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Here at my art residency in Singapore, I’m busy this week giving workshops to students at Tembusu College, National University of Singapore. Before the workshop, I gave a short intro talk on The Importance of Talking to Strangers.

Having done participatory art for years now, I discovered that it’s imperative to engage people in these kinds of activities (workshops, experiments, etc) in the development of a project. The things that come out of these things are always insightful.

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For this week, I didn’t want to give another artist talk, as I wasn’t going to be the artist for the night. Instead, I talked about the things I learned while talking to strangers. Because these students are, after all, strangers to me. I gave two example projects and the lessons I learned from them.

The first project is Rorsketch. This project became more enlightening for me because strangers saw things I did not see. (Visit the project site here.)

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(Yes, the never-ending drawing-what-you-see-in-clouds project.)

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From this, which was initially something I did for myself, expanding it to include other people. Asking four people what they saw in this image will yield four different interpretations. I ended up embracing the inclusivity of the project—nothing was right or wrong.

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For the second project, I learned that strangers can extend my project beyond what I set out to do.

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I tried, but this project just won’t die. Viva drawing your happiness! Check out DrawHappy’s site here.

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Beyond the sketches people have sent me, what became additionally interesting were the comments left on the site, most of which are submitted months or years after I uploaded the drawings—a good case for putting everything online. I was already emotionally finished with the project, or was I? These comments made me think otherwise.

Here is one that made me think DrawHappy should be turned to DateHappy:TembusuWorkshop.030

And here is another that made me think of Craigslist Missed Connections (names are protected because by now, I’ve learned that the world is so small):

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As the one who actually administers the site and monitors and publishes the comments, I can’t tell you how I had to pick up my jaw from the floor when I get notified by email. I can’t wait what this apocalypse project gives me. Stay tuned.

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Last September 23, I was invited to give a talk / workshop at my favorite place in Manila The Mind Museum about my sensory projects. Like my other talks, this one had a sense kit, interactivity, etc. Unlike my other talks, I explained the science behind my work. After having to consciously remove the science from my explanations in art and design schools, it was quite refreshing to be required to explain the neuroscience and psychology behind my work. It felt like riding a bike after so long—thankfully, your mind still does remember what a synapse is! Whew.

Another big difference is that there were quite a number of kids in the audience. This was important (and also a big test for me), because I always felt that children were my primary audience. For me, if they didn’t “understand” the work, it meant that I wasn’t being clear enough and that there were still some things I could take away. And so it was gratifying to see kids eagerly raising their hands when I asked them questions. They were always responsive, most of the time even more so than the adults.

I’m also grateful to the museum staff because this is the first time I didn’t have to make the kits. A big thank you especially to my lovely assistant Steph as well as the museum’s science education officer, Marco, who took care of me the entire day.

Some photos, thanks to The Mind Museum:

Neurons! Drawn on Illustrator! Whee!

Hugging. The curator told me from the front row to hold my hair up. So I did.

Group hugs!

I really should just work for Pixar. Seriously.

The Cloud Walls!

Kids. Adults. Imagination.

Cloud walls, front and back

Cloud Walls

EatPoetry: cotton candy

A winter sky in Reykjavik, Iceland

First, a thank you to science. The researchers who have, by the scientific method, concluded that travel is indeed good for creativity. Pop the champagne! It’s not just the coincidence of people like Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and company who produced creative work while having well-stamped passports.

In 2009, William Maddux of the business school INSEAD and Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management, reported their results in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They subjected 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in the US to a creativity test called the Duncker candle problem. These students were given a candle, matches, and a box of drawing pins. They were then asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall such that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. Maddux and Galinsky found that 60% of students who had lived abroad solved the problem, while only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did so.

For the past eight years, I have lived abroad. I have moved countries and changed lives for a total of six times. It does not get any easier, for goodbyes are never something I look forward to. It does, however, get more routine. It is a cycle that I think will repeat itself ad nauseum for most of my adult life.

For me, it is important to use travel for creative purposes. It’s the only way I can justify the price of a plane ticket and rising rent; I must use that time to further my projects. And so I try to make each trip count, making sure I have more to show for my trip other than photos to be uploaded online. The professions I now claim are many—one can read scientist, journalist, editor, visual artist, poet, student, communications director, graphic and interaction designer in my increasingly eclectic resume. Perhaps because one word can mean a variety of things in different countries, I have long been wary of labels and instead choose to tell stories about the projects I have run. (An example of which is DrawHappy, which will be in the Learning section every Monday. Go draw!)

