Tag Archives: senses

Tvergastein Issue 14: The Arts and the Environment. Image by cChange


[OSLO]—Dr. Karen O’Brien and Nicole Schafenacker, editors of the cli-fi anthology “Our Entangled Future” write about the book in the Oslo-based journal, Tvergastein, for Issue #14, Art & Environment! “Can climate fiction help us engage with a new paradigm for social change?”. Read the issue for free here.

p. 82
For example, author and artist Catherine Sarah Young describes her approach to The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store as follows: “I use the abstract yet scientific relationship between scent and memory as a way for humans to redefine their relationship between scent and memory as a way for humans to redefine their relationship with nature through remembering their personal histories and reinforcing their identities, which can facilitate quantum social change.”

p. 82-83
The stories in Our Entangled Future explore characters who connect with reality through non-linear time, collective consciousness, and multi species sentience….Emilia, the main character in Young’s short story, The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store, is a perfumer with a keen sense of smell — which is, in fact, considered by some biologists to be an example fo a quantum phenomenon (McFadden and Al-Khalili 2016). Her sense of smell provides her with important information when she meets a trespassing strange — a hulk of a man who could easily overpower her: “She sniffed the air and smelled his fear”. Together, these short stories suggest that we are entangled through our senses, experiences, and consciousness. .

Thanks, guys! Virtual hugs from Sydney!

This November I find myself in Seoul for the Bio-Art Seoul 2015 Conference. It’s great to be back here in Korea, which is turning into a yearly homecoming of a sort. Annyunghaseyo!

For my bit in the show, I presented the second volume of The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store. There were eight new scents I debuted here. The line was called “A Walk Home” and it was based on the scents of my childhood in the Philippines. These olfactory memories were especially potent when I moved to Manila last year after ten years of being away.


The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store Volume 2: A Walk Home

The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store Volume 2: A Walk Home

The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store: A Walk Home has these eight scents: Recess, A Chinese Apothecary, Time with My Mom, Swimming Lessons, Wild Grass, Manila Sunsets, Carnival, and Moments of Solitude.

Oh you kids. <3

Oh you kids. ❤

During the exhibition, it was fun to see families smell the perfumes. My favorite part was when I saw the little kids trying them on, especially the really small ones who had to tiptoe to reach the bottles. It was so cute when one group of little boys gathered around, each taking a bottle, and sprayed it on himself. (I pity the ones who got the perfumes marked “Recess” and “A Chinese Apothecary”.)


Some of my favorite target audience.


Sometimes, reactions to my work are polarized. LIke so. (I hope the kid on the right is ok.)

Sometimes, reactions to my work are polarized. LIke so. (I hope the kid on the right is ok.)

And now, a cathartic release by writing about an embarrassing moment. It was the exhibition opening, and man, I was so excited to do my first Korean ribbon cutting—complete with the white gloves and golden scissors, yo! I was nervous to cut it in advance like I’ve seen people do when what I should have been worried about was not catching the darn things after you snip them.

My first Korean ribbon cutting ceremony! How exciting!

My first Korean ribbon cutting ceremony! How exciting!

I’m the sad chick second from left with the pile of ribbons on the floor. Sigh. No one ever tells me these things. Hmph.

Epic fail.

“Oh sh*t” was the first thought that entered my head. Epic fail.

For the record, I still think it’s a lot cooler to let everything dramatically fall to the floor. Hello. It’s a grand opening. Just kidding.

Artist Talk: Wet Media Conference

In Sogang University’s Department Art and Technology, artists (including yours truly) gave talks on their work. My talk, entitled “Living SciFi: Bio-Art and our Futures” drew on my journey through science, art, and design, ending with the show at the Institute for the Future and what I’ve learned here so far.

It was also great to meet some bio-artists. Personally, I identify more with the terms “conceptual artist” and “sci-art” since I currently work with so many different fields of sciences and haven’t stuck to just one, so it was great to learn from these guys, especially those whose work I’ve heard so much about. Mad props to Anna Dumitriu, Vicky Isley and Paul Smith of boredomresearch, Sonja Baeumel, Roberta Trentin, etc. It was cool to meet you guys!

Workshop: Making Smells of Perfumes

You know I'm in Korea when I'm doing a lecture in my hiking clothes.

You know I’m in Korea when I’m doing a lecture in my hiking clothes.

A week after the opening, I also did a perfumery workshop with some high school and university students in Korea. There was a group of biology students that were accompanied by their teacher. In the beginning, the students participated in my olfactory memory experiment where they were given mystery smells and then were asked to recall the memory that came to mind.

The students did my smell memory experiment where I gave them mystery smells to sniff and asked them to recall the memory that came to mind.

