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I wrote a post for Sydney Observatory to conclude my residency from June-August 2021. The link to the post is here. The entirety of the article is below. Enjoy!

Of Water and Planets: Dreaming of Mars while in Earthly Lockdown

Catherine Sarah Young, Sydney Observatory Resident

Entering Sydney’s lockdown of 2021, this time because of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, meant exiting the Sydney Observatory residency for me in the physical sense. I sadly bid farewell to my room in the Observatory, barely used and whose sticky locks I had just gotten used to. I, like many of us, had been accustomed to the changing situation presented by the COVID-19 era. The residency system as well has been transformed and I had to be mostly confined to my flat in Paddington and its five-kilometre radius.

For my residency, I had been interested in doing research on Mars. As an artist who works on environmental issues such as climate change, the human ambition to investigate and to voyage to the Red Planet become increasingly important. Do we see Mars as Planet B, as we are currently destroying our Planet A? What might we learn from a planet that so many governments and billionaires want to set foot on? What does it mean for us to seek to be a multi-planet species? And how can we ensure that we remember our human and Earthbound origins as we do so?

Like an astronaut preparing for confinement, I had taken photos of every single object in the Observatory before pursuing my research virtually, as though I had wanted to create a personal archive in my pocket before the gates of the Observatory were closed to me for the time being. In many ways, confined to our homes and besieged with the seemingly perpetual anxieties of contagion, conflict, and catastrophe, we are astronauts on planet Earth, wondering where to land and when we can leave the spacecraft that our homes have become. We are in many ways at war with ourselves, and thus it may seem a bit poetic that the Red Planet we want to go to is named after the god of war in Roman mythology. In the years to come, the tension between our species as Earthbound creatures and our species as interstellar voyagers will become more apparent. 

Figure 1. ‘Mars’ porcelain figure made by William Duesbury & Co. c 1760. MAAS Collection.

From Sydney to Mars

More than a century ago, a fellow Paddington resident Walter Frederick Gale (1865-1945) had also been interested in Mars. Gale was a banker and astronomer, educated at Paddington House School and had a lifelong interest in astronomy because of his father’s encouragement and the appearance of the Great Comet in 1882.1 At seventeen years old, witnessing this powerful force in the sky created a lasting impression, and he discovered several comets in his lifetime.2 A member of the British Astronomical Association (BAA) (now known as the Sydney City Skywatchers), Gale led an expedition to Queensland to see the total solar eclipse of 1922.3

Figure 2. Photograph of Walter Frederick Gale and the eclipse expedition of the British Astronomical Association in Queensland, 1922. Gale is third from the left. MAAS Collection.

Ten years later, Mars was exceptionally close to the Earth, making it an excellent opportunity for it to be viewed through telescopes. The BAA in London reviewed the various drawings submitted to them by space enthusiasts, and Walter Maunder, Director of the Mars section, remarked on the superior quality of Gale’s submission.4 Gale further created glass slides of Mars and other astronomical observations, which are in the Observatory collection. The desire to discover and to record the distant planets and other celestial bodies persists in human history, and the Observatory hosts not just archives of the past, but also current images of space taken by professional and amateur astrophotographers.

Figure 3. Drawings of Mars by Walter Gale on 6 August 1892 at 12:30 am Sydney Mean Time (SMT) and 7 August at 11:15 pm EST. Image from the Illustrated Sydney News of 18 February 1893 p18 and courtesy of Sydney Observatory

 

Despite being confined to both Earth and our homes, places like Sydney Observatory create space for us, who, like Gale, direct our curiosity to the skies. In the beginning of the year before the lockdown, we, the residents, had the cool opportunity to tour the Observatory with curator and astronomer Dr. Andrew Jacob. The highlight of this was looking into the Schröder refracting telescope, which is the oldest working telescope in Australia. It was first installed in the South Dome in 1874 to observe the transit of the planet Venus as it crossed the face of the Sun.Opening the dome was a special experience for me as a resident, as I had visited the Observatory several times before but never had access to this part until then. 

Figure 4. Opening up the South Dome—a residency highlight! Photo by Kate Rees.

Escaping to another planet may be the dream of many an intrepid explorer but I like to think of Mars missions in relation to improving our Earth mission in parallel. We may not get it exactly right the first time, but eventually we get there, such as in the case of Mars-3, the first spacecraft to make a successful landing on the Martian surface. Hopefully, we get it right here on Earth, too.

