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Mark Curran
The Breathing Factory

Mark Curran
The Breathing Factory

Untitled, Building 5, 13.18 p.m., Monday, November 11th, 2003 (Leixlip, Ireland) From The Breathing Factory (Edition Braus 2006) Ultrachrome Archival Print, 100 x 100 cm © Mark Curran

What is the colour of high tech?

White. A kind of blue-grey. The colour of clean steel. The grey of the carpark.  The red and yellow of warning signs. The creamy sheen of surgical gloves. The clear plastic of a cap keeping hair out of ink cartridges.

What is the sound of high tech?

The sound of your own breathing. A low whirring — the breathing of computers. The soft pad of shoes across office carpet or of non-marking runners across factory floor. The odd curse under your breath. A laugh from the next cubicle. The crunch of chippings underfoot in the car park.

Roaring furnaces, clanking machinery, workers with earphones working in a noise bubble alongside — but isolated from — their colleagues. It’s difficult to hear yourself think, let alone speak. Sparks fly and oil and grease drip off the assembly line — a symphony of black and orange, of clanking and banging.

The Ford River Rouge plant is one of the last auto assembly plants left in Detroit, employing 6,000 workers on a 600 acre site. Although now working under a modern operating agreement the plant remains an icon of an industrial age. A system of mass industrial production had found its most ambitious expression in the assembly of the automobile, moving quickly from Henry Ford’s invention in a Michigan garage in 1896 to plants such as the River Rouge, which employed over 100,000 people in the 1930s.

In a different garage around the same time, Hewlett and Packard created their first product — an audio oscillator. HP’s founding in 1938 in Palo Alto, California (the heart of what was to become Silicon Valley) was a step towards what couldn’t have been imagined at the time, a world where HP, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and others would replace Ford as icons of a new post-industrial age.

Ford had built a massive plant in Cork in 1919, totalling 330,000 square feet. In 1928 the last Model T was built here but by 1984 the plant was gone — testimony to Ireland’s failure to enter the industrial age. However, Digital (now part of HP) had come to Galway in 1971. In the mid-eighties, Microsoft, Lotus and others arrived — and Intel and HP followed shortly after. The post-industrial high-tech industries became a crucial element of the Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s. The industrial parks dotted along the new M50 motorway around Dublin were filled with companies producing and distributing the new high-tech products – chips, computers, shrink-wrapped software CDs, parts and components. Population and housing boomed in sleepy semi-rural towns such as Leixlip, where HP is located.

In these testimonies and photographs of Hewlett-Packard in Leixlip we are given an unusual insight into the inner workings of high-tech Ireland. The high-tech workplace gleams and whirrs, there is quiet and control, there is the permanence of a state-of-the-art factory and the instability of changing jobs, global ties and ever shifting products. There is an ever present shadow of competition from similar gleaming locations situated around the world and shrouded in equally controlled images. Mark Curran’s photographs give us a visual insight into what are surprisingly obscure workplaces — the modern manufacturing plants that circle Dublin city, the icons within the new cathedrals of high-tech industrial parks.

One worker sees in HP the promise of permanence and stability. But underneath this stability there is turbulence (Benner, 2002). New lines of business and new products constantly emerge — managers don’t need to camouflage the names of product lines as they will have disappeared by the time the photographs are published. Low-end technology is shipped out to contractors, in Ireland and elsewhere.

Jobs change too — while there are still operators at work in HP, we find new species of workers: supervisors, logistics coordinators, inspectors, traffic coordinators. Workers move between different roles as the nature of the job itself changes. Work itself is hidden.  HP, like other high-tech firms, is reluctant to reveal the details of the organization of production, of the technologies that organize that production, of the work process itself.

As the work of production is done by the technology itself, human endeavour in the factory is focused on monitoring the machines and handling the distribution of their output. Hidden in other workplaces, beyond the reach of the photographer, are the designers of the software and hardware that drives the system.

The photographs reveal the place of the body in high-tech manufacturing. In Ford’s River Rouge, technology was a constant threat to bodies, offering regular noisy reminders of the damage that pistons and presses could do. In HP, the body threatens the technology – clean suits, hair caps and latex gloves all serve to protect the production process from contamination by dust, skin and hair. But also to protect bodies from a quieter threat, as a splatter of blue chemicals on a clean suit hints at the potential toxic revenge of production on the human body. The fragile, exhausted bodies of River Rouge are replaced with the risky, sterile bodies of HP. Where the bodies of workers become visible through the noise and the sweat of River Rouge, in HP we catch glimpses of labouring bodies through shapeless clean suits and transparent plastic caps.

HP in Leixlip could be anywhere — looking at the photographs of the inside of these plants, it would be impossible to pinpoint its location. Fixing the accents and weather in time through the photograph highlights the standard designs of high-tech factories around the world and the feeling of placelessness that seeps through the images. Take away the faces of the workers and this could be HP Singapore.

