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Here at my art residency in Singapore, I’m busy this week giving workshops to students at Tembusu College, National University of Singapore. Before the workshop, I gave a short intro talk on The Importance of Talking to Strangers.

Having done participatory art for years now, I discovered that it’s imperative to engage people in these kinds of activities (workshops, experiments, etc) in the development of a project. The things that come out of these things are always insightful.

TembusuWorkshop.002

For this week, I didn’t want to give another artist talk, as I wasn’t going to be the artist for the night. Instead, I talked about the things I learned while talking to strangers. Because these students are, after all, strangers to me. I gave two example projects and the lessons I learned from them.

The first project is Rorsketch. This project became more enlightening for me because strangers saw things I did not see. (Visit the project site here.)

TembusuWorkshop.003

(Yes, the never-ending drawing-what-you-see-in-clouds project.)

TembusuWorkshop.005

From this, which was initially something I did for myself, expanding it to include other people. Asking four people what they saw in this image will yield four different interpretations. I ended up embracing the inclusivity of the project—nothing was right or wrong.

TembusuWorkshop.012 TembusuWorkshop.016 TembusuWorkshop.017

For the second project, I learned that strangers can extend my project beyond what I set out to do.

TembusuWorkshop.019

I tried, but this project just won’t die. Viva drawing your happiness! Check out DrawHappy’s site here.

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Beyond the sketches people have sent me, what became additionally interesting were the comments left on the site, most of which are submitted months or years after I uploaded the drawings—a good case for putting everything online. I was already emotionally finished with the project, or was I? These comments made me think otherwise.

Here is one that made me think DrawHappy should be turned to DateHappy:TembusuWorkshop.030

And here is another that made me think of Craigslist Missed Connections (names are protected because by now, I’ve learned that the world is so small):

TembusuWorkshop.032

As the one who actually administers the site and monitors and publishes the comments, I can’t tell you how I had to pick up my jaw from the floor when I get notified by email. I can’t wait what this apocalypse project gives me. Stay tuned.

I finally had some time to gather together the images from the workshop I did several weeks back. It’s nice to see them properly categorized and truly see the different perceptions of one cloud. Here is an example:

original cloud

original cloud

I saw a dragon!

I saw a dragon!

Here are the other things these art students saw in this cloud:
DSC02069 DSC02070 DSC02073 DSC02108 DSC02113 DSC02130

Head over to the Rorsketch website to see more of them, or follow the project’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. This project just won’t die. Woo!

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

Last September 23, I was invited to give a talk / workshop at my favorite place in Manila The Mind Museum about my sensory projects. Like my other talks, this one had a sense kit, interactivity, etc. Unlike my other talks, I explained the science behind my work. After having to consciously remove the science from my explanations in art and design schools, it was quite refreshing to be required to explain the neuroscience and psychology behind my work. It felt like riding a bike after so long—thankfully, your mind still does remember what a synapse is! Whew.

Another big difference is that there were quite a number of kids in the audience. This was important (and also a big test for me), because I always felt that children were my primary audience. For me, if they didn’t “understand” the work, it meant that I wasn’t being clear enough and that there were still some things I could take away. And so it was gratifying to see kids eagerly raising their hands when I asked them questions. They were always responsive, most of the time even more so than the adults.

I’m also grateful to the museum staff because this is the first time I didn’t have to make the kits. A big thank you especially to my lovely assistant Steph as well as the museum’s science education officer, Marco, who took care of me the entire day.

Some photos, thanks to The Mind Museum:

Neurons! Drawn on Illustrator! Whee!

Hugging. The curator told me from the front row to hold my hair up. So I did.

Group hugs!

I really should just work for Pixar. Seriously.

The Cloud Walls!

Kids. Adults. Imagination.

Cloud walls, front and back

Cloud Walls

EatPoetry: cotton candy

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.

 

In the Pixar movie, Up, one of my favorite scenes is the one you see below. Before Carl became the grumpy old widower whose house was lifted by balloons, he was a young man whose wife, Ellie, liked to watch clouds with him and point out what they looked like.

Carl and Ellie, from Up (Pixar, 2009), image courtesy of Pixar

“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” was once stated by the French writer and philosopher Paul Valery (1871-1945). When Carl and Ellie were watching clouds, they didn’t just see an amorphous mass of water vapor; they went beyond the form of these objects, drawing shapes from memory and making them fit within the constraints of the cloud’s form.

In Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer wrote about how the painter Cézanne showed the difference between seeing and interpreting. During his time, critics who derided his work said that his paintings were unfinished. Indeed, when you look closely at his work, he focused on form and color without objects being outlined. For Cézanne, our impressions required interpretation―to look is to create what you see. The way he painted was the way our eyes really saw the world. Our brains added the details after.

