Artist Kerry Guinan pokes her head under a flat wooden table, atop which sits a sewing machine.
The table stands on top of another table, lifted so that Guinan and Frank Prendergast, another artist, can easily fiddle with the twists of wires and computer parts attached to the sewing machine.
Five other sewing machines line up behind the pair inside the Cabra workshop of Space Forms, a company Prendergast runs with Sara Murphy to help artists build art exhibitions.
He helped Guinan with the tech for her exhibition, Red Thread, which will be running for six days in The Complex in Smithfield, from 4 May.
The six sewing machines are digitally linked to six sewing machines in a garment factory in Bangalore in India that workers use to make clothes.
Each twitch of the pedal and whirr of the needle will be exactly mimicked in Dublin, says Guinan. That will be between the hours of 8am and 1.30pm here, while it’s between 2pm and 6pm there.
“People are going to be doing their regular work, that’s what’s being recorded and reproduced,” she says.
Guinan says she hopes when people visit the exhibition and see the sewing machines whirring away, they’ll feel a connection between the clothes on their backs and the hands that made them.
A Butterfly Effect
Standing among the rows of sewing machines, Prendergast pinches a small, flat, grey computer module, showing its rows of pins.
High above his head, among the rafters, pigeon feet scratch atop the mustard yellow insulation. Crowding the walls are carpenters’ tools and planks of wood.
“This is called an ESP 32, which means its got connectivity built into the board,” he says, holding up the piece. It’s a useful tool for those who want to build a digital network, he says.
Prendergast says the network starts when a garment worker in the Pretinterpret Clothing factory in Bangalore nudges the foot pedal of their sewing machine.
It triggers a laser sensor, he says, which sends a pulse to a motor, which turns and nudges the ESP 32 to send a signal through the internet.
Guinan leans over to point out the little plastic pieces of the network puzzle attached to the pedal, and the aerial shooting up to the bottom of the table that the sewing machine is sitting on.
There, a bunch of coloured cubes, wires and slices of aluminium make up the computer that can connect to the internet and hear, or feel, what the sewing machines in Bangalore are saying.
Sai Mulpuru, a technician and design professor in India, installed the corresponding computer network on the six sewing machines in Bangalore, and will supervise the project during the run of the exhibition, says Guinan.
Deepa Chikarmane, factory director of Pretinterpret Clothing in Bangalore, India, says that it feels like the machines in Bangalore will send a message across the world.
“Every time there’s movement, you know, it’s kind of mirrored in Ireland,” she said on the phone on Monday.
It’s like the butterfly effect, she says. “There’s one lady so many kilometres away, you know, doing one little action with her foot that triggers something so far away.”
Prendergast compares it to a keyboard. “It’s just translating information from an analog signal, through to a digital signal, transmitting it across the world, reading it as a digital signal, translating it into an analog signal, and having an effect.”
Prendergast studied software engineering when he left school. “When I was in art college, I saw, ‘Ah, I can combine these two things.’”
Guinan took him and Mulpuru on board to help. “I had the basic knowledge that this was possible to achieve, but I’ve never used these myself, so I had to assemble a team.”
Degrees of Separation
Through Indian artists in Ireland, Guinan found Bakula Nayak, an artist from Bangalore, she says. Nayak and Chikarmane, the factory director, had met through their children.
“She had all the social connections that I needed,” says Guinan. “I think it ended up being about like, maybe five or six degrees of separation.”
Guinan liked that Chikarmane was invested in the artistic ideas behind the project, she says, and really passionate about textiles as a way of engaging people.
Guinan says she went over to Bangalore in February to meet the participants in the stitching department of Pretinterpret Clothing, properly explain the project, and hear their thoughts.
Chikarmane explained to her beforehand that some of the workers wouldn’t have good literacy skills and spoke many different languages between them, says Guinan. “None of them knew where Ireland was in the world.”
With an interpreter, Guinan and Mulpuru, the technician, gave demonstrations of a stripped-down version of the technology they’d be using for the sewing machines, along with visual aids and drawings.
She got to sit down with the stitching participants one-on-one too, learning about their work and who they are as individuals. “That was really, really nice.”
Chikarmane says Guinan’s visit made her and the participants excited about the project.
“There’s a sense of good feeling around all of this,” she says. “The whole process was so collaborative.”
What It All Means
The Pretinterpret Clothing factory makes women’s wear, using soft-woven fabrics like silk chiffon, georgette, charmeuse and cotton voiles, to create designs by North American designers, says Chikarmane. “A lot of value add, lots of embroidery, lots of creativity.”
The garment industry is the second largest employer in India, she says. “And very often, faces, personalities are all forgotten.”
Taking part in Guinan’s exhibition felt like a way to acknowledge this work, she says. “Something about it was beautiful, right, to get to know what really goes behind how the clothes, that we just take for granted, are being made.”
If people in Dublin see the machines sewing invisible fabric by invisible hands, and realise there’s a person behind each tiny movement, it might make them less likely to toss away an article of clothing, she says.
“When you’re emotionally attached to it, you think 10 times before trashing it,” she says. “It might be just a white t-shirt, but at the end of the day, effort was put into the making of it.”
Guinan, looking at the motionless sewing machines in the workshop, says she wanted to reveal the place of individuals holding up the clothing industry, and under bigger systems like capitalism and globalism.
“Intimate, human, delicate movements that are kicking off this huge, colossal, global-scale system,” she says.
The exhibition is about Guinan’s connection to the workers she met in Bangalore, and about the affinity people should feel with those who make essential goods, thousands of miles away, she says.
It comes from her own experience of feeling alienated in the modern global north and how commodities just appear like magic in front of our eyes, she says.
“Completely divorced of the labour that made them,” says Guinan, pulling the collar of her own jacket.
[UPDATED: This article was updated at 9.40am on 26 April to add that Sara Murphy runs Space Forms alongside Frank Prendergast.]