But place still matters, and we find clues in both images and testimonies. HP Ireland is connected — to California, Singapore, Japan, China. These are places that these workers cooperate with,  but the shadow of their competition hangs over the testimonies. These connections to, and competition with, the outside world focus workers’ identities on HP Ireland. The corporate subsidiary may offer few guarantees of loyalty to individuals, but we are all in it together, competing against other locations. And this does not stop at the factory walls — communities, universities and government become part of an alliance to keep high-tech investment in Ireland. In a factory that appears placeless, place looms larger than ever (Ó Riain, 2000).

Identities peek through the grey sheen of high-tech in these closely observed photographs. Workers in cubicles create personal spaces — small pictures of family on desks, photos of friends and rugby players on PC screens, a cross on a necklace, and a picture of Didier Drogba from the Ivory Coast celebrating a goal with his international Chelsea teammates.

Discreetly dotted around are flags, Brazilian, Swiss, German, Dutch. Portuguese and US testimonies, European and African faces mingle together in the neutral surroundings. The factory is a ready-made, bland drop cloth for Mark Curran’s portraits. But the standardization of the physical plant only highlights the human and social diversity.

There are hints here too at a surrounding world — a world I live in myself, in a housing estate not far from this site. HP Ireland is not built in the ruins of industrial Ireland as no such Ireland was ever created. Instead, it sits in the middle of country fields, on the edge of a historic town, within a short bus ride of a global city. It lies amid new industrial locations and new communities that sit halfway between the rural and the urban, where people draw on elements of the traditional and the modern (Corcoran et al, 2003). Its car parks call out to and echo the nearby motorways, by turn fluid and clogged according to the time of the day (Slater, 2006).

HP, like other high-tech companies, jealously guards its image of dynamic high-tech competitiveness in the face of global threats. What is not revealed is the contribution of public actors to subsidizing and developing these gleaming high-tech cathedrals — through roads, telecommunications, education, grants and more. Macro-economic stabilization from the late 1980s was accompanied by changes in state action in promoting industrial development — in addition to attracting foreign investment state agencies now provided finance, promoted improved research and management, and fostered the growth of a network of centres, associations and other supporting institutions for business. Taken together, there has been a widespread upgrading and deepening of the organizational capacities of Irish society — supported in most cases by state agencies and often by EU funding (Ó Riain, 2004).

The private world of careers and competitiveness depends heavily on the public actions of communities and governments. The standardized industrial workplaces spread across the globe draw deeply on the resources of local places. Mark Curran’s images give us hints at how these local and global relationships combine — gender, ethnicity, family, sport, national loyalties, friendships, religion and even personalities peek through the neutral expressions, plastic, and grey-blue and white of his portraits. But these are only peeking through — the space and ground for making claims on management and employers in high-tech is highly controlled. Mark, a clean room supervisor, suggests that where workers have concerns they will walk with their feet, rather than use their voices to complain internally. Unions are nowhere to be seen, even though managers are quick to point that they are not anti-union.

The breathing factory seeks to control the breathing bodies within it and these images suggest that it succeeds in this. But the ideology of the breathing factory also argues that the rhythms of non-work life should respond to the gusts and yawns of commerce, as family and leisure schedules are re-shaped around fluctuations in production and changing working hours. If we are to have social and economic development rather than simply high-tech growth, human and social needs and identities cannot simply peek through plastic but must be asserted and negotiated in these new workplaces.

Benner, Chris. 2002. Work in the New Economy. Oxford: Blackwell

Corcoran, Mary, Jane Gray and Michel Peillon. 2003. Local Sentiment and Sense of Place in a New Suburban Community in M. Breen et al (eds.). Technology and Transcendence Dublin: Columba Press

Ó Riain, Seán. 2000. Net-working for a Living: Irish Software Developers in the Global Workplace In M. Burawoy et al. Global Ethnography Berkeley: University of California Press

Ó Riain, Seán. 2004. The Politics of High Tech Growth Cambridge. Cambridge University Press

Slater, Eamonn. 2006. The M50: A “Lugly” Construct In M. Corcoran and M. Peillon (eds.) Uncertain Ireland Dublin: IPA

Artist: Mark Curran lives and works in Berlin and Dublin. He is a PhD candidate through the Centre for Transcultural Research and Media Practice (CTRMP), DIT and an Associate Lecturer in Photography at IADT-DL, Dublin. ‘The Breathing Factory’ (Edition Braus 2006) was published with the support of Belfast Exposed Photography and Gallery of Photography, Dublin.

Writer: Seán Ó Riain holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and chairs the Sociology Department at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His book, ‘The Politics of High Tech Growth: Developmental Network States in the Global Economy’ (Cambridge University Press, 2004), explores the high-tech economy of Ireland in the era of globalization.