Kerry Guinan’s kinetic installation appears to be self-operating, but over 8,000 kilometers away, in Bengaluru, India, workers in a textiles factory are activating what we see.
Kerry Guinan is a conceptual artist from Donabate who explores the intricate relationships between globalisation, technology and labour. One of the most refreshing aspects of Guinan’s work is her pursuit of an experience that produces well-defined ideas in the visitor, but that are nonetheless resistant to all-or-nothing judgments. With a deft hand, Guinan steers her audience into a conceptual territory where the effect is to challenge us into viewing the world through several lenses at once.
Her upcoming exhibition ‘The Red Thread’ is opening at The Complex as part of their Art Factory initiative. This project will run for six dates at the beginning of May and features a set of sewing machines that will appear to be working independently of human control. Their movements, however, will be anything but automatic. Over 8,000 kilometres away, in the city of Bengalaru in India, a team of textile workers will be operating their own machines, busy with their daily workload, producing a mirrored movement in their counterparts in Dublin.
What makes you or anyone a conceptual artist?
It depends on how you define it. A lot of people have a medium that they work through conceptually, but I like to switch mediums for every project. I’m not committed to sculpture or video, for example. Contemporary art generally is a conceptual field, but I suppose what I mean by the term is that I have ideas I want to articulate or provoke in others, so I find the best means available to do that, through whatever medium feels appropriate. I like to activate the imaginary – I think that’s where my work is trying to have an effect. Aesthetic appreciation has a role, but my ultimate aim is to make work that forces the mind to contemplate certain ideas. I want my work to be like a tantalizing clue that leads people to imagine something else.
How did the idea for this exhibition come to you in the first place?
After a solo exhibition I did in 2019, I was really captured by the closing of distance the show had achieved, by how time and space had been compressed. I became fascinated by the idea of developing a live performance that would take place on opposite sides of the world, and I had this image of an object controlled by someone far away. Over lockdown, I was teaching myself to repair clothes and I realised that the sewing machine had to be the object, because the movement of the foot peddle is a very palpable expression of the human body operating a machine.
I was sure from the beginning that I didn’t want it to be shown in a traditional white cube gallery – I was looking to source an industrial space to house the work. So it was an almost miraculous stroke of luck that I came across the Complex’s open call for the Arts Factory, which awarded artists access to use a space that was exactly what I had in mind.
From that point, I got contacts on board, I sourced funding, and I reached out to a few Indian artists in Ireland. Through them I was put in touch with friends and family in India, and essentially the whole project was built through a successive network, on an infrastructure of trust, with people that I knew recommending people that they knew, until a production team all across the world had been established and a group of individuals, many of whom are professionals and experts, were all helping to make this project happen. And that’s how we eventually got in contact with the factory and with the workers.
This project is a test of the extent of our connection across the world. Obviously, the installation itself refers to our connectedness, but I wanted to demonstrate it by doing, by making the connections myself. I took advantage of the same system the work represents. In that sense the work has both an affectionate relationship to technology alongside its critical attitude; it holds that space between both.
What is the workplace setting in India like?
I went for a month in March with Anthony O’Connor, who is making a short film about the project. The factory is small, 30 stitching workers, in an industrial estate in the suburbs. Bengaluru is a large international city, often referred to as the Silicon Valley of India.
I don’t know how to describe the workspace itself, but it’s a small facility. The textile industry in India is generally organized across a diverse set of workspaces. Westerners tend to only imagine huge sweatshops, but a significant section of the industry is self-employed people in their homes, doing piecework, and then there are also lots of small enterprises. This is one of the many small-scale facilities, and that in itself is part of the reason why I was interested in working with them in the beginning.
What did the workers make of your plan?
Like in every art project, people take part for their own reasons. It’s not really possible to generalize them as a group, but there was certainly excitement about the project, partly because it was an opportunity for some people, who have been working in textiles for decades, to demonstrate the value of their work and the skills that they have. They are skilled artisans.
I think the idea has its own merit too. We could sit and discuss the project in the context of all sorts of philosophical viewpoints, but at the core of it, it’s quite simple: the exhibit is about connecting people who are already connected, where that connection isn’t felt or visible. It’s about creating a space in which that connection can be experienced, and everyone understood that.
What motivated the work conceptually? It seems that, as much the artwork valorises the artisanal and human elements of the activity its mimicking, it also asks questions about global labour practices.
I was motivated by the idea of alienation, which is the state we fall into when commodities are stripped of their human origin. That is compounded by my own, more routine sense of alienation with the world that I’m living in. I think that the work is trying express these various feelings of alienation and to undermine them. The aim of the work is to hold that space, composed of two spaces; by, on the one hand, beginning a process of de-alienation that reveals the presence of the human body that is at the centre of, and ultimately responsible for, this massive global system; and on the other hand, by speaking to the alienation that remains, or that is maintained by the work, because the experience of the work doesn’t involve meeting the other person, the worker in India. It’s only a gesture towards that individual.
What I’m trying to do here is not to repeat dominant narratives, but to allow the work to be experienced at a bodily level, as a space of encounter between the people who will be in the gallery and the people who are on the other side of the world. So, it’s a social space as well as an art installation. For me, the work isn’t ‘finished’ or ‘working’ until people walk in and interact with it because that’s when the relationship is created.
What have you taken away from your experience of making this installation?
It’s made me quite optimistic about the potential for making connections. In the process of working, all sorts of idiosyncrasies pop up – people are just full of surprises. When I was making the work in 2019, I was quite cynical, but in the process of making the art, it showed me that moments do appear, connections do happen, and that you can trust that people will, at the end of the day, seek to help each other and cooperate.
The Red Thread takes place May 4th – 10th (excluding Sunday 8th) at The Complex Gallery, as part of the ‘Art Factory’ programme. For six performances only, from 8am – 1.30pm, an installation of industrial sewing machines will be activated live in The Complex.
Words: Tom Lordan
Photo of Kerry: Credit Brian Cross