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One of the scourges of the modern city are fatbergs. You know what I’m talking about. Or wait, maybe you don’t (which is why I did this project). The big blobs of coagulated fats, oils, and toiletries that get stuck in the sewers, making urban flooding even worse. In a congested city like Manila that already experiences super typhoons caused by climate change, this means that a few minutes of rain translates into a few inches of water on the streets. If you’re unlucky enough to be out of the house when this happens—and if you’re commuting—it turns into a nightmare.

This was the situation I found myself in one day as I was stuck in the rain in Manila. No taxi will take you (well, a few did, then promptly threw me out as the rainwater level went from foot to ankle deep), so I was left with one of the last options—a pedicab (a tricycle or a tuktuk in other countries). And as I sat inside, cold and miserable with the pedaling driver talking about charging me three times the price and my rage further heated up by global warming, the water rushed into the pedicab and I, hugging my knees in a fetal position, vowed to turn this into a project.

People keep wondering about where I get my ideas for The Apocalypse Project and I tell them simply that on many days, I’ve already lived it.

Several months later, I finally have results whose journey transcended continents. In my not-so-recent residency in Medellin, Colombia, I was determined to scratch this creative itch and thankfully, a few phone calls later thanks to the Platohedro staff and boom, an engineer from Medellin’s EPM (the company that manages their sewers, or, ahem, alcantarillas) actually came over to the house and a few minutes later, I was looking into the sewers of Medellin.

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I learned a lot about sewage and how different it is depending on the district. We were near a coffee factory and the sewage smelled like really old drip coffee and looked like it, too.

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Interestingly, we could take readings about the sewage. This is a device that is supposed to check toxicity based on the particulates in the liquid.

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Medellin doesn’t get flooded the way Manila does. One reason for the latter’s epic floods is the dumping of used cooking oil down the sewer systems. Eventually the liquid saponifies and clogs the city’s arteries. In Medellin, I learned that most people actually recycle the oil. Also, the population in Medellin isn’t as much as Manila’s.

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I also got to research the alternative sewers that people throw their waste in. In Medellin, that would be the Medellin River, which is so polluted you could smell it from a distance.

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Back in Manila, it was interesting to compare the struggles of both cities. Manila and Medellin have similar histories and so it is fascinating to see their journeys to development. Medellin is a bit ahead of the game, winning the 2016 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize and 2013 City of the Year Award, thanks to its urban planning.

As I navigated through the neighborhoods of old Manila and Malate, I interviewed the managers of fast food chains on how they disposed of the cooking oil used to deep fry their chickens and fries, I was expecting to see hand wringing of we-don’t-know and why-are-you-even-asking, but it turns out, there are procedures that they do to conform to legislation set by the Department of Natural Resources. Their used oils are picked up by licensed agencies and people who recycle it for several purposes.

And so I was left scratching my head. If these restaurants actually do dispose of their oils properly, who is responsible for all the clogging? One possibility is the smaller canteens that are unregulated, and another possibility are the households themselves. How do you dispose of the remaining 1 tablespoon of cooking oil in your frying pan, leftover peanut butter, or other fatty acids embedded in our lifestyles? Pouring it down the drain might seem simple and harmless, but imagine millions of citizens thinking the same thing.

The project became an investigation on the journey of oil—the palm oil that is made from palm forests and used in households and commercial kitchens and end up in sewers or recycled. I researched the most common brands of cooking oil (palm oil was normally used), collected used cooking oil, and got grease from open pipes that were common in Manila. A few dozen saponification experiments later, I had several bars of soap for three types: palm oil (which needed too much caustic soda to saponify that I am actually suspecting of how pure it is, but that’s another story for another project), used palm oil (collected from restaurants), and sewer grease.

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If you ever think of coin this yourself, well, kids, get your tetanus shots ready and make sure you’re suited up properly. Working with used cooking oil was always a surprise. The most information I could get was what food the oil was used to fry. They always came out different, and even though I used the same molds, there were some instances when the soap actually rose out of them. There were also times when the soap didn’t look that great, because it was mixed with so many things, including water.

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Layers of different types of fat were in these soaps. There was something faintly geological about them, don’t you think?

