Mental Machine: Labour in the Self Economy


Mental Machine: Labour in the Self Economy, 2022, is a live performance by Kawita Vatanajyankur made in collaboration with Pat Pataranutaporn from Fluid Interface at MIT Media Lab. Commissioned by AGWA and SLF ICAA, Mental Machine explores the concept of labour in our current era of accelerated technological enhancement.

As the suffering subject of her own performances, Vatanajyankur creates situations that require her to endure prolonged physical and emotional hardship. The extremity of these performances are oriented as a critical response to the exploitation of workers, the problems associated with hyperconsumerism, and the porous relations between humans and machines.

In Mental Machine, Vatanajyankur becomes a human-machine hybrid as she embodies two cybernetic alter egos – each uniquely programmed with different beliefs and mindsets. Pataranutaporn created these cybernetic selves through the poetic use of deep learning algorithms (deepfakes) that were developed from the artist’s personal data. In doing so, Vatanajyankur’s mind and body are guided or manipulated by her cybernetic selves to thread a massive graph-like textile pattern across the floor of the Gallery.

Like a spool used in textile manufacture, in this durational performance Vatanajyankur enfolds her entire body with a roll of red yarn which she laboriously manoeuvres using her head, teeth, neck, arms and legs. Throughout the performance, Vatanajyankur encounters a multitude of options that influence her labour, and ultimately shape her decision to repetitiously thread this ever-growing textile, or to unravel the threads and undo her labour.

The performance is a response to rapid developments in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, which are training machines to think, talk and work like humans. By then positioning herself as a ‘mental machine’, Vatanajyankur asks many interconnected questions that shape our shared futures: as we teach machines to become human are we recreating ourselves to become more like a machine?; if AI algorithms can influence human behaviour by exploiting human biases and manipulating our emotions then are we truly free to choose?; is it possible to break the cycle of unconscious self-objectification and dehumanisation that is driving society?

Such concerns are of significance to us all. Vatanajyankur’s embodied reflections on what it is to be human create openings for new modes of labour and production to emerge, and in doing so, invite greater understanding of the structures which control or constrain our humanity.



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Kawita Vatanajyankur

Pat Pataranutaporn