Amazon (Proxy) brings together a cast of online gig workers and actors to revisit events that occurred at Fordlândia, a short-lived rubber plantation established by Henry Ford in the Amazon in the 1920s. Taking place both online and in person, the piece builds on the historical narrative of Fordlândia to create a contemporary drama that riffs on our current modes of working and socializing remotely.
Amazon (Proxy) originated during Dean’s period of research at the archives of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. There, she came across records from Fordlândia, a city founded in the Brazilian rainforest in 1928 to control the production of raw material for Ford’s car tires. In Fordlândia, Ford imposed Michigan factory work hours and methods upon the Brazilian workforce, disregarding the tropical climate and indigenous botanical knowledge. Eventually, the workers rebelled and the plantation became prey to tree blight. Facing a fiasco, the US car manufacturer abandoned the settlement in 1934.
Dean contemporizes this story, shifting the focus to the global monopoly of the e-commerce company Amazon.com––specifically its labor-crowdsourcing marketplace “Amazon Mechanical Turk” (AMT), a website that makes it easier for individuals and businesses to outsource their processes and jobs to a globally distributed workforce who can perform these tasks remotely.
Created in 2005, with the founding belief that certain tasks could only be performed by humans, the website has since evolved into a platform on which humans perform basic perceptual tasks, like identifying colors in an image. Among other uses, the big data generated by this labor force is used by companies to train artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. The “Turkers,” or “crowdworkers,” now share their emotions and reactions to images to produce a “smarter,” more “sensitive” AI. Through this platform, Amazon has reconfigured the typical Fordist assembly line into a globally fragmented yet deeply intertwined system of Turkers, all working from home, a phenomenon amplified by the 2020 global lockdown. In an attempt to break this logic of individualization, Dean has brought Turkers from around the world together—such as Wajid from Hyderabad, India; Amy from Portland, Oregon, US; and Jason from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam—and, through a series of collaborative workshops, has created a new body of work encompassing drawings, sculptures, and photographs that reflect on the continuities and discontinuities between Fordlândia and AMT.
In her live production for Performa and Amant, Dean brings together this ephemeral online community with a cast of live actors who will act as proxies for AMT workers to examine the limits and hopes of twenty-first century modes of being together, online and IRL. Through a series of scenes performed both online by the Turkers and in person by the actors, the performance reenacts events that took place at Ford’s Brazilian plantation and reinterprets them through the lens of Amazon’s current work methodologies. In this hybrid historical fiction, the plantation riots and bug infestations will be revisited, replayed, and recontextualized by Dean’s cast of Turkers and actors.