Figure 5. A 1:2 scale model of the USSR spacecraft Mars-3. Pre-1985. MAAS Collection

Water and planets

The spirit of exuberant curiosity of Walter Frederick Gale exists in us, which may even emerge through the constraints imposed by lockdown. For many of us in confinement, there is an impulse to record the minutiae of our lives—the daily walks, the food made and ordered online, the workouts, the Zoom calls with loved ones we cannot see in person. Like astronauts, albeit of the accidental kind, we track various activities, once so mundane in the Beforetime when masks were not mandatory and human contact was something we took for granted. These activities are transformed into special moments, proof that the day even happened at all. We pass the time like astronauts on the way to Mars, recording plant growth, calories burned, and remaining supplies, with the goal of reaching the other side though unknowning when this will be at all. And these activities are for us who are fortunate enough to still have our basic needs met while our social systems are tested in these pandemic times. 

In researching Mars in relation to life on Earth, one of the first things we think about is water. In the American science fiction drama Away that streamed on Netflix last year, there is a scene where Commander Emma Green, played by Hilary Swank, is in conversation with her Earthbound husband, who holds his phone outside his car so that she could hear the sound of rain. The scene cuts to Green imagining a rain shower in the spaceship. Few things are as Earthly as the sight of rain clouds, and this photograph in the late 19th century by Observatory photographer James Short is a rare surviving example of early meteorological photography.

Figure 6. Rain clouds by Observatory photographer James Short 1891-1900. MAAS Collection.

Figuring out rain on Earth helps us understand the gravity of the water situation on the dry Red Planet. I was fascinated by the collection of rain gauges of the Observatory which illustrate similarities and differences of rain measurement. Quantifying rain persists in civilisations throughout history as this helps plan for agriculture, from beautifully crafted ones like the Korean rain gauge from 1442, to various metal gauges in later centuries, to two measuring cylinders from the 19th century, to the delightfully named pluviograph.

Figure 7. Replica Korean rain gauges. The originals were designed in 1442 by Jang Yeong-sil whose patron was King Sejong, ruler of the Choson Dynasty. MAAS Collection.

 

Figure 8. Metal rain gauge. Date unknown. MAAS Collection.

Figure 9. Two rain gauge measuring cylinders. These were designed by Angelo Tornaghi for Sydney Observatory. He was born in Milan and arrived in Sydney in 1858 to supervise the adjustments of the Observatory’s Negretti & Zambra instruments. MAAS Collection.

Figure 10. A rain gauge or pluviograph made by either Angelo Tornaghi or one of the Observatory staff and was used in the Observatory before 1900. By 1860, rainfall and other weather observations were collected every month from around New South Wales and sent to the Observatory. This pluviograph is especially significant because of its pioneering role in Australian science that connected astronomy, meteorology, and technology. MAAS Collection.

The permanence of temporary phenomena

Creating permanent archives of temporary phenomena help us understands the systems that govern the workings of the Earth. My favourite exhibition room in the Observatory contains some of these rain gauges as well as various artifacts from different times in the history of Sydney that focus on weather. Here you can find the first weather map of Australia made by Henry Chamberlain Russell made 1877. To compile the map, Russell referenced weather information telegraphed to the Observatory from 40 meteorological stations across New South Wales. There are also photographic records of clouds and lightning, as well as models of hailstones that fell in the storm of April 1999, with the largest one being 8.5 cm in diameter. This makes me wonder about the future maps and instruments we may use someday in Mars, and what adaptations we will eventually have. 

Figure 11. The first weather map of Australia made by Henry Chamberlain Russell, the third New South Wales Government Astronomer and the first Australian-born one. MAAS Collection.
Figure 12. Photograph of lightning used by James Short, 1908. MAAS Collection.

Figure 13. Model of hailstones that fell in 1999. Original casts made by Mike de Salis, Bureau of Meteorology, NSW Office. Display Models by Iain Scott-Stevenson. MAAS Collection.

Our search for water continues in Mars and also links with Walter Frederick Gale, as a crater on the Red Planet is named after him. NASA chose the Mars rover Curiosity to land on Gale Crater because of signs that it may have contained water in its history.6 The Gale Crater is estimated to be about 3.5-3.8 billion years old which may be a dry lake. In the centre of the crater rises the mountain Aeolis Mons, and in between this mountain and the crater’s northern perimeter is the plain Aeolis Palus. NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed in Aeolis Palus on August 6, 2012. This spot has since been named Bradbury Landing, named after author Ray Bradbury.7

I realised while discussing my project with the Sydney Observatory staff that I had actually 3D printed the Gale Crater several weeks ago. In the UNSW Design Futures Lab where I conduct some of my research, I had been experimenting with 3D printing Martian landing sites. NASA has an open-source website that contains various 3D models. Printing Martian landscapes using clay from planet Earth felt like connecting the two celestial bodies together. Like Martian landings, we cannot get it right the first time, as you can see in this incident where the printer, as unpredictable as our current times, regurgitated the clay onto my board.

Figure 14. A 3D printing accident. Photo by Catherine Sarah Young

But eventually, we get it right!