The students did my smell memory experiment where I gave them mystery smells to sniff and asked them to recall the memory that came to mind.

Later, I asked them to do a Smell Walk and gather objects from nature that they want to make a perfume of. We distilled essential oils and also used some from my own collection of essential oils. It was exciting as one distillation flask caught fire (the kids put it out in time and no one was hurt).

The students took a Smell Walk and gathered fragrant objects from nature.

The students took a Smell Walk and gathered fragrant objects from nature.


The haul from the Smell Walk

The haul from the Smell Walk


Gathering fragrant things in nature

Gathering fragrant things in nature


Mashing things up for distillation

Mashing things up for distillation


A simple DIY distillation set-up

A simple DIY distillation set-up


Whattup, Korea!

Whattup, Korea!

I loved that one of the museum staff participated and insisted on making a banana-flavored perfume. He was a fun student. For the record, I insisted that he tuck his tie so it wouldn’t catch fire.

This museum staff member joined our workshop and he made a banana perfume.

This museum staff member joined our workshop and he made a banana perfume.

After the distillation, I also got them to create perfumes using the commercial essential oils I have in my personal collection.

Day 2: I was back in my apocalypse suit. Ole!

Day 2: I was back in my apocalypse suit. Ole!


Making perfumes


Another experience of making a perfume using commercial essential oils

Another experience of making a perfume using commercial essential oils

I gave them Apocalypse Project Commander badges as a reward for all their hard work. Thanks, guys!

Apocalypse Project Commander badges for everyone! Whee!

Apocalypse Project Commander badges for everyone! Whee!

Aaaannnd that’s officially it for me for 2015. No more exhibitions, talks, workshops, interviews, etc. for the rest of the year. I’ll be in Seoul until November 29th reflecting on the year that was and what to do next. You know I’m not a big fan of this part. A bit of Korean hiking should knock me to my senses. Are you in town? Come join me!

Many thanks to Bio-Art Seoul 2015, Biocon, Seoulin Bioscience Co., and Digital Art Weeks International. Thank you especially to Dr. Sunghoon Kim and Helen Kwak!



[Manila, Philippines]—Hey everyone! The third edition of The Hug Vest is now in The Mind Museum in Manila. This changes from black to seaglass green when touched. Check it out (in both adult and kid sizes) and give a willing volunteer a big hug!

The Hug Vest 3.0

The Hug Vest 3.0

The Hug Vest 3.0

The Hug Vest 3.0

My talks from TEDxNewHaven last year are up online. A big thank you again to Sunnie and Mario and the rest of their team!

TEDxNewHaven, April 2012, The Art and Science of Happiness

1. Start a Hugging Revolution

2. The Sky as a Canvas for Creativity

3. The Memory of Smell

4. Happiness and the Senses

Blog posts about the production process
* Sense kit production process here
* My thoughts on the event here

Past and future talks will be archived on the Talks page from the menu.

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

This Sunday, September 23rd, I’ll be presenting this project together with my other sense projects at The Mind Museum in Taguig, Manila. I absolutely LOVE this museum—its exhibits, staff, and spaceship-like architecture— so if you’re in the area, hope to see you there! There are two other speakers in the afternoon: Alex Hornstein who just launched a successful Kickstarter project, The Solar Pocket Factory, and Dr. Jerrold Garcia, a physicist who asks, “Why are we so afraid of science?”


I also have to remember that in Manila, people call me “Cathy.” It’s so strange. I’ve been “Catherine” and “Cat” for so long. (There was an anchorwoman named Cathy Yang years ago; I suppose that’s why “Cathy Young” is easier to remember.) So you know, this is still me:


Book tickets at Hope to see you!

Over the years, I’ve come to be wary of labels. In past lives, I have been identified as “the scientist who writes,” “the artist who does science,” “the designer who’s an artist,” and a lot of other ostracizing phrases. These words, I have felt, have caused more exclusion than inclusion, and has served to contain a person’s identity into one silly box as dictated by someone else. Isn’t each world enriched by the knowledge of the other?

My mother was a genetics professor in a family of painters and photographers; thus I had childhood diet of Punnett squares and DNA sequences, and would often smell formaldehyde on Mom when her students learned about Mendelian genetics through crossing flies. (Her students secretly called her the Drosophila Queen). My summers were always spent in art school and piano lessons. I ended up doing my degree in molecular biology and biotech while working as a correspondent for a national newspaper. In between PCR reactions, dissections, and other tedious experiments, I would take photographs, write, and make. Later, doing art in Barcelona made me miss the lab; I would often always show work that had a scientific slant of some sort, which puzzled some of my colleagues. Even the poetry I was writing was geeky.

