Archive

Sight

(Seoul)—In Gwanghwamun Square today, I came across a snow bear in front of the statue of King Sejong, under whose reign science and technology flourished in Korea. In his rule, Hangul was also introduced to the country.

A snow bear in front of Sejong the Great

A snow bear in front of Sejong the Great

Up close, the bear is decorated with flowers for ears, cookies for eyes, a glove for his neck and a traffic cone for a hat.

Yes, the hat is a traffic cone

Yes, the hat is a traffic cone

Flowers for its nose and ears, cookies for its eyes, and a glove for its neck

Flowers for its nose and ears, cookies for its eyes, and a glove for its neck

Behind King Sejong is Gwanghwamun, one of the gates that leads to Gyeongbokgung, the main palace of the Jeoson dynasty. The mountain behind it is Bukhansan.

Gwanghwamun by night

Gwanghwamun by night

It’s such a pretty sight in the evening, isn’t it?

My dreams of the sleeping kind are often about flying, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that I’m considering aviation. However, as someone who nearly fell out of a building at 8-years-old, I am afraid of heights. But childhood trauma be damned! As a tiny yet tangible step to being an actual explorer, I went on an ultralight for a ride overlooking the Philippine city of Angeles (about 1.5 hours from Manila) two Sundays ago.

Rorsketch: The Flying Edition

The desire to fly, or be up in the sky without the stressful ordeal of commercial flights, to which I am no stranger, also has something to do with my cloud project. For years now, I’ve looked up at the clouds. It would be awesome if I can actually be at the same height as them!

Arayat is a mountain with its own share of myths that feature gods who battle other gods and/or giants in nearby mountains or disguise themselves as humans.  It’s pretty. I want to climb it. But that will be another story for another day.

On the way, the clouds were already teasing me:

Arayat. With clouds! Thanks, Stephanie, for stopping the car.

Arayat. With clouds that look like the food chain. Thanks, Stephanie, for stopping the car.

It’s difficult not to imagine the Wright brothers, who worked on planes and gliders of a similar size. The smallness of it! It’s like a bike with wings. But here goes nothing:

So this is an ultralight. From afar, it's like a dragonfly.

So this is an ultralight. From afar, it’s like a dragonfly.

Fist in the air! I'm afraid of heights, but it was not the time to think about that. Photo by Steph Tan.

Fist in the air! I’m afraid of heights, but it was not the time to think about that. Photo by Steph Tan.

Up, up, and awaayyy!

Up, up, and awaayyy!

A bicycle in the sky

Flying via small planes has often been compared to being on a roller coaster with invisible tracks. Unlike commercial flights, which can give you the similar, and sometimes even better views, there is no barrier between you and the atmosphere. You control the vessel (well, Captain Max who was sitting on my right did, but he let me work the controls for a bit) and it is like riding a bike in the air. It’s quite exhilarating. And the skies told their stories:

The clouds are like the net that's catching the moon! Do you see it?

The clouds are like the net that’s catching the moon! Do you see it?

What I like about flying in relation to this project is that it makes me a part of the canvas now.

Yes, I'm in there! Photo by Steph Tan.

Yes, I’m in there! Photo by Steph Tan.

The change of height and vessel also brought about one crucial, if not obvious, thing: I can see the ground below. And so grass and fields and roads turned into playgrounds of visual perception as well. Living in big polluted cities all my life, it is always startling to see huge patches of green. While we were rocked by scary gusts of wind, it was air that tasted of rain and sunlight and coconuts.

I see a tangram. Sort of. You?

I see a tangram. Sort of. You?

Broccoli!

Broccoli!

That day, my friends and I witnessed another plane doing aerobatic sequences in the sky using a bright yellow biplane. My jaw dropped, and I stared for several minutes. Then I started squealing. I can’t wait to do that eventually.

It's a bright yellow biplane and it's absolutely gorgeous.  And I think it was doing the sky equivalent of cartwheels.

It’s a bright yellow biplane and it’s absolutely gorgeous. And I think it was doing the sky equivalent of cartwheels.

A hangout in the hangar (Yes, puns are not funny)

When the plane landed, I marched up and interrogated the pilot, Captain Mike, who humored us and described how the plane was made. Back in the hangar, he pointed out a pair of wings being made. Each part has its own paperwork so that it can be traced should anything go wrong.

The skeleton of a wing.

The skeleton of a wing.

Even the hat and glasses are very steampunk. Look!

