This archival photograph was taken during what I have to assume was a womens strike at a department store—Penney's presumably being J.C. Penney (but Im not sure). The image is part of Rodrigo Valenzuelas current exhibition at The Factory on Capitol Hill, which looks at the history and symbols of labor unions through time.
This archival photograph was taken during what I have to assume was a women's strike at a department store—"Penney's" presumably being J.C. Penney (but I'm not sure). The image is part of Rodrigo Valenzuela's current exhibition at The Factory on Capitol Hill, which looks at the history and symbols of labor unions through time. All images courtesy of Rodrigo Valenzuela

I grew up the daughter of a public-school teacher. I have a vested interest in writing about the teachers' strike, right? Not so fast.

My mother taught second grade for most of her life, and I don't have to tell you how good she was: Here is the Congressional order officially declaring my mother New York State Teacher of the Year for 2000.

But my mother was not in any union, ever. There wasn't one (as far as I know) in the rural-poor district where she worked. Rather, she talked of union members in the bigger, wealthier nearby districts as whiners.

Now, I don't have enough information to say how I feel about that. I do know my mother was brought up tough and unspoiled, the middle child of five on a farm in Ohio who raised me several years alone working full-time. To this day, in semi-retirement, she makes Calvinists look like stoners. She could run a school without lights and heat, I believe, and you wouldn't hear her complaining.

I also know education in Washington is so broken it's unconstitutional, and parents and teachers in Seattle are the only ones currently doing anything about it. (I'll believe that the school district offered a good tentative agreement last night when I see it inked by teachers.)

Meanwhile, even if a local deal is reached, the statewide illness rages, and Governor Inslee can only clear time on his schedule for the likes of Boeing to get billions.

I see Seattle people all over social media right now considering organizing for the first time.

Coincidentally, there is a relevant art exhibition in a creaky old building on Capitol Hill right now. (Admission is free.) The exhibition is a whole ghostly environment, another world you enter, in which labor-union symbols from all over the world and across the decades are recreated using Home Depot materials.

Inside Rodrigo Valenzuelas installation at The Factory on Capitol Hill.
Inside Rodrigo Valenzuela's installation at The Factory on Capitol Hill. JG

Artist Rodrigo Valenzuela has been thinking and making art about labor and collective organizing since he was an undocumented day laborer himself, standing outside American Home Depots and waiting to be chosen when he first came to this country from Chile just a handful of years ago.

He landed in Seattle, went to graduate school for art here (after a strong early art education in Chile), and in 2013, won the Stranger Genius Award.

He’s had museum exhibitions and prestigious residencies, and is represented by a strong gallery in Portland.

But “I want to show work in Seattle that no one else [in Seattle] will want to show or buy,” he said of this new installation in a little room run by fellow artists.

Valenzuela grew up under a dictator. He also got a terrific classical art education in Chile.

His work combines his classical-strict aesthetic standards with his direct experience of the political and cultural systems that most of us just theorize about.

American artists and art historians tend to romanticize movements that see artists working collectively in Latin American countries—while largely ignoring that those models, when they appear in liberal democracies (however imperfect), easily become hollow.

The shedding of various types of light.
The shedding of various types of light. JG

In his previous photographic series (Goalkeeper and films Diamond Box and Maria TV), Valenzuela hired male day laborers and female housekeepers and brought them into his green-screened studio to do things on camera like play soccer, act out scenes from soap operas, and tell their own stories.

Then he edited together the fiction and the nonfiction while occasionally also rearranging which voices play over which faces.

The remixing and dubbing muddies genre. It makes you question your shifting responses to the actors, who in any given scene may shift from actors to ostensible documentary-style subjects.

Recently at a residency in Nebraska, Valenzuela shot a film by hiring male day laborers and instructing them to debate being on a soccer team versus being in a labor union, and also to play soccer together in a small indoor area. (Ironically, he’d attempted to shoot this film about labor unions in Chile last spring, but he was prevented because his city was on strike, so even getting around by bus was impossible.)

Stills from that film are part of the work that’s up on Capitol Hill now.

So are stills taken from two other labor films, Jean-Luc Godard (Tout va bien, or All’s Well, 1972) and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night, 2014), as well as a selection of old pictures of strikes and picket lines, which Valenzuela found in the archives at the San Francisco State University Labor Archives and Research Center.

When you walk in to the exhibition, you immediately feel like you’re in an old fraternal hall. The setting is theatrical, meant to set a scene.

There are large, washed-out flags on every wall, bearing the logos of some mysterious organization(s).

The graying walls are stained with spraypaint, as if they were dirty from age (or burning coal), and the tattered flags have seen better days.

Collective bargaining: washed out, washed up?
Collective bargaining: washed out, washed up? JG

The colored logos, like any symbols, remain mute. They don’t speak directly; no names are included. But the logos seem possibly to refer to organizations that are, or may be, no longer around. Or maybe they’re still around but so aged as to be irrelevant. The gray air of the whole place feels suspended in the recent past, hovering between extant and extinct, dim as an ember.

Which is not a bad description for the twilight state of labor unions in the United States, considering that their backs were broken throughout the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Today, we have a candidate for the Republican nomination, Scott Walker, who is promising to root out and destroy all labor organizing in every corner of the United States.

