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11 August 2018, Manila—Last weekend, I was one of the three speakers asked to give a talk at this art space in Makati called Gallery in the Gutter (G.i.G.) about something other than climate change (woohoo!): mental health. Specifically, I spoke about how I take care of mine. But along the way, i debunk some stereotypes about artists, too.

As someone who regularly travels on residencies and exhibitions, I’ll be the first to tell you that this amount of travel can put mental health in jeopardy if one is not prepared. Here are some things I’ve learned about mental health, and how I’ve learned to take care of it through the years:

1. Mental illness can be inherited (whether you are an artist or not).

…And I wish I knew that anxiety ran in the family earlier than December of last year, when an aunt told me. I have a cousin who needs medication for anxiety, and some others who may be vulnerable to it, too. However, as they were raised in the US and me in Asia, our upbringing was different. I grew up in a disciplined Chinese environment where mental health was never discussed. If you had anxiety, that was disciplined out of you. I definitely recommend seeking help; speaking about mental health is thankfully not as taboo as it once was. Through the years, I have also developed my own strategies to cope. I still believe that the state of the world makes it difficult to not be worried about things, and so with years of learning different ways to be resilient, I’ve never needed medication (and hopefully never will).

I also talked about other misconceptions of artists, such as the left brain / right brain fallacy, and ways that artists’ brains are in fact unique, such as some structural differences.

2. Capitalism has made people work so hard at jobs they don’t love to buy stuff they don’t need at the risk of their relationships and happiness.

I believe in this point so much I placed it on two slides. This made me think of a recent article that said that artists’ brains are not motivated with money. But because we still live in a world of capitalism and unending growth, holy crap, what now? I think of this as an artist still early on in her career, where I count myself fortunate to still be able to do what I love and push myself to ask better questions through the auspices of the grants that have supported me, where I get paid to not conform. In between, I do get increased anxiety levels thinking about whether I should just stop all this and just, oh I don’t know, work in a bank or marketing or something. *shudder*

3. The strength of our relationships is the most important predictor of long-term happiness.

I didn’t say this, scientists did. When researchers tracked men for about 80 years, it turns out that the primary determinant for well-being was how satisfied they were with their relationships. My relationships—and the gratitude that comes with having good people in life—are definitely among my primary values. If I’ve ever given you one of my Ritual cards, thank you for being part of my life!

Another way I go this is by making Memory Boards where I print out photos of me with my friends. I think it’s great to have a physical way to remember people, instead of always seeing them online. Also, having photos of myself looking so happy has a mirroring effect, which is especially helpful when I’m at my lowest—if I felt that happy once, I can be that way again one day.

4. A healthy diet promotes good mental health.

Last year, you may remember the Year for the Planet: Food project I embarked on, where I fixed my eating habits for the sake of the environment. This accidentally made me a plant-based, meal-prepping, buy-in-bulk consumer with a fraction of her plastic waste (for it is impossible to be completely zero-waste in some cities). My unwitting foray into healthy eating also improved my moods and productivity and I’ve been a lot happier ever since. It also prevents me from eating junk when traveling.

I also spoke about where I get my information, seeing that misinformation abounds especially on the internet. Scientific literacy is something I spread in my work, and in my personal life, I tend to question everything. I am categorized a “Questioner” in Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies Quiz, and being a Questioner, I took this test multiple times in different points of a year and still got Questioner. I digress. When it comes to food, my go-to source is Dr. Michael Greger’s Nutrition Facts website—I like how he references studies and how they got to specific conclusions.

5. Rituals are the safety net that holds everything together.

If I have been with you on an art residency, I may have offered to give you a facial massage. This isn’t for vanity purposes, though it has the effect of making one look years younger. (I am also at the age when getting carded is no longer a flattering affair, so really, this has more to do with general well-being.) Doing this every night relaxes me, an insomniac, into preparing for bed. I’m also one of those artists who don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs, and instead I bring a bottle of lavender oil everywhere to help with anxiety.

Also, I’ll never forget how taekwondo has put me on the right track to self-care. Hurray for martial arts!