Why these two? I’ve often looked at things with wonder, and thought that artists and scientists pursued their paths with the same curiosity.  I realized that I wouldn’t have one without the other; I could not choose between two halves of myself*. I loved the rigor of science; to be able to discover things and arrive at exact answers. I also loved the looseness and profundity of the arts; it allowed me a lot of time and opportunities to play. Doing science alone was too tedious; doing solely art felt like I was floating aimlessly. At the same time, I found that many of the questions I was fascinated with were investigated by artists and scientists alike; it came to the point where it was difficult to tell where the boundaries lay.

(*That line feels familiar. I believe I am quoting Remy from Ratatouille. Yes, a rat.)

Remy from Ratatouille. Copyright Pixar.

Admittedly, in the beginning of doing an MFA in Interaction Design, I had the notion that my own Venn Diagram of Personal Beliefs and Interests, which only had two circles…

…would look like this after an MFA, adding design to it, because good things come in threes:

But now as nearly two years have passed and I inch slowly towards graduation, I find myself thinking that this is my point of view of Art, Science, and Design as I have used them, based on the common themes of what I have done so far:

I think that up to this point, I have used design to contain the concepts and questions I have grappled with in art and in science. Things like “What makes you happy?” or “What do clouds look like?” or “What do you remember in a smell?” are questions that have both scientific and artistic facets to them, albeit in varying degrees. When I think about design in this way, I’m really happy that I chose interaction design as the third thing I wanted to study. Art and science are always the two broad areas that interested me, but it was design that allowed me to see how I can articulate these concepts to others. More importantly, design is a way for me to get other people to participate in what I do. I don’t think this makes one field better than the other; but it reminds me which hat I have to put on and which language I have to speak depending on where and when I am.

I think this why I’ve struggled (i.e. drowned in ennui) with making things that are purely utilitarian. Design without the poetry of art and science at its core feels hollow and flat. I don’t think I will ever be truly happy by making living out of making things less inconvenient, or by satisfying people who just want to make more money—it seems like the stuff midlife crises are made of. It’s not that they aren’t important, because they are. It’s just that my happiest ideas and moments have been borne out of uncomfortable situations—getting the flu, waiting for hours in line, being stood up by someone. But I have always tried to make the best of them—I fill sketchbooks from cover to cover, I scribble poetry on napkins, I talk to a lot of strangers. I think that if everything were to run too smoothly for me, my life would be dull and flat, and I would never have had the happy accidents that have led to all these amazing opportunities and adventures.

This reminds me of a pivotal conversation I had with one of my classmates, who said that I had to create a bridge between my mind and the mind of my audience.  This led to my joke about “brainbows“—a rainbow bridge between the mind of an artist (or scientist) and those whom they want to connect with. In art and in science, I usually worked by myself, secluded and uncaring about what other people thought. To care too much about other people was seen as a disadvantage if you wanted to do something authentic and brilliant.

But in design, it is imperative to care about other people, perhaps not everyone, but at least the user, the participant, or whatever word you wish to refer to the person you are designing for. And I think this is probably the best thing I have learned in the two years I have been in graduate school: to know how I can make my ideas as an artist or scientist accessible to everyone. The invisible walls I’ve seen that made art and science too abstruse and irrelevant to many are broken down by design, making these concepts available, relevant, and malleable by all, regardless of gender, language, education, and culture. And because of this, I like to think design creates bridges that people can walk on, so that they can allow the experience to be a part of their lives, thus enriching them. I’m hoping I will able to do that by posing simple, universal questions, and by coming from the point of view of joy and actual human contact, which I think is common for everyone, regardless of whether you have an MFA, or a PhD, or an MD, or no letters at all.

Part of writing this is because I have been perusing journals from five years ago, and man, one knows how much she’s grown when, upon reading, she alternates between “Aww” and “Yikes!” I’ve done the painful and hilarious rereading of events—I went through quite a blur of taekwondo belt tests, French classes, and mammalian dissections—back in the day when I still ate red meat and wrote on notebooks with lines. (I’ve since gone pescetarian, finally with a black belt, and now go for the blank Moleskines. Hurray for all of it.) I smiled when I saw familiar things—one of my earlier (and forgotten) entries in 2007 was entitled “Celebrating the Senses”—some things just persist from youth, I suppose.

I wonder then, if my future self would challenge this current view. Just as I am alternately charmed and exasperated at the naïveté of my 23-year-old self, perhaps my future self would read this post and smile knowingly at all the things she has yet to learn. Perhaps when we look at the totality of all our different identities, we will find that we are all of those things and none of those things at the same time.

And I think, isn’t that marvelous.