Meanwhile, low-income and middle-income workers, more and more, are seeing and acting on the benefits of collective bargaining, for example in the national fight for a $15 minimum wage.

How do you feel when you hear the term “union”? What do you associate with it? Here is the University of Washington's labor history site, and I also recommend UW's cool, regularly updated Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project site.

In Valenzuela’s staged “hall” of collective bargaining history, the flags are mute but the photographs speak vividly. They’re printed small, so each one is seen as if through a peephole. We’re on the outside, looking in.

There’s Jane Fonda, hands on hips and in full ’70s earth tones, playing the American reporter witnessing the strike at a sausage factory in Tout va bien.

There’s a costume-mousy version of Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, separated from a group of people and feeling desperate because the bosses have offered the others a bonus—if they vote to fire her.

Then there are the stills from Valenzuela’s film, of the Spanish-speaking workers debating and playing soccer in matching jerseys Valenzuela made.

And finally, there are the fascinating historical images. There are violent moments of raised batons, picket lines of women in petticoats outside Penney's, laborers lined up like the segments of a stiff backbone, smiling with proud hope.

Poor Marion Cotillard. The bosses offered bonuses to the others if they just vote to sacrifice her.
Poor Marion Cotillard. The bosses offered bonuses to the others if they just vote to sacrifice her.

The images are strung together as if they were old-fashioned negatives on a single roll (again streaming together fiction and nonfiction footage). Each roll is inserted into a long, thin light box.

To make the boxes, Valenzuela nailed together four two-by-eights to create a narrow channel for the fluorescent bulbs to be slid inside, under the photographs, lighting them up.

It’s not clear from the photographs what these people are demanding.

It’s not clear whether they got it.

We have no information about why they had to strike, or what their families said while they were out on the lines, or what kept them up nights worrying, or what they did if their conviction faltered—who did they tell, or did they keep it a secret for fear of spreading doubt?

Did they run when the authorities came with weapons?

What happened just before, and just after, these dramatic pictures of action?

This experience of being on the outside of these histories, looking in, felt to me like when I visit a small town or a strange historical site and I visit that hokey little tourist museum where all the exhibits were created 50 years ago and the walls are peeling, and nothing has been updated because there is an implied uncrossable gap between now and then.

I also felt like I was on the set of a community theater. The spraypaint on the walls was still, obviously, spraypaint, not the effect of authentic aging. Our entire culture is constantly looking to the fake-old, in gift trinkets and home furnishings and the designs of bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, we also love “antiquing,” hunting for the true-old. When are we? What does now actually look like and why are we always hoping for alternatives? Are we preparing or escaping?

And how many of us, like me, are tourists to collective bargaining?

Blinds closed.
Blinds closed. JG

Valenzuela’s work is about the deep and probably never-ending human conflict between individualism and collectivism; the very current “share” economy, in which workers are actually alienated by contractors who can’t unite to bargain (that’s some “sharing”); and contemporary art’s commonly dismissive attitude toward sweaty labor—Valenzuela meticulously made each of these flags and boxes by hand, and treated the walls himself, using Home Depot materials.

But he did not use standard, factory-like techniques. He invented his own forms and his own methods. He found old logos and drew redesigns of them. To create skinny light boxes, he thought up how to build them. He left aging marks on the throw-canvas flags by another process he created: soaking medium through the canvas that stuck it to the wall, then peeling the canvas off and taking drywall with it, and flipping the canvas over to paint the final logos on the drywall-streaked side, generating the marks of a “natural” ruination process.

Valenzuela’s statement for this show reads (emphasis mine):

We all feel this way (I do too): What is the point of doing anything if we cannot be unique? We actively try to escape our duties to make society better, but the less we organize, the more we yield power to the wealthy and to corporations, losing not only things like social security but our everyday identity too. I worry about my future as an artist. I worry that other artists don’t consider themselves working class, building discipline and an economy, and working to help society understand that thinking is a labor-intensive duty.

After seeing the show, I asked him what he thought of the school strike in Seattle. He wrote this to me (emphasis again mine):

I think that the teachers striking is good, very good. An opportunity for the kids to understand that missing school is not just not going to the classroom it is also missing their earliest version of free association and organize[d] community. I think every parent should inform their children that the teachers are not just fighting for more money (that they deserve) but also [against] institutional racism (in the form of standardized testing, a necessary tax reform, and corporate money in public education).

I think right now it is the moment. As the population of Seattle keeps changing and [becoming] more well-paid, single people move to Seattle. Rent for working class people will be impossible in good school districts. We talk about the “shared economy” growing in Seattle. This soft, cool way to dissipate working from the possibility of unionization is really tricky. Mostly [it happens] when the city doesn’t think or feel like a citizen.

How often do you feel like a citizen?

Two more from the archives at the San Francisco State University Labor Archives and Research Center, aglow in the artist's light box.
Two more from the archives at the San Francisco State University Labor Archives and Research Center, aglow in the artist's light box. JG

To see Rodrigo Valenzuela's show, email The Factory to make an appointment. There are also open hours this Sunday, September 20, from noon to 6 p.m., when the artist will be present; and 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, September 21.