From photography to diary entries and sound installations, Our Invisible Hands is an exhibition showcasing how some artists experienced being a seasonal worker, opening up the conversation
Our Invisible Hands – Opening up the conversation
When you buy fruits and vegetables from the supermarket, do you ever think about how they got there? Do you know who the workers are, who harvested them? Seasonal workers are those who migrate for work which takes place only part of the year, usually in agriculture. Every year, millions of seasonal laborers migrate to Europe to work on farms. Ciel Grommen founded Seasonal Neighbors in 2017 with the intention of shedding light on the interaction that communities have with these seasonal workers. Made up of sixteen international artists, forming a collective to explore seasonality and the transition of rural landscapes. This us the start of Our Invisible Hands.
Annelies Thoelen and Ils Huygens are the curators of Our Invisible Hands exhibition. On display at Z33 House for Contemporary Art from January 30th to April 17th 2022 in Hasselt, Belgium. Many seasonal laborers migrate to Europe to work in the countryside during planting and harvesting seasons; saving up money to bring back home to their families. «It represents the invisibility of these seasonal workers. Disconnected from the local community. On top of that, the other half of the year, they are invisible in their own country», explains Huygens. At a social level, communities aren’t aware of these seasonal workers, excluding them from the social system. «There are big implications on a personal scale where people live half a year in a country. Here they don’t speak the language and they only stay to earn money», Thoelen points out. The exhibition also represents the concept of traditional harvesting.
The disconnection between seasonal workers and communities
«We are living in a post seasonal era», says Thoelen. Everything can go into greenhouses, and by controlling the temperature and light, you can have anything you want to eat at any time of the year. Although this development can be beneficial when it comes to land consumption, pesticides used and seasonality, it takes away the practice from a large chunk of traditional farmers. High tech machinery is behind a lot of the food we eat, with much of the process automized.
However, «they haven’t yet figured out how to automize picking and handling of the fruit», says Huygens. «This is a highly industrialized system and it is going in extreme directions». Our Invisible Hands wants to find ways of connecting society to the natural ways of harvesting plants. «We should talk about it», says Thoelen. «The exhibition is about being away from home and migrating for work, post seasonality and our connection with food».
Our Invisible Hands – Merging social problems with creative means
Although the artists wanted to demonstrate the current situation by posing as seasonal workers themselves, Thoelen stresses that official migrate laborers experience it from a different perspective. «The artists had this sensibility where they did not want to speak for the seasonal workers. Of course, they are not seasonal workers», she adds. «They’ve experienced things, but they were conscious that they couldn’t take the voice of the seasonal worker because that would be an incorrect appropriation». Our Invisible Hands, as a title, implies that as a society we don’t consider seasonal workers as part of our community. Maybe demonstrating how problematic this is through creative means of expression will open some eyes. «We go to the supermarket, we buy vegetables and we don’t think about any of it», Huygens says. «If we didn’t have seasonal workers, the supermarkets would look totally different. It’s also about the invisible economy and everything that we take for granted».
Making sure the discussions don’t stop at the artwork
The curators were adamant in making the exhibition interactive and dynamic. «One of the artworks will disappear on the 20th of March towards a field in a procession», explains Thoelen. The concept is to make sure that discussions around the subject aren’t just going to stop once the exhibition closes. «Some the steps you would normally take after an exhibition, are in this exhibition», Thoelen describes. «Farmers are invited to talk about it in the exhibition as artwork. Policy-makers will also be invited to talk about it. You activate the works. You literally have the people from the field within the exhibition itself». To include real life people discussing on implications which are mirrored through artwork integrates the creative side with the social side. Making sure people are taking away the most important points. «The process and the work is all linked together», says Huygens. Developed to be carried on in the long-term. Conturing the idea of a collective between seasonal workers and the community.
Understanding the struggles that these workers go through
The artists received the same exact tasks as a normal seasonal worker would have; including picking pairs, removing weeds and planting seeds. They were undercover, making sure that they got the full treatment package to better understand just how seasonal workers experienced it. «Sometimes, they weren’t sure how far they should inform the farmer that they wanted to make an artwork out of it. Some of them kept it under the radar whilst others were very open about it», Thoelen explains. The artists started with a blank canvas, sourcing inspiration from their everyday work as seasonal workers. It also depended on the type of work that they did. Some went to work on farms with Polish men whilst others worked with Thai women.
Jonathan De Maeyer and photography
Although the artists had decided on this venture as a collective, some started to feel the disconnect. Jonathan De Maeyer is one of the artists who focused on photography. Thoelen explains that he also kept track of his time as a seasonal worker through written works in a diary format. He quickly realized the struggle that this type of labor entailed. «Experiencing what it was like to be a seasonal workers for such a long time».
Recounting back aches; the lack of motivation to get back to it the next day and continuously checking the time. «We have this idea of the rural country side and picking fruits. But his work talks about the labour and how hard it can be», Thoelen says. «It can rain and you can have a back ache. It demystifies our ideas that we have on picking fruits and being with other people in the field».
Artist Pia Jacques de Dixmude working with Thai women
Working with chicory, a common vegetable in Belgium; Pia Jacques de Dixmude was one of the artists who worked with Thai women on the field. The harvesting is not the hard part, but the cleaning of it is. As she experienced working with these women, she realized how legislature plays a big role for seasonal workers.
One of the women was ready to head back to Thailand when the farmer’s wife told her to bring back some chicory. So she could show her family what she had been doing whilst working. The woman had to refuse the offer as, due to Covid, she was going to have to quarantine. By the time she got home, the chicory would have gone bad. Dixmude used this as an opportunity to showcase it at the exhibition. She researched the laws. She had a contact in Thailand for the transport and built a box specially to hold the chicory.
The relationship between seasonal workers and legislature
Her plan was to send her a package once she was back in Thailand. «This project bounced on all the administrative walls that you can encounter; by exporting a living good to another country», says Thoelen. «She tried her best but it didn’t work out». Looking at it from this perspective, the life of a seasonal worker is analyzed through other means. «It talks about how we can very easily get people here to work for us. And help us with our economic system. But how hard it is to get other things across the border», Thoelen describes. «We are walking against the walls that are still there. There is this absurdity of getting this whole distortion. And people here helping us but its hard to send things abroad». The exhibition sets the tone for how much legislation is involved with seasonal workers.
The next steps of Our Invisible Hands
Some of the artists didn’t wanted to solely focus on the people, but on the plants as well. «It’s not only the human and social element. The group was also interested in looking at the perspective of the non-human. They wanted to include the aspect of how we think about agriculture and growing food today», explains Huygens. In an audio installation, one artist captured the sound of the plants. The aim is to develop this into a concert-type project.
The value of the various crops and plants is also examined through cultures among the seasonal workers. Where a plant may be seen as weeds in one culture, it is seen as a vegetable in another. This is also true for the status of the plants across the world. All these concepts are integrated within the exhibition, through dynamic displays created to keep discussions lasting. Rather than planning for what is to come next once the exhibition is over; the curators wanted to make sure that the conversation wouldn’t end.
Our Invisible Hands
The exhibition will be presented in z33, a centre for art, design and architecture in Hasselt, Belgium. It will be on display from the 30th of January to the 17th of April 2022.