Professor Ian Cook
Professor of Cultural Geography
Amory Building, University of Exeter, Rennes Drive, Exeter, EX4 4RJ , UK
Ian is a cultural geographer of trade. He's interested in ways that academics, filmmakers, artists, activists, musicians and journalists try to make tangible the lives of those who make and grow everyday commodities. He runs the spoof shopping website followthethings.com which curates, and researches the making, discussion and impacts of over 80 examples of this work. Once the 100th has been researched and added to the site, he and collaborators are writing a handbook of 'follow the things' activism to inform and hopefully inspire new work in the genre. For those who cannot wait, live reporting on the 'follow the things' project takes place on its blog, and on twitter, facebook and flickr.
Within Geography at Exeter, Ian coordinates the Cultural and Historical Geographies research group, a hive of fun-based productivity involving artists, academics, postdocs, postgrads, masters students and guests approaching geographical research, teaching and public engagement through collaborative, creative practice. In addition to followthethings.com, this approach to creative geographical practice has led Ian to work with artist and PhD student Paula Crutchlow and others on the Museum of Contemporary Commodities, artists Joan Gabie and Neville Gabie to create Dust, and with many others to develop his solo/collaborative practice as a LEGO memelord (kind of).
Beyond all of this, Ian lends what he knows about 'follow the things' commodity activism to the Fashion Revolution movement, where he's the Global Coordination Team's official "education maestro and general agitator, activator, and go to guru for facts, and unusual knowledge extraction", co-authors its annual Quiz, and ran its 'Who Made My Clothes?' online course in the summers of 2017 and 2018.
Here, there and everywhere, Ian writes as 'Ian Cook et al' to acknowledge the collaborative nature of all of his work. His/their/our work is hard to own solo.
1986: BSc Human Sciences, University College London, UK
1992: MA Human Geography, University of Kentucky, USA
1997: PhD Human Geography, University of Bristol, UK
Ian worked in the Department of Geography at the University of Wales, Lampeter from 1993 to 1999 and in the School of Geography at the University of Birmingham from 2000 to 2007, before moving to Exeter where he is working right now.
Research group links
Ian et al is/are perhaps best known for developing the 'follow the thing' approach to commodity geographies. Much of this work has been undertaken via a series of small, collaborative projects exploring ways in which abstract commodity relations can be made 'real' enough to make a difference to the ways in which people imagine, understand and act as citizens and consumers.
Whilst taking massive doses of steroids, he/they/we managed to bring together, for the first time, in one place, for research purposes a wealth of academic and popular 'follow the thing' work in a spoof 'shopping' website called followthethings.com. This mixes up and confuses the research, publication, impact and teaching parts of academic labour. And for good reason. The FAQs are here.
The followthethings.com project has also sparked new collaborative work with artists and activists including the Museum of Comtemporary Commodities, Dust and Fashion Revolution.
followthethings.com is a research website with the look, feel and architecture of an online store, with Grocery, Fashion, Electronics, and other departments. It showcases ‘follow the thing’ films, books, academic journal articles, art installations, newspaper articles and undergraduate research. This work has followed nuts, t-shirts, tablet computers, perfume, books, cash, bullets and more. Most of the original work is freely available in-store to watch or download. Most also come with things to discuss. How was the original described by reviewers and audiences? Why, how, by whom and for whom was it made? How did its makers aim to grab its audiences? What (if anything) does this work seem to have done in the world? This site is made for teachers, researchers, journalists, film-makers, artists and other shoppers. It’s an online shop, a database, a resource and a field-site for people who want to learn from, and create, this kind of work. Its social media outpourings include a wordpress blog, a facebook page, a twitter feed, and a flickr group.
