The Hop Project: mechanisation, worklessness and the ‘internal wound’
Angela Kingston, February 2018
In September 1966, Associated Television broadcast a news item about the Herefordshire hop harvest. It included footage of men and women plucking hops from vines and then pouring basketfuls of them into sacks. Their babies and toddlers were alongside them as they worked and their caravans were parked in a nearby field. For generations, as the commentary explained, people had travelled from the Black Country and Wales to Herefordshire each year to harvest the hops in the same way.
It was coming to an abrupt end, however. The hop-pickers were being replaced by machines. As one disconsolate man said,
We come for a change here, we look forward to it every year, we’ve been coming here all our lifetime you know. It’ll be a downfall to us, you know what I mean. Comes to luck if you can earn a living, doesn’t it.
His use of the word ‘downfall’ is especially meaningful. There would be one less occasion in the year for all the families to spend time together, one less opportunity to sell their labour, and they were losing work that was fundamental to their sense of identity. The hop-picking machines would be a nail in the coffin with regards to their Gypsy[i] way of life.
Artist duo General Public included this 1966 news footage in The Hop Project, a multi-part installation in which they juxtaposed items they discovered in various archives with artworks they created with community groups. The interplay of everything in the display served to wake up the historical material, and more: what began as research into the traditions of hop harvesting in Herefordshire rapidly expanded into other areas of interest. This essay takes just one aspect of The Hop Project as its focus: namely, where it looked into work and worklessness, past, present and future, in this country and also in Poland.
One component of the installation was a darkly funny music video called ‘How can I be stupid?’ made by General Public with hip hop artists V3rd the Great. In the video, three young men dressed as robots perform a dance that features various work-type movements – fruit-picking, cleaning, painting, etc. In the lyrics, the robots brag about how automation is taking over the work of humans. For example, in the case of agriculture,
Workforce all threadbare
From The hands-free hectare
Crops picked by Sticks and drones
GPS planting zones
Send spring greens to 3D printers in Marks & Spencer’s Welcome to the Marches – of Tech
I’m saying welcome to the Marches of Tech
Through their punning of the word ‘hop’, General Public teleports us from the 1960s hop fields to present day urban youth culture, and it’s funny and upbeat – but gut wrenching, too. The goading of the robots (“we’re taking your wage”) plays desperately uncomfortably in juxtaposition with the footage of the saddened and angry hop-harvesters. And anyone watching the video who’s currently worried about their work situation, or that of generations to come, might well experience a thump in the chest. What can we do when technology renders us worthless? Where is our dignity without work? And does ‘progress’ have to be at such a cost to so many?
Via its bleak humour, the hip hop video gives expression to this unbearable reality. And the pun that is so central to it is precisely as described by Sigmund Freud, in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. It’s a psychological mechanisms by which ‘new and unexpected unities are set up’, whereby something ordinarily suppressed bubbles up into the conscious mind.[ii]
Part of what’s unbearable and suppressed, is how our current employment situation – the job insecurity, the zero-hour and short-term contracts, the worklessness – is increasingly detrimental to how our society functions. As Karl Marx wrote, in 1858:
In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.[iii]
‘How can I be stupid?’ seems to herald the ‘specific gravity’ of our own, developing situation – a world sharply dividing into a handful of ‘haves’ and huge numbers of ‘have-nots’, with nightmarish power relations and behaviours.
If you look at what’s going on in some of the Black Country locations where ‘How can I be stupid?’ was shot, there are moments when the hop-pickers come to mind once more. See the horse tethered to a post on a verge: it’s a brown and white cob of the type favoured by Gypsies. And notice the large concrete blocks at the edge of some rough ground that the robots dance around: these are deployed to prevent Gypsies setting up camp. This interspersion of Gypsy-related imagery seems to point up, once again, a commonality between the Gypsy way of life – which was arguably imposed rather than chosen[iv] – and the lot of today’s urban youth. Both groups are ‘colourful’ yet feared. Both are marginalised. Both, it seems, hang on by their fingernails to any kind of employment.