Figure 15. 3D printed and fired Gale crater. Photo by Catherine Sarah Young

I have a one last thought on water and planets (and also billionaires and pandemics). There is a quote that is going around which says, “We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.” Similarly, we are in the same space but not the same spacecraft. Confinement to our homes in a pandemic reveals the various ways in which we need to make life more equitable for all of us to be ok while we continue with our interstellar ambitions. In the time of Walter Frederick Gale, Mars was alien territory. Now, it is slowly but surely within our reach. We know where we want to land in both Earth and Mars, but the question is: how?

References

1 Harley Wood, ‘Gale, Walter Frederick (1865-1945)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1981. Accessed online 24 18 August 2021: https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gale-walter-frederick-6269

2 Obituary, Walter Frederick Gale, British Astronomical Association, 1 June 1945

http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu/pdf/1945JBAA…56…18 Accessed 18 August 2021

3 Geoff Barker, ‘Photograph of Walter Gale and the British Astronomical Association eclipse expedition,’ October 2008, accessed 18 August 2021: https://collection.maas.museum/object/382076

4 Nick Lomb, ‘Walter Gale and the Landing of Curiosity’, 7 August 2012, Accessed 18 August 2021: https://www.maas.museum/observations/2012/08/07/walter-gale-and-the-landing-of-curiosity/

5 Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. The Story of Sydney Observatory. Sydney: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, 2018.

6 W. E. Dietrich , M. C. Palucis , T. Parker , D. Rubin , K. Lewis , D. Sumner , and R.M.E Williams. 2014. “Clues to the relative timing of lakes in Gale Crater.” (Report). The Eighth International Conference on Mars, Pasadena. https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/8thmars2014/pdf/1178.pdf

7 Dwayne Brown, Steve Cole, Guy Webster, D.C. Agle, “NASA Mars Rover Begins Driving at Bradbury Landing, NASA, 22 August 2012. Accessed online 18 August 2021: https://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2012/aug/HQ_12-292_Mars_Bradbury_Landing.html

Figures from the MAAS Collection

1 – Mars porcelain figure: https://collection.maas.museum/set/7242/object/188070

2 – Photograph of Walter Gale and the British Astronomical Association eclipse expedition: https://collection.maas.museum/object/382076

5 – Model of Mars-3 spacecraft: https://collection.maas.museum/set/7242/object/157005

6 – Rain clouds: https://collection.maas.museum/object/328762

7 – Korean rain gauges: https://collection.maas.museum/object/122107

8 – Metal rain gauge: https://collection.maas.museum/object/232629

9 – Two rain measuring cylinders: https://collection.maas.museum/object/36977

10 – Rain gauge (pluviograph): https://collection.maas.museum/object/248205

12 – Photograph of lightning: https://collection.maas.museum/object/373032

The Weighing of the Heart” is currently on exhibition for the group exhibition “Stress Rehearsal” at das weisse haus in Vienna, one of my previous and favorite home cities! Thank you to The Peace Studio to which I first presented this work, curator-in-residence @malousolfjeld for her support, the UNSW Design Futures Lab , my accidental home for the past month, and my PhD supervisors!

The Weighing of the Heart

2020

Australian bushfire remains, resin

Human heart sculptures are cast out of ashes and other organic remains from the Australian bushfires. I reference the scene of the “Weighing of the Heart”, a spell in the Egyptian Book of the Dead in which the heart of Imhotep is weighed against a feather. If the heart fails to balance it will be eaten by the beast, Ammut, and Imhotep will be condemned. If the scales remain balanced, Imhotep enters the afterlife with the other blessed dead. In casting the ashes with resin, I arrest metabolism of the remains back into the soil, creating objects of memory in a political landscape that forgets the bushfire crisis periodically, only to remember them when the next bushfire crisis commences with greater intensity.

From the curatorial statement:

with Mohamed Allam, Will Benedict, Daniel Mølholt Bülow, Gillian Brett, Rah Eleh, Rachel Fäth, Line Finderup Jensen mit Adnan Popovič, Juri Schaden & Parastu Gharabaghi, Lola Gonzàlez, Hanna Husberg & Laura McLean, Mohammed Laouli, Yein Lee, Elisabeth Molin, Jean Painlevé, Oliver Ressler, Clemens von Wedemeyer, Catherine Sarah Young
curated by Malou Solfjeld (Curator in Residence 2020)

Exhibition duration: October 29 – December 12, 2020
Exhibition start: October 28, 2020, 4-9pm


Expressions of solidarity on balconies, grounded planes on international airfields, tales of a reviving non-human natural world – for many, the COVID-19 pandemic nurtures hopes for more communal, equal and caring futures. At the same time, however, the global health crisis gives reasons for more dystopian prospects of co-existence on this planet. Among other things, it further mobilises xenophobic sentiments and multiplies social inequalities. More so, it has thwarted the momentum of climate activism in the media to the extent that scholars like the French philosopher Bruno Latour have declared the pandemic a “dress rehearsal” for the exacerbating climate catastrophe ahead of us. 

