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Material culture and tangible labour

With the increasing digitisation of almost every facet of human endeavour, concerns persist about ‘deskilling’ and precarious employment. The publishing industry has turned its energy to online and electronic media, and jobs continue to disappear from printing, publishing and journalism. The replacement of human labour with computerised technologies is not merely a contemporary issue; it has an established history dating from the mid-twentieth century. What is often missing from this record is an understanding of how the world of work is tightly interwoven with the tangible and affective worlds of material culture and design, even in ‘clean’ computerised environments. Workplace culture is not only made up of socio-political relationships and dynamics. It is also bound up with a world of things, with and through which the social and gendered processes of workplace life are enacted and experienced. Understanding how we interact with and interpret design is crucial for appreciating the complexities of the labour experience, particularly at times of technological disruption. Hot Metal reveals integral labour-design relationships through an examination of three decades in the printing industry, between the 1960s and 1980s. This was the period when hot-metal typesetting and letterpress was in decline; the early years of the ‘digital switch’. Using oral histories from an intriguing case-study – a doggedly traditional Government Printing Office in Australia – this book provides an evocative rendering of design culture and embodied practice in a context that was, like many workplaces, not quite ‘up-to-date’ with technology. Hot Metal is also history of how digital technologies ruptured and transformed working life in manufacturing. Rather than focusing solely on ‘official’ labour, this book will introduce the reader to workers’ clandestine creative practices; the making of things ‘on the side’.

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Labour, design and culture
Jesse Adams Stein

This introductory chapter first establishes the disciplinary spectrum within which Hot Metal operates. It outlines how recent studies of design and material culture have focused less on production and labour, and more on consumption, interpretation and professional design, and examines the place of material culture in labour history. The Introduction opens the path to demonstrating a more effective way to interweave studies of working life, labour and design, while retaining the voices of the workers (through oral history), without aestheticising or sentimentalising labour experience. The chapter also introduces Sydney’s Government Printing Office as a rich and revealing case study that holds valuable lessons for those examining the cultural and social impacts of deindustrialisation in late capitalist economies. Finally, the Introduction sets the economic and political scene in Sydney between the 1960s and the 1980s: important background for understanding the changes that the print-workers experienced.

in Hot metal
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Oral history and institutional photographs
Jesse Adams Stein

This chapter explores the complex interplay of memory and meaning that emerges when using oral histories and institutional photographs, in the interview itself and in the stages of interpretation. It engages with existing discourse in oral history, particularly in relation to the links between oral testimony and visual stimuli. In doing so, it broadens existing discussions in oral history to include the use of institutional photographs in the interview process, rather than personal or family images (which has often been the focus of previous research in this area). While institutional photographs do not necessarily show the ‘reality’ of workplace practices, such images can reveal some of the ways that institutions sought to represent themselves officially. The use of institutional photographs during the oral history interview can provide insights into the disjuncture between bureaucratic representations of an organisation and former employees’ detailed recollections of tangible details related to their working lives.

in Hot metal
Jesse Adams Stein

This chapter recovers the architectural and spatial qualities of so-called ‘ordinary’ factory buildings. Focusing on the modern building that housed the Gov, it explores spatial and architectural memory through an integration of archival research, oral testimony and photographs. This examination is informed by an awareness of how the oral history process contributes to a co-construction of spatial memory, developing between the interviewee and interviewer. Focusing on the built heritage of an industrial site can tell us only limited things about labour, technology and working life, and without oral history narratives, archives and photographs, the remnant built heritage can be historically misleading. Given this book’s broad argument that one can do both – that is, explore material and embodied histories and human stories of working life – it is necessary to consider closely the physical and spatial environment in which the print-workers laboured. This chapter is about those matters of place, space, architecture and embodied experience.

