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Experiments

Due to strange circumstances in the past 24 hours, my flight tonight from Singapore has been moved to December 31. After the last few weeks of being on full throttle—giving talks, doing photo and video shoots, running around Singapore getting materials, storyboarding, prototyping, packing, and vainly figuring out what my next step is—I just hit the brakes.

I am quite relieved. No, excited! My exhaustion from this residency was from a managerial standpoint, as this was project where I had a lot of collaborators. This was unlike the last one, where the stress was more from physical sources: I still can’t believe I hiked more than 43 mountains in less than 2 months. Still, in both cases, exhaustion bordered on nausea. But hey, I regret nothing.

I can’t believe it—two weeks of hermetic silence, completing The Apocalypse Project and prototyping new ones while avoiding the holiday rush. Now this is my version of a holiday miracle. To make this retreat a bit more fun, I will try to see this as the Great Holiday Hackathon. Unlike most hackathons, I’m still not sure what I’ll have in the end. My goal is to do certain tasks all over Singapore, asking specific questions or turning some urban expeditions into a photographic data gathering session of a sort. I want to know some things I’ve been mildly curious about in the past months I’ve lived here. Perhaps in this short time of experimentation, I will be able to see what I’m supposed to do afterwards.

So for Holiday Hackathon Day One, I wanted to ask the question, What happens when you go through all of the subway stops in Singapore’s Circle Line?

The Circle Line of Singapore MRT comprises 28 stations. I started at Harbourfront (on the lower left) and went clockwise. Sadly, GPS doesn’t work at this underground level, so the only data I have is the time of the journey. It’s not a complete circle, so to get back to Harbourfront, I got off (well, “alighted” as they say here) at Dhoby Ghaut station and transferred to the North East line (the purple line), riding 4 stations to go back to my original point. I killed time by reading a book. You can see my route via the black dots:

CircleLineExpedition-01

So, 32 stations, 0 displacement, and a few dozen pages later,  I learned that this journey takes 1 hour and 22 minutes, and that it costs 0.78 cents. I’m sure my transit card doesn’t know I rode all those—I imagine I’d be charged the same if I accidentally entered the station and left it again, thinking it was a mistake.

I have no clue when this information will be useful, but I was just itching to know.

Here are some sneak peeks into the things I am working on for this residency.

I am reaching that point when my projects are deemed too crazy by people that I have to be the one to model it. The first photo is by the lovely Cheryl Song of the Singapore-ETH Future Cities Laboratory, who has patiently put up with me.

1 - Climate Change Couture - Catherine Young

2 - Climate Change Couture - Catherine Young 3 - Climate Change Couture - Catherine Young 4 - Earth vs Humans - Catherine Young

 

Follow the project site at http://www.apocalypse.cc.

This morning, just for kicks, I decided to do an n-gram analysis of the main words I encounter or use in my project: climate change, global warming, apocalypse, sustainability, and resilience using Google Books Ngram Viewer. Here is a screenshot:

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 12.30.31 PM I think the conclusions I can make that are useful to my project are:
1. “Climate change” is more often used than “global warming.”
2. “Apocalypse” is pretty much used with the same frequency as before. (I guess that’s a great thing for this project?)
3. We’ve been using “sustainability” a lot. I’ve deliberately avoided using this word unless I absolutely had to, because, well, I feel that it’s overused to the point that it’s losing its meaning to me. This reminds me of this graph by xkcd:

Image copyright by xkcd

Image copyright by xkcd

(Original version here.)

I’m a bit sad that this tool only gives me results until 2008. But anyhow, that was an enlightening break before another day of designing, picking typefaces, and writing art/design statements.

Perhaps as a welcome to living this near to the equator, I contracted a tropical bacterial infection during my first month in Singapore. This resulted to three weeks of congestion and mucus. There were a lot of very embarrassing social situations and a consistent need for tissues. But the most awful thing about it was the fact that I lost my sense of smell. This is absolutely catastrophic for someone who studies perception. For one who once tested the link between smell and memories. For one who made an olfactory memoir. For one who can tell cities apart by smells.

