With a particular sensitivity to the historical relationship between the production of perishable textiles and invisible digital code, Browne’s point of departure is a series of iconic images of early 20th-century women from the Shetland Islands, knitting as they walk, carrying baskets of turf on their backs. These photographs are an unexpected antecedent to contemporary images of the multitasking, precarious labourer: hands knitting are now typically replaced by fingers typing or swiping touchscreens of mobile devices; surplus time is ruthlessly exploited, mentally and physically.
Using a smartphone as a kind of ‘participant-observer’ filming device, Browne worked in Shetland with cinematographer Kate McCullough and choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir to explore these ideas with a selection of women who work on the islands now. This film features a number of women, including a knitter (the fastest in the world), a photographer, a sex worker, a member of the youth parliament and the artist herself. These individuals are variously self-employed, in education, working a number of different part-time jobs or with zero-hour contracts. They all actively cultivate an internet presence, through personal and professional websites, blogs and social media profiles, and this labour of managing the self online is key to their autonomy and ability to manage their work effectively. The film is monochrome, deliberately stylized and moves from conventional observation into apparently more abstract passages, following the increasingly intangible tasks the women are engaged in, such as the labour of making representation (textual, imagistic and political). The soundtrack to the film, composed by Alma Kelliher, uses techniques of pouring and knitting different sounds together to create the embodied rhythm of a contemporary ‘work song.’
Cinematographer: Kate McCullough
Choreographer: Fearghus Ó Conchúir
Featuring (in order of appearance) Sarah Browne, Hazel Tindall, Kaylee Mouat, Honey, Floortje Robinson, Kate McCullough
Text on microfiche: Erving Goffman, unpublished thesis submitted to the University of Chicago, Sociology Department, ‘Communication Conduct in an Island Community’ (1953)
Colourist: John Beattie
With thanks to Shetland Arts, Shetland Moving Image Project, Shetland Museum and Archives, and all contributors to the film