followthethings.com emerged, in significant part, from a research and pedagogic partnership with Prof. Keith Brown of Arizona State University's School of Politics and Global Studies (for details see here). Most pages start as student research set in Ian's Geographies of Material Culture final year module, and have been updated and completed by nicely paid graduate interns. New pages continue to be added and, most recently, work with Finnish media literacy activist Eeva Kemppainen and funded by the Kone Foundation has seen the updating and completion of additional examples of 'follow the thing' cultural activism drawing on techniques of culture jamming, including:
Best, T., Gibson, T., Massey, B., Rees, C., Ross, K. & Sherman, J. (2018) Employee Visualisation Appendage. followthethings.com
Coakley, D., Johnson, J., Li, J., Mitchell, G., Saxton, J., & Weake, T. (2018) Sim*Sweatshop. followthethings.com
Hart, J. (2014) Pipe Trouble. followthethings.com
Jennings, E., Hargreaves, A., Goddard, M., Joslin, A., Whittington, M. & Bell, C. (2017) The Nike Email Exchange (NEE). followthethings.com
Weston Goodman, C. (2018) Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality. followthethings.com
2) The Museum of Contemporary Commodities
Founded with artist and PhD student Paula Crutchlow, The Museum of Contemporary Commodities (or MoCC) is neither a building nor a permanent collection of stuff - it's an invitation: to consider every shop, online store and warehouse full of stuff as if it were a museum, and all of the things in it part of our collective future heritage. MoCC invites people to imagine themselves as its curators with the power to choose what is displayed and how. To trace and interpret the provenance and value of these things and how they arrived here. To consider the effects this stuff has on people and places close by or far away, and how and why it connects them. What do we mean by things or stuff? Everything that you can buy in today's society. The full range of contemporary commodities available to consume. MoCC invites people to join us on our journey by browsing and adding to our collection, attending an event, becoming a researcher.
In 2015, Paula, Ian and their collaborators curated connections between trade-place-data-values in Finsbury Park, culminating in July in MoCC's 'Free Market' at Furtherfield's Galllery (watch the video here). From 17 October to 22 November 2015, MoCC was featured in 'The Human Face of Cryptoeconomics' exhibition at the Furtherfield Gallery in Finsbury Park, London (see here). In May 2016, the MoCC website and online collection was launched and a disused shop in Exeter was turned into an IRL MoCC for three weeks (watch the video here). In August 2017 MoCC opened for a long weekend in a lovely museum space - the Pavilion Gallery of the RGS(IBG) on Exhibition Road in London - before moving into the RGS annual conference space the following week (Watch the video here). In each IRL location, visitors were asked to add commodities to the online collection, to answer and ask questions about them, to rate them according to values like 'freedom' and 'sociability', and to appreciate how the site's algorithms surface and change the collection's top commodities by 'attention', 'controversy', 'positive' and 'negative'.
This project has been funded by the ESRC, AHRC, Arts Council England, Islington Council, Exeter City Council, the University of Exeter and the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter.
From 2014-5, Ian (via followthethings.com) was a project partner for an Arts Council England project called Bideford Black: the next generation based in the North Devon town's Burton Art Gallery and Museum. Bideford Black is a unique pigment sourced from a 'paint seam' in the geological strata of the area, which was commercially mined until 1968. Building on the first phase of the project, in which oral historical research was undertaken with former mineworkers, the 'next generation' project commissioned eight artists and one filmmaker to make new work for the Burton collection, and to develop ways of using it as a medium and inspiration.
After a 'Biddiblack' collecting fieldtrip in October 2014, Ian worked with artists Neville and Joan Gabie to create a body of work entitled ‘Dust’ which included a five screen video installation, a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ containing experimental making work with plastic and rubber, and a suit worn by Neville to work with the material. This work, along with their collaborative artist notebook, was exhibited at the Burton Gallery in October 2015. Watch the exhibition trailer (here) and read an exhibition review (here).
4) Fashion Revolution
Since 2013, Ian has been working with a group of ethical fashion pioneers, NGOs, journalists, academics and others dedicated to marking 24 April (in 2013, the day the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers) as Fashion Revolution. Now active in over 90 countries worldwide, its key question to fashion brands and retailers is 'Who made my clothes?' Here, followthethings.com's fashion department and fashion ethics trump card game have been adopted as education resources on the Fashion Revolution website.
In June 2014, Ian directed a week-long public research project called 'Fashion ethics after the Rana Plaza collapse' from a disused shop in Exeter's Guildhall Shopping Centre. From 2014-2016, he was Fashion Revolution's Global Education & Resources lead, designed its Education Resources, curated its Research Library, Film Library, Do Something and Education Pinterest Boards and, in 2015, co-authored the movement's book How to be a fashion revolutionary with Sarah Ditty and Laura Hunter. A second edition of the book, with additional co-author Tamsin Blanchard, was published in 2018.
