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As an interdisciplinary artist who works on environmental and social issues, discovering Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat was an incredible experience. Having grown up in the Philippines, I was no stranger to its bountiful nature, but this time I was on a mission. I had, not so long ago, finished an artscience residency in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and to discover that the Philippines had something very similar was beyond exciting. I did not have to go that far to see a rainforest, after all. I was very grateful to accept Great Escapes Philippines’ invitation for their inaugural Give Back Weekend Adventure. It was a great opportunity for me to research the area in light of a forthcoming art residency and collaboration with the Centre for Sustainability Philippines, an environmental NGO based in Palawan and one of Great Escapes’ partners.

Such joy to be back in the rainforest!

Brazil and the Philippines are antipodes; that is, if I dig a hole in my house in Manila and kept going until I reached the other side of the earth, I would end up in Matto Grosso in Brazil. But despite being half a world away, the Amazon and Palawan share similarly rich natural resources, colonial history, and immediate and long-term threats. Both embodied a certain type of wild beauty under peril, where traditional ways conflict with contemporary lifestyles. It was easy to relate these two ecosystems together as I experienced similar lush greenery and clear river water. As an artist, it was a good time to reflect on how I can possibly continue my work to raise awareness on both of them.

Brazil vs the Philippines

Halfway around the world! From http://www.antipodesmap.com

But there were stark differences as well, not just the fact that Brazil was a Portuguese colony and the Philippines, of Spain. (I saw the basketball court of the Batak community and immediately thought of the football field in the Baré community of Nova Esperança in Brazil that we visited.) CNCH was less explored than the Amazonian reserve I was in, and so the trails were not as defined and were steep in some areas. It made for quite an adventure, though even beginners will be able to make it. (Be prepared for a good sweat!) A tip for those like me who are terrified of descents—when in doubt, just slide. I was very grateful to the CS staff and intern who helped me through my Descent Anxiety.

Entering the Batak community

 

A basketball court in the Batak community

Give Back + Adventure

There are terms to unpack in the phrase “Give Back Weekend Adventure”. Give back to whom? There is the Cleopatra’s Needle itself, a 41,350-hectare area that was recently declared a Critical Habitat, thanks to the staunch efforts of the Centre for Sustainability. It took four years to get this declaration, and not a moment too soon, as this ecosystem is under threat from, among other things, illegal quarrying and climate change.

More specifically, participants give back to the Batak community, which CS collaborates with on different projects so that their culture and livelihood are preserved. It was good to meet members of the community, such as the elders, chief, and families who were having a church gathering.

One of the highlights of the CNCH weekend was getting to know the Centre for Sustainability’s Almaciga project. The Alamaciga tree, whose resin makes it a cash crop for the Batak tribe, takes 30 years to mature. When its seeds disperse, it takes a trained eye to spot the tiny seedlings, which are then marked. Participants in this weekend adventure can help out by spotting the marked seedlings and removing dry leaves and other detritus so that they can grow optimally. This project helps establish an alternative livelihood for the Batak community.

Caring for an Almaciga seedling. Photo courtesy of Joni Andrea Ong

Another highlight was hiking towards Pulang Bato, a part of the Tayabag River that had red rocks due to a still-to-be-researched material. We stopped to have lunch and to swim in the river, and as we lay on the shore, it was relaxing to watch the different kinds of butterflies that flew on the other side, oblivious to us intruders, while we washed ourselves with organic bath products.

 

Ready, get set, give back! Behind us are the red rocks of Pulang Bato. Photo by Monique Buensalido

Clear waters of the Tayabag River

 

Conscious Hiking

As a supporter of indigenous rights and the environment and an avid (though very slow) hiker, it was wonderful to have an opportunity to combine two of my passions. While one will not save the rainforest in one weekend, being able to do some useful work for a legitimate long-term project while meeting like-minded people and being educated about an important part of the environment is definitely time well-spent. Importantly, conscious hiking habits are employed here, and we all picked up trash along the hike during the two days. We were tired after the trip, but it was the best kind of weariness. It was also a great time for ideation—when my fellow participants knew my intentions, we had a blast thinking about potential art projects. It was easy to do, as we were jaded urbanites that were briefly surrounded by so much nature.

Thinking about art while hiking with Solomon Calago of the Centre for Sustainability. Photo by Joni Andrea Ong

 

At camp! Photo by Joni Andrea Ong

 

Breakfast time! Photo by Joni Andrea Ong

 

Food is fuel. Photo by Joni Andrea Ong

 

New friends while hiking! Photo by Monique Buensalido

 

My feet needed some Nature Rx

Sustainability is one of my main artistic themes, and through my experience, I have learned that tourism can have positive and negative effects to the planet. Many ecosystems around the world face threats from human impacts, and it is a moral imperative to integrate sustainable practices as we travel. Personally, I have grown weary of going to high traffic beaches and touristy areas that encourage so much wasteful consumption; it’s time to look at other parts of the country that still gives us much to learn about the planet and about ourselves.

For more details, check out the website of Great Escapes PH, or find them on Facebook and Instagram.

With Joni Andrea Ong of Great Escapes Philippines

Thank you to Great Escapes Philippines, Centre for Sustainability PH, and The Superfood Grocer for supporting this trip!

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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.

