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Meet the artist behind Sydney Design Festival's most thought-provoking work

Written by
William Dunn
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London-based artist Pamm Hong is trying to change the way people talk about data. Actually, she’s just trying to get people to talk about data at all. The designer and artist is coming to town for the Sydney Design Festival. Her work, the ‘Watermelon Sugar Wellness Lab’ is featured as part of the Common Good group exhibition, she’ll also present a talk explaining the concept and themes of her work. Time Out chatted with the artist to get her insights on connectivity, privacy and the importance of remembering the internet is a millennial.

“We forget that the internet is 27 now, the smartphone is even younger, and social networks even more. It’s so much a part of our lives I just think that we forget how we got here in the first place… We’re connected even if we don’t think we are and essentially I just wanted to shine a light on how data visualisation can help us understand ourselves”.

Sydney Design Festival
Pamm Hong, 'Watermelon Sugar'
Photograph: Supplied

The ‘Wellness Lab’, a simplified version of the original ‘Watermelon Sugar’ concept, allows people to see their data actualised in the form of an avatar. The goal isn’t to judge people on their online habits, it’s to spark a conversation about a technology and the reality we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we control. “I think awareness is a big part, but also it’s just peaking curiosity, and inspiring different ways to look at something that is very serious”.

The name of the artwork comes from Richard Brautigan’s book In Watermelon Sugar, a story of a dystopian world where everything is constructed out of the titular fruit. “Every day the sun changes colour, everything is transient… its inhabitants are in limbo, they’re not really sure what’s going on”. Hong saw parallels between the lives of the people within the novel and the increasingly technologically-bound world in which we live: “It's this very strange transience of technology interweaving our lives, yet we’re not really sure what we’re creating".

Sydney Design Festival
Pamm Hong, 'Watermelon Sugar'
Photograph: Supplied

Two important events occurred when Hong first thought of the idea; Brexit and the 2016 US election. For Hong these events provided “more evidence to show me that there’s this vocabulary that people don’t understand”. She noticed people become aware of how far-reaching data can be, even when we believe our exposure on the net is relatively small. But the artist was curious about what other attitudes or misconceptions surrounding data exist around the world. “What I’m bringing to Sydney is something that would... give me a platform to explain these really complex ideas.”

But Hong isn’t trying to save the world with ‘Watermelon Sugar’, “I think everyone has this superhero moment where they want to save worlds but honestly I just thought it would be a great way to [visualise] these things that I realise most people don’t know”.

The Sydney Design Festival runs from Mar 2-11. Common Good will be at the Powerhouse Museum from Mar 2- Dec 2.

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