I want that hat.

I want that hat.

Planes in the hangar. Valet parking provided.

Planes in the hangar. Valet parking provided.

On the way back, we had fresh coconut juice from the roadside. The sunset painted the clouds a pale orange, and I caught two that looked like dolphins. The day was almost too cinematic.

I see kissing dolphins!

I see kissing dolphins!

I grew up loving Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and was thrilled to learn that the author himself was actually a pilot. I’ve devoured his other writings, especially Wind, Sand, and Stars, Night Flight and Flight to Arras. I think traveling in general allows for creativity, but traveling alone allows you to get lost in yourself and discover these pure grains of truth that shape you without you consciously knowing it. I think this has been the reason why I keep moving and seeking new and strange experiences, and once you start, it’s difficult to stop.

Steph and Kristel Tan, and me. Thank you, ladies!

Steph and Kristel Tan, and me. Thank you, ladies!

Thanks to Stephanie (@StephLTan) and Kristel Tan, The Angeles Flying Club, Captain Max, and Captain Mike!

Rorsketches to be posted soon. But check out previous ones here

Barcelona Kawaii (December 2009), Digital illustration

Blessed are hard drives, for they shall reveal files gathering digital dust.

I did this digital illustration years back, for an exhibit called “Des de Fora” (From the Outside) in Sants, Barcelona. It was a time when I was getting over the hump of learning Adobe Illustrator. I completely forgot about this drawing! But I suppose this influenced my doodling habit later on.

The theme reflects on being a foreigner in Barcelona; I wanted to portray the increasingly multicultural nature of one of my favorite cities in the world. Futbol, Feast of St. George, Bicing, Gaudi architecture, etc. are all things I will remember Barcelona for.

It was also the year that it snowed in Catalunya for the first time in years:

Snow in Barcelona (March 2010)

It was also a time when I saw double AND triple rainbows on the day my friends and I were eating calçots and writing poetry:

Double rainbows over Barcelona (April 2010)

Look closely: Triple rainbows!

I t was also the time I was first part of the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona, which was probably one of the most influential times of my life from a creative standpoint and made me look at science from the point of view of poetry:

getting made up by Violet (Photo by Joe Wray)

I accidentally unearthed that cheongsam / qi pao the other day and was quite amazed by the wear and tear it had to withstand amidst all those poetry readings and performances.

I’ve been in Manila for five months now, and it’s been a time of looking at the city I grew up in from the outside. Despite living in multiple countries for so long, cities never fail to surprise me.

Perhaps, like cities, poetry whores, and the weather, humans, too, can pause and look at ourselves from the outside.

It’s just one of those days.

What the clouds can teach you about imagination and everyday things

A fever, a cold, and a hot afternoon on a New York heat wave aren’t usually a recipe for a good day. But bedridden and staring out my window, I had no idea I was about to give birth to another project.

Looking at the sky, I started to wonder at the forms the clouds were making. Although they were white and formless, they started to remind me of the fantastical shapes, such as dragons, whales, and other creatures. It’s not unlike that scene from the Pixar movie, Up!, where Carl and Ellie were lying down on the grass and pointing out what the clouds looked like.

Cloud pareidolia

It’s a manifestation of pareidolia, where a random stimulus (such as the shape and shadows formed by clouds) is perceived as significant. This is why we see faces in places and things, religious figures on burnt toast, etc. Our brains are hardwired to find patterns; it helps us see things as a whole. Without pattern recognition, every experience would be new to us and we wouldn’t be able to make sense of the world or solve problems.

Rorschach test

During that summer, I was frankly getting burned out from school and my internships, and initially decided, just for kicks, to take photos of clouds and draw what I saw in them. Over the next several months, I religiously uploaded them online, and the endeavor has evolved into a project called Rorsketch. The name itself comes from Rorschach tests, which have been used by psychologists to determine their subjects’ personality characteristics and emotional functioning. In this case, I realize that I see a lot of animals in clouds, as well as strange and often unrealistic scenes.

Geography of thought

When I show the cloud photos and sketches to others, people immediately tell me what they see, which is often different from my interpretations. Professions and culture have a lot to do with this. For example, researchers have determined, unsurprisingly, that Asians and Westerners perceive the world differently. Given a scene, Westerners will usually focus on the main subject while Asians will often take the entire scene in.