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I boiled the sewage before turning them into soaps to kill as much bacteria and pathogens as possible. (I would still use gloves to handle these, though.) It’s both disappointing and fascinating to see them so normal-looking.

The Sewer Soaperie

The Sewer Soaperie

I also placed them in airtight engraved containers for the 1335Mabini exhibition.

The Sewer Soaperie

The Sewer Soaperie

It’s so great to get this off my chest, and I’m looking forward to continuing the project and looking at it from other perspectives.

Research for this project was made possible by a residency at Platohedro and Casa Tres Patios, with support from Arts Collaboratory and the Ministry of Culture of Colombia.

Thanks to Mr. Hemel Serna of EPM and his team for giving me administrative support in researching Medellin’s sewer systems.

Thanks to 1335Mabini for exhibition support.

Photos courtesy of Platohedro, Events by HD, 1335Mabini, and Catherine Sarah Young

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Iconic photo of the first Earth Day (photo from Smithsonian Magazine)

Iconic photo of the first Earth Day (photo from Smithsonian Magazine)

The above is the most iconic photo of the first Earth Day. Held on April 22, 1970 in New York City, the first Earth Day manifested the emerging environmental consciousness of the US, largely due to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. On April 22, 20 million people marched to demonstrate for a sustainable environment. Currently, Earth Day is celebrated in more than 190 countries.

A black-and-white photograph of a man wearing a vintage gas mask and stretching his neck to smell some flowers became iconic of this day. The photographer is unknown; the credit simply read “Associated Press”, and AP identifies the person as a freelancer. In August 2010, Smithsonian Magazine reported his name as Peter Hallerman, then a sophomore at Pace College. Hallerman recalled that he was one of the 30 Pace students who held a demonstration in a park near City Hall. Hallerman wore a gas mask that he once belonged to his mother, Edith, who worked with Red Cross during World War II. The AP photographer told Hallerman to smell the flowers of a magnolia tree with his mask on.

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This historic photograph is still relevant as we reflect on Anthropogenic climate change, and I used it as inspiration. After recreating the original photograph, I expanded it to reflect my current location. Medellin, Colombia is a city of rich history and culture. Once a hotbed of violence, it has emerged over the years as a city of innovation and urban design—a city of “cool”. Among other things, Medellin is known for winning the 2016 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize and 2013 City of the Year Award, as well as emblematic and permissive graffiti culture, though it hasn’t completely shaken off its violent past. The photographs were taken near the Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum dedicated to victims of armed conflict in Medellin. The city also faces environmental challenges as it works to modernize itself and in the context of the Anthropocene. These photographs are meant to reflect the city’s character, culture, and contradictions as it projects its identity into the future.

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Title of Work: Earth Days

Deepest thanks to Platohedro and Casa Tres Patios, where I did a residency supported by Arts Collaboratory and the Ministry of Culture of Colombia.

The Apocalypse Project: House of Futures opens soon in Future Gallery of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. This seven-month exhibition explores our environmental futures under climate change through the lens of high fashion. I’m deeply grateful for the support of IFTF, swissnex San Francisco, the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco, ETH Zürich, Singapore-ETH Zürich Future Cities Laboratory, and University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland.

The Apocalypse Project: House of Futures

The Apocalypse Project: House of Futures

We have three events this September. Check them out and register now!

September 18, Friday, 6:30PM-10:00PM at swissnex San Francisco. Climate Change Couture: Fashion for a Hotter Planet. Get a taste of the exhibition by watching a Climate Change Couture fashion show and DJ/VJ performance plus talks from the artists involved. (Tickets at $10. More here.)

September 21, Monday, 6:30PM:10:00PM at Future Gallery, IFTF. The Apocalypse Project House of Futures Grand Opening Reception. See the exhibition plus celebrate with a Future Feast! (Free! Register here.)

September 22, Tuesday, 9:00AM-8:00PM at Future Gallery, IFTF. The Apocalypse Project: Future Now. Join us at Institute for the Future for the inaugural Future Now, an all-day event of futures thinking. (Free! Register here.)

I’m also even more excited to have old and new friends being part of this exhibition. Stay tuned for more in the coming days!

 

Thank you, DJ Marie of NYC-based online radio station BreakThru Radio for interviewing me on her show, Sew and Tell, about The Apocalypse Project, particularly Climate Change Couture and The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store.

Here I talk about what led me to do The Apocalypse Project, from my roots in art, science, and interaction design, to my research in South Korea and Singapore, how being a journalist in my past life helped me think of Climate Change Couture, and how this project has made me rethink my own fashion choices.

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Listen to the interview here. Thanks, DJ Marie!

One afternoon, I accidentally got off the wrong floor of my East Village apartment. Each floor in the building looked exactly the same, and yet, for some reason, I felt that something was amiss. Wait, it smells different, I thought.

Smell, the most underestimated and underappreciated of our senses, is everywhere. In Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, he tells the story of a woman to whom everything smelled vile. The condition, cacosmia, kept her indoors for years, until a doctor diagnosed her to have a form of epilepsy that was interfering with her olfactory bulb. Once given the proper medication, the woman could recall the specific moment when her sense of smell started to become normal. The room she was in started to change in perspective, as though it were moving. It seems that smell affects our sense of space.

Curiously, things that we may not immediately attribute smells actually give off odors. Here are some examples:

1. Rain

Can you smell when a storm is coming?

You know when you (or animals) can “smell” that rain might come? Well, it turns out that you’re not imagining it. Rain does give off a smell; three of them, in fact. These are ozone, petrichor, and damp earth, according to Daisy Yuhas of Scientific American.

(HT @sciam)

2. Space

Space can remind astronauts of steak, metal and welding fumes, among other things.

Perhaps “ordinary” isn’t the word I would use for space, but it’s quite fascinating that something that primarily awes us visually can also smell otherworldly. Megan Garber of The Atlantic reports that astronauts describe the smell of space in various ways, such as “seared steak,” “hot metal,” and “welding fumes.”

3. Tumors

Dogs as cancer detectors

Dogs, whose sense of smell is 100,000 times more sensitive than that of humans. Last year, German researchers reported that dogs can detect the smell of cancer, specifically lung cancer. When cells start to mutate because of the disease, they give off volatile odors that dogs can detect.

Hacking into olfaction

Scientists are increasingly finding ways to elucidate the complex process of olfaction. In 2010, Harvard scientists engineered mice that were capable of “smelling light.” The same year, German scientists also engineered flies that were capable of perceiving light for unpleasant smells.

I realize that through many years of living elsewhere, I’ve noticed things…more. As the years passed, my mind automatically latches on to what at first seems inconsequential, but eventually holds something of reflective importance.

Poetry is the bastard child of wanderlust. When one has many versions of what is “familiar,” one can generate a different perspective of the most mundane of things. Two weeks ago, I glanced up on my way out of my apartment, and noticed a bunch of balloons trapped among the branches of a tree. This isn’t the first halted balloon flight I’ve seen, yet by the nth time I see it, I now view them as a symbol of a dream whose flight got killed in midair—a tragedy, a loss. I begin to imagine the story behind it: the child to whom these balloons probably belonged, if he was sobbing, if he had his mother to cry to, if this was a significant character-building experience. I begin to imagine the story after it: what if pigeons untangled the balloons and let them fly, what if someone shoots at them with arrows, what if birds turn them into a nest, what if they get untangled eventually yet fall limp to the ground and someone refills them with helium so they can fly again. And so on and so forth.

Same way out the door on a different morning, and I see a flock of pigeons grouped together, lying in wait in a line. I recall Pablo Neruda’s poem, Bird, which begins:

“It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.”

I notice a lot of humor, too, in the sometimes punishing streets of New York City. Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, a beauty salon was just around the corner. The chalk marks read, “The cruel hand of fate could use a manicure. —Elbowtoe.”

Walking home from taekwondo one night, a friend pointed out a birdhouse hanging from a tree branch. A few days later, I came back on an afternoon and took a photograph:

I took another photo, this time showing it across the Hotel Chelsea. Because of its controversial history, I’ve always associated it with death and the macabre, and so having a brightly painted birdhouse, which recalls life and hope among other things, seems an evocative contrast to see, here in the city of many contradictions.