Wonderlust: A Life in Discovery and Dreams (And a Thesis to Get My MFA)
Picasso once said that “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up.” Because of childlike wonder, artists are able to visualize a point where new worlds were possible and where dreams weren’t dead.
But I’d like to think that wonder exists not just in artists, but in other types of people as well. Scientists, poets, fiction writers, designers… all of them have exhibited that same joy of curiosity and discovery. I know this, because at one point or another, I have been all of those people. In each field, I loved asking questions, tinkering away at them from all sides, and coming up with often unexpected answers. It took me a few years, but I realized that creativity knew no boundaries and was present in each area of inquiry.
When I examined the lives of creative people, or even when I look at my own creative moments, I found that among the qualities they have in common were two things:
First, they had good memories, in the sense that they had powers of association and could connect concepts together. We are familiar with mash-ups and remixes where old ideas can be mated together to form new and often surprising ones.
Second, they were attuned to one or more of their senses. And when people are more aware of their environments, they are more engaged and find meaning in their surroundings. For example, a musician will likely pay attention to everyday sounds, which in turn helps him create more music.
My hypothesis for my thesis was an insight from these: that when people more fully engage in their senses to perceive the world, and use their memories to link concepts together, then they are able to exhibit creativity.
During my two years at SVA, I set out to see how I can create objects and experiences of wonder. I wanted to use all five senses to see how we can engage in them in ways that were different from how we usually do it. What can I do to disrupt how we normally experience the senses?
So far, I have been able to come up with four projects that explore this territory, using different senses or a combination of them. And a lot of these ideas started as simple and often surprising explorations out of my daily life.
The first is Rorsketch, an interactive installation and app that allows people to draw what they saw in clouds. It started as a simple illustration project where I took photos of clouds and drew on them with a Sharpie. Later, I began asking people to draw their own interpretations, and it was fascinating to see how many stories we can mine out of ordinary objects, and moreover, how differently people see the same things. People could then engage with their sense of sight to recall previous shapes and to draw these as a way to document their visual perception.
I was also interested in embodying the invisible, specifically the sense that I felt was the most overlooked. I started doing experiments like blind smell tests, where I asked people to smell these pieces of paper printed with microencapsulated scents, and to describe what they remembered in the smell. Because smell is processed in our brain’s limbic system where emotions are also processed, it is a very sentimental sense that can pull out memories. As I have discovered through these tests, participants can recall the time, place and objects of an event that occurred once many years ago. And because we don’t have a strong language when talking about smell, except perhaps for perfume, I decided to design a service called Smellbound, where people can create their own olfactory timeline and create their own customized book of smells, similar to how we see photo albums and music playlists. They could then engage their sense of smell to remember previous memories, as well as create books for important events or moments in their lives.
While all this allowed me to open my so-called doors of perception even wider, I started to explore how I could engage a sense to improve our human relationships. I designed a Hug Vest, initially because, as most people in the studio know after two years, I hug people all the time. First, I used thermochromic fabric for the vest, which changed color when you touched it, and it was interesting to see how both adults and children alike played with a garment that was reactive. Later, I designed a vest with sensors that can detect the pressure and frequency of the hugs that the “huggee” is getting. The hugs could then be played back, so the person had a record of how many hugs (and how good those hugs were) he had for the day. (Currently, I can see two existing relationships this can play out; first with busy working parents and their young children, so that they can bond in a more fun way, and second, with couples who need to be closer). Hence, we can engage in our sense of touch to remember moments of affection and to foster better relationships with others.
Hearing and Taste*
*and secondarily, sight, smell, and touch
I was missing hearing and taste, and I realized this was an opportunity to combine two worlds I loved; poetry and food. While I love poetry and believe that it is a multi-sensory experience, I would be the first to tell you how boring it could be. But what if we can access poetry using a more accessible doorway? Among all the senses, taste is the most social. Eating permeates every point of our lives since birth, and it is easier to have an opinion on a dish than on a poem. We asked a chef to interpret poems as dishes. During the event, the guests would hear poetry and taste the dish. Where poetry wasn’t accesible, the food served as a different, more sensory way to access it. Guests could also write their thoughts about the food or the poetry, or even write their own poems, which can then be interpreted as dishes for future events. They could even experience this virtually, by watching videos of spoken poetry that are juxtaposed with recommended recipes. Hence, people can engage in their senses of hearing and taste to associate both poetry and food, and to create their own poetry.
While these projects have individual intentions, I also wanted to present them as a framework for rethinking the way we view the world. I designed a sense kit where people can experience all these projects in physical, non-digital formats.
When someone asks me why I did all these, this is probably the explanation (among many I can offer) that struck a chord in everyone, regardless of what profession they have. (To me, this means this was the most human explanation, and so I go with it. Ready? Go!)
Remember the time when the world seemed wonderful to you?
Once, perhaps you were a boy who dreamed of having great adventures, such as being trapped in volcanoes, looking at maps, and thinking of ingenious ways to set yourself free.
Now, perhaps you work for a company and you are trapped in meetings all day, staring at spreadsheets and wondering when it was time to go home.
Once, perhaps you didn’t think twice about playing with strangers, in real life or in your imagination.
Now, perhaps your interactions are reduced to a click, a business card, or drinks with people you secretly can’t stand.
When life has become dull and predictable, it is even more important to create frameworks that will cultivate humanity’s creativity. I could have stopped at one project, but I kept going anyway. We need not just one way, but multiple ways. We become what we are surrounded by.
What does a world who is more aware look like? What can a society who can see and value these everyday things achieve? I believe that when people look beyond what they perceive and see the potential instead of the obvious, they end up surpassing themselves. And when human beings choose to surpass themselves, they can perform better, they can produce more creative ideas, they can better nurture their relationships. They are happier, because they have come alive. And what the world needs now are people who have come alive.
What have all these projects done for me in the course of two years, as I hope they have done to my participants, testers, and guests?
1. I have become more aware of living, and because of this, I have had no shortage of enthusiasm as a designer, an artist, a writer, and I hope every single profession I will ever have.
2. I have gained more perspective by seeing and celebrating the diversity of how people perceive the world.
3. I have lived a happier, more enriched life.
Rorsketch is a public collaborative art project that allows participants to draw their interpretations of clouds on a digital interface on the rooftop. Using data gathered from visitors’ smartphones, the drawings will be automatically tagged with the sketcher’s name, age, profession, and country of origin. People can view the most recent interpretations as well as a gallery of their drawings with their metadata.
Smellbound is a service that allows people to record their smell memories. The website allows users to create a timeline with smells and the associated memory. Users can also order a book whose pages are infused with the scents with their corresponding descriptions. They can also browse other memories associated with the smell provided by other users.
HugPrints is a project where I am attempting to hug everyone in the world. Using a thermochromic vest I designed and expertly stitched by my good friend, Kate Russell, I hug people and record the impressions that they made.