The Many Returns of the Face Mask

Authors: Merve Bedir, Timothy Moore

The effective management of the coronavirus pandemic by networks of people in Hong Kong stresses the importance of self-organization and solidarity. This collective intelligence is the core binding agent with which to organize a different future.

This essay was first commissioned for publication in NGV Triennial 2020, forthcoming from the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. The online version here is edited from the original.

Hong Kong police fire tear gas at protesters. Photo: LT Chan / Pexels

It has been estimated that more than ten thousand tear gas canisters were launched in the streets of Hong Kong by police from the beginning of the social movement in 2019, which was triggered by a proposed bill that would mean Hongkongers could be extradited to mainland China. Tear gas was fired in dangerous situations: indoors, from buildings to the ground below, directly at people, and indiscriminately. To aid in the protection against the effects of tear gas, which can include severe eye and respiratory system pain, the face mask became part of the protestor’s kit. The various types of masks worn on the streets—surgical, cloth, filtering face pieces, and respirators—were not only for protection from a state-sanctioned chemical weapon, but also cloaked individual identity from state surveillance.

The strategy of concealing oneself with a mask was a cause for concern for the authorities. On October 4, 2019, the government of Hong Kong invoked the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance to implement the Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation (PFCR), also known as the Anti-Mask Law, as retribution against the ongoing movement. The Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation, Cap 241 and 245, specifies that anyone who wears a face covering at a lawful or unauthorized assembly can be sentenced to up to a year in jail and fined HK$25,000 (US$3,226); and anyone who disobeys a police order to remove a face covering can be sentenced to six months in jail and receive a HK$10,000 (US$1,290) fine. The legislation went into effect on October 5, 2019, during the eighteenth week of protests. The emergency law drew even larger numbers of people onto the streets in defiance. The protestors used creative methods to imprint the mask surface with likenesses, including those of Guy Fawkes, Pepe the Frog, and digital reproductions of their own faces. The mask went from being an urgent necessity to a symbol of collective identity and resistance for the protesters made anonymous by it.

Anti-mask ban protest in Hong Kong on Oct 6 2019. Photo: Etan Liam / flickr

The face mask, as both an object of protection and a symbol of unification, demonstrates the power of semiotics, a concept encompassing the idea that ordinary objects can take on meanings beyond their function in relation to other events, actions, and things. The face mask in Hong Kong transformed identity through concealing one’s self, and in doing so, gave attributes to the mask wearer that the public perceived as connoting resistance against the proposed extradition law. The phenomenon of objects taking on a broader meaning is not uncommon in times of civil disobedience. In Hong Kong during 2014, the umbrella became the symbol of the protests, which came to be known as the Umbrella Revolution, after protesters used them to deflect tear gas during a seventy-nine-day occupation of downtown. The exhibition Disobedient Objects (2014) at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, curated by Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, documented dozens of these types of objects mobilized by protesters worldwide: pan lids, teacups, pin badges, felt hats. People used ordinary objects to confront authority, and in doing so, coalesced a movement striving for political and systemic transformation.

"Hong Kong survival guide"

The transformation through protest of these familiar objects makes them extraordinarily familiar. Philosopher and artist Erik Rietveld, in his essay “Everyday Actions: Philosophy and Learning” (2009), writes that familiarity is integral to social cohesion in urban environments, and that this is exemplified by how humans build familiarity with places, people, and things. Without “public familiarity,” a fear of the unknown may prevail, which means that sharing spaces with strangers or strange things, for some, can be threatening. Shared and familiar objects, like the face mask, may help form part of a public familiarity. Rietveld describes the way frequently used objects interact in public as “affordances”: the familiar object invites interaction, a term Rietveld leverages from James J. Gibson’s book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979). An affordance is what the environment offers humans. As a temporary affordance, the mask calls for a qualified response with and without the interference of explicit thought; one has a familiarity with it and knows how to interact with it. At the protests of 2019, the mask afforded political solidarity and trust between citizens, despite the concealment of the face. The mask replaced the familiarity of facial expressions.

Affordance—what a thing can offer—varies between people, contexts, and points in time. The thing can offer multiple affordances. The mask is not only a symbol of political solidarity; in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mask also signals a healthy solidarity. At the end of 2019, news had reached Hong Kong from mainland China of a new virus. With the 2002–04 SARS outbreak imprinted in the collective memory of Hong Kong, the streets emptied out almost overnight. The government did not need to impose a strict lockdown; its only measures were closing down schools and directing people to work from home. The majority wore masks when they left the house to protect others in case they had the virus. The readiness to wear a face mask is not limited to Hong Kong; people wearing masks is a common sight in East Asian countries including China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. It communicates one is safe and responsible, and that one cares for others and does their civic duty. In this scenario, the self extends beyond the point of the nose.

The wearing of the face mask in Hong Kong went beyond symbolism and civic action; it was an act of collective intelligence. The evolution of this intelligence can be demonstrated in the social and technological infrastructures of the Hong Kong protests, which enabled self-organization and solidarity, and this led to success in managing the coronavirus pandemic. Collective intelligence includes two things that have continued from the protests: the tireless demand to the official government to act (through strikes by health workers, one-time disruptive interventions on the border and in mis-planned quarantine centers, and disobeying the mask ban); and self-organizing, which sprang from the people’s productive distrust of the government. Digital maps showing police hotspots during the protests were transformed into maps showing virus hotspots, in 14-day and 28-day quarantine cycles.

HKMask Manual. Images: Dr K Kwong

In March 2020, just before the second wave of the pandemic began, a group that was active in the protests started a website in English and Cantonese, all based on volunteer effort. The group tracked cases, revealed pharmacies that sold fake face masks, displayed hospitals that were running tests and their intensive care unit bed capacity, and so on. Another one was about face mask and hand sanitizer campaigns, where support structures were set up (despite the government mask ban and misinformation about them being unnecessary) to distribute them to the elderly, lower income individuals, and migrant domestic workers for free. These were followed by solidarity and information campaigns on white ribbons (supporting health workers), hand-washing, and mask-wearing. These were all supported by yellow businesses (local and grassroots businesses that openly support the democracy movement) and relief funds set up during the protests which served anyone in need. The generating of trust and familiarity requires acts of admission in order to reach collective intelligence.

The use of the face mask played out differently across the globe as COVID-19 spread rapidly during March and April of 2020. A turn was evident in the United States, where the face mask took on an overt ideological dimension. Prior to the second surge of infections in July 2020, members of the conservative Republican Party and its supporters objected to wearing masks, believing they infringed on individual rights. Optics, or symbols, can matter more than public health. This reinforces once again that an object can generate meaning beyond its practical use and afford other types of solidarity.The limited take-up of the face mask in pockets of the USA was not only the result of individualism or media opinions, but also of the state of globalized manufacturing. Elsewhere, as in the USA, the pandemic exposed the fragility of global manufacturing supply chains. In Australia, the army was called in to support manufacturer Med-Con to increase the scale of its surgical mask production. Elsewhere, many businesses and individuals in the design and manufacturing sectors promptly changed tack to meet demand. Chinese battery producer BYD and iPhone producer Foxconn began making masks. Creatives Tegen Corona, a non-profit organization in Antwerp, Belgium, rallied the city’s fashion sector to produce over 100,000 items of personal protective equipment using open-source designs distributed to local manufacturers by June 2020.

The ability for citizens to self-organize and safeguard themselves against a global disaster, like a pandemic, is nowhere more evident than in the making of masks by citizens. There were some ingenious solutions to the shortage of masks. Firstly, resources were made open source: patterns and instructions were made available through Creative Commons licences. The Hong Kong-based HK Mask provided free, downloadable mask templates and a range of easy-to-find materials for tailoring masks at home. Social media channels were used to share detailed information on mask-filtering mechanisms, finding parts, and cleaning and maintaining masks. Citizens matched mask-makers with wearers; for example, the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health compiled a list of hospitals that were accepting homemade masks. Secondly, many mask-making projects prioritized sustainable mask production, using recycled and biodegradable materials. The Liberia-based Bombchel Factory transformed unsold skirts into face masks. These masks were not intended for medical use, but were made to limit the demand for N95 masks, thereby freeing them up for healthcare workers. For every purchased mask, another was donated to people unable to quarantine at home. Thirdly, there was innovation as a result of new creatives working on design modifications. The Shenzhen-based Creality started 3D printing thousands of buckles that make face masks less painful to wear for medical workers. Small bars on either side of the plastic buckle hold the elastic taut behind the mask-wearer’s head, so that it doesn’t put pressure on the wearer’s face and ears. A 3D printing file of the buckle was made free to download. This demonstrates that the experience can be scaled up through technologies of cooperation and innovation, and mitigate failures of the market.

The mask illuminates the tension between self and other, identification and concealment, intelligence and contamination. With the fault lines of global manufacturing and political leadership exposed, citizens in many locales stepped up and took responsibility. The necessity of the mask in 2020 highlighted that humans have to take responsibility to ensure their individual, collective, and global protection. The ultimate act of design is the design of the self for the collective, and nowhere was this more significant than amid the omnipresence of COVID-19. By July 2020 in Hong Kong, after the second wave of COVID-19, a total of only 1,259 people had tested positive. Networks of people in Hong Kong showed how a pandemic can be successfully self-managed and how collective intelligence is the core binding agent with which to organize a different future.

Cover image: istock / r-monochrome

Merve Bedir is an architect based in Hong Kong/Shenzhen. Her most recent work focuses on the human and nonhuman relations at the intersection of design, ecology, and cybernetics. Merve Bedir is an adjunct assistant professor in Hong Kong University Department of Architecture, Division of Landscape Architecture, and a founding partner of Land and Civilization Compositions. She holds a PhD from the Architectural Engineering Department in Delft University of Technology.

Timothy Moore is a director of Sibling Architecture, lecturer in the Department of Architecture of Monash University, and the co-curator of Melbourne Design Week. Timothy has also worked at architecture offices in Melbourne, Amsterdam and Berlin, and as an editor for two influential magazines, Volume and Architecture Australia. He is currently the editor of Future West (Australian Urbanism).

If you noticed a typo or mistake, highlight it and send to us by pressing Ctrl+Enter.