Like Carl and Ellie, I also look at clouds in different ways. Some of you may know that this has been keeping me happily occupied:

Rorsketch

An example:

Rorsketch, Cloud #17, A dragon obliviously glides past a church.

In the middle of doing a hundred of these, I began to see the multiplicity of interpretations people can have from one simple object. I realized that their perceptions are affected by things such as age, profession, and culture. Also, too many strangers have stopped me as I took yet another photo of the sky while jumping up and down with baffling excitement. Why was I so happy? Because I’m seeing a dinosaur! Aren’t you? I wanted the project to be more accessible to people by designing a public interface.

While parks would be the ideal place, I wanted something that would be secure and make the interface safe from vandalism. I decided to place it in MoMA PS1, which had an open area, a rooftop and two alcoves across the courtyard. Aside from parks, rooftops are a great way to see the sky; they lend a meditative, reflective state that is not unlike being on top of a mountain.

Although PS1 looks bare, it’s a popular place for certain events, especially their summer parties and the Young Architects Program. I wanted to transform it from this:

MoMA PS1

To this:

Rorsketch at MoMA PS1

An overview of the project:

Rorsketch is a public collaborative art project that allows MoMA PS1 visitors 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 in the courtyard. A gallery of these drawings with their metadata will be displayed in the two adjacent alcoves. These drawings will be documented online.

To gain admission to MoMA PS1 and to let the digital interface recognize the person creating the drawing, visitors will download an app on their smartphones:

Rorsketch, the mobile app

The mobile app will allow them to enter their information; namely, their name, age, profession, and country of origin. Alternatively, they can also sign in using their social networks:

The app will ask for some information that will be used to tag the visitors' drawings.

Next, visitors will also get a taste of what the project is about by requiring them to draw on a cloud:

The Rorsketch app requires you to draw on a cloud before you get your QR code.

When you submit your drawing, you get a unique QR code that will allow you access to PS1 as well as the digital interface.

The Rorsketch mobile app gives you a unique QR code that serves as your ticket.

When visitors are at the rooftop, they will encounter a 22-inch transparent LCD screen that will show a live video feed of clouds. On days where there are no clouds, a pre-recorded video will be shown.

Visitors will encounter the Rorsketch digital interface on the rooftop.

A visitor who wants to draw will have his QR code scanned to be identified. The visitor can pause the feed if he or she sees a cloud to be drawn.

A visitor who wants to draw on a cloud can pause the video feed.

After pausing, the visitor will see that a palette of brushes appears, as well as the option to save or delete:

A visitor can choose from a palette of brushes with which to draw.

In this case, she sees an elephant:

The Rorsketch Digital Interface allows you to freeze a live video feed of clouds, and draw on it.

When the visitor saves the drawing, which is automatically tagged with his or her metadata, the interface may show a drawing by another person who may have interpreted it in another way:

After a visitor submitted a drawing, the interface can show another drawing on the same cloud, if it so happens that another person interpreted it in another way.

Meanwhile, down in the courtyard, visitors can view the most recent drawings through large LCD screens:

In the PS1 courtyard, visitors can view recent drawings with paired LCD screens, one showing the cloud and another showing the cloud with the drawing.

Rorsketch in the MoMA PS1 courtyard and adjacent alcoves

For the two small alcoves just across the courtyard, visitors will encounter a gallery of clouds and their drawings, together with the metadata of the people who drew them:

Rorsketch gallery in the MoMA PS1 alcoves

The Rorsketch gallery in the PS1 alcoves

In the alcoves, the clouds and their drawings will be tagged with the sketcher's information.

Reflecting on this project, I wondered about this idea of recording humanity’s perception, similar to cave paintings made thousands of years ago, such as this one from the Chauvet cave, recently the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams:

cave paintings at Chauvet, France (Image courtesy of the New Yorker)

I am fascinated by cave paintings because they are literally fragments of why our ancestors were the way they were; a record of what they saw. According to Michael Hofreiter, an evolutionary biologist at the University of York in England, whose team conducted research on cave paintings:

“It’s an enigma, but it’s also nice to see that if we go back 25,000 years, people didn’t have much technology and life was probably hard, but nevertheless they already endeavored in producing art. It tells us a lot about ourselves as a species.” (from an article in the NYTimes)

What if we had a way to record humanity’s perception over time? What will it say about the way we see?

Visit the project’s site here.

A postcript:

This was created as a final project for my class in Design for Public Interfaces at SVA’s Interaction Design program. Thanks to my instructors, Jake Barton and Ian Curry of Local Projects, as well as our guest panel for their valuable feedback.

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