The Washington Art Gallery’s new Asian art initiative kicks off with a dramatic fast fashion presentation

A partnership to bring contemporary Asian art to Perth began with an “uncomfortable” study of the treatment of textile workers.

It also explores the extent to which artificial intelligence (AI) rules our lives.

On July 22, on a large stage strewn with sticks on the ground floor of the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA), Bangkok-based artist Kavita Watanajyankur wrapped herself in red yarn and used her body to “weave” the yarn around the sticks in a performance of live, entitled Mental Machine: Labor in the Self Economy.

“The work focuses on labor in the fast fashion industry [and] how garment workers are treated like machines,” Vatanadjiankur said.

“[In a previous work] I used myself as this machine to knit a cloth, a tube, and then what I realized is that when I do the production of knitting, it is like a form of creation and production.

Interval for play or pause, M for mute, left and right arrows for search, up and down arrows for volume.
Kawita Vatanajyankur performs Mental Machine: Labor in the Self Economy at AGWA.

During the performance, Vatanayankur is faced with a choice – if she unravels, she is free, but also left with nothing, her work undone.

A “creepy” layer of artificial intelligence

Vatanajyankur says her performance at AGWA has an added layer that is “very creepy.”

She is guided by two AI-created on-screen versions of herself that will hold a conversation to guide her on stage.

Created in partnership with Pat Pattaranutaporn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, both AIs are programmed to have her face and voice and are trained using her personal data.

View of Watanayankur lying on a white stage with yarns attached like a net to various poles.
Vatanajyankur wants viewers to consider the extent to which they are being manipulated by algorithms and machine learning.(Courtesy: Art Gallery of Western Australia)

Each AI is programmed to believe in a different philosophy – one in the value of total freedom, the other that oppression can be a source of creativity.

“[They have] conversations on the topics of oppression and freedom, the meaning of rules and orders,” Vatanadjiankur said.

As well as commenting on the conditions faced by low-paid workers in the fast fashion industry, the material also invites viewers to consider the extent to which they too are manipulated by algorithms and machine learning.

“Our decisions are largely based on the decisions that are given to us because they study us, our activities, what we look for, our personal data.

“Our thoughts are devoted to these algorithms.”

A new direction for a state gallery

Vatanajyankur’s dramatic performance on July 22 launched a new initiative at AGWA, a private partnership creating an Institute of Contemporary Asian Art.

A five-year initiative supported by Perth businessman Simon Lee’s charitable foundation, the institute aims to support the careers of and expose WA audiences to the work of currently practicing artists.

Leave a Comment