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Talking to Slow Factory about battling Instagram and ‘pastel-washing’

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Talking to Slow Factory about battling Instagram and ‘pastel-washing’

Lebanese designer and activist Céline Semaan says she stumbled into fashion by accident rather than design, but since her unexpected right-turn she’s set about increasing transparency within an industry that she describes as being full of “very well kept trade secrets”. 

She’s been working in open source and fighting for the freedom of information for over a decade – in 2011 she was in Beirut during the Arab Spring working with Creative Commons to launch a license allowing creators to share content online, protecting them in the process.

In 2012 she launched Slow Factory Foundation, an climate justice, anti-racist and culture organisation that has created education programmes, worked with partners including fashion brands, non-profits and academic institutions, and launched specific initiatives aiming to change the way the fashion industry innovates and operates.

On June 22, Slow Factory is launching I Really Love This Song, in collaboration with RUNA. It's a digital art exhibition and conceptual playlist that wants to escape the algorithm and “Instagram’s oppressive platform” (more on that later). The conceptual online project brings the work of 20 artists together with submissions from the public, each responding to key prompts related to climate, culture, education, and action.

We spoke with Beirut-born Semaan to learn how NASA inspired her to set up Slow Factory, the digital activism of the past twelve months, and how fashion can play a genuine role in the climate crisis.

Slow Factory has been going for nearly ten years. What was the eureka moment where you thought ‘we need to do this?’

Céline Semaan: My background is in information design and systems design. I worked primarily in access to digital literacy in the Middle East and in North America, structuring the Internet so that it remains open and free and working on advocacy for the open web. As I was working in these spaces, there was a big movement for open data and for releasing information to the general public in a way that's understandable – governmental information, climate science information and such. 

In 2008, NASA joined the Commons and NASA imagery became available to the public. But no-one knew about it. These pictures were of the Earth, showing the changes the Earth has been going through over the years. You could see entire lakes being emptied. Entire regions experiencing drought because of cuts in production. You could see the decline of phytoplankton in the oceans. Knowing this information, I wanted to bring it closer to the public. In 2008, I started researching how I could bring people closer to data.  

I started Slow Factory as an experiment, as an artistic exploration. It took me two years to work out where to bring those images, and I stumbled into the fashion industry, which I never thought I was going to be a part of. But I realised how opaque it is, how corrupt it is, how damaging it is for the environment, how little do information we have about it. Everything is hearsay or, you know, very well kept secrets, trade secrets at least. And so with Slow Factory we wanted to open up the fashion industry the same way we made sure the web remained open.

“Slow Factory we wanted to open up the fashion industry the same way we made sure the web remained open” – Céline Semaan

What do you think of the word 'sustainability'?

Céline Semaan: I always ask people when we are talking about sustainability – what's the context and what are we trying to sustain? I think there is a misunderstanding in sustainability where people are using the term to sustain their businesses, to sustain the relationship to the public. When brands are like “this is our sustainable collection”, it's basically to appease or to soothe the public and to throw a bone. But I think that sustainability when we are looking at it in its real meaning is the idea of sustaining our existence on this planet, and so far we're not doing it. When brands adopt these words without the action that goes with it, it makes the movement much harder.

You ended up in fashion, an industry you didn't think you'd work in. Fashion is still such a major polluter, but it also is culturally extremely powerful. How do you see its role in halting environmental breakdown?

Céline Semaan: I've always seen the positive in this industry since the beginning. If you have a huge negative impact on the planet, you can have a positive impact at that same scale. That's how I saw it. It was proportional, we could do as much good as we are doing bad. There is a lot of potential specifically in switching materials. What we're using right now in the fashion industry is a very toxic material called polyester. Polyester is bad. Even if it's ocean plastic, it's still bad, because it releases micro plastics into the ocean. You're taking a visible plastic from the ocean, such as a plastic bottle – which is what was sold to the public – and you're turning it into soft goods that are as disposable as that plastic bottle that is not recyclable. Every time we wash it, it releases micro plastics back into the ocean. These are invisible particles that we can not intercept.

