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Hello, lover. Say hello to my first graphics tablet: an Intuos Pro named Max. After years of doing vector illustrations and logos with my first three fingers and a trackpad (idiot), I’m happy to be able to do better work and prevent early onset arthritis. Whee!

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!

Seoul43 has given me a lot of moments to reflect on the impact of humanity on nature. This, of course, was not my initial intention. I wanted to climb all these mountains as a personal challenge. A city with mountains—how wonderful! I still believe it is one of the reasons that I found Seoul to be a clean city, compared to the other capitals I have been to. Before Korea, I had hiked only one mountain in the Philippines. It was a disastrous and traumatic experience—I nearly fell off of the peak, slipped many times on our descent, and slowed everyone down. I was, in chemistry terms, our group’s limiting reagent.

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My second intention was to get people to share my experience. This is why I brought the soil from these mountains so that people can plant with them and then bring them back. “Borrowing” instead of “taking” the soil was an important part. It has always been my view that no one is exempt from environmental responsibility, artists/scientists/explorers/designers included. The tasks I asked people to do were also deliberately chosen. I wanted to ensure that this project had some positive environmental and cultural impact.

What I didn’t expect, aside from the extreme fatigue, were my unique experiences for each mountain. Many pushed me to my limits, some nearly killed me, others were places I found so fascinating that I want to revisit them. A number disappointed me for their smallness (This is it? Really?) while others made me ask a lot of questions.

As these are mountains in a bustling capital, one thing I found consistent about them was human activity. If Seoul’s mountains were a system that ensured the coexistence of nature and humanity, then it was determined by these parts:

First, there were the modern city officials, or whoever governing bodies that mandated which trails should be open to the public and what was allowed to be done. They were the ones who permitted the landscaping and gardening of these mountains, who added trails, tennis courts, exercise machines, trail signs, and other things that make them “usable” to the public.

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Second, there were the citizens and tourists, both young and old, who use these mountains everyday. Hiking is an everyday activity for many Seoulites. Although I always hiked alone (which was a stupid idea, but I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to come with me), I was never really alone—there were always groups of ajusshi, ajumma, or young people who were also on the trails and giving me a hand. For the smaller mountains that served as neighborhood parks, it was the residents’ way of getting away from urban noise. Indeed, I could not help but think of these mountains as refuge in a city whose aging population is affected greatly by Korea’s rapid change.

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Finally, and no less importantly, are the people from Seoul’s past—the historical figures who added fortresses, cemeteries, and many a Buddhist temple to these mountains, turning them into rich canvasses that illustrate a city’s past and provide interesting questions as to how they fit into contemporary culture.

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The historical and cultural value that these manmade structures add undoubtedly “elevates” the status of a  mountain to something more than just a park. The exercise machines and other sports amenities added in recent years add utilitarian value for the citizens who make physical fitness a priority. These make me pause to think, because as a naturalist, one would balk at mankind altering nature, and yet, adding something of historical and utilitarian value perhaps encourages the city to preserve it better.

Because Korea is a very mountainous country and one that rapidly urbanized, I observed that: 1) Many mountains that used to be bigger have been “broken” into smaller ones because of apartment buildings, schools, etc. that found their homes in the lower areas, and 2) Some mountains seem to have all but disappeared because the buildings were right on top of them. Is it alright to do this to make room for city dwellers and businesses, as the country has so many? Indeed, as the official list I obtained from Korea’s Forest Service dates back to 2006-2007, I think that 43 will not be the number once they review the list once more. It will be interesting to see how the face of a city changes and how modernization affects these natural structures that are as old as time.

Originally posted on the Seoul43 site.

As I recover from the flu, allow me a bit of hallucinatory storytelling from the highly entertaining 2013 Singapore Kite Festival last week.

Once upon a time, there was a yellow smiley faced kite named Jack.
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He liked to fly.

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So off he went. Doot doot!

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He flew to the city, where there were very tall buildings. Woo!

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He met a lot of friends of different sizes…

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…shapes, and colors.

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One day, Jack was recruited by the Penguin…

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…who worked for Kung Fu Panda…

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They wanted him to join their kite army to go against a great villain, who wanted to take over the skies.

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Jack said yes, so off they went.

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Jack was scared and excited at the mission. They patrolled the skies in search of the great villain.

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Then finally, Captain Squid screeched, “Chaargggee!!!” 

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Sure enough, Spiderman was just around the corner.

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And the kite wars began.

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It raged for two hours, and finally it stopped. And they won.

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Hurray.

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Afterwards, Jack went off on his own.

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And met a girl.

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They dated and lived happily ever after.

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And made kite babies.

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The end.

This week, apart from getting over the bad case of the flu, I spent some time refining my residency project in Singapore. Climate change is a huge, huge, HUGE subject, and it’s easy to beyond the scope of what I came here to do. I sat down to be specific about whom I wanted to involve, what my intentions were, which specific questions I am to ask (especially with the workshops I’ll be doing next week), and potential formats my exhibit will have. Here is the wall of Post-Its:

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Below are details of it:

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Depending on how it goes, this could either be the most hopeful or the most depressing project I will have in my life.

Where are you from? is a question I am often asked, and to which I am getting more uneasy to answer. It feels redundant. Or sometimes, bureaucratic. Is home where my passport was processed? Is it where I was educated? Where my views were formed? Where most of my friends live? Some of these questions have one, many, or no answers at all.

In Pico Iyer’s TED talk on Where is Home?, he says,

And home, we know, is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.

He goes on,

“[M]ovement was only as good as the sense of stillness that you could bring to it to put it into perspective.”

When one “becomes himself” in many different places, and has had some time to reflect on each past “life,” knowing how that past place figured in one’s present, the notion of home seems less of a spatial question. Home does not need a permanent address.

I left my cities (Manila, New York, Barcelona, Seoul, and I suppose eventually, Singapore) with significant pieces of myself. Reciprocally, these cities have altered me as well. If I ever return to any of them, I will find them changed, without me, and I will then have to rediscover my way through them. In this sense, the idea of home is a temporal one.

I prefer the question, What was your last stop before this? It implies a potential difference in scale that the recipient of the question is in charge of—it can easily be just that one last city, or many cities before that. Memories of what just passed are easier to recall.

Or better still, ask me where I am going, to which I will have an even less definite answer, but it’s still a more interesting one that both of us can speculate on. The best questions are the ones where you can exercise a bit of imagination.

Being in this project in Singapore for three weeks now, I’ve had a lot of flashbacks from my previous lives before this residency. It feels interesting to be in a lab and be officially an artist and not a scientist, to be around academics and understand their academia-speak as though it were a second language I’m hearing again, and to be designing workshops instead of looking for art materials in this initial phase.

Having had different roles and modes of training and experiences, I think I’m coming into my own model of what my three primary fields (art, science, and design) are about, which isn’t to say that these do not intersect in an individual’s practice.

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I’m doodling this as a note to myself, and wondering if I’ll be thinking the same in four months’ time. Hmm.