6. Nature heals.

Forest-bathing is a miracle. I would know; in my last residency in Vienna there was a forest right outside my house and I hiked two hours every day and felt fantastic. Coming back to Southeast Asia and the chaos of Bangkok and Manila right afterwards was quite a shock, and I snorted half a bottle of lavender to keep me sane. In Manila, I wish we had more parks where I could at least see something naturally green, or to wake up with birds or see a random fox on the grass.

7. Meaning is healthier than happiness.

Having a purpose or working towards something bigger than you is definitely better for overall mental health than chasing after petty pleasures. I’m really thankful for everything my projects have given me—friends and colleagues with similar values, a healthy lifestyle, an a realization that it’s not as hopeless after all.

Thank you, Mrs. Elizabeth S.P. Lietz and Alexa Arabejo for the kind invitation!

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Wild Science debuted at the group exhibition of the artists-in-residence supported by the Austrian Federal Chancellery and KulturKontakt Austria. Shown in the exhibition are Der Tiergarten 1.0: Human Forces in the Animal Kingdom, Scientific Method, The People’s Cabinet of Curiosities, Letters for Science, and Poetic Microscopy. The show runs from June 11 to 21 at the exhibition hall of the Chancellery at Concordiaplatz in Vienna, Austria.

 

Last April 16th, I gave a talk at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, together with some of the other artists in the residency. I’m writing about some highlights for those who missed it.

I often talk about being part of the different worlds of art, science, and design, and when I was younger, I used to think deeply about their definitions. What was “art”? What was “science”? What was “design”? One can slide down a very long rabbit hole.

But nowadays, I find it more relevant to use all of these skills and knowledge to address environmental and social concerns of society.

I talked briefly about some of my projects in The Apocalypse Project. This year is its 5th year, hurray!

In the years of doing art about climate change, I sometimes see some art projects as a way to curb the disturbances that prevent systems from running smoothly.

I’ve also had lots of opportunities to think about making and distributing this thing we call “art”.Then I segued into why I was beginning a new body of work, Wild Science. It was because the discussions we have around sustainability have changed over the years. Since I started The Apocalypse Project, the world went from wondering what is climate change to fighting climate change denial to finally starting to address the broken systems that got us to where we are today.

Here in my residency in Vienna, there are two general things I have been doing. The first is finding artistic responses to historical knowledge in the context of our post-truth, filter bubbled era.

For example, looking at the Globe Museum, while it may seem old and stuffy, I find it to be extremely important especially since we live in a world where some people still believe the world is flat. I loved looking at the old globes—essentially old models of what we thought the world was like and thus, what our place in it was—and am thinking of the other arbitrary lines and divisions we have made.

Another thing I’ve been obsessing about in Vienna is their cake culture. I love cake, and there is cake in all the other places I’ve lived in, but here in Vienna they do cake very differently. From the well-trained servers to the logos that declare the confectioner to have baked for emperors past, it has become a symbol of something that no longer exists—the old dynasty—and still we consume it.

I’m currently looking at the power dynamics of cake. How does it go from an exclusively imperial institution to something that commoners and tourists can now partake in? There are 360,000 Sacher tortes that are made each year and 1/3 are shipped overseas. That’s a lot of demand for chocolate cake that is kinda dry.

I talked about what i think art can give—a set of alternative norms to counteract the present norms in society. I believe that art can change mindsets and behaviors if we can do it convincingly enough.

I ended with one of my favorite quotes: “Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous.” So my fellow artists, let’s go out there and be a menace.

As an interdisciplinary artist who works on environmental and social issues, discovering Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat was an incredible experience. Having grown up in the Philippines, I was no stranger to its bountiful nature, but this time I was on a mission. I had, not so long ago, finished an artscience residency in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and to discover that the Philippines had something very similar was beyond exciting. I did not have to go that far to see a rainforest, after all. I was very grateful to accept Great Escapes Philippines’ invitation for their inaugural Give Back Weekend Adventure. It was a great opportunity for me to research the area in light of a forthcoming art residency and collaboration with the Centre for Sustainability Philippines, an environmental NGO based in Palawan and one of Great Escapes’ partners.

