An East German garment worker sits in front of a whirring factory machine, rushing to knit a tube sock against the device programmed to take her job. She has a staunch presence; with a forced frown, her arms and hands move steadily, rhythmically, despite the fact she knows she’ll fail.
She always does.
She says she draws inspiration from John Henry, the 19th-century folktale character whose livelihood as a railroad steel-driver is threatened by a steam-powered drill. Henry races the machine to prove the value of his labor and wins; only to die from the effort.
The garment worker, who does not die, is Frau Fiber; Long Beach-based artist Carole Frances Lung’s alter ego, who she fondly calls a “textile superhero.” Her John Henry-inspired performance piece dredges up a well-known reality, that inventions designed to make our lives easier ultimately outsource our labor while making our existence expendable, and it’s just one of the ways Lung has spent the latter half of her artistic career teaching communities about the damaging effects of contemporary apparel manufacturing.
“The reason why I call it art is because ultimately it all kind of fails,” Lung said. “The difference between being a business and being an artist is that kind of failure. And having it be an art practice that’s supported by other things[…] allows me to play with how we present the economy of purchase.”
After almost 15 years working in the garment industry and another 10-plus years combating the human cost of it, Lung is visibly tired but still believes in the cause. On a Thursday evening clad in a jean vest with the slogan stitched on the back that reads, “Shop 2 Last, Not Fast”, Frau Fiber sat in front of a 100-year-old Singer sewing machine teaching a handful of people how to turn their old t-shirts into aprons.
Workshop participants at the Museum of Latin American Art’s International Workers Day event crowded around as the Frau turned the hand crank, putting into motion the quick tap-tap-tap of the sewing needle.
“The great thing about the hand cranks is there’s a direct connection between your body and the machine, unlike with electric machines,” she said. “With electric machines, it’s like a disconnect, and it’s always jarring when you’re first starting. I like to put new sewers on the hand cranks because they’re also so much slower. But remember we’re being anti-capitalist, so it doesn’t matter how long it takes us to do this.”
The workshop is just one of the many campaigns put on by The Institute 4 Labor Generosity Workers and Uniforms that Lung has run out of her live-work space at 322 Elm Ave. for the past four years (and before that the Art Exchange) where donated bolts spill out of a bin, pieces of fabric are piled on shelves and patterns hang like mobiles from a clothing rack.
On a work table that takes up most of her studio space, Lung works on a quilt made of scraps.
“When people come in and are happy to take some old piece of fabric that was donated and it means they’re not going to the store, that is exciting to me,” Lung said.
Sewing Rebellions, the educational arm of the ILGWU—not to be confused with, but intentionally inspired by, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union—is run by Faux Fraus, a group of Frau Fiber followers who carry out ILGWU campaigns and regularly run events, often at local libraries, where participants learn how to “Stop Shopping, Start Sewing”, another frequently used slogan. Sewing Rebellions have been held around the world.
“It might make you feel good to buy a product because it’s being produced in an ethical way with organic materials, but it’s still being produced,” Lung said. “We don’t need any more new things.”
At certain events Frau Fiber also offers tailoring services for the price of what garment workers are paid in different countries; patrons have to spin the Wheel of Wages to find out just how much it will cost—it’s usually a meager sum, shedding light on unfair labor practices.
It was in 2013 that Lung started training Faux Fraus to help perpetuate this small, grassroots movement against fast fashion, an industry she knows from first-hand experience.
“When I lived in New York, I had this job at a company called Roth International,” Lung said. “They would send me to Bergdorf Goodman to knock off trends that were around a higher price point. Then they would take my drawings and ship them to China to have them made for pennies on the dollar.”
At the time, Lung was trying to make it as a fashion designer. She moved to NYC fresh out of college, only to find that she couldn’t penetrate an industry stocked with workers who had been there for decades and were still willing to live on entry-level wages.
“I think that in my mind studying clothing and textiles was the practical application of something creative, like it seemed more like I could make a living at it,” Lung said.
Instead, she sold t-shirts on the streets and, at one point, was a manager at iconic art supply store Pearl Paint, among other odd jobs. After four years, she threw her hands up and moved back to California where she landed a position with a small bridal gown manufacturing company in Orange County while working in education at the Huntington Beach Art Center—which she helped open during a peak moment in performance art.
Later in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where the company eventually moved along with Lung, it was one woman’s pay that left a lasting impression: “I think she got hired in at $6 an hour, and this was in the late 90s, and when I went back there, like three, four years later, she was making $6.50 an hour.”
And the lack of healthcare: “If I was killed or maimed the company got a million dollars, but I had no health insurance.”
But the transformational moment, when Lung realized her art practice would be about her experience in the garment industry, took place in Germany as a grad student living abroad through the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Lung, an American of German descent, put on a performance piece called “One Size Fits All” in the small, conservative town of Weimar responding to her experiences as a foreigner there. With a shaved head and donning overalls, passersby could see her sewing out of a small storefront.
“I had a lot of people stare at me and point at me and take pictures because I was a little punk,” Lung said. “I think ultimately it was because of my age, I was in my late 30s, and Germany is super ageist. Women my age wore shades of mud, I wore bright colors.”
That’s where the idea of Frau Fiber was born, the persona of a staunch woman, a textile worker/activist and “symbol of the lost generation of East German workers.”
Earlier this year, Lung was awarded a coveted artist grant from United States Artists, a significant chunk of money that is providing her, at 52, with some stability late in her career, she said. Lung supports her soft guerilla activism as an associate professor of Fashion Fiber and Materials at Cal State Los Angeles.
And with the East Village “Arts District” failing to serve actual artists and rents rising quickly, she’ll stay in Long Beach as long as she can afford it, but plans to be bicoastal within the next couple of years.
“Because you look for other spaces and there’s nothing, not anywhere, not Long Beach, not Wilmington, not anywhere,” Lung said. “So I’m kind of like, what’s next?”
Frau Fiber is retreating, Lung said and making space for others to take on the mission and the movement. With a focus more on creating video tutorials, last year Frau Fiber made the announcement that she would no longer be hosting Sewing Rebellions out of 322 Elm Ave. She is transforming it into an archive and community gathering space, filled with pieces of sewing history, including weaving and textile materials from a trip to Ghana, century-old sewing machines from Europe; a lifetime tirelessly failing for the sake of social change, the very reason why she calls it art.
“I have a vision, I have a vision for world domination and I’m trying to accomplish it,” she said with a laugh. “I have big plans and who knows if they’ll ever be fully realized, but it’s fun to try.”
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