Labour Pains | Verve Magazine
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January 29, 2020

Labour Pains

Breaking down the complex production of the socially relevant Autoportrait, Indo-American artist Tara Kelton – part of the upcoming group show Games of Chance at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts – interprets how the human workforce is being sidelined by automation, digital mediation and AI

I grew up in Bengaluru, and my work frequently employs the services of IT companies whose headquarters and offices are based there. In Autoportrait (2012, custom-made software in browser), I paid workers employed by the human resource website Amazon Mechanical Turk* to draw their self-portraits. These were combined in real time using custom-made software.The work was first shown at Galleryske, Bengaluru.

In my practice, I consider the traditional figure of the artist/craftsperson in relation to the digital. My art is a reflection on the diminishing role of the human in contemporary society — replaced by automation, AI (Artificial Intelligence) and digital mediation — and the remote algorithmic control of labour by western bodies and corporations. ‘Turkers’ are primarily from India and the US, with a small percentage in other countries around the world.

In Autoportrait, I was interested in the invisibility of Amazon’s freelance low-wage workers, tens of thousands of whom silently, anonymously perform manual, repetitive ‘human intelligence tasks’ (HITs) like completing surveys, transcription services or creating spreadsheets through its crowdsourcing marketplace. My project was an attempt to ‘see’ them — make them more visible — with the creation of a kind of collective self-portrait while building on a history of self-portraiture in a new medium.

Using Amazon’s platform and custom software, I began by setting a task for the Turkers. There were two interfaces — one that the viewer saw, the ‘master screen’, and the other in which each Turker drew after they accepted my task.

When each worker accepted a task they arrived at a blank screen, with a brush size or colour palette to choose from, on which they were asked to draw themselves. Meanwhile, the master screen displayed every line any worker anywhere produced, in real time, as they were drawing; layered on top of each other (the order of the layers is determined by which worker began drawing first).

Through this process the viewer could see all the lines that every Turker was producing as they were producing them, together on a single screen. (The software didn’t know how many workers were drawing, so it displayed everything that was drawn — whether it was 0 workers, 1 worker, or many.)

The hardest part of creating the work was to make it function in real time. I worked with two programmers over a period of weeks and we used a dedicated Flash server that would allow for the combination of multiple drawings from each individual in real time. Also challenging was the unpredictable nature of the structure and process — there were long periods of just a blank screen when no worker accepted the task.

The output was unique each time the software ran. I often think of the structure of my work as a computer programme, where I set up rules (or algorithms) that result in unpredictable outcomes.

Or, sometimes, it is like a science project, where I have a hypothesis, and I am doing an experimental project to prove or disprove it. On the occasions when the experiment can be run in real-time, like in Autoportrait, the viewer gets to share in the experience with me.

I also examine how technology can complicate authorship, and the new modes of collaboration that have become possible in the wake of the internet and increased connectivity between people, new forms of hardware, and cheap computing. Projects like Autoportrait intentionally leave the question of the author open.

While my experiments are designed to have unpredictable outcomes, the way the instructions are written greatly vary the nature of the output, and that’s where my authorship comes in — the rules (and the level of control) can be tightened and loosened, where I still have to make intentional, careful decisions, modifying the rules as I go, to achieve different results.

In the final artwork, the viewer can see continuously changing organic hand-drawn faces; variously coloured eyes and noses; a floating ear here, a smile there, with periods of blank quiet in between.


For 12 years, Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, founded by Dipti and Dattaraj Salgaocar — with Isheta Salgaocar, as patron and programmes advisor — has been dedicated towards enriching art and culture in the coastal state. Looming large on its 2020 calendar is Games of Chance — a show, curated by Leandre D’Souza, that encourages artists ‘to force viewers out of the mundane, plunging them into storms of randomness where luck and misfortune go hand-in-hand’. Over 20 artists — 12 of whom are women — and seven galleries from across the country have come together to present this show that will be on view from January 17th to March 27th 2020.

* In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen [built] a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, [the] Turk was seated behind a cabinet and…Kempelen would slide open the cabinet’s doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced [audiences] that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk — a chess master cleverly concealed inside. (

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