Chris Larson

Interview with Chris Larson by Sheila Regan

When most of us get dressed in the morning, or when we purchase an item of clothing at a store or with the click of a button online, we usually aren’t thinking about the people who  made what we plan to wear. With “The Residue of Labor,” Chris Larson offers a meditation on the work of making clothes with an installation that uses abandoned objects from a closed clothing factory in Tennessee as a point of inspiration. Larson spent more than a year in the space, which had once made polos shirts for Ralph Lauren and other national brands. From the hundreds of spools of spread, cloth, equipment, and time cards used to monitor the workers, Larson transforms the archive into a visually compelling art happening that immerses visitors in the “residue” of factory labor. This major work, made up of multiple elements of sculpture from found objects, newly created “thread” paintings, and video installations, explores connections between the labor, repetition, and work of an artist and that of factory workers, and ruminates on the impact of capitalist-driven industry on the workers and the communities where they live. Larson presents the works in a fluorescent-lit former Walgreen’s store in the Grace Building in downtown Saint Paul.

So let’s talk about your project. You went to a small town in Tennessee, and spent quite a bit of time in this old factory. How did you find this place? What was calling you about this particular place that you went?

There was a family member that called me up and said, you’ve got to check out this place. There’s the existing garment factory, but then there’s the old garment factory across the street. And so I flew down there, it’s about an hour east of Nashville, Tennessee, and flew down and saw the space. It had been abandoned since 1998. That’s when it shut down. They were primarily selling polo shirts for Ralph Lauren, and had about 300 to 500 employees at the time. They had been a shirt factory since the 1950s.

It had been in existence for 50 years. And then in the late 90s, as everything else from the garment industry in the Northeast down to the South— everything got outsourced. This factory got outsourced to Honduras. They went from 400 employees down to 300 to 100 to nothing. Basically the factory was  a time capsule. They left 300 sewing machines in the basement. It was a basement level garment factory with seven foot ceilings and about a 20,000 square foot footprint—no windows, fluorescent lights. And they left everything. There were about 25,000 spools of thread left. Machines, bolts of fabric, Ralph Lauren tech sheets and financial records, everything. Old computers from the 80s, 90s. When I saw this— I came back to Minnesota and quickly wrote a grant to the Guggenheim Foundation, saying that I would move my studio down to this little rural town for a year. I received the Guggenheim. And that’s what I did. I moved down there for about a year and a half.

And who owned this building?

The city owns the building. And I think out of convenience when they outsourced to Honduras, they just said it was easier just to retool in Honduras and leave things in the basement.

And so was the city happy to have you there— did you have to go through red tape to kind of get access to it?

No, in the current factory— they sew uniforms for the US military in a different location. This was the former location. And so they just said, take whatever you want, but don’t bring anyone back. And they were fine with me working in the basement.

Cool. And what was it like to be in that space?

It was incredible. I mean, it felt like the production had just stopped. There were still half made shirts lying around. The project is called the “Residue of Labor.”  I think as I walked through the space weekly, it was evident it was millions of hours of labor in that space. You could tell by the floor. You could tell by the walls. You could see a lot of people scribbling notes, and stuff. And so the human presence in that space was just off the charts.

And when you were down there, were you able to connect to anyone in the town that had worked at that factory?

Yeah, there’s some four generations that worked there. Retired now, but they came down and they kind of walked me through the space and showed me where they worked. Their mother and father had worked there as well. And showed me the machine that she had worked on. Her daughter and son now work at the factory across the street. So it was this multi-generation in this town.

Any stories that they told you that you can remember?

I did ask quite a bit of questions about when it shut down. And I found the letter that was sent out to employees and said this factory is closing. And there’s no priority of how long you’ve been here. We’re reducing from this number, this number, this number, and it will close on this date. And there was a lot of frustration from the employees because they were paid $2.70 per shirt. And they would get rejects back with an $80 price tag on them. So I think it felt like there was a betrayal from the American manufacturer, Ralph Lauren. And it’s evident in what happens when, in an industry town of two to three thousand, that amount of employees lose their jobs. It’s reflected in the architecture of abandoned buildings, the troubles that come from lack of employment in a small town like that.

And what happened to those workers?

Some did get hired when they opened up the military division of it. I would imagine. One was working at a brake foundry. That’s another big industry in that town was the brake discs that they were casting. So they got different employment. But, you know, it’s hard to find highly skilled sewers.

Do you own any Ralph Lauren shirts yourself?

I don’t. I mean, I now have about ten half-made Ralph Lauren shirts.

What was  it like as you were making and creating from these vestiges?

So as an artist looking into the space—it’s different than, say, an economist, how they would kind of go through the financial records or how a journalist or how an archaeologist might go through. My first response was taking stock of what’s inside this vault of stuff. I started collecting. The first thing I started collecting was spools of thread. And each spool of thread have a unique name on the bottom. And I’d counted up 440 unique different colors that they had used. So it kind of told me the amount of production that was going through this space. I found 440 different colors they were producing at a high level of production. So I just was collecting things. I was collecting documents. I found all the tech sheets. I found patterns from the shirts. And I collected, I think, 20 clocks. There was so much timekeeping going on. I collected the timecard holders. There were maybe six to seven or eight timecard punching machines. Some were enormous, like a 200-pound machine. They were used so much that I think they had to keep replacing these machines. So a lot of it was just collecting, collecting and archiving, figuring out what I wanted to do with this stuff.

And you showed the work in Chicago?

 I did. It was about a four year process of research, development, and then making the artwork out of the stuff found from the factory. I hit a point about halfway through that as I came back to my studio, I wanted to keep working with the stuff that I found down there. And so I started renting trucks and filling 26-ft. trucks full of fabric and spools of thread and time cardholders, just stuff to bring back here to make— to use it as art making materials.

When you show this body of work for the Triennial, how is it adjusted? You mentioned you have some new pieces. Can you tell us what kind of form it’s going to take and where it’ll be?

Sure. The project in Chicago was supported by a gallery that I work with— Engage Projects. It was presented in May 2022, with 56 works from that whole four years of research. It was two videos, multiple sculptures, lots of these thread paintings, 2d work, 3d work. So that was kind of a comprehensive look at my whole research that ended up in Chicago.

For this one, I did want to make new work. So I’ve been making work this last year. There are centerpieces of the exhibition. One is the thread room. That’s about 35 feet long, by 10 feet wide, and it’s filled with 7,000 spools of thread. It’s really an amazing experience to walk through that space. So that’ll be in there. But there are new works coming in the Saint Paul version for the Triennial.

And what can you tell us about the new works?

The new work, I’ve been engaging with the timecard holders. There are 26 of them. They all have numbers on them. I’m making sort of a rotating machine.

Have you engaged with themes around labor before in your practice? Is this a new sort of topic that you’re even looking at with this project?

I think with this one, it was the first time that I’ve dealt with or looked into a history that was not my own. As someone from the North going down to the South, looking at a challenged community, I thought long and hard about my engagement and trying to find my space. What is the space between Chris Larson and the objects and the histories in that space? I moved slowly and deliberately. The point that I came to was that I’ve been a witness to a place of heavy labor and repetition and wanted to talk about that and wanted to share because I found connections in terms of past work I’ve done that have dealt with maybe the labor of an artist in their studio space, with a video that I did. There was a project that I did in the early 2000s, where I reconstructed a house and then had workers inside the house during this sort of absurd action of moving ice in an ice house from one location to another. It’s been on my part in my art creating an  invented world. This project is  the first time of really engaging with a history that was very real.

So one theme that’s part of the Triennial is mutuality, and how we engage with each other for care in our communities. Could you speak to ways that this work touches on that theme of mutuality?

