JD Reforma’s Butterfly is a filmed performance that manipulates theatre as raw material. Embodied by two actresses, it pivots on the potent dynamic between the central protagonists of the stage musical, Miss Saigon and the classical opera on which it is based, Madama Butterfly. It traces the axis of occupation that connects their worlds, where Asia exists as a resource to be pillaged by the West, and Asian women, psychologically and economically subjugated to military occupation, are sexually commodified and controlled by American men.
In Butterfly, Reforma has conscripted the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT to ‘perform’ the role of one of the lovers in the duet ‘This Money’s Yours’, from Miss Saigon. In it, American Marine sergeant, Chris offers Vietnamese bargirl Kim money for sex, which she innocently refuses. Reforma repurposes Chris’ persistent and questioning lyrics – Can I see you tonight? How would you like living with me? – and poses them instead to ChatGPT. In this gesture the artist supplants woman with AI, scripting a performance between man, a soldier conditioned in the transactional commands of Western entitlement, and machine, a robot enslaved to its programming language and protocols, whose speech eerily echoes the dutiful refrains of Kim’s artificial sexual captivity. By foregrounding his means of production, Reforma reveals the layers of meaning embedded within his source material – “opera" derives from the Latin opus, meaning "work" or "labour", while “robot” originates from the Czech robota, meaning "forced labour" or "drudgery" – while underscoring the histories of artificial creation that link women and machines to cycles of indentured servitude.
Commissioned for the Sydney Opera House, and premiering symbolically between the recent Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of Madama Butterfly and Opera Australia’s presentation of Miss Saigon, JD Reforma’s Butterfly implicates Australia’s own cultural institutions in the perpetuation of colonial power.
Concept and Direction
Chloe Corkran, Athena Thebus
Filming and Production
Motel Picture Company
Sound, Design and Score
Supported by Waverley Council through Waverley Artist Studios, 2023; and Motel Picture Company.
The artist would like to extend his deepest thanks to Chloe Corkran, Athena Thebus, Sophie Georgiou, Stefce Mileski, Joan Banoit, Elizabeth Reidy, Todd Fuller, Frances Barrett, and Stella Rosa McDonald for their generous contributions, insights, and support.