Deliberately emphasising and yet not isolating ecological queries and concerns, the group exhibition “Stress Rehearsal” zooms into the abyss; into the bushfire in Australia, oil tanks sinking into the ocean, into the sea level rise on the Maldives and open landfills in Morocco. It brings together works by an international cohort of artists to critically reflect on the entanglements of the global pandemic, climate crisis, mass extinction, social inequality and turbo-capitalism. Gathering a hybridity of perspectives from the past, present and future, “Stress Rehearsal” collapses the linearity of time in order to activate our senses in the here and now. What is our individual as well as our collective responsibility towards more livable futures? What kind of new forms of agency do we need to craft in order to co-shape worlds-in-common – on- and offline, with the living and the non-living? 

The exhibition unpacks questions like these in three different sections; We created this beast (referring to Bram Ieven and Jan Overwijk’s eponymous text), The pandemic as a dress rehearsal (in line with Bruno Latour’s essay Is this a dress rehearsal?) and The pandemic is a portal (alluring to Arundhati Roy’s eponymous article). The latter division is conceived as a laboratory of sorts, an accumulating digital archive of links and texts, videos and images. It serves as a multi-vocal platform where artists, curators, scholars, activists and visitors alike are invited to contribute and negotiate visions and perspectives on how to live together otherwise. The show consciously hosts a majority of video works as a means to reflect on contemporary modes of perception and consumption. It has been developed by the curator Malou Solfjeld with the support of Alexandra Grausam, Aline Lenzhofer and Frederike Sperling from das weisse haus team.

Find the link to the exhibition here.

via Museum of Cosmonautics

[Moscow and Zoom] I’m stoked to be one of the selected artists for this cool space art summer program hosted by the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics and art practice ARTYPICAL. This is a laboratory project for creative research of archives and visual culture related to contemporary ideas about space and the history of space exploration. There are 20 of us selected after an international open call to create new sound and visual works across disciplines, from 3D animation and digital sculpture to new literature and music production. Topics include: space in cinematography and visual art, space in the work of music composers, sonification and audification of the cosmos and astronomy, media art in outer space, media archeology of space, philosophy of space and Russian cosmism, iconographies of human spaceflight, and more.

Space! Art! Russia! Can’t wait to meet and learn from my fellow participants. See you soon!

Full list of artists and public program here.

Tvergastein Issue 14: The Arts and the Environment. Image by cChange

 

[OSLO]—Dr. Karen O’Brien and Nicole Schafenacker, editors of the cli-fi anthology “Our Entangled Future” write about the book in the Oslo-based journal, Tvergastein, for Issue #14, Art & Environment! “Can climate fiction help us engage with a new paradigm for social change?”. Read the issue for free here.

p. 82
For example, author and artist Catherine Sarah Young describes her approach to The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store as follows: “I use the abstract yet scientific relationship between scent and memory as a way for humans to redefine their relationship between scent and memory as a way for humans to redefine their relationship with nature through remembering their personal histories and reinforcing their identities, which can facilitate quantum social change.”

p. 82-83
The stories in Our Entangled Future explore characters who connect with reality through non-linear time, collective consciousness, and multi species sentience….Emilia, the main character in Young’s short story, The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store, is a perfumer with a keen sense of smell — which is, in fact, considered by some biologists to be an example fo a quantum phenomenon (McFadden and Al-Khalili 2016). Her sense of smell provides her with important information when she meets a trespassing strange — a hulk of a man who could easily overpower her: “She sniffed the air and smelled his fear”. Together, these short stories suggest that we are entangled through our senses, experiences, and consciousness. .

Thanks, guys! Virtual hugs from Sydney!

 

Reading Circle 4 by studio das weisse haus curated by Malou Solfjeld. Image by studio das weisse haus.

 

[VIENNA]—Our friends from studio das weisse haus have created a weekly reading circle curated by the wonderful Malou Solfjeld! I read an excerpt from my story, The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store from the anthology, Our Entangled Future. Thanks for having me!  Listen to it here.

Readers this week (text by Malou Solfjeld)

Åse Versto Langesæter reads
“Der bor en ung pige i mig som ikke vil dø”, written by Tove Ditlevesen
“Ensomhedens have”, written by Inger Christensen
“Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, written by Hélèn Cixous
First we’re reading about the journey back in time to one’s younger self, learning how to use the poem as a mirror of self-reflection, expectations and realizations.

Mie Hybschmann reads “Momo and the time thieves”, written by Michael Ende
Secondly we travel along the journey of the moon as a magic mirror one can use in times where we’re really longing to see someone that we can’t be with.

Catherine Sarah Young reads “The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store”, written by Catherine Sarah Young

Jeremy John reads “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, written by George Orwell
Then we question the nature of memories through smells and sounds of the past or the future – with a particular focus on longing for spring to come after a winter that appears endless.

Florian Conrad Eybesfeld reads
“Anywhere out of this world”, written by Charles Baudelaire
Our fifth reading takes us into the deepest part of our soul, all the way to the place where it really hurts. And from here we learn how connecting with pain can be healing, through the power of poetry, imagination and in memory of loved and lost ones. .

Maxime Grausam and Philipp Krummel read
Pippi in the South Seas, written by Astrid Lindgren
Finally we travel to the south seas with the strongest girl in the world, who reminds us of homeschooling and the value of playing with our friends.

https://soundcloud.com/dasweissehaus/reading-circle-04

#readingcontinuesathome

I wanted to write a post mainly for my fellow Obama Leaders whom I have spoken with last month on how to integrate the arts into their own organisations, with the intention of sharing what I have learned in working with many institutions and to encourage them to get into the arts. However, I hope to encourage everyone reading this to make space for art in their work. Arts and culture usually suffer from being the first whose funding gets cut out of organisational budgets, and usually what has gotten me, an artist working worldwide, through the door is a temporary art residency that has specific outcomes and events within the allotted time. This has certain logistical considerations as needing an artist/s who can meet deadlines and work under pressure, and so may not be for everyone as artists have a wide variety of working routines. But for me, art is a very powerful discipline that invokes the human in all of us that is sorely needed in a challenging world. And because I have been speaking and writing about my work for a long time, I believe that considering how daunting the issues are around the world today, arts and culture professionals should have a seat at the table when it comes to discussing policies and change.

How to Integrate the Arts into Research, Advocacy, and Leadership

Here are some specific examples from my personal experience:

1. Integrating the arts in research: Singapore-ETH Future Cities Laboratory

In 2013, I was artist-in-residence at the Singapore-ETH Future Cities Laboratory and Tembusu College National University of Singapore, supported by the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands. This was my first experience being in a lab as an artist, as I have a science background among other things. With the theme of Climate Change and Environmental Futures, I had started by exploring what the public thought of climate change. Back in 2013, the questions were usually, “How is climate different than weather?” or “What is the Anthropocene?”. I conducted Apocalypse Workshops with high school and university students in Singapore and realised that clothing was something that they were thinking about because of concerns with changing weather patterns and poor air quality. Thus, my first piece for my ongoing Apocalypse Project series was Climate Change Couture, where I co-created garments with the researchers in the lab that depicted what we might wear in specific environmental conditions they were studying. The researchers also modelled the garments around Singapore. While I treasure every residency experience, I especially look back on this one as the residency that sparked my niche in interdisciplinary art and institutional collaborations.

Read more: “Check Out These Post-Apocalyptic Fashions, Perfect for a Post-Climate Change World” on Fast Company

2. Integrating the arts in think tanks: Institute for the Future

In 2015, I was artist-in-residence at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) to hold the exhibition, “The Apocalypse Project: House of Futures”, where it showed some familiar works like The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store, where I make perfumes of things we could lose because of climate change, which was previously exhibited at IFTF x Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Open City Art City. We also got to hold a Climate Change Couture fashion show and a Future Feast where we served insects. The exhibition was also a part of the ArtCOP21 celebrations. Being exposed to IFTF’s systems thinking has definitely contributed to my practice, in that I see art as being part of systems in society instead of being separated by an amorphous “art world”. Moreover, I see art as a means to for systems and behavioural change which I hope to harness in the years to come.

Read more: “IFTF’s Future Gallery features The Apocalypse Project: House of Futures” and”Art, Science, and Climate Adventures in Asia” at the Institute for the Future blog

3. Integrating the arts in advocacy: Plan International and the International Climate Initiative

  It was my residency with Plan International in 2017 led by the tireless Kimberly Junmookda that helped me see in great detail how art can be involved in advocacy work. Within a few months, Plan International, funded by the International Climate Initiative, took me to communities in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines to work with children and youth that were experiencing climate impacts to co-create works that we exhibited at the 11th Community Based Adaptation Conference in Kampala Uganda. It was especially moving for me to be with the community in Tacloban in southern Philippines as these were young people who lived through Supertyphoon Haiyan. Moreover, we got government and development officials to, quite literally, see and smell climate change through these kids’ eyes.

Read more: “Interview: To know the colour of water” at the International Climate Initiative website

4. Integrating the arts in leadership: SEA∆ by the Mekong Cultural Hub and the British Council

Over the years, I wanted art to do more, hence the multiple collaborations but since last year I began to participate in leadership programs with the first being the SEA∆ Leadership Program by the Mekong Cultural Hub and the British Council. This allowed me to collaborate with arts professionals around Southeast Asia and for my group, we conducted art workshops with elderly members of a local community in Kampong Thom, Cambodia, allowing me to contribute some of the frameworks I have developed in my previous residencies and education to the Arts and Environment Festival. Being with these leaders from Southeast Asia gave me space to think about how art can perhaps be integrated in education and policy and exposed me to more communities that I would otherwise not have the opportunity to work with, and these experiences will likely shape my practice in the decades to come.

Read more: “An Artist Undercover with Academics: A SEAΔ Fellow at the AAS-in-Asia Conference” at the Association for Asian Studies website


What collaborations do for artists

  In the years that I’ve done these, I have grown as an artist by being more in touch with pressing issues around the world, some of which have little media attention. Being surrounded with experts in their fields, be it an academic or a development expert, has given me a lot of access to knowledge and information that may not be available to the public. Institutional collaborations have definitely given my practice a lot more depth. It has allowed me to travel the world with a purpose, as I am not a big fan of tourism and would rather work on my projects for most of the year. It has allowed me to work with communities that are underserved not just by society in general, but by the art world in particular as most do not have opportunities to make or experience art. But best of all, it has also given me a lot of friendships over the years and it’s fantastic to have a global network of friends that I can reach out to and challenge me on my ideas in a constructive way, without the usual petty quarrels one usually hears about in the art world. Doing this has (I hope) given me a professional work ethic, and these experiences have served only to motivate me to keep going.


Why organizations should make room for art

1. Art can reach more people inside and outside the organization

Artists-in-residence can be useful for in-house collaborations because bluntly speaking, we don’t compete with anyone. My lone agenda in being an artist is to do something cool. And by cool, I mean a project that can send a strong message to the public about key issues that are relevant in the world and encourage them to act, and whose impact can go beyond the time I have within the institution. And so I have often done work that gets recontextualised and re-discussed years after the art residency, and for me this is great because no systemic problem gets solved immediately and we have to keep tirelessly working to see change. Artists can help raise awareness on issues organizations are working on, helping to bring science out of the ivory tower, development issues out of institutions, and tools and frameworks out of exclusive memberships and into the minds of the public.

2. Art can be an agent of change and confrontation

It is always encouraging to hear positive feedback after exhibiting art, but there may be those that are not as nice, including those that may be against the organisation’s mission, such as those who do not believe in climate science, etc. However, one thing I have observed is that when the artist gets trolled on the internet, the organization itself is rarely mentioned and so this might be a “safer” way to get into the arts for those who are concerned with having negative feedback. Having withstood climate change deniers and antivaxxers for a long time now, I have learned to suck it up and see this as part of the job and just quietly keep working.

3. Art can help fill in the missing gaps in individuals and communities

Usually, artists will be the ones to suggest and execute something that organizations may be reluctant or shy to do, but I believe this encourages creativity in people who may not otherwise have an opportunity to go outside the box, if only for a short time. Also, as I believe everyone is an artist, I often run into staff who exclaim that they’ve always wanted to suggest the activity I was doing, and so it is not completely unrealistic to make room for art even for a short time and could in fact help rejuvenate an organisation. Lastly, art is a bridge to repairing our relationship with nature. If you think about it, the individuals and corporations responsible for most of climate change probably need some art classes in their lives.


During the Obama Leaders: Asia Pacific convening, one of the statements that resonated the most with me is when Mrs. Michelle Obama said that “Change is always incremental.” Having one artist for one time likely won’t change the world overnight, but I like to think that it contributes something good to the world using frameworks that can be replicated. Meeting all of these leaders in the advocacy world made me wish that they can all have artists that can raise awareness on the issues they care about in atypical ways only artists can. While I hope to live in a time when artists as CEOs, board members, etc. are so commonplace (or hey, a permanent artist-in-residence post), until then, I hope there will be more ways to allow for more art to help create systemic and sustainable change.  

 

Check out The Apocalypse Project and Wild Science websites for more art and science projects

(Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)—From December 10-15, 200 Leaders from 33 countries in the Asia-Pacific region gathered together to kick-off a year-long leadership training program by the Obama Foundation.

Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on December 13, 2019. Photo by The Obama Foundation

President and Mrs. Obama, as well as other prominent speakers and thought leaders, joined us for discussions around progress and opportunity in the Asia-Pacific region and values-based leadership.

In addition to the plenary sessions, Leaders participated in skill-building workshops, leadership development training, and a community service project, among other activities.

Here’s how it went down for me:

Panels

First, the panels:

In “We Are the Future: Progress and Possibility in the Asia Pacific” moderated by Aaron Manian and featuring engineer Arthur Huang, Mongolian MP Oyun Saanjasuren (who has a special spot in my heart since she has a black belt in karate), and Malaysian Deputy Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development Hannah Yeoh, the panel spoke about what lies ahead in the region. Ms. Yeoh says “we need to consolidate resources and ideas” as  “everyone starts and NGO and so there is little impact”—something I strongly resonate with and thus prefer to be a lone artist working with multiple institutions, at least for now.

In “Entrepreneurship: Working with Purpose” moderated by Pat Dwyer, the panelists, Tim Brown of Allbirds, Helianti Hilman of Javara and Tony Fernandes of AirAsia, spoke about what it means to practice value-based entrepreneurship and what drives them to pursue their path. As an artist who will likely be an entrepreneur in the future, this was pretty valuable, and also I was very inspired by the humble beginnings of their endeavours.

In one of the convening highlights, Mrs. Michelle Obama and Ms. Julia Roberts in conversation with Deborah Henry about the Girls Opportunity Alliance, a program of the Obama Foundation that seeks to empower adolescent girls around the world through education , allowing them to achieve their full potential and transfer their families, communities, and countries. Mrs. Obama and Ms. Roberts also answered some of the Leaders’ questions.

Former US President Barack Obama speaks with his sister and foundation consultant, Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng about how Asia has shaped their lives. Afterwards, President Obama answers some questions by the Leaders.

Finally, Obama administration alumni Bernadette Meehan and Ben Rhodes explore the idea of tackling touch challenges through ethical decision-making and shared thoughtful stories from their own leadership journeys.

Day of Service

On Day 3, it was great to be able to help building a community with the great folks at EPIC Foundation. My group helped build a playground, and all the squats I’ve done this year were put to great use shovelling soil.

Image by The Obama Foundation

Workshops

The meat of the convening were the workshops which taught us the many facets of leadership:

In the Leadership through Reciprocity workshop, we were asked by facilitator Emily Cushman to list down what we need and what we could give.

In a workshop on Leadership and Shared Values led by John Sung, we were asked to list down 16 of our core values and whittle it down to the 4 most important ones. As an artist, this is not something we usually have to do in this way, so it was great to have the time to do this and it was also hard to narrow down, but I managed to cut it to: Love, Kindness, Integrity, and Courage.

In Leadership and Authentic Engagement with Michelle Ann Iking and Reeta Nathwani gave us a coaching session.

In Leadership and Storytelling, Gabrielle Dolan explored why storytelling is important for communicating your mission and purpose.

In Media Skills for Changemakers, Fon Mathuros Chantanayingyong, Nadia Gideon, Amanda Goh, and Rashi Mehrotra spoke about the media landscape in the Asia-Pacific region, developing our own public narrative, and work on building key messages to advance our work.

In Leadership for a Climate-Smart Future, Dr. Maxine Burkett, Dr. Patricia Halagao, together with one of the Leaders per session, interactive exercises allowed us to define how climate change affects their field of work, understand why it matters, and consider ways they can contribute to a climate-smart future. I’ve facilitated workshops like this in my work, so I really resonated with this part.

In the fantastic workshop on Leadership, Power Dynamics, and Influence, Yee Tong taught us about frameworks to understand power and power dynamics, as well as explore the responsibility and ethics of using our own power to creative positive results.

Delegation

On Day 4, we had a formal dinner with the Obama Foundation delegates. I’m feeling very lucky to be part of both the Australian and Philippine cohorts, both of which have brilliant people. Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, consultant to the foundation and President Obama’s sister, and Mrs. Loida Lewis, philanthropist, were wonderful people to meet.

Community Groups

We were divided into Community Groups and I’m so excited to work with these incredible people!


This is an unusual place for an artist to be, though I am very grateful to be part of it. It is a rare opportunity for an artist to have a seat at the table being able to lead, because this power is usually wielded by those who speak about our art or use it for decorative purposes. Before I accepted to participate, I had consulted with a long list of very smart and highly critical people to see whether this was a good idea, and everyone said to go for it. Frankly, this week was fantastic, and while you will hear the words “incredible”, “amazing”, and “wonderful” thrown around, I actually think they speak truthfully to this five-day convening, and if you’ve known me for a while, you’ll know I dislike words like “changemaker” and its ilk. Saying yes to meeting 199 high caliber people who are actually making an impact on their communities—some of whom at enormous risk to their lives—instead of complaining in their tiny little circles and feeling temporarily superior and returning to the suffocating smallness of their worlds was absolutely the right thing to do, and has only served to sharpen my focus in my work and resolve to avoid distractions. As an aside, the staff of the Obama Foundation were extremely professional and outstanding. Years from now, I hope to confirm what I suspect is that my time with these Obama Leaders is one of the most important points of my life. The world is a dark place, but what wonderful opportunities and artist has to be a positive—and no less critical—agent in all of this. I look forward to all of it. Thank you everyone!