The medical term for this is anosmia. (Check this video and article on NYTimes.com for people who permanently lost their sense of smell or were born without it.)

If anything, I am grateful it only lasted a few weeks. There is nothing like valuing something more when you’ve temporarily lost it. To make it a learning experience, I pretended my anosmia was an experiment.

So, how was life without my sense of smell?

The smallest activities were voided of their pleasures. I could not smell the mint on my toothpaste, the citrus crispness of a sliced lemon, the aroma of coffee, the freshness of new bedsheets. Perfume, which was a daily habit and a mood booster, became unnecessary. Each object blurred into the next, unclearly defined.

Without smell, I was unable to detect the orange juice spilling on the opaque countertop. I could not gauge the weather, because I could no longer the smell rain or heat through the window. My days lost a dimension—like the difference between experiencing a movie on a bad screen and in HD. Life became very dull; a mere shadow of its former self. It was then that I realized that in many ways, we can smell movement, and therefore stories. Smell made things more real.

Our senses of smell and taste are related. And so without smell, I couldn’t taste anything either, apart from being able to determine if a dish was sweet, sour, salty or bitter, more or less. This robbed me of the joys of eating. I ate a lot of spicy food, mainly to clear my congested sinuses and because most of the time, spiciness that was the only thing that registered.

On a less depressing note, I learned to better appreciate the texture of food. And because I could not taste anything, I stopped eating food that was unhealthy. I don’t recall a time in my life when I ate less chocolate. Or drank less coffee. Because really, what was the point? I may have lost a couple of pounds, but I was unhappy.

There were other minor benefits, I suppose. The delight and wonder of things faded, but so did their disagreeableness. I thought it was great not to be able to smell smoke or public toilets.  In the gym, in taekwondo class, in crowded subways, I could not be offended by body odor. Hurray!

However, not being able to smell noxious substances is dangerous. It is what tells us if there is a gas leak or if our food has spoiled. And another problem with not smelling is that while nothing and no one stinks,  you don’t know if you do.

Eventually, as my colleagues told me that my cold was probably an infection, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a dose of antibiotics. As the medicine kicked in and I became better, my sense of smell started to come in short spurts, probably analogous to a blind person seeing flashes of light. Whoa, that basket of fruit actually registered. Oh my, cornflakes tasted like cornflakes. I can smell my shampoo again.

Having my sense of smell come back to me was like getting out of a bubble. I realized that like smell made me a part of my environment because I could breathe it into myself and establish a continuity with the world. Slowly, I felt more alive. I had never been so overjoyed to smell garbage again.

 

P.S. Huge thanks to the awesome staff of the University Health Center of the National University of Singapore, who took me in past closing time last Friday when they realized I was close to passing out. Kudos!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Children are great prototype testers.

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

4. Children make me admit my mistakes without shame.

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

5. I am forced to clean up.

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

 

Mondrian Hopscotch I

Mondrian Hopscotch I

Child’s Play: Mondrian Hopscotch I
April 2013
installation
140 x 300 inches (3.6 x 7.6 meters)
tape

Can we play with art? In this piece, I explore this idea by creating a hopscotch board using the aesthetic of Piet Mondrian, one of my favorite painters. The primary intention was similar to The Grid, in that I wanted the participant to create his own interaction with it. The secondary intention was to use a well known art aesthetic and extend the idea of “viewing” the art (such as one would do with an actual painting of Mondrian’s), and instead be required to touch it (or jump on it) to have the experience.

The material I used was tape. It was a decision based on utility—since people will be jumping on it, I needed a material that can withstand all the footsteps. It was also a decision based on culture; in Korea, Mondrian’s aesthetic reminds me of the stripes on Korean hanbok, and looking closely, each square is made of several tape “stripes.”

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I am intrigued by the idea of having the audience be a part of the art to complete the piece, not unlike most of new media art, but here, using the cheapest of materials.

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Here is a short video showing a person interacting with it.

