The second component of the project was the students’ physical manifestation of the message — a cardboard model of a head upon which the students pasted selections of text from the novella.
“My students were receptive to doing something rather unusual for a literature class,” Starnaman said. “Afterwards, they recorded their own reflections on the project, and I was really shocked at how meaningful it was for them.”
To The World At Large
Burrough and Starnaman then offered Mechanical Turk workers an unusual, self-reflective task.
“Each month, we ask nine workers how this virtual platform affects their bodies,” Burrough said. “They respond, and trace and measure their hands for us. The hands are laser-cut from cardboard or wood and the sentiments are embroidered on those, or if the written response is longer, it is shined through a light box.”
As a socially engaged artist trying to highlight the workers’ experience, Burrough tries to remove her own input as much as
“I’m depicting what the workers send to me,” Burrough said. “I am trying not to speak for them — I’m a conduit for their sentiments.”
Since the statue in Life in the Iron Mills is constructed from a byproduct, the cardboard hands used for “The Laboring Self” come from a modern equivalent — recycled packing boxes.
“All this stuff gets shipped with so much packaging, and you remove one little thing that you ordered,” Burrough said. “These donated boxes allow us to take the workers’ voices and put it on the byproduct of our era.”
Starnaman has observed the exhibit’s effect on museum visitors — and UT Dallas students.
“We meet an amazing cross-section of people at the DMA, and talk about their jobs,” Starnaman said. “And whenever we’ve brought up this project with UTD students, we learn many of them work via the sharing economy. You’ll witness this moment of connection — sometimes, it’s not until you see how your work interacts with the world that you really understand what you’ve made.”
As part of the exhibit, there are cardboard worker hands that visitors can write on to tell their stories.
“We ask the community, ‘How does work affect your body?’ People respond in Sharpie, some people even embroider, and that gets added to the exhibit,” Burrough said.
Beyond the reward of her “Laboring Self” experience, Starnaman is thankful for a cooperation she never anticipated.
“It is such great fortune that my life gets to open up in this way,” Starnaman said, “and that I have found somebody with whom I have this special kinship in terms of ideas and work. I don’t think many people get to experience that.”
Research funding was provided by Humanities Texas, a nonprofit that serves as the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and an award from Puffin Foundation West, Ltd.