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I’ve been traveling since May, which is why it’s been so quiet here. But having been on the road for less than three weeks, I had lots to learn and experience. It was also my birthday yesterday, hence the need to write something.

The story of my life. @_@ #adaptordie

A photo posted by Catherine Young (@catherinesarahyoung) on May 14, 2016 at 10:35pm PDT

 

Starting in Graz, Austria, I felt that my life was like the charger for my Macbook Pro. I have to adapt each time, adding another block to my already modular one. I was happy to spend some time in this lovely and idyllic city, where I lived in a convent (the irony is not lost here) while watching Game of Thrones and Eurovision clips on my downtime, and spent time with friends and colleagues.

A photo posted by Catherine Young (@catherinesarahyoung) on May 21, 2016 at 7:45am PDT

 

In Amsterdam, the Netherlands, I learned about roadblocks, challenges, and unexpected friendships. I was there as a finalist for a sciart competition. My team lost (bummer) but it was a great experience and I loved meeting the researchers I was working with. We even went to the coast to do some field work. It was awesome! I can’t say much about the project now (since not winning means we actually have more time to work on our proposal), but I’m happy to still have determined collaborators. Did I mention I love postdocs?

 

I came home from the Hague (where the competition was) to Amsterdam in a sad daze, because I was exhausted physically (I fly on at least 10 flights on this trip—more on this later), emotionally (I was sad to lose a competition yet excited for my next gig and for all the new experiences I was having), and intellectually (it takes a lot of brain power to come up with mildly interesting ideas, you guys). Amsterdam could have been another impersonal city, yet  strangely I met a number of new friends in the ten days I was there, largely because of the broad spectrum of emotions I was on. Having setbacks means gaining more time, and I was determined to learn new things. I even learned how to bike! (This is one of my worst nightmares, and more on this in a future post as I’m still recovering).

 

I’m writing this in Bogota, Colombia, where I will soon be en route to another residency in a nearby city, Medellin, for an art residency about The Apocalypse Project, which I happily sense I’m doomed to do forever. Bogota has been a very interesting city to explore. It feels like Manila, where I am from, in a lot of ways, yet also very unique. This is my first time in South America, and I’m incredibly excited for this new adventure. The food is incredible, the graffiti is spectacular, and I’m always thrilled when I realize there is still so much of the world I know nothing about. Many people have cautioned against coming here, fearing for my safety. I think this is why I was even more determined to go. So far, the people have been nothing other than kind and respectful to me. Asians are a rarity here, but at least they look and don’t touch (unlike in some other places, ahem!). We can breed less hate in the world by getting to know our imagined enemies. Plus, Bogota and Manila are very similar in many ways, and so Colombia’s risks are those I’m familiar with.

 

For more than ten years, I’ve been floating around the world like this. My Spanish-speaking friends often use the word “inquieta”—restless. I’ve met so many people I care so much about yet I’m not even sure if I’ll ever see them again. Do nomads love more because precious moments are fleeting, and are they loved less because they represent man’s natural restless and curious spirit—a three-dimensional breathing Hallmark card their absent friends can lock away in their memories? Each hello and goodbye feels like an echo of the many journeys I have made before.  I love traveling the world, yet I know one day I would want to pick a place to stay put for a while.

 

My suitcase (which finally broke and is being held with tape) is packed and I return the keys of another hotel tomorrow. The journey continues! Turning another year isn’t so bad.

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Last May 10th, my class and I finally marched (!) on stage, culminating two years of graduate work here at the MFA program in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts.

Our commencement speaker was the incomparable Laurie Anderson, experimental musician, composer, performance artist, and inventor, among other hats she wears. During her speech, she recounted her time as NASA’s first artist-in-residence and recalled how she was also the last one, after a politician sought to amend a bill making sure no such thing happened in the future. Anderson suggested that really, we should create artist-in-residence positions in institutions such as NASA, Congress, and other such places, which generated applause and laughter from the audience.

Laurie Anderson. Image via The Guardian.

It’s strange to be listening about art when I spent two years studying to be a designer. I have always questioned my artistic leanings, especially coming from a scientific background. I am and will always be immensely grateful for my geeky past (and who am I kidding, present), although from my experience in that world, to want to be in the arts was almost tantamount to self-banishment.  Thinking about the past six years out of undergrad—all the cancer lab rotations at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, art school in Spain, the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona—and frankly, I have to ask myself whether I actually have found what I’m looking for in a design program. And to a large extent, I did in interaction design. I always thought it was a way to humanize the sciences and the arts, which thankfully doesn’t always have to translate to something on screen. Two years in a design program have found me to be stubbornly conceptual, not because I wanted to upset my class but because that’s what I came to graduate school for. I think that if I do work for a company, I will probably spend all my waking hours designing apps and websites, and I have all the time in the world to do that.

So what is the use of an artist? After being immersed in interaction design for two years, I think that IxD shares an important thing with the arts—empathy. To be an artist, at least for me, requires me to place myself in different shoes and absorb various identities. The same is true as an interaction designer. Perhaps one thing that has been enormously helpful to be a practicing artist is the familiarity of actually inhabiting a character instead of simply watching people from afar, taking down notes.

To be an artist is to challenge the norm. While it’s wonderful to design apps and websites, it’s not the first thing I turn to when trying to give form to a project. Ironically, I do not own a smartphone, which will probably give most interaction designers a heart attack. No smartphone? What do you do when figuring out a bill, trying to find a place, or bored in a subway? Well, I try to do the algebra by hand, I talk to strangers a lot, and I write and doodle in a sketchbook constantly. It’s not a perfect system but it is a cheaper and more entertaining one. I think that we are more than our gadgets, and I think that an artistic practice allows one to experiment not just with what is, but what could be.

But more importantly, at least for me, artists are always questioning the self. Art will never lose its relevance, particularly in a time that is rife with uncertainty, though as I get older, I think each year in human history is tumultuous and unstable. On a personal scale, art allows for the exploration of selfhood in a manner that is less contained. I suppose that’s why I keep hearing of the banker who finally turned to painting, or the lawyer who is now a musician. As a scientist (I’m still wondering if I can call myself this), there are certain terminologies and protocols I have had to use for the scientific institution to understand where I am coming from. As an interaction designer, I do feel sometimes limited (although “limited” isn’t always a bad thing) by the words I have to use (hello, “user”) and the media by which I practice (wireframes and sticky notes). As an artist, I am moored to no such arbitrary islands; I can easily experiment with musical instruments as much as kitchen appliances and be equally at home with both of them

But enough with all this labeling. As I leave the comforts of school—though my classmates and my teachers alike are betting I’ll go for a PhD eventually—I would like to embrace the hyphen the comes when saying that one is a writer-artist-interaction designer-etc. I sometimes cringe when I’m only referred to as one of these, because to seemingly pledge allegiance to one field may appear as though one is relinquishing all her other interests. And wouldn’t that be such a shame.

Laurie Anderson with a pillow speaker in her mouth

But back to the red landscape of graduation at Radio City Music Hall and the blinding strobe lights. My favorite part of Anderson’s speech was the finale, when she stuffed a pillow speaker in her mouth and proceeded to sing to us for quite a long period of time with a sound that resembled Darth Vader’s voice, waking up even those who were dozing off. Afterwards, the school gave her an honorary doctorate. Lady, I just adore you.