I used it for a talk/workshop with some children here at the National Art Studio of Korea, and invited them to interact with the work, too.

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last

 

Many thanks to Ms. Ju-Eun Lee of Changdong Elementary School, their awesome students (special thanks to Anna Lee for participating in the video and still shots), and to the staff of The National Art Studio of Korea who assisted with organization and translation.

In a new series, I create tape installations that allows the audience to create their own games.

Games have constraints, such as the boundaries created by tape. In this piece, The Grid I, I transformed an exhibition gallery using masking tape. One side has only parallel lines, while the other side has both parallel and vertical lines.

The Grid I (April 2013)

The Grid I (April 2013)

The Grid I
April 2013
installation
31 by 34 feet
masking tape, toys

The Grid I (detail)

The Grid I (detail)

Agents of play were also provided, such as a jump rope, game tokens (in this case, baduk, or the Korean version of Go), a stuffed die, and balloons.

agents of play

agents of play

In the past week, I invited two groups two play with this grid. They had to create their own game, with their own rules, and utilizing the agents of play if they wished. They had to answer questions such as, “How many people or groups can play?” “How can I score a point?” and “How can I win?” (if it was a game about winning).

The first was a group of teenaged boys (aged 17-18). Most wanted to be architect, while the others wanted to be painters. They divided themselves into two groups and created the following games:

1. No Bounds

Players stand in a circle, avoiding the tape, and kicking a balloon without letting it fall to the ground.

I - No Bounds (balloon)

I – No Bounds (balloon)

2. Avoid Baduk

A player rolls the die, and the number corresponds to the number of baduk tokens he takes. He throws the baduk pieces at the other players standing in a line opposite him, who try to avoid getting hit.

2 - Avoid Baduk (stuffed die, baduk tokens)

2 – Avoid Baduk (stuffed die, baduk tokens)

The second group I invited was a lovely group of 12-year-old children from a local elementary school. Here are the games they played:

3. Baduk Slide

Players slid the baduk pieces across the floor. The one who slides the baduk piece the farthest wins.

3 - Baduk Slide (baduk tokens)

3 – Baduk Slide (baduk tokens)

4. King

One player is the “king,” who is unknown to the others. They follow each other using the lines of the grid, whispering and finding out who is the king.

4 - King (just the grid)

4 – King (just the grid)

5. Tennis

Players used the plastic piggy banks as modified rackets and took turns hitting the balloon.

5 - Tennis (plastic piggy banks, balloon)

5 – Tennis (plastic piggy banks, balloon)

6. Volleyball

Players used the die as a ball, and the rope as a net.

6 - Volleyball (rope, stuffed die)

6 – Volleyball (rope, stuffed die)

I learned a lot about children’s creativity and ingenuity from this project, and I think the kids had fun. It was fascinating to see objects whose function was completely changed for the purposes of games they thought of. It was also interesting to see components of traditional games and sports (such as tennis and volleyball) be used.

I definitely liked creating a piece where the audience had to interact with it for the artist’s intentions to be fulfilled. I would love to keep turning galleries and exhibition halls into playgrounds. Critically, these are children who are overexposed to online games—I was happy to get them unplugged from their smartphones and computers and plugged into their imagination. I’m definitely looking forward to pushing this idea further.

Some behind-the-scenes images with the elementary school kids. (Photos by Kate Kirkpatrick)

Many thanks to Ms. Se-Hui Park of Shin-il High School and Ms. Ju-Eun Lee of Changdong Elementary School, their awesome students, and to the staff of The National Art Studio of Korea who assisted with organization and translation.

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!

Opening up your online DNA results is, ironically, almost like cracking open a fortune cookie.

Genetics is something I’ve lived with all my life. My mom was a genetics professor, and my undergraduate degree is in molecular biology. And so I knew that even though I was presented with the “science of myself,” I had to take it with a grain of salt. In addition to our genes, the environment plays a role, too. For example, not being at risk for heart disease is great, but eating foods chockful of saturated fat can kill you eventually.

