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Hello, apocalypters! I’m excited to announce that as a culminating event for The Apocalypse Project: Imagined Futures, The Mind Museum is collaborating with Radio Republic to bring you Future Feast, a celebration of human creativity and our hopes for a sustainable future. The event will be on July 26, Saturday, 12PM to 7PM at the Special Exhibition Hall of The Mind Museum.

FutureFeastTMMposter-01

With the theme of Redesign, I am working with chefs who are creating new dishes for a Convenience Store of the Future. Radio Republic is bringing in their featured artists for July: Slow Hello, Jireh Calo, and Brisom. There will also be a performance by special guest artist Joey Ayala. This is an event for all ages, so bring in your families and get the kids to play at the Tinker Studio, watch spoken word performances and science shows, dress up in clothes from the Climate Change Closet and have your photos taken at the photo booth, smell the perfumes of The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store, participate in Mission Apocalypse Scavenger Hunt and win an Apocalypse Project Commander Badge, and think of how you can help build a sustainable future by making an Earth Pledge.

Future Feast poster by The Mind Museum, which highlights activities

Future Feast poster by The Mind Museum, which highlights activities

Future Feast poster by Radio Republic, highlighting featured artists, special guest artist, and the chefs

Future Feast poster by Radio Republic, highlighting featured artists, special guest artist, and the chefs

Ticket prices are as follows:

EXPLORE TICKET (All Day Pass to the galleries of TMM, Access to Live Performances, Mission Apocalypse Scavenger Hunt & Climate Change Closet): 500.00 PHP

TASTE TICKET (Access to Live Performances, Future Tastes (6 dishes), and Climate Change Closet): 300.00 PHP

DISCOVER TICKET (Access to Live Performances and Climate Change Closet): 200.00 PHP

TINKER TICKET (Access to Tinker Studio: Make your own Animal Art): 150.00 PHP

You can buy tickets online here. You can also buy your tickets at the museum on the day of the event. No reservations are required.

See you there!

 

Recently, a teacher of one of the classes to whom I gave a workshop during my residency here in Korea asked me if I benefited from the visit as much as the students did. On that day, I gave a short talk in the exhibition hall, and the children drew, created their own games, and together we went through my studio upstairs. I suppose that for most people, these would fall into the category of Favors You Don’t Really Want to Do But Feel Forced To—”occupational hazards” that goes with the territory.

But as one who operates on interactivity, and one who is still in the “emerging” process, I think I actually need these visits. I’ve done three talks/workshops in Korea in the five months I’ve been here, and for one of those, I was actually the one who asked the program manager to find young people who would want to visit the studio. This doesn’t apply to all artists, of course, and quite a lot of my favorite artists prefer to be left alone, as I do most of the time. Creativity for me thrives on solitude, and anything that takes me away from my primary goals is an interruption.

But visits, particularly of the workshop-py kind and particularly from children, are special to me. (Personally, I prefer kids who are 12 years old or younger, and with at least one chaperone, thanks!) Giving a Keynote presentation is just 20% of the experience. The other 80% is about the conversation that goes on between them and me, between them and my work, and among themselves. Here are five reasons why I think I should make a conscious effort to get out of the confines of my studio and make sure I keep bringing people below five feet tall to see both process and finished piece.

1. Children bring me back to the essence of the work by asking the toughest questions.

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Thankfully, children do not ask me any pseudo-intellectual academic queries. I also know they probably don’t care  (at least directly) about the institutional strings that come with my work, such as the artist statement, the photos, the website, the design, the branding, the talks, the tweets, the blog posts, and all the administrative work I have to do in the background. Apart from the fun they have during those few hours, they will likely not care about my work or me once they step out of the studio—it’s just another day for them, and they have no ulterior motives. I think this is why they ask me questions that make me go, “Yikes, I didn’t think of that.” It makes me think more deeply and objectively about my work.

2. Children ask questions of themselves and of each other.

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When children use my projects as frameworks for self-discovery, it is incredibly rewarding. I remember telling a friend after one workshop that the peak of a project’s “happiness curve” (yes, I have that for all the things I have done) was that day, seeing excited kids jump on my work and doing drawings, instead of the exhibition that came soon afterwards.

3. Children are great prototype testers.

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…because they know what to do and they don’t even have to ask questions and it’s faster to get results and oh my god with adults sometimes you have to FORCE that window of childlikeness and wonder open with a metaphorical monkey wrench and geez at the end we’re both exhausted. Happy, but exhausted. With children, it’s just easier. There, I said it.

4. Children make me admit my mistakes without shame.

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This is something I had to admit to myself only after discussing my work a number of times to different people, but I discovered that with children for an audience, my intention is to delight, while with adults as an audience, my intention is usually to impress. Guess which one is a lot more fun?

5. I am forced to clean up.

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This seems like a silly thing to add, but it’s good to be forced to make sure the studio is tidy, that I have sensible presentations on hand, and that I am showered and presentable. Before, you know, I go down that rabbit hole.

 

Each year, thousands of locals and tourists alike gather in the island of Jindo, where Korea’s version of Moses’s parting of the Red Sea occurs. Here, the tide goes down and opens up a 2.9-kilometer “sea road” from Jindo to the island of Modo.

On cue, the crowds start to move forward.

Off to Modo

Off to Modo

It’s not everyday one walks the sea!

All of us bought brightly colored boots for sale during the festival.

All of us bought brightly colored boots for sale during the festival.

The sea level progressively decreased as I walked.

The tide goes down.

The tide goes down.

I only made it halfway to Modo when local officials on boats started ringing bells and ordered everyone to go back to the shore, as the tide started to return. It was a dash of panic as we stumbled on the uneven sea floor back to shore. I recorded my walk panicked run back to Jindo with the MyTracks app.

Turning back halfway

Turning back halfway

Although scientifically, the main reason for this phenomenon is tidal harmonics (a nice explanation of it appears in this National Geographic article), the local legend goes that a tiger used to terrorize the people on Jindo, who finally fled to Modo, leaving Grandma Mulberry behind. She missed her family and prayed to the Dragon King, who appeared in her dream, telling her that he will set a rainbow bridge over to Jindo. Indeed, a rainbow bridge appeared, and villagers from Modo came over the bridge to look for her. She passed away soon after.

This statue commemorates the legend.

Grandma Mulberry and the tiger

Grandma Mulberry and the tiger

This is definitely the coolest thing I’ve experienced in Korea so far, especially since it was a beautiful and unusual mix of science and culture. I definitely want to go back next year.

In Seoraksan, a mountain in the east of South Korea, it’s like a calligraphy painting that came to life. It was a grueling yet doable trek, with me giving high fives and fist bumps to the friendly elderly Korean people who regularly climb these mountains. It seemed as though they do it without breaking a sweat.

(I want to be an ajumma when I grow up. Such respect for these badass people who are so physically fit and look as though they just stepped out of a hiking catalog.)

It's like a calligraphy painting that came to life!

It’s like a calligraphy painting that came to life!

I bet it will look beautiful in the fall. I bet that’s enough reason for me to go back.

Gorgeous.

Gorgeous.

There is nothing like getting physically and mentally pushed to my limits to power me through the second half of this residency. Hwaiting!

Last December 1st, I held my first draw-a-thon. (You know what a marathon is, right? It’s just like that, except that you’re drawing.) It was at the Museo Pambata (Children’s Museum) of Manila, Philippines, for their Children’s Advocacy Program. I brought in two of my projects, DrawHappy (a global art project on drawing your happiness) and Rorsketch (a visual perception project where you draw your interpretations of clouds). After showing them some current sketches and making them warm up their hands, we got to drawing.

Kids, I have to say, are not only talented and completely open to new experiences, but also insatiable when it comes to pouring their imaginations on paper. The terror of a blank canvas doesn’t apply much. Here are some of the sketches:

Rorsketch

DrawHappy

And some photos of how it rolled:

Then we had chocolate ice cream, fudgee bars, and grape juice. Oh, to be eight years old again!

Thanks so much to the Museo Pambata for hosting me! Visit them on your next trip to Manila. And do emaill me at theperceptionalist[at]gmail.com if you’d like to do a draw-a-thon in your school or organization.

My dreams of the sleeping kind are often about flying, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that I’m considering aviation. However, as someone who nearly fell out of a building at 8-years-old, I am afraid of heights. But childhood trauma be damned! As a tiny yet tangible step to being an actual explorer, I went on an ultralight for a ride overlooking the Philippine city of Angeles (about 1.5 hours from Manila) two Sundays ago.

Rorsketch: The Flying Edition

The desire to fly, or be up in the sky without the stressful ordeal of commercial flights, to which I am no stranger, also has something to do with my cloud project. For years now, I’ve looked up at the clouds. It would be awesome if I can actually be at the same height as them!

Arayat is a mountain with its own share of myths that feature gods who battle other gods and/or giants in nearby mountains or disguise themselves as humans.  It’s pretty. I want to climb it. But that will be another story for another day.

On the way, the clouds were already teasing me:

Arayat. With clouds! Thanks, Stephanie, for stopping the car.

Arayat. With clouds that look like the food chain. Thanks, Stephanie, for stopping the car.

It’s difficult not to imagine the Wright brothers, who worked on planes and gliders of a similar size. The smallness of it! It’s like a bike with wings. But here goes nothing:

So this is an ultralight. From afar, it's like a dragonfly.

So this is an ultralight. From afar, it’s like a dragonfly.

Fist in the air! I'm afraid of heights, but it was not the time to think about that. Photo by Steph Tan.

Fist in the air! I’m afraid of heights, but it was not the time to think about that. Photo by Steph Tan.

Up, up, and awaayyy!

Up, up, and awaayyy!

A bicycle in the sky

Flying via small planes has often been compared to being on a roller coaster with invisible tracks. Unlike commercial flights, which can give you the similar, and sometimes even better views, there is no barrier between you and the atmosphere. You control the vessel (well, Captain Max who was sitting on my right did, but he let me work the controls for a bit) and it is like riding a bike in the air. It’s quite exhilarating. And the skies told their stories:

The clouds are like the net that's catching the moon! Do you see it?

The clouds are like the net that’s catching the moon! Do you see it?

What I like about flying in relation to this project is that it makes me a part of the canvas now.

Yes, I'm in there! Photo by Steph Tan.

Yes, I’m in there! Photo by Steph Tan.

The change of height and vessel also brought about one crucial, if not obvious, thing: I can see the ground below. And so grass and fields and roads turned into playgrounds of visual perception as well. Living in big polluted cities all my life, it is always startling to see huge patches of green. While we were rocked by scary gusts of wind, it was air that tasted of rain and sunlight and coconuts.

I see a tangram. Sort of. You?

I see a tangram. Sort of. You?

Broccoli!

Broccoli!

That day, my friends and I witnessed another plane doing aerobatic sequences in the sky using a bright yellow biplane. My jaw dropped, and I stared for several minutes. Then I started squealing. I can’t wait to do that eventually.

It's a bright yellow biplane and it's absolutely gorgeous.  And I think it was doing the sky equivalent of cartwheels.

It’s a bright yellow biplane and it’s absolutely gorgeous. And I think it was doing the sky equivalent of cartwheels.

A hangout in the hangar (Yes, puns are not funny)

When the plane landed, I marched up and interrogated the pilot, Captain Mike, who humored us and described how the plane was made. Back in the hangar, he pointed out a pair of wings being made. Each part has its own paperwork so that it can be traced should anything go wrong.

The skeleton of a wing.

The skeleton of a wing.

Even the hat and glasses are very steampunk. Look!

I want that hat.

I want that hat.

Planes in the hangar. Valet parking provided.

Planes in the hangar. Valet parking provided.

On the way back, we had fresh coconut juice from the roadside. The sunset painted the clouds a pale orange, and I caught two that looked like dolphins. The day was almost too cinematic.

I see kissing dolphins!

I see kissing dolphins!

I grew up loving Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and was thrilled to learn that the author himself was actually a pilot. I’ve devoured his other writings, especially Wind, Sand, and Stars, Night Flight and Flight to Arras. I think traveling in general allows for creativity, but traveling alone allows you to get lost in yourself and discover these pure grains of truth that shape you without you consciously knowing it. I think this has been the reason why I keep moving and seeking new and strange experiences, and once you start, it’s difficult to stop.

Steph and Kristel Tan, and me. Thank you, ladies!

Steph and Kristel Tan, and me. Thank you, ladies!

Thanks to Stephanie (@StephLTan) and Kristel Tan, The Angeles Flying Club, Captain Max, and Captain Mike!

Rorsketches to be posted soon. But check out previous ones here

Barcelona Kawaii (December 2009), Digital illustration

Blessed are hard drives, for they shall reveal files gathering digital dust.

I did this digital illustration years back, for an exhibit called “Des de Fora” (From the Outside) in Sants, Barcelona. It was a time when I was getting over the hump of learning Adobe Illustrator. I completely forgot about this drawing! But I suppose this influenced my doodling habit later on.

The theme reflects on being a foreigner in Barcelona; I wanted to portray the increasingly multicultural nature of one of my favorite cities in the world. Futbol, Feast of St. George, Bicing, Gaudi architecture, etc. are all things I will remember Barcelona for.

It was also the year that it snowed in Catalunya for the first time in years:

Snow in Barcelona (March 2010)

It was also a time when I saw double AND triple rainbows on the day my friends and I were eating calçots and writing poetry:

Double rainbows over Barcelona (April 2010)

Look closely: Triple rainbows!

I t was also the time I was first part of the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona, which was probably one of the most influential times of my life from a creative standpoint and made me look at science from the point of view of poetry:

getting made up by Violet (Photo by Joe Wray)

I accidentally unearthed that cheongsam / qi pao the other day and was quite amazed by the wear and tear it had to withstand amidst all those poetry readings and performances.

I’ve been in Manila for five months now, and it’s been a time of looking at the city I grew up in from the outside. Despite living in multiple countries for so long, cities never fail to surprise me.

Perhaps, like cities, poetry whores, and the weather, humans, too, can pause and look at ourselves from the outside.

It’s just one of those days.

What the clouds can teach you about imagination and everyday things

A fever, a cold, and a hot afternoon on a New York heat wave aren’t usually a recipe for a good day. But bedridden and staring out my window, I had no idea I was about to give birth to another project.

Looking at the sky, I started to wonder at the forms the clouds were making. Although they were white and formless, they started to remind me of the fantastical shapes, such as dragons, whales, and other creatures. It’s not unlike that scene from the Pixar movie, Up!, where Carl and Ellie were lying down on the grass and pointing out what the clouds looked like.

Cloud pareidolia

It’s a manifestation of pareidolia, where a random stimulus (such as the shape and shadows formed by clouds) is perceived as significant. This is why we see faces in places and things, religious figures on burnt toast, etc. Our brains are hardwired to find patterns; it helps us see things as a whole. Without pattern recognition, every experience would be new to us and we wouldn’t be able to make sense of the world or solve problems.

Rorschach test

During that summer, I was frankly getting burned out from school and my internships, and initially decided, just for kicks, to take photos of clouds and draw what I saw in them. Over the next several months, I religiously uploaded them online, and the endeavor has evolved into a project called Rorsketch. The name itself comes from Rorschach tests, which have been used by psychologists to determine their subjects’ personality characteristics and emotional functioning. In this case, I realize that I see a lot of animals in clouds, as well as strange and often unrealistic scenes.

Geography of thought

When I show the cloud photos and sketches to others, people immediately tell me what they see, which is often different from my interpretations. Professions and culture have a lot to do with this. For example, researchers have determined, unsurprisingly, that Asians and Westerners perceive the world differently. Given a scene, Westerners will usually focus on the main subject while Asians will often take the entire scene in.

More than 100 sketches later, I’ve given talks and workshops on how we see. Occasionally, people send me “re-interpretations” of my cloud photos. I find it funny how one afternoon that summer has led to a project I’m still doing a year later. It has helped me learn about how other people see the world, and has given me a platform to celebrate this diversity of visual perception. It helps me find stories in the skies—a great thing to do when looking for inspiration. It was also part of my MFA thesis, and has thus even helped me graduate.

Wonder in the everyday

The best thing I learned about this project is that it doesn’t take much to be creative. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pining for expensive gadgets one doesn’t have, thinking they will somehow make us get over creative humps. Instead, looking at seemingly ordinary objects in a different light can unleash and sharpen our sometimes tethered imaginations.

Visit and participate in the project at http://www.rorsketch.com or tweet @rorsketch.

This article first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Learning section, 20 August 2012, page H4. With thanks to my editor! Full text in their digital edition here.

 

If we are curious,

We can enrich our lives because we can purposefully seek meaning, instead of finding solace in empty superficiality.

Relationships can be stronger because each uplifts the other through their passions.

Organizations can work with more intention, go deeper, and become more innovative and impactful.

Cities can have more engaged and concerned citizens who can make things happen with creative solutions.

Countries can have leaders that are more informed and make better decisions for those they are serving.

The world can sustain itself for future generations.


A confession: I can tell my entire personal history through smells—baby powder and shampoo, my parents’ laundry detergent, the sea while growing up in Southeast Asia, tea tree oil I used to treat teenage acne, old books, lab chemicals, studio paints, and the many kitchens and apartments in the cities I have lived in. Smell can transport me to space and time, and thus, can serve as my olfactory timeline.

Helen Keller, who could neither see nor hear, used smell as a portal, too:

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”

Smell is our oldest sense and is the most powerful. About 2% of our genes are devoted to olfaction; other genes that can compare to this quantity are those for the immune system, which as we know are important for our survival. Hence, scientists believe that smell is more important than we think it is.

Smell is important for memory; this sense is processed in the brain’s limbic system where emotions are also processed. Hence, smell can be a very sentimental one. Impairment of smell has been found to be linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and aging. In literature, Proust’s encounter with the madeleine is often referenced, where eating the biscuit unleashed memories. A similar scene in Pixar’s 2007 film Ratatouille involves the food critic Anton Ego being transported to his childhood while eating Remy’s ratatouille. (Note that while these episodes involve eating, it is the smell that evokes emotion; consider pinching your nose while eating a meal. You will not be able to properly taste it.)

Anton Ego in Ratatouille (copyright Pixar 2007)

This obsession with smell led me to conduct a blind smell experiment using smells that were printed via microencapsulation.

I asked the participants to close their eyes and to do two things: 1) Describe the smell (and if they could, guess what they are smelling), and 2) Talk about a memory that comes to mind. Their eyes were closed so that they would not be influenced by what the label on the card said. Their responses, which were usually streams of consciousness, were recorded. When appropriate, I prompted them with additional questions, such as when the episode occurred, or if they were stumped with identifying it, to focus on describing the smell (e.g. sweet, sour, etc.) or mention metaphorical associations with it (e.g. smells like a flower, a dish, etc). In between sniffing the cards, they had the option of smelling a hot cup of coffee to clear their sinuses, or to pause for a bit to take some fresh air.

The results of this experiment were quite astonishing. Here are some highlights and what I’ve learned from them:

Fresh air – Unsurprisingly, smells of what we buy do linger in our olfactory consciousness. This participant was interesting in that he could associate the smell with a product, recall a specific episodic memory, and associate the smell with a color.

“It smells like that freshening block you hang in a toilet …  Not that it seems like an air freshener. I definitely get that synthetic quality to it. I thought of this house that I went to once. It was with an ex-girlfriend—I was maybe 16 or 17. It was with her and her mother and it was her friend’s house, which I’ve probably went to once in my life. It reminds me of color as well—a pale pink peach color.”

Eucalyptus  – Some smells could not trigger a specific episodic memory, but concrete associations.

“It smells like a woman, some florally perfume … I guess i could smell a grandma, not mine but what I imagine … like a fat grandma with big boobs.”
Garlic – I was impressed by the associations of gender and abstract attributes.

“I don’t know what it smells like. But if it had a sex, it would be male, not female because for me it’s strong and a little cold.”

Strawberry – Some memories were specific to a particular event or interaction.

“It reminds me of Strawberry Shortcake, the doll. When I was in fourth grade, I had a friend… he had a younger sister who had one. We were in the playroom … Yeah, smells like strawberry, smells like neapolitan ice cream.”

Tea tree – This was striking because the smell on the card was very faint, and the participant had a minor cold. This made me think that smell can indeed be trained; the participant grew up in India, perhaps similar to my experience growing up in tropical Manila where the smells are more potent.

“It smells like winter, not in a plant way, because I’m usually sick in winter. smells like the cold balm I would use … some sort of a minty, oily smell. It’s [the balm] is strong; despite having a cold, I can still smell it. It also reminds me of a really famous clothing store in India because it uses organic dyes. Eucalyptus, tea tree oil or mint smell to it.”

Burnt rubber – This was particularly interesting because of the divergent associations these two participants had. One had a traumatic incident involving this smell while the other did not and so picked up on the sweeter notes of the smell.

“Whoa. This reminds me of something. It reminds me of going to the dentist. The smell of rubber gloves maybe? Having a hand placed in my mouth. Getting braces … in the 6th-8th grade. Teeth started to hurt smelling this.”

“It reminds me of my grandfather’s old house they [grandparents] used to live in. It’s not a cooking smell, it’s not as fresh. It’s sort of a flowery smell close to parma violets. Lavender flower, I suppose. Maybe it’s something between flowers and sweets. It reminds me of a specific part of the house which is to the back of it … a cupboard that had sweet things and flowers. The memory made me smell the thing, but the smell itself didn’t remind me of these things.”
While memories and associations of these smells are diverse, smell is indeed transportive, and is strong enough to take a person back to a specific time and place, remembering actual people, objects, and interactions. What could we do with this underestimated sense? How can we improve our memories, our relationships, and ultimately, our lives, by consciously engaging with smell?

Update: The resulting project from this experiment is An Olfactory Memoir of Three Cities, a book of my smell memories.

Main References
Angier, Natalie. “The Nose, an Emotional Time Machine.” New York Times, 5 August 2008.
Herz, Rachel S. and Schooler, Jonathan W. A naturalistic study of autobiographical memories evoked by olfactory and visual cues. The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 115, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 21-32.
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