Yu-Mi’s father in demanding accountability. Seven years is a long time. Most of us would’ve buried the cause or settled for money.

Sharon: Why did you use the brand name ‘Samsung’ instead of the generic word ‘smartphone’ in the script?

Maryann: Samsung is a special noun and I wanted to give the device a persona to illustrate the relationship. We’re getting close to making artificially intelligent smartphones which may know us better than we do ourselves. I think it’s remarkable that in future that there will be apps that are capable of predicting our emotions, maybe even offer some kind of therapy. “Samsung” in this case represents everything that combines to integrate technology into our lives.

Sketchbook page

Sharon: We knew from the the start that didn’t we want to make this a piece of self-righteous agitprop. You talked about the guilt that comes with inconvenient truths, and the impossibility of squaring the ‘moral balance sheet’ in the age of capitalism. What are some of the questions that go through your head about this?

Maryann: To be honest, I had to look up “agitprop” when you first mentioned it 🙂 Goes to show how unacquainted I am with the history of art as propaganda.

Yes, the impossibility of being non-complicit in the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of people becomes apparent when we examine how we live and the things we consume. It brings to mind the calls to abstain from palm oil products because of the destruction of rainforests. Is that even practicable?

Sometimes it’s easier to just not think about it or slip into a sort of moral-licensing, like being careful and conscious with waste or doing charity to “pay” for other vices or indulgences so that we feel better about ourselves.

Maryann: From the very beginning you wanted to tell the story about the Samsung workers. What moved you to do this?

Sharon: Solidarity, and subversion. I felt that being invited by Samsung to make art on a Samsung device for a Samsung sponsored digital art platform was a rare opportunity to explore how we’re connected via our magical smartphones to a web of labour, manufacturing, marketing and consuming. Not only is this expressed through the art, it’s also happening in the real-life meta-level context of the Masterpieces project. In this case, the context and the art are like a call and response – they echo and amplify each other. Drawing the memorial portraits of Samsung workers on the Galaxy S Note was a mini mindfuck. I kept thinking about the human who’d assembled my device. It wasn’t just telling the story of the workers, but showing how that story is part of the technology we use every day. That story is more than something that happened to people in another country – it’s sitting there in our pockets; we’re holding it in our hands.

First rough of Panel 3. We did two photoshoots at a friend’s apartment. The first was just playing around and seeing what shots could be interesting. By the second shoot we knew the composition of the images we needed. 

Maryann: What does the Kraken signify?

Sharon: The invisible tentacles of corporate capitalism, reaching into every aspect of our lives, from our bodies to our minds – gripping tightly in some places and caressing lovingly in others. Hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. It’s all connected.

Maryann: That’s a fitting choice, a cephalopod’s tentacles have minds of their own which sense and react to their external environment. What do you hope this piece of work will achieve?

Sharon: For Samsung, I hope it sparks an internal conversation about what they can expect from artists when they choose to initiate digital art projects like this. The optimist in me asks them to consider how cool and truly innovative they’d be (or appear to be) if they accepted outcomes like our collaboration as part of the open-source digital culture of the Internet, which is so heavily biased towards sharing and exchange; to see that we are not trying to ‘bring them down’, but to initiate a true conversation that could lead to technology that isn’t destroying people or the earth.

I hope workers in the semiconductor industry who see this will feel that their struggles are shared.

I hope people will connect to the emotions and ideas in the work, and realize that we are not limited to using these devices (or services) in ways that the companies that made them want us to use them. These are powerful tools that can help us imagine and construct a more just, less destructive civilization.

First rough of Panel 7. The final script was developed from these roughs. We needed the images to see how much text was necessary to tell the story. The roughs also helped me learn to how to draw on a tablet, which is so different from pencil and paper. The best thing about it is being able to experiment wildly with colour. The worst thing is that it’s very hard on the eyes. – Sharon