So over a year ago, I had my DNA done. (You know, it’s like getting your nails done. Kidding.) I used two services, 23andMe and National Geographic’s Genographic Project. The former required you to spit in a tube, while the latter asked for a cheek swab. 23andMe yields a more personalized profile of health and ancestry, while the Genographic Project is a research project that aims to map the migratory history of the human race. Both are very affordable; I wouldn’t have done them if they cost several hundred dollars. I was able to get a 23andMe kit for $99 during a Black Friday sale, and a Genographic kit costs $99.95.

The results are fascinating and intriguing. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure what they could mean. Will I have a different (or perhaps deeper) sense of identity, now that I have a better idea of ancestry? Will I turn into a hypochondriac if I see that I’m at risk for certain diseases?

Some things about me that I already know: I was born and raised in Manila, the Philippines, to a Filipina mother and a Chinese father. I suppose both are mixed at some point, especially considering the Philippines’ long colonial history. I’m pescetarian, a non-smoker, and rarely drink. Because of all the years living in different countries, my immunization requirements (a must for getting your student or exchange visas) are complete. On average, I do 5 to 9 hours of taekwondo a week. (Yes, I realize this makes for a very boring dating profile.)

Here are some highlights of my results:

23andMe

The homepage of your 23andMe profile shows updates to research results. On the left is the menu where you can check out your health and ancestry profiles.

Health

1. I could die from a heart attack. Bummer. Of all the increased disease risks, “atrial fibrillation” topped the chart. This wasn’t much of a surprise. Once or twice a year I end up with an irregular heartbeat; my heart beats harder than normal for several minutes. I would stop and breathe slowly, and my heart beat would eventually normalize. My ECG has always been ok.

2. I have decreased risks of Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Oh happy day.

3. I am lactose intolerant. At this point I started to doubt whether they processed the right sample, because I’ve been drinking milk all my life and I love it. The fine print did say that I “may still be lactose tolerant for environmental reasons.”

Ancestry

1. Based on my maternal haplogroup, I am closely related to East Asians, particularly Japanese, followed by Siberians and South Americans. It wasn’t particularly revelatory; I’ve always had very pale skin. It used to be a joke that I was “whiter than white people.”

2. I am labeled Eurasian, though the Asian-ness greatly surpasses the Euro-ness. My friends surmise the latter is responsible for my height. I’m 5’9″, which is quite gigantic by Asian women’s standards. I do think that I’ve met so many Asian women just as tall, if not taller, so perhaps it’s due to a shift in nutrition as well. (All that milk, I suppose.)

3. Clicking on “Relative Finder,” I see that I have potential distant cousins who also used the service and whom I can contact. The likelihood of me sending them a message is close to null. I think I would rather reach out to another human being because of similar interests instead of genes. It’s fun to know that I have distant relatives from all over the world, though.

The Genographic Project

Among the results you get from The Genographic Project is a map showing the migratory pattern of your ancestors’ DNA.

There are similarities between my results from The Genographic Project and my ancestry results for 23andMe, which made me more confident in their results. Highlights of my ancestral journey include (starting from Africa, where we all came from) countries in the Middle East, and then Asia. I would love to do a project where I can travel through all these countries with this in mind. Note that for both services, I would get more information if I compared my results with those of a male relative, as I, being female, do not have a Y chromosome.

Now What?

Do I recommend getting your DNA tested? Of course! I think human beings will always be interested in different facets of their identities. Unlike other, dubious diagnostics such as personality tests, horoscopes, etc., this gives you insight into your actual biological past (and present) and can allow you to make important decisions, especially health-wise, about your future.

Will it affect me significantly? Not really. It was interesting to see where my ancestors came from, but in the end, I’m more interested in where I have been myself. My “cultural DNA”—the languages I speak, the places I live in, the habits I acquire, the people I call my friends—will likely make more of an impact on me. As for health, I think I already lead a pretty healthy lifestyle, but it’s good to know what I’m at risk for and what I’m not. At the end of the day, everyone dies.