More than 100 sketches later, I’ve given talks and workshops on how we see. Occasionally, people send me “re-interpretations” of my cloud photos. I find it funny how one afternoon that summer has led to a project I’m still doing a year later. It has helped me learn about how other people see the world, and has given me a platform to celebrate this diversity of visual perception. It helps me find stories in the skies—a great thing to do when looking for inspiration. It was also part of my MFA thesis, and has thus even helped me graduate.

Wonder in the everyday

The best thing I learned about this project is that it doesn’t take much to be creative. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pining for expensive gadgets one doesn’t have, thinking they will somehow make us get over creative humps. Instead, looking at seemingly ordinary objects in a different light can unleash and sharpen our sometimes tethered imaginations.

Visit and participate in the project at http://www.rorsketch.com or tweet @rorsketch.

This article first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Learning section, 20 August 2012, page H4. With thanks to my editor! Full text in their digital edition here.

 

Here’s a question about vision you rarely think of: Can your eyes create art? From color to eye movement, here are three fascinating examples:

Color to Sound

In perhaps one of the most awesome TED talks ever, especially for synesthesia-philes like myself, artist, composer and cyborg-activist Neil Harbisson speaks about hearing colors. Catalan-raised and Northern Ireland-born Harbisson is color-blind. After listening to a lecture on cybernetics and sensory extensions by Adam Montandon, he approached him afterwards and together they worked on a prosthetic device they call the “eyeborg,” which converts colors into specific sounds. In 2010, he founded the Cyborg Foundation which helps people become cyborgs.

Neil Harbisson. Image via Wikipedia.

Watch Harbisson’s TED talk below. My favorite parts were when he said he is “dressed in C major” and that he can “eat is favorite song.”

Eye Movement to Music and Art

EyeMusic is a project at the University of Oregon’s Cognitive Modeling and Eye Tracking Lab in which an eye tracker is connected to a multimedia performance environment to create computer music and interactive art based on eye movements.

Anthony Hornof practicing EyeMusic. Image via University of Oregon Cognitive Modeling and Eye Tracking Lab webpage

From their website:

While the eye is, in ordinary human usage, an organ of perception, EyeMusic allows for it to be a manipulator as well. EyeMusic creates an unusual feedback loop. The performer may be motivated to look at a physical location either to process it visually (the usual motivation for an eye movement) or to create a sound (a new motivation). These two motivations can work together to achieve perceptual-motor harmony and also to create music along the way. The two motivations can also generate some conflict, though, as when the gaze must move close to an object without looking directly at it, to set up a specific sonic or visual effect. Through it all, EyeMusic explores how the eyes can be used to directly perform a musical composition.

Eye Movement to Graffiti

It’s hard to talk about eye movement without mentioning the EyeWriter. American graffiti artist TEMPT1 was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which left him paralyzed except for his eyes.  The EyeWriter research project was born as a collaboration among TEMPT1, the Free Art & Technology (FAT) lab, the openFrameworks community, and Graffiti Research Lab (GRL), with support from the Ebeling Group production company, the Not Impossible Foundation, and the MFA Design and Technology program at Parsons The New School for Design, New York.The system uses cameras and open source software that allows the user to draw with their eye movement.

openFrameworks co-founder Zach Lieberman (right), with graffiti writer Tony Quan (TEMPT1) (left). Image via SVA Interaction Design.

Speaking at my first TEDx conference was a challenge. It was not just because it was a great platform for ideas, but because of the timing, design, and execution needed to pull off four interactive talks in one day.

TEDxNewHaven: The Art and Science of Happiness. Photo by Chris Randall

The theme for TEDxNewHaven was The Art and Science of Happiness. My goal for the talks was two-fold: to engage the audience in something interactive in the course of the day, and to enable them to view their senses as tools by which to achieve happiness. To achieve these, I had to produce 200 “sense kits” that contained physical, non-digital formats of my projects: HugPrints, Rorsketch, Smellbound, and EatPoetry.

Round One. Photo by Liz Danzico

First Talk: Touch

My first talk was about using our sense of touch. I presented HugPrints, my project where I am attempting to hug everyone in the world and getting visual feedback through a specially designed thermochromic vest. I asked volunteers to come up the stage to hug me.

Hugging on stage. Don’t you just love it? Photo by Chris Randall

Afterwards, I asked the rest of the audience to pull out the HugPrints cards in their sense kits, which contained hugging instructions so they can hug each other (if they wished).

