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(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.

Human beings are steadily living longer. What could happen when we extend our lifespan? In this project, I design artifacts and tell the story of Emily, a fictional 148-year-old woman in a future.

In the future, may we have more inclusive magazine covers that feature accomplished people of all ages.

In the future, may we have more inclusive magazine covers that feature accomplished people of all ages.

If we can live to be 150 years old, I envision that we will have technologies that will allow people to achieve this maximum longevity. Perhaps we will have tattoos that can deliver hormones for telomere repair. Or wearables that can track the number of cell divisions. Maybe we will inject young blood into ourselves to extend our lives (and maybe this blood will come from younger family members)—a macabre possibility, for sure, but so are lots of what we do to ourselves now especially if our ancestors could see them!

I also think that living longer affords us time to pursue more interests. If we want to go back to school for the second or third time, then we can! We can learn more languages, change careers, perhaps have more lovers. If we have more time, I think most of us will devote this to developing ourselves and our relationships. There are pros and cons to this future.

Browse the gallery to view The Matriarch, a story of a 148-year-old woman and a day in her life.

If we can live to be 150 years old, we might develop technologies to assist us as we age, such as tattoos to deliver hormones for telomere repair, or wearables that can tell us the number of our cell divisions.

If we can live to be 150 years old, we might develop technologies to assist us as we age, such as tattoos to deliver hormones for telomere repair, or wearables that can tell us the number of our cell divisions.

Many thanks to Emily Abrera and her family, and Rjho De Guzman. 

This week, I and my fellow artist-in-residence Michael spoke in Tembusu College’s Singapore as Model City class.

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It looks like I’m singing, but I’m not. I was just saying hi and asking if they could hear me. Thanks, Dr. Margaret Tan, for the photo.

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I think I like it when the stage design is reversed and I’m looking up.

I won’t elaborate on parts of my talk that I’ve posted before, such as what happened during The Apocalypse Workshops or the comments on DrawHappy that made me rethink what the project could be about. So instead, I’ll emphasize some of the things I learned about experience design and collaborations between art and science.

Experience and memory
The image my have the last word, but for me, experience is the one that stay with you forever. I referred to a series of articles I wrote when I was a young journalist, oh so many years ago. This is a photo of me when I was 19 years old:

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In this photo, I was wearing the costume on the left, although I also wore the one on the right. These are mascots from Jollibee, a Filipino fast food chain that, for me, is one of the icons of modern Filipino culture and taste. It was for a series of articles called Temporarily Yours, where I took on a job for a day and then wrote about it. Looking back, these are exercises in empathy, albeit short ones, where I realized how it was to be on the other side of the fence. Most of these jobs were in food or customer service, such as a barista or a sushi chef. Others were about performance, such as a magician’s assistant or a zookeeper. In this particular article, I wrote about how it was to be a mascot and embody a character beloved by children. I still vividly remember these experiences more than a decade later, such as how the head of Hetty (the female character, short for “spaghetti”) was so big and difficult to balance, and how Jollibee’s butt was so huge, it took two guys to shove me through a door. You know, good times.

Projects like these have shaped my views on how I execute future projects. Though I don’t feel that my work fits just one area of inquiry, I think that the common thread between all of them is that of experience. Experience is very powerful. The image may have the last word, but in a world where we are saturated by images, I believe that experience makes these images last longer and gives them more meaning.

Korea and Experience Booths

My views on experience design have also been honed through seeing South Korea’s experience booths in festivals, which will always mark my memories of that country. In festivals in the US or in Europe, I would usually find people selling me a finished product, let’s say a ceramic pot. But in Korea, I will be sold the experience of making or painting my own pot. In this case, I will find myself sitting down at the booth and getting messy at the table, thus slowing down, making my experience more personal, and hopefully have a longer lasting memory than just having the generic festival experience. Perhaps I will end up treasuring the pot I made myself rather than just another cheap souvenir. I also think these booths give wonderful creative opportunities for families, children, and the elderly.

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A Korean experience booth on printmaking

Korea can get quite creative with their experience booths, such as this one I saw down south in Hampyeong.

I believe that the role of artists / scientists / designers is not just to have these unique experiences through their work, but to share these with others. Typically, we share that experience by writing about it for others to read. Through that reading, perhaps someone will profoundly connect with our writing. However, I think that human bonds can be stronger through a shared experience. Your audience can create their own experiences for themselves and yield results that are unexpected, like what I’ve learned from previous projects. This is when you realize that your audience teach you something as well, which is a wonderful thing. Projects become a conversation between creator and audience, which will only serve to fuel human creativity and progress.

Art, Science, and Sustainability

Personally, I believe that the wealth of human knowledge is too vast to just break down into two, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with these two fields: art and science. As I have been trained in both, I have felt what it was like on each “side”. I have been “the scientist” in an art/design studio, and “the artist” in a science lab. Both types of experiences have been very unique to me. Both sides have their own ivory towers. Those who choose to be in those towers, I think, should quickly parachute off. Our world is too vast and our problems too complex for petty squabbling. Unexpected things can happen when ideas from each side, as they say, have sex. Here is a nice comic by Bird and Moon that shows that.

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Image copyright by Bird and Moon

Collaboration is especially important in the realm of sustainability, which is a world I did not expect to enter. It’s quite a booming area, especially in Singapore. Everyone and your mother is doing sustainability.*  (That, and “cities” and “resilience.”) I referred (again) to this Ngram by xkcd.

*Did I really say that in a university class? Yes, I did.

Image copyright by xkcd

Image copyright by xkcd

Instead of being a part of the echo chamber that such “trending” fields create, perhaps new solutions can emerge by letting disciplines hang out together, as they used to do, way back when.

In the end, I emphasized empathy to these bright eyed young students who are in the middle of creating sustainable urban interventions for their class. I said this as someone from the Philippines, a developing country. I cannot tell you how many international consultants in there right now, wanting to save it from XYZ problems. Now, I am very grateful that these brilliant people are there, and I am sure they have great intentions. Certainly foreigners can see opportunities locals may have overlooked, as I have had, being a foreigner in four other countries. But I’ve seen enough projects that never get implemented or never have their full potential realized because of these gaps in empathy. I believe we can do better.

In BBC One’s TV series Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the role of one of literature’s favorite eccentric detectives in the 21st century, showing him as a highly functioning sociopath who can read a person’s history — what he was doing the night before, what his family was like, career, family, weaknesses, etc. — without any previous knowledge of the other person.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. Image by BBC One.

From the point of view of fields such as interaction design, writing, and theater, Sherlock seems to be both the ideal and the antithesis. Knowing how to read people just by traces of their actions is exemplary; however, being incapable of empathy can lead to serious roadblocks. It is not enough to create flowcharts, user journeys, or Venn diagrams; being able to put oneself in the other person’s shoes is key to doing design that will last far longer than the few initial taps on an smartphone app.

Watch his first encounter with his eventual colleague, Dr. John Watson: