This mysterious object almost resembles—but doesn’t quite—a familiar electronic appliance. Its faceted plastic casing incorporates recognisable features like speaker grilles and handles, but the strangeness of its form resists any easy classification of its supposed function. An accompanying video depicts the object’s manufacture as a kind of choreography. Assembly-line workers alone or in pairs perform predetermined steps of the process in a tidy but noisy factory setting. Their actions are pointedly mechanical, suggesting how the human body is controlled or even subsumed by production systems. Some of the workers’ movements appear uncomfortable—ungainly twists of the torso or awkward bends of the wrist—inviting the viewer to imagine the physical consequences of such repetitive motion over days, months, or years.
The object and video together form a work by London-based artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, in collaboration with choreographer Alexander Whitley. The assembly-line ‘dance’, by real factory workers in Zhongshan, China, produced forty examples of the object, which the designers call an ‘artefact that only exists to support the performance of its own creation’. 75 Watt represents the genre of ‘critical design’, which uses design as a narrative tool to comment on contemporary or historic sociocultural issues. The title of the project alludes to a 1916 handbook by British mechanical engineer Lionel Simeon Marks that indicates seventy-five watts as a labourer’s average energy output over an eight-hour workday. Referencing this history of ‘scientific management’ in factories and other settings for labour, Cohen and Van Balen raise questions about the largely invisible working conditions and human impact of contemporary mass production.