This weekend, I hiked Mt. Pulag, the highest peak of Luzon and the third highest peak in the Philippines. I missed hiking; it was my first mountain in two years. It’s my second mountain in the Philippines and the first one I hiked in the dark on purpose. We started at 1 am and got to Peak #3 at around 5 am.

Some things I want to remember:

This sunrise! Korea, you know I love you and your mountain to bits, but I think Philippine mountains have you beat in this department.

The legendary Mt. Pulag sunrise

The legendary Mt. Pulag sunrise

I couldn’t help but reminisce about all the other mountains I hiked in Korea, especially since I was wearing the same outfit and shoes.

With the same hiking shoes I've used while hiking all of the mountains of Seoul

With the same hiking shoes I’ve used while hiking all of the mountains of Seoul

After seeing the sunrise, we hiked for another half hour to the summit, which was 2,922 meters above sea level. It was even higher than Hallasan, the highest peak in South Korea.

Me at the peak! I want to redesign this sign.

Me at the peak! I want to redesign this sign.

Here it was easier to see the famous sea of clouds that makes Mt. Pulag such a popular hiking destination.

The clouds over and around the Cordilleras

The clouds over and around the Cordilleras

The sea of clouds

The sea of clouds

I couldn’t resist doing a kick to send my taekwondo teachers back in Seoul. But alas, my arms were not ok and my back could be straighter. But hey, I hiked for 10 hours that day, so let’s all cut me some slack for today, ok? Ok.

My form is wrong. But hey, I tried.

My form is wrong. But hey, I tried.

It’s nice to be back on the mountains. I missed it so.

May no shopping mall ever befall you. God almighty.

May no shopping mall ever befall you. God almighty.

I was dressed for sailing. At least, that’s what I thought I was going to do when I jumped in the car with some friends early this Sunday morning on the way to the Manila Boat Club in Sta. Ana, Manila. “Boat” has a lot of variations, similar to “house” or “garden”. But it turns out we were going to be rowing. With oars. As a team. Oh dear.

It was a fascinating history lesson as I walked up to the second floor of the old building that served as the club’s headquarters. The organization started in 1895 and is the oldest club in Manila.

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Manila Boat Club

Though I was not dressed for the occasion, we only live once and so I got in. With my feet strapped to the boat, I held oars for the first time. In front of me was the president of the club, James, who regularly came to row. I had to follow his rhythm, which was a challenge since I barely knew what I was doing. It was quite mortifying to be clumsy at my first strokes, and I kept bumping my oars with his and my friend’s behind me.

The dock

The dock

With the coxswain (This is the first time I’ve ever had to use this word!) expertly and patiently guiding us, we rowed along the newly rehabilitated Pasig River, which is now a far cry from the toxic dump it used to be. As I learned how to row, I couldn’t help but remember my cybernetics studies in grad school, whose root word means “to steer”. One wrong move from anyone and the boat changed its intended course or we slowed down. The coxswain gave us corrections to set us back on the path. This is such a great metaphor for every project and exhibition I have ever been on.

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It was a beautiful Sunday morning.

The boat didn’t capsize. All in all, it was a win of a Sunday morning.

Thanks, Manila Boat Club! Check out their site here.

Lately, I’ve been doing research on Philippine art, so it was wonderful to spend a Tuesday afternoon with my dear friend Tiffany at Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo, about an hour outside Manila.

Right away, the details of the museum gave it a quaint Mediterranean and Philippine charm.

Such a cute bell!

Such a cute bell!

Beautiful colors

Beautiful colors

I love this spot

I love this spot

I really appreciated the art inside the cavernous halls, as well as the fact that it was wheelchair-accessible.

Beautiful gallery

Beautiful gallery

Lovely and wheelchair-accessible

Lovely and wheelchair-accessible

Oh if only I can live here, and write and make art all day.

Such a lovely windowsill

Such a lovely windowsill

I’ve been really interested in Philippine textiles lately, so this gallery of indigenous art was one of my favorites.

I love this gallery of Philippine indigenous art

I love this gallery of Philippine indigenous art

A rocking horse before sunset

A rocking horse before sunset

I love this spot: a meditation garden dedicated to the love of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal and Leonor Rivera.

Squeal! A meditation garden dedicated to the love between Jose Rizal and Leonor Rivera

Squeal! A meditation garden dedicated to the love between Jose Rizal and Leonor Rivera

Inside was an old-fashioned writing cabinet with the instructions to write a letter to The One Who Got Away. The letter should be placed in the cabinet undelivered. Then the person is instructed to move on with his life. I was so tempted to read the letters but I swear I didn’t touch them.

The instructions: Write a letter to the one who got away. Place it in the cabinet undelivered. Move on.

The instructions: Write a letter to the one who got away. Place it in the cabinet undelivered. Move on.

The museum was bigger than I thought. I didn’t have a clue where we were on the museum map.

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I feel like I’m back in Barcelona.

Thanks for a lovely time!

Pinto Art Museum

Pinto Art Museum

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.

The best thing after a particularly grueling hike (hello, Inwangsan!) is a cute note from the elderly guy who runs a pizza place with his wife across my street. After learning I was Filipino-Chinese, here is what I opened the box to:

Philippine / China Korea <3

The initials stand for:

Philippines / China
Korea

In barbecue sauce.

Aww, shucks. I love you back, Korea.