I like the design on your Instagram, it looks more urgent and serious rather than the cutesy infographics you sometimes see on the platform…

Céline Semaan: I think we're going to coin the term pastel washing, you know those graphics that suggest all you need to do is just, eat well and chill and relax. And no, that's not how it's going to work. 

I want to talk about the battle you've had on Instagram with regards to posting about Israel and Palestine... 

Céline Semaan: My battle with Instagram is from so long ago, I don't even know how I convinced them to finally allow us to be verified. There were so many other Slow Factory copycats that tried to disturb the work that we were doing or were just taking the content and passing it off as their own. 

There's a lot of content theft on Instagram. Instagram is an opaque platform. It's not the open web that we are used to, and we don't have much control over it. We are at the mercy of Silicon Valley's values and those values don't align with the values of the public. Because, as you know, if you look at who's funding Instagram, who is behind Instagram, who is coding Instagram, what do they look like? These coders, they're mainly all white, cis males coding an app for themselves. So that's where the algorithm gets its racism. The algorithm is a code, it's not a person. 

“We're against the people who coded racist algorithms that pushes the content of certain people away from the public, away from being accessible” – Céline Semaan

When I say we are against this algorithm, we're against the people who coded racist algorithms that pushes the content of certain people away from the public, away from being accessible. When you are in the business of accessibility, this becomes very harmful for what we do. Before Palestine, they were censoring content regarding climate and climate justice and favouring pastel washing, but taking away the actual information. They bury the information. And it's basically an information war that we are witnessing not just on Instagram, but also online between far right information and the progressive left that's trying to inform the public. We are in a meme warfare culture.

Digital activism has its detractors, but I think the pro-Palestine movement has been really powerful. How do you see online campaigning turn into real change?

Céline Semaan: In the case of the climate justice movement, it is often slacktivism, because we are not seeing actions behind it. But in the case of Palestine, sharing that information is all we are asking, sharing the information that is being produced on the ground, that is being produced by the Arabs themselves, by Palestinians themselves.

In the climate justice movement, you’ve got to do a little more because we already know the information. But in the case of Palestine, we don't know. The public does not know yet.

You’ve built an incredible body of work at Slow Factory – you have amazing education programmes across climate crisis, human rights, racial justice. What’s your proudest achievement? 

Céline Semaan: That we're still here. That it's been ten years. I almost feel emotional about it because it hasn't been easy for us to go this far. In the beginning we were extremely criticised. We continue to be extremely criticised. It is very, very hard to fund something like Slow Factory. With Open Education, we are catering to 20,000 students. We have over 45 instructors – black, brown, indigenous instructors that we pay way above market to teach these classes. We're teaching people how to dismantle oppressive systems and talking about colonialism, discrediting a lot of the academia that people have been listening to. Funding what we do is difficult because we're like “hey, let's dismantle this oppressive system, let's rethink regenerative systems, let's think in systems, let's allow the public to think for themselves - who's going to fund it?” 

I’m also proud to be able to hire our first executive on the team Jungwon Kim, who is leaving the Rainforest Alliance to join Slow Factory as our VP Strategy. Prior to her nine years at RA, Jungwon was in a leadership role at Amnesty International for nine years. That is a huge milestone for us and definitely a necessary step for us to insure a sustainable growth!

What do you think art’s role in saving the world is?

Céline Semaan: I think art is life and everyone's an artist. The role of arts in the movement of climate justice and human rights is key because we can tell you all that all you want about these harrowing stats. policy follows culture. Right. If you're going to lead with policy, you're not going to get the policy that you're trying to get. We've always done that at Slow Factory, we've always used culture as a medium. The whole idea of culture is so powerful. Let's look at the healing process that needs to happen in order for us to achieve our goals. And the art world is at the heart of it.