Such joy to be back in the rainforest!

Brazil and the Philippines are antipodes; that is, if I dig a hole in my house in Manila and kept going until I reached the other side of the earth, I would end up in Matto Grosso in Brazil. But despite being half a world away, the Amazon and Palawan share similarly rich natural resources, colonial history, and immediate and long-term threats. Both embodied a certain type of wild beauty under peril, where traditional ways conflict with contemporary lifestyles. It was easy to relate these two ecosystems together as I experienced similar lush greenery and clear river water. As an artist, it was a good time to reflect on how I can possibly continue my work to raise awareness on both of them.

Brazil vs the Philippines

Halfway around the world! From http://www.antipodesmap.com

But there were stark differences as well, not just the fact that Brazil was a Portuguese colony and the Philippines, of Spain. (I saw the basketball court of the Batak community and immediately thought of the football field in the Baré community of Nova Esperança in Brazil that we visited.) CNCH was less explored than the Amazonian reserve I was in, and so the trails were not as defined and were steep in some areas. It made for quite an adventure, though even beginners will be able to make it. (Be prepared for a good sweat!) A tip for those like me who are terrified of descents—when in doubt, just slide. I was very grateful to the CS staff and intern who helped me through my Descent Anxiety.

Entering the Batak community

 

A basketball court in the Batak community

Give Back + Adventure

There are terms to unpack in the phrase “Give Back Weekend Adventure”. Give back to whom? There is the Cleopatra’s Needle itself, a 41,350-hectare area that was recently declared a Critical Habitat, thanks to the staunch efforts of the Centre for Sustainability. It took four years to get this declaration, and not a moment too soon, as this ecosystem is under threat from, among other things, illegal quarrying and climate change.

More specifically, participants give back to the Batak community, which CS collaborates with on different projects so that their culture and livelihood are preserved. It was good to meet members of the community, such as the elders, chief, and families who were having a church gathering.

One of the highlights of the CNCH weekend was getting to know the Centre for Sustainability’s Almaciga project. The Alamaciga tree, whose resin makes it a cash crop for the Batak tribe, takes 30 years to mature. When its seeds disperse, it takes a trained eye to spot the tiny seedlings, which are then marked. Participants in this weekend adventure can help out by spotting the marked seedlings and removing dry leaves and other detritus so that they can grow optimally. This project helps establish an alternative livelihood for the Batak community.

Caring for an Almaciga seedling. Photo courtesy of Joni Andrea Ong

Another highlight was hiking towards Pulang Bato, a part of the Tayabag River that had red rocks due to a still-to-be-researched material. We stopped to have lunch and to swim in the river, and as we lay on the shore, it was relaxing to watch the different kinds of butterflies that flew on the other side, oblivious to us intruders, while we washed ourselves with organic bath products.

 

Ready, get set, give back! Behind us are the red rocks of Pulang Bato. Photo by Monique Buensalido

Clear waters of the Tayabag River

 

Conscious Hiking

As a supporter of indigenous rights and the environment and an avid (though very slow) hiker, it was wonderful to have an opportunity to combine two of my passions. While one will not save the rainforest in one weekend, being able to do some useful work for a legitimate long-term project while meeting like-minded people and being educated about an important part of the environment is definitely time well-spent. Importantly, conscious hiking habits are employed here, and we all picked up trash along the hike during the two days. We were tired after the trip, but it was the best kind of weariness. It was also a great time for ideation—when my fellow participants knew my intentions, we had a blast thinking about potential art projects. It was easy to do, as we were jaded urbanites that were briefly surrounded by so much nature.

