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In the Studio: Joanne Lim on surveillance, privacy, and her one week without data

“The studio is where strange magic happens, as much for the artist’s imagination as for the public’s. It’s the conjuring place of new concepts, styles, or forms.”

– George Philip LeBourdais

This article is part of a series of interviews with artists in their studios, in which we attempt to explore artists’ working habits and the places that nourish them.

A light drizzle had washed over the roads by the time I stepped out of my taxi and into the lobby of an industrial building in Marymount.

No, I wasn’t lost (thankfully), but was on my way to visit the studio of artist Joanne Lim. I rode an imposingly large service elevator up to the seventh floor, where a lingering musty scent made me sneeze. Lining the corridor to the artist’s studio were shelves full of outdated electronic equipment (think CDs and VCR players) as well as worn-out cardboard boxes, thanks to the electronics company next door.

It’s a fitting environment for Lim’s studio, seeing that her practice unflinchingly highlights the prevalence of surveillance in society and delves into what privacy means for people in an increasingly digitalised world. 

I first encountered Lim’s works during her preparations for her cohort’s graduation show at LASALLE College of the Arts earlier in 2022. Learning about her practice and realising its relevance today sent chills down my spine — something that I mentioned in the show’s catalogue essay (which was also penned by yours truly).

During the show, I mistakenly walked passed a dummy security camera that was part of Double Gazing, a work that sought to highlight the technology in charge of surveilling us.  My obliviousness was a little ironic as it demonstrated how accustomed I myself had become towards public surveillance. The artist and I had a good laugh about my silliness, but the encounter prompted me to stare defiantly into the inky-black domes of surveillance cameras that I encountered on public transport on the way home. A part of me no longer wanted to be a passive person observed; I wanted the cameras to know that I felt the weight of their gaze on me.


Not too long ago, Lim also showed her work at The Supper House, where she implanted an ominous number of fake security cameras onto a stairwell. The piece was snarkily titled It is a ”basic fact” most people want a safe and secure living environment.

Lim shared that she had recently moved into her studio and I was keen to see how the recent graduate was carving out the time and space for her art practice. She led me inside, where we talked about her practice, her new studio, and what audiences can expect to see in her upcoming show Frequencies.

What’s your studio like and how did you decide on it?

[After graduating], Andrea Rachael Danker and I were looking around for a comfortable space that was affordable and near an MRT station. Andrea heard from a friend that a studio was available in Marymount. She took a look and told me it was almost perfect: it was 200 meters away from the MRT, which meant that it was easily accessible.

It had a wide-open roof on the same floor, that we were allowed to use, and it turned out to be the perfect spot. It also helps that there is a coffee shop on the opposite side of the road, so we can quickly get food and drinks!

What do you like the most about it?

Having space makes me feel lucky. I like the rooftop outside: sometimes, you need to take a break and mull, so the roof is a wonderful space to have. The view is also unobstructed and it’s quiet in the evenings.

[I share the studio with other artists but] we all work at different hours, so we have a lot of time on our own. I also like that the studio is next to a used electronics store. I have a soft spot for older technology so I’ve been eyeing the CRT televisions!

For those who aren’t familiar with your practice, how would you describe it? What is your latest body of work about?

I’m interested in data collection — be it quantitative or qualitative. I take information and research and translate them into aesthetic forms to make them more digestible and to comment on current social issues.

For example, my latest series Gentle Resistance examines the rise of modern surveillance methods and their complexities in tech-utopia Singapore, highlighting the difficulties individuals face while engaging in acts of gentle resistance to reclaim their privacy. 

In Singapore, a society that privileges socio-political discipline and control, we are conditioned to abide without resistance and accept the encroachment of privacy without question. For this reason, any individuals seeking to reclaim the loss of privacy often face the laborious task of treading gently along the boundaries set out by the authorities. 

Using mockery and satire to [produce] notions of discomfort and uneasiness, Gentle Resistance spotlights the imbalance of power that forms the fabric of society. Ultimately, it [showcases] how the authorities and large corporations exert social control through surveillance machinery while highlighting the complex discourse [surrounding] individual privacy and the public good.

Your practice investigates the collection of data, surveillance and concepts of privacy in the contemporary digital space. What led you to tackle these heavy topics?

It all started off with Trace Together, which was introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic. We needed to carry these tokens to enter certain spaces, and there was a lot of chatter amongst my family and friends about it.

I thought it was understandable, but understanding it doesn’t mean you don’t fear it.

I grew more uncomfortable the more I thought about it. It’s not just Singapore. Around the world, other technologies, such as facial recognition and roaming surveillance machines, were quickly introduced to combat the pandemic. 

