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Safety, surveillance, and being seen — Joanna Tam examines it all in ‘Visibility Studies’

The artist’s new show, ‘Visibility Studies,’ is on view at Regis College’s Carney Gallery in Weston.

Joanna Tam, video still from "Visibility Studies (Wandering: South End to Chinatown)."Joanna Tam

WESTON — Being othered is a strange mix of being spotlighted and reduced to a label all at once. Interdisciplinary artist Joanna Tam’s “Visibility Studies” at Regis College’s Carney Gallery unpacks some of the nuances.

When you’re hypervisible, she writes in wall text, you are “very much being seen. But you’re not being seen the way you want to be seen.”

Tam, who was born in Hong Kong and is based in Boston, uses safety and surveillance equipment to consider what, exactly, visibility means to her as an Asian American who identifies as an asexual woman. Maybe the photo “Visibility Blanket (Portrait #1),” captures it most directly. In it, she’s partly hidden behind a blaring flag, but hardly protected by it — it calls attention to her.


Joanna Tam, "Visibility Blanket (Portrait) #1."Joanna Tam

Hypervisible people may be ignored, objectified, or targeted. In “Visibility Word Map,” Tam charts networks of responses and reactions she’s experienced as an Asian American and an asexual. For instance, “Asexual” links to phrases such as “questioned by medical professionals” and “invisible orientation.”

Tam writes in her artist’s statement, “the history and the stories of Asian Americans have been erased and silenced for a long time in this country.” In the video “Visibility Studies (Wandering: South End to Chinatown),” she dons a long, neon-bright coat made of safety vests and green fabric she calls “Visibility Garment,” and walks from her South End studio to Chinatown. The route passes over a bridge spanning the extension to the Massachusetts Turnpike, which cut Chinatown in half and displaced hundreds of families when it was constructed in the 1960s.

Tam cannot be missed in that coat, yet it engulfs and disguises her. It’s the physical manifestation of hypervisibility. Walking over scars left by the interstate system, she has moments that look like grief. She also skips and twirls, as if reclaiming lost innocence.


Joanna Tam, "I see you too (JFK Federal Building, Boston #1)."Joanna Tam

The coat has pockets deep and dark enough for handmade pinhole cameras, with which Tam examines another angle on visibility: institutional surveillance. She visited places she identifies as having power over her, she says in a wall label, such as the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, site of her 2016 naturalization interview.

Such places routinely use security cameras. Turning the tables, she covertly photographed the site — the images are on view. If only symbolically, her action and her DIY ethos repudiate the numbing dehumanization that governmental invasion of privacy and bureaucracy can provoke.

Everyone, on some level, yearns to be seen. Tam turns a lens on how fraught the conditions are for being truly visible.

VISIBILITY STUDIES: An Exhibit by Joanna Tam

At Carney Gallery, Regis College, 235 Wellesley St., Weston, through Dec. 2.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.