The Residue of Labor

The residue of labor, which usually remains unseen, is a summation of minute tasks of everyday repetition that are required for production and equate to the steady degradation of once enduring objects, equipment, architecture, and communities.” —Chris Larson

Presented by ENGAGE Projects, The Residue of Labor is an archival body of work that examines intensive labor through the conduit of an abandoned garment factory in rural Tennessee. As garment labor became predominantly outsourced in the late 90s, work was unceremoniously taken from rural communities and a history of human labor left behind. Through the curation of objects recovered from the factory and objects fabricated in his studio, Larson creates a narrative out of the remains of what was once a booming industrial operation. Individual personhood begins to surface from the details as Larson interrelates the residue of life in the factory. 

In the fall of 2018 with an Artist Guggenheim Fellowship, Chris Larson moved his studio from St. Paul, Minnesota to the factory in Tennessee. Larson worked there for two years, collecting, archiving, and acting in performances that contemplate the ways the architecture and its forgotten objects have taken on the imprint of uncelebrated labor. In his new body of work, Larson engages the abstraction of labor in a place of heavy repetition. The exhibition features sculpture, video, drawing, painting, and photography all made from materials recovered from the factory.

Rooted in the relationship between architecture and individual, body and machine, Larson’s work approaches an intimacy with labor palpable in the absence of the human body. While American society has been largely desensitized from the concept of mass production, Larson’s work evidences the indivisibility of the hand from these artifacts, reanimating the mundanities of labor to highlight the individual beauty of objects that were made to be identity-less. 

In the Recovered Object Series (2019-2022), objects recovered from the factory—including sewing machine tops, thread color identification boards, an inventory of 428 unique thread colors, bathroom doors, and speakers—are translated into works that highlight the distinctiveness and personalization of each component. Larson’s work creates space for nameless objects to emerge from the unseen, transcending their positions as residue and receiving the acknowledgment of an accumulation of minute tasks into something much greater.

In the Factory Performance Series (2018-2019), thread from the factory fastens machine to architecture, bringing the reciprocal impressions of anthropogenic spaces and the bodies that inhabit them to the foreground. The continuous lines of thread become a network that communicates between the intangible presence of the working body and the structure which surrounds it. While the installations stand alone as works of art, the series reaches beyond installation; Larson honors the factory’s forgotten past through the performance to no audience, sometimes walking 12 miles of thread to complete a single installation. Larson’s parallel exertion brings forth questions of the valuation of labor and class, bearing witness to the immense amount of work that once took place within the factory walls.

Entitled 30 Sewing Machine Portraits (2019), this video functions as an individuation of each of the machines, recognizing their stories as characteristically discernible from each other. With some factory careers lasting as long as 50 years, the sewing machines became extensions of the body as worker and machine familiarized themselves with each other over time. The hyper close-ups highlight areas of dilapidation from human touch and heavy repetition.

The Timecards Series (2020-2022) replicates the residue of labor by creating depth through erasure. A motif of his practice, Larson uses rotary tools to emulate the effacing of history by removing material from the surface of layered factory time cards. Despite their mechanical inceptions, the indisputable presence of the human impression on these works starkly contrasts the connotations of mass production they carry.

Using industrial garment thread recovered from the abandoned factory, Larson’s Thread Works Series (2020-22) reimagines the product of the thread from functional garments to paintings, creating beauty out of discarded materials. Larson began by building a foot treadle-operated machine to wrap canvases vertically in thread with the precision of high technology and the randomness of human-generated frequency. Each individual piece is titled after the color code found on the bottom of a spool of thread. 

In the video Stillness of Labor (2022), Larson replicates 12 full-scale rooms using objects extracted from the garment factory to mirror the environment of the laborers. The always-developing workspace, and its unique customization to each worker creates a palpable absence of the human body that is evident in its recreation.

Larson credits the McKnight Foundation, Grant-in-Aid, the University of Minnesota, the Talle Award, and the Guggenheim Foundation in their financial support of this site-specific study.