Reading the news made me realise that there was a general discomfort. Realising that this was something that everyone was concerned about, I wanted to research it further.

Do you ever get nervous about tackling such sensitive topics in Singapore?

Yes, I do. But I make it a point to be sincere and to conduct social experiments because it’s one thing to read [about it]  and another to personally experience it. 

The experience [lets me consider] what the work can mean to me and what I can present to the public. When you offer a personal point of view, the work takes on a certain objectivity as you’re not making assumptions.

If I keep this in mind and ask fair, objective questions to present social commentary, I shouldn’t have much to fear.

Tell us more about the social experiments you conducted as part of your research.

There was one where I went without data for a week. This meant no handphone, no wifi, no TV or cable. I could only use public transport that took cash payments, as I couldn’t use apps that would transmit data.

This was at the height of the pandemic, so not using my handphone meant that I couldn’t enter many spaces. My education was affected, as I couldn’t enter LASALLE or attend Zoom classes. Thankfully, the head of school allowed me to skip a week of classes to carry out the experiment.

By the third day, I was anxious and frustrated because we live in such an interconnected smart city. Everything took an extra long time — I couldn’t go into the markets because of gantries and had to ask people to help me buy things. Education was tough because I was studying from books when I could’ve just checked online.

That got me thinking about what happens when you don’t have access to this infrastructure. What happens when you can’t afford a laptop? Or if you run out of data? What happens then? I realised how privileged I was to access wifi, because I could do so much more; it meant [undertaking] less labour and saving more time.

What about the groups of people who are affected by the efficiency of the smart city? [It made me consider] what surveillance means to me and my body, compared to the bodies of those who are discriminated against. These are things I discovered during this period of time, which continue to inform my practice. 

Many of your works include objects like security cameras and footage of your own body; reflecting an interest in readymades and performance art. Could you tell us more about that?

Learning about performance art in 2022 prompted me to realise that with surveillance comes the body. This made me wonder what the body could represent.

I initially considered surveilling others but after studying more intently, I realised that I wanted to put my body in front of the camera because it [could] focus on my experiences and what I fear. This makes for an individual process, where I can share my take on what the current surveillance system stands for.

I used readymades like security cameras because it seemed like a natural progression from thinking about surveillance. I wondered about using security cameras and if that would bring attention to the actual object, rather than its function. 

You’re also a part of the collective Mouse Click Click, which brings together digital art, science, and technology. Can you tell us more about that?

My friends Billy Sng and Lau Tse Xuan and I make up Mouse Click Click. Billy’s good with software, Tse Xuan with generative screen-based works, and I’m interested in technology.

We thought it would be nice to combine these interests and see what we can come up with. Working on school projects solo can be limiting, so it’s nice to have companions who could work on the same project and bring in different expertise.

We showed together at 136 Goethe Lab. It was an amazing process because collaboration really offers new ideas and problem-solving. We’re on a short break now but we hope to move on to a new project soon and look at ideas of failure from a technological perspective. 

Your next upcoming show is Frequencies, which will run as part of the Substation’s SeptFest. What can audiences expect to see there?

Frequencies is curated by Bridget Tay. You’ll see works by Arron Teo and Smiha Kapoor too. We will present notions of the body and how they relate to space — whether cultural or political. I will showcase works that playfully question the status of surveillance in Singapore and reverse the notion of the watcher and the ones being watched.

What do you hope audiences take away from your work?

I hope that when someone sees the work, they have questions or walk away thinking it was something that they might not have thought about before. Even better if there’s a discussion, whether that comes from seeing the works with friends or online. Being able to have questions and discourse would really be quite wonderful.

What are you working on now? 

I’m looking at a new topic: self-censorship. It comes along with issues of data surveillance, with some people feeling that they need to self-censor, out of fear of cancel culture. Maybe I’ll find out the reasons why people do that and more importantly, what happens when a large group of people self-censor.

In today’s world, we’re so impatient to access content or the latest app that we throw away our rights to privacy with the click of a single ‘I agree’ button — or perhaps we feel like we have no other choice than to do so. Speaking to Lim, it’s evident that she acknowledges this difficult entanglement.

While the artist doesn’t propose any large-scale, systemic changes (nor is it her intention to do so), the strength of Lim’s practice lies in drawing our attention to the large-scale technological systems we live at the mercy of, and what we may lose under their iron fists. On the flip side, it inspires us to find our own little ways of resisting this one-sided power relationship — even if it means simply gazing back defiantly at a security camera. 


Catch more of Lim’s work at Frequencies, which runs on 16 – 18, and 23 – 25 September 2022. Click here for more details.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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