The Baggage Handler
In Publication Studio Portable: A Mobile Publishing Manual, edited by 何穎雅 Elaine W. HO, 彭倩幗 Beatrix PANG, Isabelle Sully and Yin Yin Wong and co-published by Publication Studio Pearl River Delta and Publication Studio Rotterdam, Hong Kong
Publication Studio Portable: A Mobile Publishing Manual is the first book to be published by PS PORTABLE—a completely portable print studio developed by Publication Studio Pearl River Delta and Publication Studio Rotterdam. The aim of PS PORTABLE is to actively explore alter-relations between publishing and distribution, making and readership, working and camaraderie. The texts included in the publication attempt to understand the space between the personal and collective weight of mobility. From the weathered body of an aged baggage handler to an account of migrating industrial processes in Hong Kong, as well as an instruction manual for producing your own portable printing studio, the editors have endeavoured to engage with the act of publishing in its form as fundamentally socially productive. This occurs, on one level, as another entry into the stream of global book fair circuitry, but also as a forging of ways where the act of publishing can be made more generous to the individual body and its labour.
The lifting and carrying of luggage at large airports is classified by typical conditions of performance: 1. Assessing the lift, 2. Solidifying your stance, 3. Adjusting your posture, 4. Hugging the load. She knew this well. The expectation on the body to realign and repeat. She had felt the persistence of these expectations permeating through her muscles automatically for some time now, the memory of movement had sedimented months ago and her limbs, despite reprimand from the brain, had begun to move on their own accord. It was customary—if not expected—for her body to operate in the field of mobility, but the constant unpacking and reloading of other people’s baggage was an emotional weight she felt increasingly unable to bear. It didn’t help that despite the twenty-three kilogram limit, there seemed to be no standardised way through which to approach each individual. The heavier the suitcase, you would assume, the more demanding the load.
Yet it was always the light suitcases that struck a tendinous chord, those ones masquerading the way they
did with their hard polycarbonate exterior, seemingly anchored to the ground by their own heaviness, immovable, but eventually braceable when the body conformed. Visual assessments of loads of this nature were always carried out, that was the job description after all, yet they would not always reveal themselves. It was that initial miscalculated lurch towards the handle that always seemed to get her good.
She would recall her training—‘half the weight of a toilet’—twenty-three kilos that was. And so with an image of half a
pristine porcelain toilet in mind she would solidify her stance, adjust her posture and prepare to hug the load. Though on rare occasions such as this, one of the ones that got her good, the suitcase gave her less resistance than was expected, lifting so easily off the ground that it flung over her shoulder with extreme force, twisting itself and her joint so rapidly backward that the case ended somewhere behind the left wing of the plane, and her somewhere foreign, between health and deterioration. It was these cases that always got her good. Yet it wasn’t the bodily strain that was responsible for this getting. It was the certain sadness that accompanied a luggage-less passenger. Ironically unburdened by the weight of baggage, it was the lightness of a luggage-less passenger that seemed the biggest burden of all.
The Baggage Handler picked herself up and adjusted her vest. The sun bounced off the reflective stripe stitched across its
front, thrusting her even further into the sphere of visibility. She was largely outnumbered in this line of work, and while her body was functionalised and machine-ic, she still felt it contract and shrink in moments such as these, discreetly malfunctioning from the inside out.
The next suitcase was oversized: two-thirds the weight of a porcelain toilet. And so with an image of two-thirds of a
pristine porcelain toilet in mind she solidified her stance, adjusted her posture and prepared to hug the load. It was always a process of multiple compressions. The passenger went first, squeezing the contents of their life into fifty-six by forty-five by twenty-five centimetres. The check-in attendant then complies by ingesting the load, extracting the relevant information and moving it down the line. Finally it would reach the baggage handler, who was really the only one who had to stomach it. And in working to reduce the dynamic range of the load, the Baggage Handler would readily prepare it for digestion. At the other end, the load would be excreted out, pushed onto the conveyor belt and flushed into the inner pipelines of the airport. Four quarters of a porcelain sanitation plant: the weight of everyone times twenty-three kilograms.
In bearing the strain of all these compressions, the Baggage Handler eventually found herself in a doctor’s waiting room.
The throb of the aching shoulder that brought her there, despite being a commonality in her line of work, persisted like a latent limb of resistance nonetheless. At a rate more rapid than its optimisation, her body had begun to misalign, its knees not bending with as much ease as before, its back stiff with strain until its mechanics malfunctioned regularly enough for the body to be on the brink of diagnosis: inoperable. The doctor told her that this was now her own weight to bear.
‘What are some solutions?’ she enquired.
‘The obvious answer is to find ways to not lift the bags,’ the doctor said.
‘To not lift the bags?’ The Baggage Handler did not understand.
‘Instances of back and shoulder injuries in the airline industry are some of the highest in all of private industry. So yes, you need
to find ways to not lift the bags. Risk factors associated with such injuries include overexertion, repetitive lifting and awkward postures, and you’re exposed to all three of these on a daily basis.’ She paused briefly, changing tone. ‘You need to begin focusing on your own baggage, gathering it together and reclaiming it when you leave work at the end of the day.’
The Baggage Handler didn’t know how to proceed. She knew that mobility was understood as the ability to move or be
moved freely and easily—that was why she loved her job so much. She was in the business of portability. Yet through the collective weight of carrying, she had failed to secure herself. Her workplace offered minimal compensation for this—a disregarded social responsibility that left her resigned to the material facts—and her shoulder now drooped from its joint, disgruntled yet immobilised for its own protection.
Inscribed by the identity of the uniform, the Baggage Handler had no option but to continue to lift the bags. And so she
did. She continued the compressions: solidifying her stance, adjusting her posture, preparing to hug the load. It was an effortful process through which she eventually changed her internal feelings, aligning them more readily with organisational expectations. She had successfully silenced her latent limb of resistance until one day, with the help of a hardened polycarbonate exterior—one-fifth the weight of a porcelain toilet—it finally snuck up on her and got her good.