Thinking about art while hiking with Solomon Calago of the Centre for Sustainability. Photo by Joni Andrea Ong

 

At camp! Photo by Joni Andrea Ong

 

Breakfast time! Photo by Joni Andrea Ong

 

Food is fuel. Photo by Joni Andrea Ong

 

New friends while hiking! Photo by Monique Buensalido

 

My feet needed some Nature Rx

Sustainability is one of my main artistic themes, and through my experience, I have learned that tourism can have positive and negative effects to the planet. Many ecosystems around the world face threats from human impacts, and it is a moral imperative to integrate sustainable practices as we travel. Personally, I have grown weary of going to high traffic beaches and touristy areas that encourage so much wasteful consumption; it’s time to look at other parts of the country that still gives us much to learn about the planet and about ourselves.

For more details, check out the website of Great Escapes PH, or find them on Facebook and Instagram.

With Joni Andrea Ong of Great Escapes Philippines

Thank you to Great Escapes Philippines, Centre for Sustainability PH, and The Superfood Grocer for supporting this trip!

Hello, friends in Vienna! I’ll be giving an artist presentation together with two other artists in the KulturKontakt Austria fellowship programme. Come listen to our talks on April 16th at 18:00. Details below:

An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest (image courtesy of Science Gallery Dublin)

Datum | 16.04.2018, 18.00 h
Ort | Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, Atelierhaus, Lehargasse 8, 1060 Wien, 1. OG Atelier Süd

Catherine Sarah Young (Philippines), Sasa Tatic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Robin Waart (The Netherlands) organized by Marina Grzinic, Studio for Conceptual Art (Post-conceptual Art Practices) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Catherine Sarah Young
Art, Science, and Norms: How Interdisciplinary Art can Inspire Behavioral Change

How can interdisciplinary art strive to affect social change? Young has developed both individual and collaborative projects that raise awareness on climate change, science policy, and various systems that govern the beliefs of society and the sustainability of the planet.

CV: Catherine Sarah Young is a Chinese-Filipina artist, designer, and writer. She holds an MFA in Interaction Design from the School of Visual Arts in New York City as a Fulbright scholar and a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and biotechnology from the University of the Philippines.She investigates nature, and the tensions between nature and technology. She has an international exhibition, residency, and awards profile and has collaborated with scientists, companies, non-profit organizations, and communities, most recently around Southeast Asia, Uganda, and the Amazon rainforest.

Many thanks, Prof. Marina Grzinic for the kind invitation!

Check out the links on the websites of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and KulturKontakt Austria.

I’m thrilled to be selected from a pool of 985 artists to do a three-month residency in Vienna commencing in April by the Bundeskanzleramt Österreich / Austrian Federal Chancellery and KulturKontakt Austria.

I’m very honored to have met Her Excellency Ambassador Bita Rasoulian who wished me well before I left Manila.

With Her Excellency Ambassador of Austria to the Philippines Bita Rasoulian

 

I’m looking forward to hitting the ground running in Vienna, my 8th residency city, and continuing my work on art and science, picking up from where I left off in the Amazon. Our artist profiles are on the KulturKontakt Austria website.

The residency runs from April 6 to June 30. Today was my first day after a long flight. Schloss Laudon, where the residency is, is quite lovely and gives me a great daily walking ritual on the castle grounds.

Schloss Laudon

Alexander von Humboldt and Caroline Herschel!

 

Lavender and Rosemary

We artists are in a nearby building; they use this castle for seminars and stuff. It’s nice to look at, though after decluttering a house I’ve no desire to live in excess. There are two swans I’ve named Alexander von Humboldt and Caroline Herschel and two frogs I’ve christened Lavender and Rosemary that I say hello to.

I almost never travel as a tourist—all that carbon to take the same photos as everyone—that I realize that packing 30 kilos is always a challenge because I bring my life to another country in order to produce things instead of to shop. In trying to keep with my healthy and zero waste (more like Zero Waste as Much as Possible) lifestyle, I bring my arsenal of spices and superfoods to keep me healthy despite being in another country. Since an airline lost my bags two years ago, luggage anxiety is a real thing for me. Thankfully, everything made it, even the hot sauce.

The hot sauce made it!

So much to learn, make, and do! Very grateful for all the fantastic support and excited for all that is to come!

This residency is made possible as part of the Artists in Residence programme of the Federal Chancellery and KulturKontakt Austria.