Are you getting enough hugs a day? Photo by Chris Randall

Second Talk: Sight

For the second talk, I explained Rorsketch and first engaged the audience in a guessing game of what clouds looked like and then revealed what drawings I made. After doing this project for a while, I wasn’t surprised about how some people were calling out the same things, while other clouds had very different interpretations.

You know what my favorite Pixar movie is! Photo by Ruoxi Yu.

Yes, it’s a dragon! Photo by Chris Randall

I then asked the audience to pull out the blue Rorsketch cards and the Sharpies in their kits, and they drew their own interpretations on the clouds printed on their cards. To encourage them to draw, I did a live drawing session on a big cloud on stage.

Drawing on a cloud. The cloud I sketched on was taken by Nikki Sylianteng. Photo by Liz Danzico

One of my fellow speakers, Nima Tshering, sent me his cloud drawing. (Thanks, Nima!)

A fairy grandma with a baby by Nima Tshering

Third Talk: Smell, Hearing and Taste

I explained two projects for this post-lunch session: Smellbound and EatPoetry. First, I explained the connection between smell and memory and had the audience remove the Smellbound postcard which contained a printed smell. I showed them the book I made, An Olfactory Memoir of Three Cities. Afterwards, I read them After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost while they ate the apple lollipop inside their kits.

“Now please remove another envelope from your kits…” Photo by Chris Randall

Fourth Talk: Happiness and the Senses

For my fourth talk at the end of the conference, I summarized how we can use our senses to be happy. The key points were that we are all equipped with these tools; i.e. we all had the capacity to hug our loved ones, to interpret a cloud, to smell a memory, and to connect poetry with food, and that if we paid more attention to the world around us, it would promote our feelings of well-being and optimism. I also explained my own explorations with happiness by showing submissions from DrawHappy, as well as what I’ve learned from the project so far.

Photo by Liz Danzico

What Worked, and What I Would Do Differently Next Time

All the sleepless nights making sure all 200 kits had the right contents were definitely called for. So much craft and attention were given to every single detail—each postcard had to be sealed in an envelope so people can only view them as instructed, the envelopes had to match the main color of each project’s logo for easy recall, each postcard had to be branded and oriented in a specific direction, each kit had to contain envelopes in a particular order and needed both a Sharpie and a lollipop. Anything less would have taken away from the experience or would have confused people. Doing something onstage so that people can mirror my actions was also important, and getting all the props together also was something I had to keep in mind in addition to the actual slides.

I’ve also been onstage on different occasions and it was interesting to feel these variegations of audience contact. When performing for the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona, I had to inhabit a certain character and, depending on the piece we were doing, had to maintain a certain mystique. When doing poetry readings just as myself, there was a bit of conversation with the audience when I talk about the process of writing, but during the reading of the actual poem, it was just myself and the text. I felt this while reading the Frost poem to the TEDx crowd—the entire hall was dead silent in contrast to all the other times I was up there. (That was quite fun, actually.) But doing a talk that involved not just a Keynote presentation but an actual creative activity was another world altogether—it’s difficult to assess if everyone was enjoying the activity, although what was great about having a particularly open audience such as this one was that they weren’t afraid of trying new things.

For the next time I do something of this nature, I would have a card that had explicit instructions not to use the objects inside the kit unless asked. Although I anticipated this by making sure the envelopes were sealed, I did catch at least one person eating their candy before lunch. (We were running a bit late, and I suppose he was hungry.) One thing about having a sealed and long candy stick was that it affords a long eating session; they wouldn’t have finished it to begin with and they could just put the candy back in the plastic and in the kit. Hard candy was definitely the way to go.

Also, I would have split the third talk (Smellbound and EatPoetry) into two and let each project have its own 10 minutes. Thus, I would have placed EatPoetry for the fourth talk and followed it with a short summary of the senses. When I went up for the last talk and said that “Ok, I’m not going to make you do anything now,” I could swear I felt the disappointment of some people. If the schedule allowed it, giving each project its own time in the spotlight would have allowed the audience to absorb the concept more fully, instead of rushing to the next project right away. I can’t wait until I develop these projects more and more, and see what I will ask people to do the next time.

Finally

I have to say, I love this format of getting the audience to actually do something creative in a talk, instead of me just standing there telling them about myself. Thanks again to the audience for being open to these ideas, my friends and colleagues for helping me pull this off, and to the wonderful team at TEDxNewHaven who worked tireless to make it all happen!

Thanks to Kate Russell and Liz Danzico, my plus two!