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Obama Leaders

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!