[Sponsored] From the moment a person steps out in Hong Kong they are asked to hand over their personal data — a small price to pay, some argue, to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic through digital contact tracing. But the latest shift towards mass data acquisition has ignited a debate over transparency, and whether the public has an absolute right to privacy.
Artist Siu Wai-hang takes this tension and places it in front of us in his photo installation Hot Shots, part of WMA’s Can’t Touch This! exhibition that examines the changes coronavirus has brought to Hong Kong over the past year.
The exhibition’s name is a playful reference to a viral Covid-themed parody of MC Hammer’s classic U Can’t Touch This. Its Cantonese equivalent uses “wok,” slang for “chaos,” to describe the upheaval of our daily lives under Covid-19.
At first, the composition of Hot Shots is self-evident: rows upon rows of faces filtered through a thermal imaging camera, each accompanied by a temperature reading in the top-right-hand corner: their biometric ticket into businesses and restaurants. Above 37.3C indicates a low-grade fever, an ominous symptom of Covid-19.
The casual observer may be tempted to dismiss such mundane routines as a gesture of comfort to a community scarred by previous disease outbreaks such as the Hong Kong flu in 1968 and SARS in 2003, which killed 299 people in the city.
But Siu takes another approach. Hot Shots reduces its subjects to a smattering of saturated colours that blur all identifiable features into a luminescent glow. The mugshot-like portraits reduce subjects to disembodied vessels of warmth that are then packaged into miniature versions of their digital selves. It is, as curator Angela Su said, reminiscent of the recidivist criminals in French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon’s photographs: dehumanised and alien.
The coronavirus pandemic has fed the digital world’s growing appetite for personal information and accelerated the shift towards automated archiving such as Zoom call logs or contact tracing. Hot Shots also comes together to form a visual archive of interactions. Soon after starting the project Siu found he had built up a diary of the people he had met throughout the day on the thermal imaging camera.
“I found that this is my little archive of people that I see in my daily life,” he told HKFP. “It’s a database of who I’ve met over the past half year.”
“This data forms quite a concrete image of your daily life. The authorities can trace us using our image,” he added. “We cannot get rid of this, because we still have to move around the city. We are, in effect, ‘forced’ to hand over our image or information to get into a building.”
What is uncanny about the work, then, is how personal it is. As we navigate the city, so do the eyes of the health authorities via the government track-and-trace app LeaveHomeSafe, which requires users to scan a QR code and enter their personal information. Alternatively, customers can leave their contact details directly with businesses. But the mandatory measure introduced last month has shaken already-rattled public trust, with restaurant goers citing concerns over privacy. Angela Su decided to also use a QR code at the entrance for visitors to access the curatorial statements.
“The QR code is related to photography but it is not about visual representation,” Siu added. “It is about connecting to a ‘network’ and it is about getting your information.”
Such heightened health consciousness came into the crosshairs of a fierce debate about the use — and misuse — of personal data. In 2019, pro-democracy protesters hid their faces from cameras and attacked “smart” lamp posts amid fears that technological surveillance would incriminate them.
Hot Shots lays bare these anxieties. Methodical and structured, it aligns 360 digital prints on acrylic blocks, no taller than a finger, in scattered lines to resemble ce tau soeng — a photo of a deceased person attached to the front of a hearse in a funeral procession. Siu said the format was inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, a sombre arrangement of 2,711 concrete blocks to remember Jews murdered in the second world war.
“I wanted people to look back at what they [have] left in their daily lives,” he said. “When the photo is tangible, when it is a physical object, it gives people a sense of value.”
Flicking through his camera library on his mobile phone, he lamented the shift from print to digital. “In the old days we had to go to a print shop to materialise our photos. But right now, look,” he said, pointing to several group photos. “One moment has — one, two, three, four — five photos.”
“Before, family photos were only for important moments. Now, people overlook the value of images — but others, maybe [the] authorities, may think to store and use these images.”
For Siu the pandemic is visual. It has not only altered our behaviour and concealed our faces but it has distorted our world view — the thermal imaging camera transmits an alternate fluorescent version of ourselves that exposes the state of our health: “It shapes our conception of the world,” he said. “We can’t see temperature but with this we can.”
A visual artist by training and part-time lecturer by trade, the thermal imaging camera was a natural medium of choice for Siu. He graduated from the City University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Media in 2010, obtained a Master of Fine Art from The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2013 and was awarded the WMA Masters Award in 2014 and 2016.
He began the project about a year ago, taking the temperature of friends and students all too used to the routine exercise.“Actually, no one said no to me,” he laughed. “They are so used to it. Even in the lobby downstairs or the restaurant outside, the bank, you have to take a photograph. It’s a kind of exchange.”
As coronavirus continues to upend lives and throw much into stasis, Hot Shots reminds us to glance backwards at those interactions and the parts of ourselves that we have left behind.