Art Gallery of WA’s new Asian art initiative opens with dramatic fast fashion work performance

A partnership to bring contemporary Asian art to Perth has opened with an “uncomfortable” exploration 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 dotted with rods on the ground floor of the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA), Bangkok-based artist Kawita Vatanajyankur wrapped herself in red yarn and use her body to “knit” the yarn around the rods in a live performance titled Mental Machine: Labor in the Self Economy.

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

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

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Kawita Vatanajyankur performs Mental Machine: Labor in the Self Economy at AGWA.

During the performance Vatanajyankur faces a choice — if she unravels herself she is free, but also left with nothing, her work undone.

‘Creepy’ layer of artificial intelligence

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

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

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

An overview of Vatanajyankur lying on white stage with yarns attached like a web to different poles.
Vatanajyankur wants viewers to consider the extent to which they are also manipulated by algorithms and machine learning.(Supplied: Art Gallery of Western Australia)

Each AI has been 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 about the themes of tyranny and freedom, the importance of rules and orders,” Vatanajyankur said.

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

“Our decisions are pretty much based on the decisions that are given to us because they’re studying us, our activities, what we search for, our personal data.

“Our thoughts are being given to these algorithms.”

New direction for state gallery

Vatanajyankur’s dramatic performance on July 22 signaled the start of 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.


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