Naturally, a thank you to the cities. I can recall stories, experiences, mishaps, and projects in in every one of them. Manila, Barcelona, and New York—places I have lived long enough to call home—are all port cities. They have been among the intersections of migratory or trading routes of humanity. All have very diverse cultures and colorful histories. Each time I return, I find that many things have changed. The dissolving streets, weather, landmarks, and people have all, in their minuscule ways, contributed to my worldview and identity. Each city’s definition of beauty has given me the impetus to compare and contrast their sunsets, cloud formations, art, and architecture. It is difficult to be a traveler without reading and rereading Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities), Jorge Luis Borges (everything), and Sun Tzu (The Art of War) as though they would give me a refresher course on the world, as though they were operating manuals for a life on the road.

Third, thank you to the cities’ inhabitants, particularly those who have opened their hearts and homes to someone who occasionally did not speak their language or understand their ways. The first time I traveled, I was more acutely aware of how different they were from how I was raised, from the food to the accents, the government, and the customs. My notions of what was “right” and “acceptable” were gutted and destroyed. Each city and country has the same familiar struggles and questions about government, national identity, and race. The more I traveled, the more I realized that human beings are more similar than different. Today, some of my best friends include those whose communications with me have necessitated dictionaries and Google Translate. Language and culture stop becoming barriers and instead become bridges.

But thank you, too, to the ones who have made me feel like I was “The Other.” The ones who have made me feel ostracized and have made me uncomfortable. It has taught me endurance, humility, and patience. I think the best way to judge a person’s character is how he treats you when he underestimates you. It has taught me to be grateful for everything I have and accomplished, and to focus on the important things.

Thank you to the grants, schools, and organizations that have given me purpose. I always hit the ground running once the plane has landed in order to accomplish the things I promised the powers-that-be I would do. My most recent stint was to do my MFA in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts, which was made possible by a generous grant from Fulbright. I learned to work through bad weather, sickness, ungodly hours, and alternate time zones. To this day it’s difficult for me to be idle. Creative travel, especially those involving contracts, has taught me accountability, responsibility, and a heightened sense of time.

Thank you, too, for all the things that have gone wrong. When you are out of your comfort zone, the things you fear will go wrong often will. I have taken detours, lost friends, and given up significant things for the choices I have made. Everything becomes a tool for teaching me something, whether it’s something as small as an iffy Internet connection, or something more devastating as losing relationships. It has taught me to let go of material things, because many are just too darn hard to pack.

While I can’t say that traveling is constantly great and wonderful, I know that I have always been changed by it, and that I would never have reached this level of personal and professional growth had I chosen to be anchored in one place. Not all travelers are creative, and not all creative people are travelers. (And that’s ok.) But for me, traveling has taken me outside of myself and opened worlds I never knew existed. It has been kind so far; it has taught me that the world is my home.

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Five Ways to be A Creative Traveler (Passport not always required)

1. Try something new everyday. It doesn’t need an expensive plane ticket to have the mindset of a traveler. Even the office that you have been walking into for the past ten years can be a venue for personal growth. Try a new spot to work in, a different flavor of cereal, or a new email password. The fact that your mind is jolted to the newness can trigger your creativity.

2. Learn a new language. Last March, the New York Times reported that people who know more than one language have been shown to be smarter. While I suppose multilingualism is inherent for most Filipinos, I guarantee your mind will be squeezed (in a good way) when you try a language that is far removed from what you usually know. Try Russian, Hebrew, German, Bisaya, or any language with an unfamiliar pattern. You will learn not just grammar and vocabulary, but also the culture of a people in that way.

3. Reserve at least 15 minutes of your day for a creative habit. I would strongly recommend using the same medium, such as writing, drawing, photography, etc. That way, if you look back at your work after a month, you would realize that these small multiples add up to an awesome project. Put them all on a blog and help inspire other people, too.

4. Read everything. Don’t limit yourself to a certain genre. If you like science fiction, read the occasional children’s book. If you read novels, make time for a biography. Books are the windows to the world—past, present, and future. The more possibilities you realize, the more you will break through creative blocks.

5. Have a conversation with a stranger. While you’re at it, don’t limit yourself to the same type of people you spend time with. Make friends with those whose daily routines are radically different from yours. If you are usually stuck in the office all day, have coffee with someone who is always on his feet and outdoors. If you have conservative beliefs, talk to someone whose worldview is the complete opposite. You will discover that there is so much more to life than the things you are accustomed to.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer Learning Section, page H4, on 6 August 2012, and on their online edition on 5 August 2012. 

If we are curious,

We can enrich our lives because we can purposefully seek meaning, instead of finding solace in empty superficiality.

Relationships can be stronger because each uplifts the other through their passions.

Organizations can work with more intention, go deeper, and become more innovative and impactful.

Cities can have more engaged and concerned citizens who can make things happen with creative solutions.

Countries can have leaders that are more informed and make better decisions for those they are serving.

The world can sustain itself for future generations.