in Hot metal
From letterpress to offset-lithography
Jesse Adams Stein

This chapter considers the effect that an autonomous technical artefact – the printing press – had on the workers in charge of them, the press-machinists. It establishes how the printing press possesses material and social agency in the continuity and transformation of craft masculinity. This issue is examined in the context of the technological shift from letterpress printing to high-speed offset-lithography, which took place chiefly in the 1970s. While the compositors’ experience of technological change has received some attention in labour history and sociology, the trade of press-machining has been almost entirely ignored. Charting the printing industry’s transition from letterpress to offset-lithography opens a new window of understanding into the relevance and influence of large-scale technical machinery on the shop floor. This is related back to the reinforcement of craft masculinities in declining industrial contexts. This allows us to see how particular practices and identities are sometimes maintained and reinvigorated when a conservative institution is threatened with change.

in Hot metal
The final generation of hot-metal compositors
Jesse Adams Stein

This chapter looks to the experience of compositors (those workers who set the type) who lost their traditional printing trade when computer typesetting technologies were introduced. The transition away from hot-metal typesetting is not a deterministic story of technological inevitability. It is part of a broader economic and political shift; the move away from a protectionist manufacturing economies, into neoliberal service economies geared towards international markets. What happened to the workers who were pulled along with this transition? And how important was the material and embodied nature of traditional typesetting in this loss of a trade? For these compositors, the introduction of computers resulted in a profound loss of control, and the only way to regain that control did not appear to be in the collective security of unions, nor in the skills built up from a life of work in printing. In the 1980s, former hot-metal compositors used individual initiative; they no longer found security in the old collective practices, craft traditions and camaraderie that had once characterised their workplace. This emerging social and economic regime profoundly changed these compositors’ identities, as well as their attitudes to technology, skill and collectivity.

in Hot metal
Women in the printing industry
Jesse Adams Stein

This chapter is about the experiences had by women in the printing industry in the second half of the twentieth century. Focusing on the stories of three women – a tablehand, a senior manager and a printing apprentice – the chapter explores how women in the printing industry coped with the shifting challenges of a patriarchal printing environment. One of the threads holding these three stories together is the presence of design and embodied experience; each of these narratives speaks of something made, designed or physically manipulated, be it spatial, environmental or technological. The active making and re-making of things and spaces, and the forming of embodied knowledge about machinery and industrial objects, were strategies that female workers mobilised in order to survive challenging and often discriminatory circumstances. The contentious politics lifting – and associated legal limitations – is evaluated, revealing a disjuncture between workplace rhetoric and actual embodied practice.

in Hot metal
Creativity at a time of institutional decline
Jesse Adams Stein

A ‘foreign order’ is an industrial colloquialism referring to a practice whereby workers produce objects at work – using factory materials and work time – without authorisation. This is an under-explored but global phenomenon that many names, including homers, side productions, government jobs, and la perruque. There are silences about these clandestine acts of creative production in English-language studies. This chapter considers this practice from the interdisciplinary perspective of labour history and material culture studies. Using oral and archival sources, the chapter traces the ancestry of foreign orders to seventeenth century English customary practices of the Commons. It provides an account of a playful and creative culture of pranks and making in a printing factory, and identifies the workers’ motivations for creating foreign orders. Finally, the chapter explains how the making of foreign orders became more overt and politicised over time, as workers sensed their insecurity. This practice of making ‘on the side’ enabled print-workers a degree of agency and the ability to narrativise their own plight.

in Hot metal
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Factory closures, material culture and loss
Jesse Adams Stein

This conclusion foregrounds the closure of Sydney’s Government Printing Office, revealing the emotive and powerful significance of material culture when an institution is extinguished. In re-telling the story of the factory closure, this chapter highlights the importance of material culture in industrial histories. Here was an unruly abundance of things, difficult and cumbersome relics of an industrial past. Workers took whatever they could smuggle out, as a way of compensating themselves for the betrayal of trust by their employers. Objects were at the centre of this story of decline and industrial closure. It is not simply that objects became connected to memory. Material culture both stirred feelings and consoled people who felt they had not been respected by the institution to which they had been loyal. Thus we return to the central message of this book: history is not merely the movement of people through time, it is bound up with the ever-changing physical and spatial world. A bringing-together of labour history with design and material culture, therefore, seems not only appropriate but entirely necessary.

in Hot metal