Serving as a counterpart to ‘How can I be stupid?’ is a video called ‘Untitled (Broniow Song)’, in which a group of Polish people sing lyrics written by General Public to a traditional Polish tune. Whereas the hip-hoppers are young, futuristic, restlessly on the move and urban, the Poles are old, wear national costume, and deliver their song as a standing choir in a forest clearing. And while the former are seen in fast-cut sequences, the latter are filmed in a single take. It’s a play of opposites that serves to hint that – economically, socially, psychologically – what’s happening in each situation is inter-related.[v]
Listen to this song about Broniow
Our dear village
Let it tell you about our lives
About what it is really like
Let it tell you about our lives
About what it is really like
In ‘Untitled (Broniow Song)’ villagers sing about how farming has gone into decline, lament the job losses and the migrations to Warsaw and England and Italy, and recount how those who remain live on next to nothing. It’s the ‘other story’ that we don’t hear about in the UK, sobering to contemplate in view of Brexit and its unleashing of hatred of workers from Eastern Europe.
Soon after the result of the referendum was known, George Monbiot wrote:
The vote could be seen as a self-inflicted wound, or it could be seen as the eruption of an internal wound, inflicted over many years by an economic oligarchy on the poor and the forgotten. The bogus theories on which our politics and economics are founded were going to collide with reality one day; the only questions were how and when.[vi]
It is precisely this ‘internal wound’ that the three films – the 1966 news item, ‘How can I be stupid?’ and ‘Untitled (Broniow Song)’ – address. In combination with each other, and in the context of The Hop Project, they acknowledge it, and examine it.
More than anything, it’s the one-sided nature of work relations that hurts, a point that’s delivered via the bitter humour of the robots and the terrible sadness of the Poles and the hop-pickers. And there’s a discharge of pain in the news item that jumps off the page (or rather, the screen), when one of the hop-pickers delivers this extraordinary line:
‘I hope in time to come they won’t be able to find a landworker anywhere.’
Then she and another woman laugh: it’s an impossible idea, after all. But wait. There’s a story currently in the news about how, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote,[vii] this season’s Jersey potatoes are rotting in the fields due to the lack of Eastern European labour.
The system is breaking down and in his article, George Monbiot urges us to take action:
…let’s address the task that the left and centre have catastrophically neglected: developing a political and economic philosophy fit for the 21st Century, rather than repeatedly microwaving the leftovers of the 20th (neoliberalism and Keynesianism). If the history of the last 80 years tells us anything, it’s that little changes without a new and ferocious framework of thought.
As well as giving vent to pain (one of the key purposes of art), General Public provides a creative exploration of work relations that has the potential to unsettle habitual thinking and enable new frameworks of thought (another of art’s crucial functions).
A particularly generative ingredient is General Public’s inference that there is pain, deep in the mechanics of the system itself. It comes across in their portrayal of the robots. Throughout their song, the phrase ‘How can I be stupid?’ is repeated until it drills into your brain. The manufactured creatures are troubled by the idea that people think they are dumb. They have feelings. They too are anguished.
The robots are in some ways like the human-made monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At a mid-point in the story, he scrutinizes some works of literature, and contemplates who he is:
As I read… I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathized with, and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none, and related to none… Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.[viii]
Let’s hope it’s sufficiently early in our real-life story of work relations to radically refashion, or kill off, our man-made, monstrous system of employment. The following question is of course metaphorical, but it’s serious nonetheless. Can we avoid the mistakes of the human creator in Shelley’s famous story and prevent the bitterness, destruction and menace that his monster goes on to unleash?
Angela Kingston is a contemporary visual arts curator and writer. She has curated exhibitions including ‘3am: Wonder, Paranoia and the Restless Night’, touring from the Bluecoat, Liverpool (2013-14), ‘The First Humans’, touring from Pump House, London (2015-16), and ‘Is This Planet Earth?’, touring from Ty Pawb, Wrexham (2018-19).
[i] Although in some ways contentious, I use the word Gypsy in this essay, in preference to Romany, Romani, or Romany-Gypsy, because it is the usual way in which many people in the community (including members of my own family) identify themselves.
[ii] Originally published in 1905. Penguin edition, 1983, p. 105.
[iii] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) (1857-8), Penguin edition, 1981, pp. 106-7.
[iv] For a history see, for example, Ian Hancock, We are the Romani people: Ame sam e Rromane dẑene, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2002.
[v] In global capitalism, there are suctions and flows whereby one location’s loss is another one’s gain. For a discussion of this, see Paul Kennedy, Local Lives and Global Transformations: towards global society, Macmillan/Palgrave, 2010.
[vi] ‘The decision to leave the EU is a disaster, but also a great opportunity for renewal’, first published in the Guardian, 29.06.2016, http://www.monbiot.com/2016/06/29/roots-in-the-rubble/430
[viii] Originally published in 1818; Oxford University Press 1988 edition, p.128.