Dublin exhibition shows sewing machines being controlled 8,000km away

10 May 2022

One of the sewing machines in The Complex in Dublin, which appears to be self-operating, but is replicating the actions of a factory worker in Bengaluru, India. Image: Leigh Mc Gowran/SiliconRepublic.com

The project uses laser sensors to detect foot pedal movement, before sending the data to six sewing machines in Dublin which replicate the movement in real time.

The Red Thread exhibition in Dublin is using network technology to show how important the human element is behind labour, even when it’s not visible.

At The Complex arts centre, six sewing machines appear to be self-operating, with each one turning on at seemingly random intervals and various speeds. However, the machines are being controlled by workers in a textile factory more than 8,000km away in Bengaluru, India.

When the factory workers press the foot pedal of their sewing machines in India, the data is transmitted in real time to the machines in Dublin, which reproduce the movement using motors.

The Red Thread exhibition was created by conceptual artist Kerry Guinan with the help of an international team of collaborators. Guinan said she chose sewing machines for the exhibition as she feels the industry represents a “limit point” when it comes to automation.

The exhibition aimed to show the moments of human interaction between people at opposite ends of supply chains, highlighting the scale and humanity of the globalised economy.

For the art project, a tiny laser was placed under the pedals of the machines in India that can detect distance from the ground. When the workers press the pedal with their foot to use the machine, the laser can detect the small changes to gauge when the machine is on and how fast it is going.

Using Arduino technology, the data from the Bengaluru factory is transmitted through the cloud to the Dublin machines, where motors connected to the pedals activate when the machines are used in India.

Two of the technical fabricators behind the project, Sai Mulpuru and Frank Prendergast, said the data from the laser is collected every tenth of a second, while the latency between the Indian factory and the machines in Dublin is only around one second.

Mulpuru said different sensor options were tested such as magnetic or ultrasonic sensors, but these were not sensitive enough to capture the subtle movements of the pedal effectively.

While the laser was successful, Mulpuru said its sensitivity caused difficulties in a factory environment, as bits of dust and fabric would fall under the pedal and disrupt the sensor during tests. This meant regular monitoring was required during the exhibition to keep the sensors working.

Prendergast said one of the biggest technical obstacles on the Dublin side was reducing the noise in the machines, as “we wanted it to be a reflection of the people, rather than the machine”.

“It’s been superb to work across continents with Sai and it’s kind of a reflection on how we can do this now,” Prendergast added.

At the event, the machines don’t run at full speed very often, with some turning on for short bursts at a time. Guinan said there are many human aspects to the textile work that aren’t being shown by the machine itself, which indicates the amount of work in labour that can go unconsidered.

The event ends tonight (10 May) with a performance by musicians Natalia Beylis and Michelle Doyle at 7pm, who will perform a score on the industrial sewing machines in The Red Thread installation.

The feat of making the project work across continents is also explored in an accompanying film by Anthony O’Connor.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic