text by Anca Rujoiu
In Forget Me, Forget Me Not, Priyageetha Dia pursues a mindful encounter mediated by technology with colonial representations of labouring bodies. How does one attend to difficult imagery —visual and textual— that continues to dispossess colonial subjects of dignity and agency? Amid the sea of information and data prone to racialised terminology, what are the possibilities for an artistic engagement to eschew or hijack the perpetuation of violence? While the exhibition title calls to question what to remember and forget, it is concerned in equal manner with how to do it. Forget Me, Forget Me Not is a plea for new forms and ethics of remembrance by an artist whose use of technology consciously dismisses its claims to neutrality and immateriality.
The booklet “Labour in British Malaya” published in 1923 and authored by E. W. F. Gilman is a pivotal archival reference for this exhibition. It provides an overview of the establishment and development of the Indian immigration fund administered by Gilman himself. Issued at a time when Malaya was the world's largest exporter of rubber, this pamphlet outlines the process that undergirded a large migration of workforce from the port of Madras (present-day Chennai) to different parts of Malaya. Gilman’s account includes an appendix that was supposedly addressed to the workers. In a promotional manner, this handout provides a range of information from the climate in Malaya to wages, working hours, health and education facilities— all those terms and conditions that controlled workers’ lives. Gilman ended the brochure admitting lightly that his text overall reflected “the standpoint of the employer rather than the labourer". But where can one encounter the standpoint of the labourer? The labourer deemed “unskilled” and yet, their tapping and weeding made Malaya the most profitable colony in the British Empire and the rubber plantations its largest money making enterprise. Confronted by the performative rhetoric of decent working conditions in what was otherwise an exploitative industry and by an absence of labourers’ voices, the artist sought the possibility of a counter-narrative throughout the exhibition.
Echoing previous works by the artist (Blood Sun, 2022; Long Live the New Fle$h, 2020), the animation created for this exhibition features a single-computer generated protagonist with female bodily attributes. While computer-generated imagery (CGI) is often deployed in mass entertainment for naturalistic depictions of characters and believable performances, Dia’s protagonist never fully feels or aspires to be real. As viewers, we are constantly brought to acknowledge the protagonist’s discernable materiality. Whether gently touching the water, caressing the land or fur, and sensing the marks of incision on a rubber tree, the protagonist evokes, in the words of cultural theorist Laura U. Marks, an experience of haptic visuality.Marks defines this form of perception as a tactile mode of looking, a way in which the eyes use the organs of touch. The sense of haptic in the artist’s animation is amplified by her relinquishment of a linear perspective and resistance to depth vision to which Western’s modern traditions of representation are tied. Besides, the interactions between her protagonist and the environment enhance the haptic sensibility in the artist’s work. Transferring the ritual drawing of kolam, which traditionally marks the thresholds of homes or the margins of the streets onto the body, Dia continuously strives to dissolve the boundaries between body and environment. This spatial merging is amplified in the architecture of the exhibition where enlarged hands on the wall guide, embrace, or entrap the viewers inside.
How does one reconcile the insistence on the materiality of the body with a choice of art made through digital imaging? How does one reconcile the history of the plantation labour market, a subject matter entrenched in histories of exploitation, with the usage of digital technology largely known for its commercial and military appliance? Dia’s work is defined by the consciousness that physical infrastructure underpins current technologies. None of the algorithms, data, and cloud infrastructures could exist without earth’s minerals that are essential to any electronic components, asserts the researcher Kate Crawford. Digital media relies on the convergence of natural resources, labour and geopolitical power. It is this tension between immateriality and materiality that the exhibition echoes. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) sits in a continuum with other materials, from screen-printed works on latex, sublimation fabric prints to vinyl on walls and barren soil. The mechanisms of continuity are key to the artist’s argument: corporate digitisation and commodification of colonial archives contribute to a legacy of control and dispossession; digital technologies persist in the exploitation of natural resources and labour while concurrently obscuring their physical presence. This is further attested by Dia’s appropriation of stock images of Malayan rubber plantations that one can easily excavate from search engines.
By simply keying words such as “Malaya rubber”, “Malayan Rubber Plantation,” one can dig into a vast collection of stock photography. Stored, classified, and distributed by multinational super-agencies—the largest being Getty images, these photographs are part of a globalised industry. With watermarks embedded in the preview mode on each photograph, these companies mark a legacy of control and commodification over the labourers’ bodies with roots in plantation colonialism. Lynn Hollen Lees once highlighted how the plantation industry in Malaya was a hierarchical and unequal system that cut across gender and ethnicity in all aspects of life, from the space workers occupied, to the clothes they wore, and the food they ate. The control over the workers’ bodies extended to their representation whether through words or images. This mode of subordination took a visible form in the travellers’ diaries, plantation owners’ accounts and photographs that one can now purchase online. Sourcing images online, the artist has appropriated a series of trademarked photographs and imprinted them on satin and latex in two distinct works part of the exhibition. In one series of prints, the stock images are superimposed on fabric. In another, they are printed with white ink on off-white latex. Irrespective of the printing material, the found images gain spectral qualities. Details of labourers in the plantation estates disappear into the rubber or haunt the landscape of plantations. A hammock created out of latex sheets is suspended across the gallery. More than a site of rest, the hammock is an archive of labouring bodies that are placed in the material they brought into existence with their hands.
When archives of colonial histories are filled with omissions, gaps, and prejudices, one has to acknowledge, in the words of the writer Saidiya Hartnam, an impossibility. The impossibility to know what has not been told, recorded or experienced. The challenge, asserts Hartnam, is not to give voice to what remains untold, but rather to “imagine what cannot be verified”. Combining mass-production techniques such as screenprinting in the treatment of digitised archival photography, with the world-building and speculative capacities of CGI modelling, Forget Me, Forget Me Not posits that to resist forgetting, one needs to conjure new forms of telling.
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Forget Me, Forget Me Not: Text by Anca Rujoiu