In June-July 2017 and 2018 Ian led a free 3 week online course with/for Fashion Revolution called 'Who made my clothes?' organised according its maxim 'Be Curious. Find Out. Do Something'. Check the details here.
Publications by category
Publications by year
External Engagement and Impact
Visiting Professor in Geography, Université Paris Diderot (2016-17)
Member, Fashion Revolution Global Coordination Team (2016-)
Fashion Revolution Global Education & Resources Lead (2014-2016)
Member of the Geography Education Research Collective (2013-)
Trustee of the Geographical Association (2011-2016)
Academic Advisory Board member, Students & Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour (2008-)
Geography Compass (Oxford: Blackwell: cultural geography editor, 2006-2012)
Cultural Geographies (London: Sage - editorial board member, 2011-)
Geography (Sheffield: Geographical Association - editorial board member, 2008-)
ACME: an on-line journal for critical geographies (editorial board member, 2000-2007)
Qualitative research (London: Sage - editorial board member, 1999-)
External Examiner Positions
MA in Food Security and Food Justice, University of Sheffield (2015-2018)
University Preparatory Certificate in the Humanities (Geography), UCL (2008-2011)
Invited lectures & workshops
Ian Cook & Zahra Ali (2019) 'Be Curious. Find Out. Do Something'. Invited keynote at the University of Leiden's Education Festival, The Netherlands
Ian Cook et al (2019) Political LEGO: think pieces. Invited contribution to the 'Social Movements, everyday life and the political of sustainable consumption' workshop, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester, UK
Ian Cook et al (2018) Follow the things: who makes the things we buy, where, how and under what conditions? Invited presentation at the emlyon Lifestyle Research Centre's 'Sustainability Research Day', Lyon, France
Ian Cook et al (2018) Lives in+of food. Invited presentation at the Food 2.0 Lab's 'Rethinking Food + Food Safety' conference, Paris, France
Ian Cook et al (2018) Minifiurative politics. Invited talk and LEGOLab at the 'Lives in Brick: Bodies, Justice, Power' workshop, London, UK
Ian Cook et al (2018) Minifigurative politics. Inaugural lecture, University of Exeter, UK
Ian Cook et al (2017) Invited panel contriution to ESRC Consumption Ethics: Interdisciplinary Meanings and Intersections seminar, Birkbeck, Univeristy of London, UK
Ian Cook et al (2017) Why I refuse to write about followthethings.com, and then do so. Invited panel contribution to the RGS(IBG) Digital Geographies Working Group event Revolution, Evolution, Imposition, London, UK
Ian Cook et al (2016) Toxic materialities. Invited organisation of screening and panel discussion of Sasha Friedlander's (2012) documentary Where Heaven Meets Hell for Passengerfilms, London, UK
Ian Cook et al (2015) Critical making with web2.0: on the material geographies in/of followthethings.com. Invited seminar in the ‘How social sciences shape society’ conference series, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland
Ian Cook et al (2015) Making conversations about ethical consumption with followthethings.com. Invited presentation at the ESRC Consumption Ethics in Society seminar, University of Leicester, UK
Ian Cook et al (2015) Food talk: geographies of food and the ‘follow the thing approach. Invited keynote at the White Rose DTC Inaugural Food Studies Seminar Event, University of Sheffield, UK
Ian Cook, Will Kelleher, Charlotte Brunton & Jennifer Hart (2014) followthethings.com: research & teaching through global connection. Invited presentation at the Brown International Advanced Research Institutes, Brown University, Providence RI, USA
Ian Cook et al (2013) followthethings.com as open access publishing. Invited panel contribution on ‘Open Access Publishing: a stock-take and critical debate’, RGS(IBG) annual conference, London, UK
Ian Cook et al (2010) Shopping online: new sites and technologies for 'follow the thing' research. Invited keynote presentation to the ERC EUROQUAL workshop on Spatial and network analysis in qualitative research, European University Cyprus, Nicosia, Cyprus
Sirpa Tani (2018) Tarinoita papaijasta, etnografiasta ja tieteen rajojen koettelusta: haastattelussa Ian Cook ja Eeva Kemppainen. Terra 130(1), 39-42
Joss Hands (2015) The Museum of Contemporary Commodities. Digicult October
Anon (2015) The Museum of Contemporary Commodities. Hack Circus (Issue 8, Prediction) September
Lizzie Lloyd (2015) Review of Bideford Black: The Next Generation, Burton Art Gallery and Museum, Devon. Aesthetica 2 November
Olivia Edward (2013) I‘m a geographer: Ian Cook. Geographical magazine April, p.82
Anon (2012) Food Globalisation (interview). Geography in the news, Royal Geographical Society, October
Advisory Board member: Blood Bricks, ESRC-DFID funded project (PI Prof Katherine Brickell, Royal Holloway, University of London).
Advisory Board member: Designing a Sensibility for Sustainable Clothing, AHRC-funded project (PI Prof Clare Saunders, University of Exeter).
‘Follow The Things’: developing critical pedagogies to promote geographically-informed and ethically-aware consumption in school geography curriculum (REF 2014 impact case study: download).
Fashion ethics after the Rana Plaza factory collapse (University of Exeter Grand Challenge, Exeter Guildhall shopping centre, 2-6 June 2014: website)
- GEO2133: Global lives: multicultural geographies (contributor)
- GEO3123: Geographies of Material Culture (co-ordinator)
- GEOM130: Geographies of Culture, Creativity and Practice (contributor)
- GEOM132: Space, Politics and Power (contributor)
Ian was shortlisted for the University of Exeter Student Guild's 'Innovative Teaching' award in 2010, 2011 and 2012. In 2012, he won the award.
In 2017, the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) awarded Ian the Taylor and Francis Award for Excellence in the Promotion and Practice of Teaching and Learning of Geography in Higher Education.
Supervision / Group
- Tara Woodyer (2011-12) Playing with toys: the animated geographies of children's material culture (ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship, Mentor)
- Lizzie Hobson (2017-) Identity, Belonging and Inclusivity in the Cultural Economy (Exeter Funded PhD, co-supervised with John Wylie)
- Matt Wilkins (2009-) Collaborative publics: shopping, performance and the blind individual (Exeter funded PhD, co-supervised with Paul Cloke) .
- Sunnie Wu (2015-) Globalisation and the Reconstruction of Rurality: Cases Study of Canton, China (co-supervised with Jo Little and Paul Cloke)
- Angeliki Balayannis (2015-18) Following the Pesticides in Disposal: a Chemical Geography (Australian Postgraduate Award-funded, co-supervised with Rachel Hughes and Jon Barnett (Melbourne) and Gail Davies (Exeter))
- Martin Buttle (2001-05) Ethical finance in the social economy: a multi-locale ethnography (Birmingham University funded PhD, co-supervised with John Bryson)
- Paula Crutchlow (2014-2019) The Museum of Contemporary Commodities (ESRC-funded PhD, co-supervised with Sam Kinsley)
- Matt Grace (2009-13) Geography, cancer and dragon boats: ethnographic explorations of breast cancer dragon boating in the Lake District, UK. (Exeter funded PhD, co-supervised with David Harvey)
- Helen Griffiths (2005-2010) Engaging students as citizens and consumers innew school geographies (ESRC-funded PhD, co-supervisedwith James Evans).
- Suzanne Hocknell (2012-17) Adding Fat to the Fire: Fat-assemblages and (re)making the world (ESRC-funded PhD, co-supervised with Steve Hinchliffe)
- Verity Jones (1999-00) A Pear Shaped Thesis: research becoming in/of/with/ the National Botanic Garden of Wales (University funded MPhil, University of Wales, Lampeter)
- Rebecca Morris (2005-2010) Bloody geographies: exploring identities, relatedness, connectedness and care in the exchange of blood and blood products (University of Birmingham, co-supervised with Jason Chilvers)
- Rebecca Sandover (2009-13) Doing food - knowing food: an exploration of allotment practices and the production of knowledge through visceral engagement (Exeter University funded PhD, co-supervised with Henry Buller)
- Lynne Wyness (2008-12) Placing Global School Partnerships: the politics, praxis and pedagogies of global citizenship. (Exeter University funded PhD, co-supervised with Nicola Thomas)