Maybe it was more of an experience down in the factory, where I did a series of performances down in the space— performances, meaning I was taking thread and tying the machines to the architecture, or a machine to a machine, or these kind of bursts of color off the machines. The space when I arrived —it was pretty drab, almost all like a black and white photograph. Introducing these bursts of colors off the machines— sometimes it was maybe 12 miles of threads. It was a lot of just walking and repetition of stretching the thread from machine to architecture or to itself. Some of the former employees had come down there and felt so celebrated and identified. They felt like it was a celebration of the work that they had done down there. And I felt somewhat of a connection as an artist and person that had worked in there, and now me working in that space. Maybe there was a connection that I hadn’t seen come in, and maybe they hadn’t seen come in.

I think when they heard that an artist was working down there in the space, their idea was they were asking if I was drawing a picture of the space, or was I painting the space. I said no, I’m trying to engage with the space with this idea of repetition. Making a shirt, or sewing a button on for years—that’s what your job is. It’s the same kind of repetition. What do you do with that? How do you find meaning in repetition? And so these were the most meaningful conversations I had with that community.

It seems to me we might be in a moment resurgence of the power of labor organizing. Do you have a sense of that? Do you feel there is any part of you that is with this work speaking to a political moment?

I did a lot of research on the garment industry starting in the Northeast part of the United States—and this has nothing to say about who made these decisions—but it was in the North, they decided to unionize. And when that happened, some of these factories shut down, because whoever ran them were like, they’re gonna find other places. And that whole production started to come down through Virginia into Tennessee into Arkansas. And they rejected the union. They said, no, we want to work. We don’t want the union involved. They were unionized eventually, but I think at the beginning of that shift from Northeast out to the South, there was a rejection of the union. I think in terms of this—it’s tricky to talk about, I mean, I do labor as an artist, but it’s different than the labor that was done in that factory for sure. And thinking about my work, there’s an end product, meaning I start a painting like this, I work on it. I labor on it, and then it’s done. With the labor that happened down there. It never stopped. There was another shirt waiting the next day, and the next day and the next day, different than crafts people, I guess. It’s work. We can cut back on work, but they feel different. But the desire was to find a commonality between the two, between what I do and what they do.

What’s the actual location going to be?

We just identified a place in downtown St. Paul, which is in an  old Walgreen’s store. It’s a building that was built in about 1910 and was the kind of the flagship store of Walgreen’s downtown that was beautiful. Walgreen’s moved across the street. The former space is about a 7,000 square foot building, that’s just all linoleum tile, fluorescent lights, pretty nondescript.

Any thoughts on what drew you to this particular place?

When it was shown in Chicago, it was about a 10,000 square foot former tile factory, very industrial, huge wooden doors, concrete floors, brick walls. And so the work felt right in that space. It’s gonna be a little funky in the Walgreen’s space because it’s definitely a former Walgreen’s, you know? There’s a back wall that has mirrors that probably were trying to look down on shoplifters. Just a big space with nothing.

Anything you’re hoping people get from engaging with this work?

 I typically do work on long term projects. This is the first time I worked on a project so intently for four years. I’m also a professor at the University of Minnesota, and I think it was valuable for students to see somebody taking an idea and working through it for four years— one subject, one location.  I think that’s what was kind of exciting to see, as I saw the work all come together. I think that’s a moment of a vision of an artist of like, what those four years produced.

The Wakpa Triennial is happening in a moment where we are rebuilding in Minneapolis and St. Paul, both rebuilding after the pandemic, and after the trauma for many of our communities, the murder of George Floyd and the unrest that happened after that. How is your work and the way it will be shown engaging with communities coming together after this sort of really difficult time since 2020?

Not to put it on the same scale as this, but I think one of the questions was what happens to a community when a big employer moves out of the town. What do we do with things left behind? What do we do with the things that are broken? What do we do with the things that seem unusable, or vacant lots? The intention was to try to make something beautiful out of things that were left behind and forgotten.

 Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist and arts writer. She contributes to the Artscape column for MinnPost, writes about dance for the Star Tribune, classical music for the Pioneer Press, and frequently contributed radio stories for KFAI’ Minneculture. Her byline has also appeared in Hyperallergic, Washington Post, The Guardian, First American Art Magazine, and more.