With each passing generation, there is an increasingly symbiotic relationship between humans and the internet. We are progressively surrendering data about ourselves at an alarming rate, often without realising it.
Artist and design researcher Pamm Hong’s Watermelon Sugar Wellness Lab, now at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, is a response to that.
The piece is part of the Sydney Design Festival’s Common Good, a group exhibition featuring the responses of young, digitally engaged designers to broad issues like such as population increase, the decline of natural resources and the environment. Hong’s work is an examination of the intersection between our virtual and real-life identities, and her first time showing in Australia.
“People are sometimes apprehensive to explore what they’ve left behind of themselves on the internet; they want to ignore it. But at the same time, if we keep building apps that embed themselves with our data, it’s our responsibility to know what we’re feeding into the web,” Hong tells Broadsheet.
Drawing inspiration from Richard Brautigan’s 1968 novel In Watermelon Sugar, Hong’s work will allow audiences to create a virtual organism that embodies their online footprint. Using an app, visitors will answer some simple questions about their own online habits and behaviours.
With each answer, a “Tamagotchi-like” creature will begin to take shape on the screen: this is you. “It’s a really simple way to communicate the intention of the project,” says Hong. “I want to get the public to understand what it means to have this data swimming around. Who’s buying it? How is it being used?”
Born and raised in Singapore, Hong is a graduate of the Master of Material Futures course at London’s leading design and arts college, Central Saint Martins. She was recently named one of the world’s top 20 disruptors by the 2016 Global Futures Forum; a title she’s hesitant to bear. “I want to make it clear that my role is to translate these complex thing into something visual. Being a ‘disruptor’ is a lot of responsibility but all I’m really doing is reading stuff, understanding, and sharing it. The term doesn’t personally have any relevance. The whole point is just to get this out there.”
By forcing audiences to develop a relationship with their organism, Hong hopes to bring the conversation about data and data-farming out of the dark. “Data is such an invisible material,” she says. “We’re so used to seeing black screens and lime-green numbers, we need to change the way we understand our own data. With this app people are all of a sudden caring for this anthropomorphic figure: that’s your data.”