Eye on the Ball

Eye on the Ball

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Addidas' Jabulani ball, released for the 2010 World Cup, is an example of how quickly globalization moves, and raises issues about how such objects are fabricated and made profitable.

What does craft look like? You probably have a positive image: The furniture maker sawing in a sweet-smelling woodshop, or the potter lining up wheel-thrown vessels on long boards. But skill is entirely compatible with exploitation. In fact, if we look at the whole global production of handmade products, not just the artistic objects shown in these pages, it is obvious that most artisans in the world operate under difficult circumstances. Other images leap to mind: Garment workers bent over sewing machines, or Andreas Gursky's stunning photograph Nha Trang, Vietnam, which shows a vast workforce assembling chairs and baskets from straw.

Gursky's image is a reminder to those who love craft that automation isn't all bad. Karl Marx pointed out long ago that machines, while they might increase a capitalist's profits, also freed workers from repetitive tasks. In the context of a global economy, mass production may sometimes be ethically sounder than artisanal labor. Buying handmade objects-though the quality may well be superior-may contribute to the misery of people half a world away.

Let's take the example of the soccer ball, an object always made at least partly by hand, because of the complexity of its paneled construction. Back in 1996, journalist Sydney Schanberg traveled to Pakistan, where the vast majority of the world's balls were then made. His exposé, "Six Cents an Hour," was published in Life, and described children working in conditions tantamount to slavery. "The words Hand Made are printed clearly on every ball," Schanberg wrote; "not printed is any explanation of whose hands made them."

Manufacturers were well aware that all publicity is not good publicity, and they went to considerable lengths to change the narrative. Nike, by many accounts the worst offender, signed on to a "Global Compact" to protect human rights. Adidas promised to pressure its Indonesian suppliers. More recently, Puma commissioned a ball from Japanese design consultancy Nendo. Grandly titled the "Peace One Day" ball, it was decorated with the world's continents, rendered in traditional fabric patterns. Though it may seem a stretch to claim, as Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz did, that soccer could "make a contribution to the generation of global peace," the design suggests how sensitive these corporations have become to the ramifications of globalism.

Controversy of a different kind beset the Jabulani, a ball Adidas developed for the 2010 World Cup. Covered in slick polyurethane, the lightweight ball was meant to be
a technical marvel. Instead, it was a public relations disaster. The Jabulani's flight proved unpredictable, and players dismissed it as a "beach ball" and a "super­market ball." Goalkeepers suspected a conspiracy.

Inevitably the furor drew attention to the details of the Jabulani's production. Where was this strange thing from? Certainly not South Africa, the World Cup host. And not Pakistan either, for the first time in years. Like so many global commodities, it was manufactured in China. As a short Adidas promotional film reveals, it was made in the manner that has led to Chinese domination of many global markets: a combination of repetitive handwork and full automation.

Compared to the roadside sheds that Schanberg saw in Pakistan or the chaotic scramble in Gursky's photograph, the factory where the Jabulanis were fabricated is high-tech and impressive. But one still wonders what it must be like to work there. Not a single worker's face is included in the Adidas footage-only adept hands, going about their tasks at incredible speed.

The real story of the Jabulani, then, is not that it's difficult to kick or catch. Rather, it is the way that it marks the speed of global craft's politicization and ensuing displacement. Pakistan, which once produced more than three-quarters of the world's soccer balls, now produces less than half. Part of the reason for this shift is the sensitivity mentioned above; companies have a financial stake in keeping their reputations clean, and once established, the sweatshop image is hard to dispel. But
it also has to do with the cycle of global production, in which different patterns of skilled work displace one another at a bewildering pace.

Millions-some sources say billions-of people watched the World Cup on television; 700 million alone watched the final match. How many paused to wonder who made the Jabulani balls? And how can we adequately formulate a politics of craft when our understanding of working conditions changes more slowly than the conditions themselves do? This is the paradox of craft in the global context: A handmade object can assume a leading role on the world's biggest stage. Yet while there is plenty of information about unique and bespoke objects made by artists and designers, the craftspeople whose hands make the biggest impact-economically and culturally-too often remain invisible.

Glenn Adamson is head of graduate studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft.