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Korea

This week, I and my fellow artist-in-residence Michael spoke in Tembusu College’s Singapore as Model City class.

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It looks like I’m singing, but I’m not. I was just saying hi and asking if they could hear me. Thanks, Dr. Margaret Tan, for the photo.

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I think I like it when the stage design is reversed and I’m looking up.

I won’t elaborate on parts of my talk that I’ve posted before, such as what happened during The Apocalypse Workshops or the comments on DrawHappy that made me rethink what the project could be about. So instead, I’ll emphasize some of the things I learned about experience design and collaborations between art and science.

Experience and memory
The image my have the last word, but for me, experience is the one that stay with you forever. I referred to a series of articles I wrote when I was a young journalist, oh so many years ago. This is a photo of me when I was 19 years old:

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In this photo, I was wearing the costume on the left, although I also wore the one on the right. These are mascots from Jollibee, a Filipino fast food chain that, for me, is one of the icons of modern Filipino culture and taste. It was for a series of articles called Temporarily Yours, where I took on a job for a day and then wrote about it. Looking back, these are exercises in empathy, albeit short ones, where I realized how it was to be on the other side of the fence. Most of these jobs were in food or customer service, such as a barista or a sushi chef. Others were about performance, such as a magician’s assistant or a zookeeper. In this particular article, I wrote about how it was to be a mascot and embody a character beloved by children. I still vividly remember these experiences more than a decade later, such as how the head of Hetty (the female character, short for “spaghetti”) was so big and difficult to balance, and how Jollibee’s butt was so huge, it took two guys to shove me through a door. You know, good times.

Projects like these have shaped my views on how I execute future projects. Though I don’t feel that my work fits just one area of inquiry, I think that the common thread between all of them is that of experience. Experience is very powerful. The image may have the last word, but in a world where we are saturated by images, I believe that experience makes these images last longer and gives them more meaning.

Korea and Experience Booths

My views on experience design have also been honed through seeing South Korea’s experience booths in festivals, which will always mark my memories of that country. In festivals in the US or in Europe, I would usually find people selling me a finished product, let’s say a ceramic pot. But in Korea, I will be sold the experience of making or painting my own pot. In this case, I will find myself sitting down at the booth and getting messy at the table, thus slowing down, making my experience more personal, and hopefully have a longer lasting memory than just having the generic festival experience. Perhaps I will end up treasuring the pot I made myself rather than just another cheap souvenir. I also think these booths give wonderful creative opportunities for families, children, and the elderly.

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A Korean experience booth on printmaking

Korea can get quite creative with their experience booths, such as this one I saw down south in Hampyeong.

I believe that the role of artists / scientists / designers is not just to have these unique experiences through their work, but to share these with others. Typically, we share that experience by writing about it for others to read. Through that reading, perhaps someone will profoundly connect with our writing. However, I think that human bonds can be stronger through a shared experience. Your audience can create their own experiences for themselves and yield results that are unexpected, like what I’ve learned from previous projects. This is when you realize that your audience teach you something as well, which is a wonderful thing. Projects become a conversation between creator and audience, which will only serve to fuel human creativity and progress.

Art, Science, and Sustainability

Personally, I believe that the wealth of human knowledge is too vast to just break down into two, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with these two fields: art and science. As I have been trained in both, I have felt what it was like on each “side”. I have been “the scientist” in an art/design studio, and “the artist” in a science lab. Both types of experiences have been very unique to me. Both sides have their own ivory towers. Those who choose to be in those towers, I think, should quickly parachute off. Our world is too vast and our problems too complex for petty squabbling. Unexpected things can happen when ideas from each side, as they say, have sex. Here is a nice comic by Bird and Moon that shows that.

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Image copyright by Bird and Moon

Collaboration is especially important in the realm of sustainability, which is a world I did not expect to enter. It’s quite a booming area, especially in Singapore. Everyone and your mother is doing sustainability.*  (That, and “cities” and “resilience.”) I referred (again) to this Ngram by xkcd.

*Did I really say that in a university class? Yes, I did.

Image copyright by xkcd

Image copyright by xkcd

Instead of being a part of the echo chamber that such “trending” fields create, perhaps new solutions can emerge by letting disciplines hang out together, as they used to do, way back when.

In the end, I emphasized empathy to these bright eyed young students who are in the middle of creating sustainable urban interventions for their class. I said this as someone from the Philippines, a developing country. I cannot tell you how many international consultants in there right now, wanting to save it from XYZ problems. Now, I am very grateful that these brilliant people are there, and I am sure they have great intentions. Certainly foreigners can see opportunities locals may have overlooked, as I have had, being a foreigner in four other countries. But I’ve seen enough projects that never get implemented or never have their full potential realized because of these gaps in empathy. I believe we can do better.

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While researching for my residency project on climate change, I came across a dialogue between Emma Maris, environmental writer and reporter,  and Erle Ellis, Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems, in which they discuss a very thought-provoking question, “Is the Anthropocene…Beautiful?”

Because of the apocalyptic nature of my project, when I think of the Anthropocene, it’s hard not to be a curmudgeon. It’s hard not to dislike our species. But on the other hand, there is no question that our species can make beautiful things, although I suppose the notion of beauty is subjective.

I think back on Seoul43, which is the project that made me want to do this, my first intentionally environmental project. I remember the ones with physical evidence of Korea’s history—the eunuch cemetery, the fortress, the centuries-old temple. But these are human interventions that are seen through rose-colored glasses because of their age. As one who hiked past them all, I found it interesting to trek through these unwitting museums of a country’s past. If they were to be built today, perhaps they will be met with resistance. But because they are relics from the past, they are instead seen as something to be preserved. From personal experience, I found the centuries-old fortress on one mountain to be charming, but the modern apartment building on another to be jarring—the former contributed to my experience while the latter hindered it. I wonder if, centuries from now, if someone from the future encounters this present-day apartment and sees it as a relic of architecture?

Watch the video below:

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.

44 - Bukhansan

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.

exercise ajumma - Ansan

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.

lonely old man - Achasan

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.

temple - Suraksan

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.

Heejung sent me this photo of our friend Kaya jumping on my hopscotch board at the Asian Students and Young Artists Art Festival (ASYAAF 2013), which ended last week.

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I’m neck-deep in climate change articles and meetings with a lot of brilliant people, so this was such a nice email from the life I just left. I love that beam of light on the right. It looks as though Kaya was beamed there from space.

Thank you, ladies! And I miss you, Korea!

(Written last week, posting only today!)

It’s hard to pack when one hasn’t unpacked, I tell myself as I examine my suitcase whose contents have not been voided in the past four weeks of transience in Manila. I had left Korea and am now en route to Singapore for another project.  I chide myself, because the reality is quite the opposite. As the ninth (?) move, I realize my luggage hold the memories of my most immediate past. There is little to give away, and little to buy. Everything I need is in this big red bag that has traveled the world with me.

It is a suitcase that has known many stories, from its first trip more than 10 years ago, when I visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a potential graduate candidate. (I didn’t get in, but it was amazing seeing Barbara McClintock’s lab!)  This bag was with me in the interrogation room in the train station in Barcelona, when security, in their amusement, told me I was not allowed to bring training sai during my trip. Outraged, I pointed the blades to my neck, took a stab, and cried, “Mira! Mira! No sangre! Estan no peligroso!” (Look! Look! No blood! They’re not dangerous!) They let me take them in the end. I brought this bag with me again to New York, with my Fulbright bag tag on the strap (I figure if potential thieves think it’s just full of nerdy books, they will never take it.)

A few weeks ago, a couple of well meaning friends asked me where is home? It’s in my heart, distributed in pieces, all over the world, I gamely quipped. It was midnight, and I was working like mad on my computer, beating another deadline. I stopped thinking about this question in recent times.

These past few weeks have been a sharp change from the constant busyness and preoccupation in Korea to the downtime and quietness in Manila. From mowing a mountain in a monsoon and getting swept up in the flurry of goodbyes, I finally had a lot of time for thinking about how things might be in the next few months. And I realized I didn’t have a clue.

When one starts out with the mentality of an explorer, of going into the unknown (and the fearlessness of a child with that nagging curiosity of sticking her finger in an electric fan) it is difficult to discern where one will end up. In between the lives I’ve led, I found it necessary to have moments of reclusion—of, as I recently coined to a friend over dinner, my “armadillo mode,” to refer to the shell I have to ensconce myself to have time to process what just happened.

There are few things one can take with her when the airline only allows for baggage weighing 20 kg. I suppose we leave part of ourselves behind with the people we love and take only what is necessary for the next life.

My friend Kate Kirkpatrick, who also serves as producer of my Seoul43 project, has been working making sure that its extension project, Pyeong Chang Mobile Garden, a piece currently in the 2013 Pyeong Chang Biennale, is finished. This weekend, she reported back to me (I’m currently in Manila in transit to my next project), with these photos.

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I smiled when I saw this photo with Pyeong Chang Biennale curators, Mr. Hyunchul Lee (left) and Mr. Yoonkee Kim (right), who helped finish the job. Kamsahamnida!

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View a previous post about the installation and another piece here.