PORTLAND HAS A CRUSH on monologist Mike Daisey, and with damn good reason: Daisey's performances fulfill the often empty promise of theater as a transformative medium. His monologues are propelled by curiosity, anger, and a streak of stubborn, Vonnegut-esque humanism, as he takes on topics ranging from Amazon to the Department of Homeland Security to the American theater system. (At 2008's TBA, he performed Monopoly, which draws parallels between the history of that board game, the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla over direct current and alternating current electricity, and Walmart.)
Daisey's monologues are vivid, living works, performed from an outline rather than a script—they'll only stop evolving, he told me in our interview, when he dies. His current show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, is about Apple products: about the game-changing, revolutionary nature of the technology, and about the ineluctable fact that our pretty iPhones were constructed under horrifying labor conditions in Shenzhen, China, where Daisey traveled to research the show. Daisey and I spoke for an hour about his work.
MERCURY: People are willing to think in a critical way about where their food or where their T-shirts come from—why aren't we thinking about where our iPhones come from?
MIKE DAISEY: Because no one told us to yet. We only think about where our T-shirts come from because there was a mediated, weighed, incisive campaign done specifically about sweatshop labor—that's the only reason that there's awareness about labor conditions in that industry. And we think about where our food comes from for much the same reason. One of the things that we're also blind to is that we don't actually think about anything that we don't need to think about—and since that hasn't risen into our consciousness, we don't think about it. The default state is not that we do think about things, the default state is that we don't. So it's very natural that we don't, but the level of blindness is staggering. Like the fact that almost everything we use, in fact—are you on a landline? Over half of the electronics that exist, and certainly the telephone I'm talking to you on and the network switches that are connecting our voices right now—all the things for the most part come from southern China. They come from a city called Shenzhen that sits in southern China that has 14 million people in it. It's larger and denser than New York City. Despite the fact that everything we fucking use comes from the same place, no one knows the name of this city. It's pretty staggering to think that 30 years ago, that city was a fishing village with 5,000 people in it. There was nothing there. And now it's bigger than New York City and your stuff all comes from there and yet no one knows it. People instead simply know that their things come from China in a sort of abstracted way. And certainly the people that sell you the objects are not incentivized to talk up where they're actually coming from. So until there's actually action, until something happens, it's going to remain silent. I mean it was for me, I didn't think about Shenzhen ever. I didn't know anything, really, about where my electronics come from, where my objects come from, until I began to work in a systematic way on this project.
Can you identify the turning point, when you began thinking about where this technology comes from?
Yeah. My only hobby is technology. I'm really obsessed with technology. And I'm a huge Apple fan, I'm an Apple user, and have been for my entire life. One of the ways that I relax is I read Macintosh rumors, Macintosh news sites, and I just keep track of all the tech news. And one day, this was a couple of years ago, there was this item that popped up—when you get an iPhone it doesn't actually do anything when you first get it, because you need to connect it to iTunes. But [someone had gotten an] iPhone that already had an operating system installed. What happened was, the phone still had the operating system that was installed on it at the factory—because they put an OS on it in the factory to test it, and then they blank it and send it here. So the person dove into the phone, because the person was a geek, and in the camera roll of the iPhone, they found a bunch of pictures from inside the factory, and they posted the images online. And I became deeply obsessed with those pictures. Because I had this incredible moment of disconnection where I know so much about these machines—I know them, in some ways, better than I know myself. But I did not understand who these people [in the photos] were. And that was the beginning—that was when I started investigating.
How much access to factories and workers did you have when you were researching the show in Shenzhen?
I had all the access that I chose to take for myself. I sought no one's permission for anything. I lied a great deal to a huge number of people. I went to factories, pretending to be an American businessman on behalf of fictitious American companies with fake business cards and convinced them to give me full tours of all their facilities, and did that to a huge number of factories.
Do you have an activist agenda with this piece?
Yes. The intention is manifold, the show is about our objects and where they come from and the cost that they have. It's also about the history of industrial design and the idea that if you control the interface to something, then you control the thing itself. So it's both a celebration of the objects that are made, and to some degree a condemnation of the way in which they are made. The storylines fit unusually next to each other and comment back and forth on one another. And I hope that tension is part of what makes it rise above being a polemic—because the objects are still lovely, the objects are still extraordinary, and they are tools that allow us to extend the edges of what human beings can do. Apple objects are tremendously designed—[Apple is] fantastic, they're the only people in the tech industry who actually have a point of view. It's a tremendous thing to study Steve Jobs, this fascinating person who's welded his own personality to a corporate structure. As someone really obsessed with corporatism, I just find that absolutely fascinating in a variety of contexts.
Daisey will also perform Notes Toward All the Hours of the Day, a preview of a planned 24-hour monologue; for more information about that project, see portlandmercury.com
Washington High School, Fri Sept 10-Mon Sept 13, 6:30 pm, $20-25; Notes Toward All the Hours of the Day, Washington High School, Sat Sept 18, 2:30 pm, $20-25More TBA:10 Articles Here>>>