Science Gallery Melbourne’s DISPOSABLE exhibition wrapped up on September 1st after a busy month. The Sewer Soaperie was one of the works in this exhibition. The team sent me lots of photos and feedback. Here is what happened and what we learned from this project:

According to co-curator Dr. Ryan Jefferies in an email to me, the exhibition received 26,504 attendees within the four weeks. The show had 150 kg of recycled fat, 12,000 plastic-eating mealworms, over 500 urine samples, and thousands of river reeds.

Having just moved to Australia, I have learned that post-event surveys are standard procedure here, which is fantastic. Here are quantitative feedback from the audience:

  • 92% of visitors were satisfied with the exploration of the theme DISPOSABLE
  • 85% think SGM is distinctive to other galleries
  • For 79% the program challenged their thinking
  • For 86% it sparked conversations they wouldn’t usually have

Dr. Jefferies also wrote that, “DISPOSABLE has also been our most sustainable season, with Science Gallery now following a Sustainability Action Plan, participating in the University of Melbourne’s Green Impact Challenge and significantly reducing our waste.”

The Sewer Soaperie at DISPOSABLE. Image by Science Gallery Melbourne

It was also great to see this piece at the Parliament of Victoria for National Science Week:

The Sewer Soaperie at National Science Week, Parliament of Victoria. Image by Science Gallery Melbourne

I’ve had this work exhibited before, but Science Gallery Melbourne’s team is one of the most exuberant I have ever worked with, and I couldn’t help but feel excited as though this were the first time. It also made those long hours worth it.

More images by Science Gallery Melbourne:

DISPOSABLE by Science Gallery Melbourne. Image by Brent Edwards

Some viewers participated by washing their hands with the soap, though for those who passed, no one blames you.

Images by Brent Edwards

Among the hallmarks of Science Gallery are their mediators, who are there to help their largely young audience to connect with the works. Science Gallery audiences are, from my experience, very curious and ask a lot of excellent questions, which is why I love exhibiting with these guys.

Image by Nicole Cleary for Science Gallery Melbourne

According to Ellie Michaelides, one of Science Gallery Melbourne’s mediators, here are some feedback from the visitors:

“It feels just like normal soap! But less lather”
“I make my own soap at home, I never thought of adding my own left over cooking fat to it!”
“Sewers?! Yeah, nah…”
“Are you sure it’s really clean?”
“That’s really smart, can I buy some?”
“I thought it would smell more”

“It doesn’t smell bad”
“I wish I could buy some”
“I feel like the colour should be less clean”
“I wanted to see what the original fat looks like”

More images by Nicole Cleary:

I, too, have learned a lot as an artist who was a part of this. Back in 2016, this project seemed outlandish, almost in the realm of conceptual art. But human impact on the environment and on cities have increased over time, and so The Sewer Soaperie is in its own way now a legitimate design solution. I am happy and fascinated with how well this been received, including how it provoked many people. For me, art can have a confrontational message and propose solutions in addition to other things it can do. I think this is the strength of interdisciplinary art-science work: it can bring about new dimensions and divergent ways of thinking, and as we continue to negotiate our environmental futures, this can be among the ways by which we can transform society.

It was also inspiring to have this piece be exhibited with these amazing projects. There’s also been a lot of media coverage about DISPOSABLE; do check them out:

Thank you to the Science Gallery Melbourne team!

Hurray, SGM team! Image by Brent Edwards

(Norway / Chile) I’m excited to share the news that the book, “Our Entangled Future: Stories to Empower Quantum Social Change,” is now available and free to download. My contribution, a short story version of “The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store,” won third place, and I’m stoked to be part of this wonderful collection.  The book will be launched tomorrow, October 15, at the Transformations 2019 conference in Santiago, Chile, and will be available in ebook and paperback versions.

The nine short stories presented in Our Entangled Future are rooted in the complex reality of the climate crisis. Rather than painting a dystopic future, they present agency-driven characters whose insights will inspire readers to contemplate and realize the potential for quantum social change.

The book is co-edited by Karen O’Brien, Ann El Khoury, Nicole Schafenacker and Jordan Rosenfeld. Many thanks to the team, the jury and my fellow writers!

Download the book here.

An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest. Image credit: Science Gallery Dublin 2017

My work, “An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest”, is in the book, “Research in the Creative and Media Arts: Challenging Practice” (2019, Routledge) by the inimitable Prof. Desmond Bell, award-winning documentary filmmaker and fellow of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, where he was previously Head of Research. I’m truly honored and now feeling like a dinosaur.

With this, I am also reminded of the current struggle of Brazilian researchers, artists, and citizens in general, and hope that my work as an artist creates some impact, no matter how infinitesimal. I have a bunch of Amazon-themed projects in the pipeline, and I’m always happy to share.

Kudos to Prof. Bell and Science Gallery Dublin where the work was exhibited as well as LABVERDE and the INPA National Institute for Amazonian Research in Manaus who supported this work. Thank you, obrigada, go raibh maith agat, salamat and xie xie!

Get the book here.