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The Apocalypse Project‘s Sewer Soaperie and An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest are exhibited in the first Manila Biennale in the walled city of Intramuros. The theme, “Open City,” refers to Intramuros as the origin of Manila’s culture. It is a tribute to the walled city’s beginnings as a port for the Galleon Trade, a time when Intramuros opened itself up to the world and welcomed new ideas, products and people.

Image credit: Manila Biennale

The Sewer Soaperie consists of soaps made from different points in the cycle of oil in human consumption, from palm oil to used oil to raw sewage and fatbergs, to highlight the effects of our impact on cities. Support for this project was given by Arts Collaboratory, Ministry of Culture of Colombia, and Medellín-based arts organizations Platohedro and Casa Tres Patios, where I did a residency in 2016.

This edition of An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest features scents based on the travel narratives of 19th century explorers of the Amazon, where naturalists such as Alfred Russell Wallace and Alexander von Humboldt encountered this ecosystem for the first time, which relates to the “openness” theme of the biennale. Visitors are allowed to smell these scents and inhale the stories of how these explorers encountered the Amazon. On the wall is text that features the passage of the books where I based these scents from. This project was inspired by my residency in the Amazon in 2017, with the support of LABVERDE and the INPA National Institute of Amazonian Research.

Manila, Medellín, and Manaus are cities that are similar in their colonial history, richness of culture and stories, and vulnerabilities to climate change, which the works highlight. It’s been great fun to bring these together for this historic biennale as well as be reminded of my enriching residency experiences in South America, of which the Philippines share very similar characteristics.

The Sewer Soaperie and An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest

This edition of An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest interprets the olfactory memories of 19th century explorers into scent, based on their travel narratives

The installation can be viewed at the biennale lounge. Image credit: Manila Biennale

Manila Biennale 2018 is led by Executive Director Carlos P. Celdran, and this installation is curated by Alice Sarmiento. Thank you!

Image credits: Photos 1-4 by Studio Catherine Sarah Young, 5-7 by Manila Biennale

Thanks and abrazos to my Colombian family at Casa Tres Patios who featured The Sewer Soaperie in their publication, Conocimiento: Arte / Ciencia / Trascendencia — Funciones y Roles! The project is featured on pages 20-22. You can read the rest of the beautifully designed issue here.

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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 doing 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, emerging like the spawn of Godzilla. 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

The Apocalypse Project: Urban Harvest

OPENING:
Saturday, September 17, 2016, 6 pm

EXHIBITION DATA:
September 17 to October 14, 2016
1335Mabini presents The Apocalypse Project: Urban Harvest, a solo exhibition by Catherine Sarah Young from 17 September to 14 October 2016.

The show explores potential futures under climate change through various forms including photographs, sculptures as well as soap and olfactory artworks crafted from unique saponification and distillation processes developed by the artist. The Apocalypse Project is an interdisciplinary platform that began in 2013 during Young’s art-science residency at the Singapore-ETH Zurich Future Cities Laboratory and has since then been showcased in several cities internationally.  Featured in the upcoming exhibition are new pieces from some of Young’s ongoing projects (Climate Change Couture, The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store, and The Sewer Soaperie) and are a result of her month-long residency in Medellin, Colombia, held at arts organizations Casa Tres Patios and Platohedro, and supported by Arts Collaboratory and the Ministry of Culture of Colombia.

From the 1335Mabini website. Thanks guys!

 

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Climate Change Couture: Colombia No. 3
Shot on location at Buenos Aires, Medellin, Colombia

This shoot was made possible by Platohedro and Casa Tres Patios, where I did a residency supported by Arts Collaboratory and the Ministry of Culture of Colombia.

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Climate Change Couture: Colombia No. 2
Photos taken in Buenos Aires, Medellin, Colombia
Model: Andersoon

This residency at Platohedro and Casa Tres Patios was supported by Arts Collaboratory and the Ministry of Culture of Colombia.

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Climate Change Couture: Colombia No. 1
Photos taken at Platohedro’s Manga Libre
Model: Jeferson

This residency at Platohedro and Casa Tres Patios was supported by Arts Collaboratory and the Ministry of Culture of Colombia.

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.

(Medellin, Colombia)—It’s my first time in Colombia (and actually, South America). For a week in Bogota, I sat terrified in the back seat of taxi drivers who went through the manic city as though they had a death wish. I stuffed myself with arepas, almojabanas, and pan de queso, without the usual reaction I get from wheat bread, because—whee!—these puppies are gluten-free. I walked through the cobblestoned streets of La Candelaria, full of history and stories and tourists and kitsch, feeling as though I were back in my birthplace of Manila.

Walking the streets of La Candelaria in Bogota

Walking the streets of La Candelaria in Bogota

Colombia and the Philippines share very similar stories. Both countries were Spanish colonies, are very diverse in terms of landscapes, flora, food, and people, and have had histories of unfortunate violence. Filipinos are often considered to be the Latinos of Asia, and in fact many Colombians and Filipinos look a bit similar. Heck, they definitely look more Filipino than I, the apparent ambassador of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese faces. Food is similarly rich in meats and rice, though these people use way more avocados than I ever have.

Colombian graffiti

Colombian graffiti

I stick out like a sore thumb with a neon Band Aid here. Perhaps I look Colombian from the back, since they mostly have black hair as well, but spin me around and wham, awkwardness ensues. The only Asians I have seen so far are the two Korean tourists I saw in a Juan Valdez Cafe across the street from the Museo de Botero in Bogota, their hiking clothes a dead giveaway; and the Taiwanese woman who works in the vegetarian restaurant across the street from Casa Tres Patios, one of my two hosting residencies, in Medellin. At least they only look and don’t touch, I tell myself silently, sending mental shade to other places where I experienced more harassment.

Are those Asians I see behind my arepa?

Are those Koreans I see behind my arepa? Wassup, guys!

Colombia is gritty, its winding streets filled with stories of past violence, old but not forgotten, with its gnarled fingers clinging to the skirts of the new and young wave of modern and forward-thinking attitudes. It has surprised me so many times, from the first day in Bogota where I saw people betting on guinea pigs, to the free admission of its beautiful museums, the varying climate of Manila-esque heat in the city of Medellin to the stark cold of its surrounding mountain villages. It feels like Manila, if Manila had better urban planning and more condoms available. I am obsessed with their indigenous cultures—these ancient tribes have adapted for centuries and are still here!— and I even bought myself a pet ocarina (a type of flute) from their archeology museum. His name is Puck, and I can’t wait to do this residency with this little guy.

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Buenos dias, Puck! Vamos a trabajar!

I am won over by the warmth of the people here. At Casa Tres Patios, I average seven morning hugs a day. There is almost always cafe tinto on the stove; I will never complain about the coffee here! There are more bridges that connect us than walls that separate us; Tony, the director of Casa Tres Patios, was also a Fulbright scholar and has a third degree black belt in taekwondo (I have to prevent myself from bowing—good God, my tic of bowing all the time!), and Sonia, their general coordinator, speaks better Mandarin than I do, owing to two years in China. People have been very kind, in spite of the language barrier I am determined to bridge. Both Platohedro and Casa Tres Patios have been incredibly supportive, and the vibe of both residencies have been very homey for me, a nomad with a broken suitcase. Speaking with my Spanish, rusty and with a Castillian accent, feels like riding a bike (if I rode bikes, ha). If you want to make a Latino giggle, just thank him with a Muchas grathias. And if I finally succeed in rolling my r’s instead of gargling them, I will get back to you.

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Hello, Medellin!

I can’t not tell you why it was important for me to be here: because I’ve never been. It was a logical nightmare to get me all the way here from Asia, but so many people have helped bring me here, and I dare not waste a minute. Well-meaning friends have cautioned against my coming here, fearing for my safety or because of ignorance against Colombians and Latinos in general. In a world full of increasing hate and higher walls, which is even more terrifying in light of the borders we build around ourselves and the environment (hello, climate change), the only way to cure one’s anxiety against his unknown fellow human beings is to get to know them.

It’s my first time in Colombia, and man, I’m thrilled to be here. The Apocalypse Project will have an amazing time.