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

 

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”.)

kids

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!

SAMSUNG CSC

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!

 

 

In the middle of researching for smells for The Apocalypse Project, I came across Sifr Aromatics, an independent niche perfumery located on Arab Street in Singapore.

Oh true apothecary! Johari Kazura of Sifr Aromatics

Oh true apothecary! Johari Kazura of Sifr Aromatics

Mr. Kazura is a third generation perfume maker. He learned the business on the job, and also took some courses in Grasse, the perfume capital of the world. Perusing his shop, I came across all the books I read during the time I was doing some of my graduate school projects on smell. His store is a beautiful cornucopia of beautiful Eqyptian bottles, as well as antiques.

DSC09170

 

Thanks to the store, I finally came up with a list of smells for relaxation for The Apocalypse Project. You know, when that time comes when we have to evacuate climate change disaster areas and people are panicking. The list includes lavender and lemon. Rose was a good candidate, too, however, it’s too expensive and thus not a practical choice. Peppermint was added to the list because it promotes alertness.

DSC09171

Sifr is Arabic for “zero.” Johari says that in perfumery, “You start with nothing … you are a blank slate … and then later you end up with something.” And that something, smell, permeates.

Sifr is located at 42 Arab Street. Contact Johari Kazura at info@sifr.sg and visit their website here. Many thanks to Mr. Kazura and Hanz Monifiero Medina for all the help!

Perhaps as a welcome to living this near to the equator, I contracted a tropical bacterial infection during my first month in Singapore. This resulted to three weeks of congestion and mucus. There were a lot of very embarrassing social situations and a consistent need for tissues. But the most awful thing about it was the fact that I lost my sense of smell. This is absolutely catastrophic for someone who studies perception. For one who once tested the link between smell and memories. For one who made an olfactory memoir. For one who can tell cities apart by smells.

The medical term for this is anosmia. (Check this video and article on NYTimes.com for people who permanently lost their sense of smell or were born without it.)

If anything, I am grateful it only lasted a few weeks. There is nothing like valuing something more when you’ve temporarily lost it. To make it a learning experience, I pretended my anosmia was an experiment.

So, how was life without my sense of smell?

The smallest activities were voided of their pleasures. I could not smell the mint on my toothpaste, the citrus crispness of a sliced lemon, the aroma of coffee, the freshness of new bedsheets. Perfume, which was a daily habit and a mood booster, became unnecessary. Each object blurred into the next, unclearly defined.

Without smell, I was unable to detect the orange juice spilling on the opaque countertop. I could not gauge the weather, because I could no longer the smell rain or heat through the window. My days lost a dimension—like the difference between experiencing a movie on a bad screen and in HD. Life became very dull; a mere shadow of its former self. It was then that I realized that in many ways, we can smell movement, and therefore stories. Smell made things more real.

Our senses of smell and taste are related. And so without smell, I couldn’t taste anything either, apart from being able to determine if a dish was sweet, sour, salty or bitter, more or less. This robbed me of the joys of eating. I ate a lot of spicy food, mainly to clear my congested sinuses and because most of the time, spiciness that was the only thing that registered.

On a less depressing note, I learned to better appreciate the texture of food. And because I could not taste anything, I stopped eating food that was unhealthy. I don’t recall a time in my life when I ate less chocolate. Or drank less coffee. Because really, what was the point? I may have lost a couple of pounds, but I was unhappy.

There were other minor benefits, I suppose. The delight and wonder of things faded, but so did their disagreeableness. I thought it was great not to be able to smell smoke or public toilets.  In the gym, in taekwondo class, in crowded subways, I could not be offended by body odor. Hurray!

However, not being able to smell noxious substances is dangerous. It is what tells us if there is a gas leak or if our food has spoiled. And another problem with not smelling is that while nothing and no one stinks,  you don’t know if you do.

Eventually, as my colleagues told me that my cold was probably an infection, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a dose of antibiotics. As the medicine kicked in and I became better, my sense of smell started to come in short spurts, probably analogous to a blind person seeing flashes of light. Whoa, that basket of fruit actually registered. Oh my, cornflakes tasted like cornflakes. I can smell my shampoo again.

Having my sense of smell come back to me was like getting out of a bubble. I realized that like smell made me a part of my environment because I could breathe it into myself and establish a continuity with the world. Slowly, I felt more alive. I had never been so overjoyed to smell garbage again.

 

P.S. Huge thanks to the awesome staff of the University Health Center of the National University of Singapore, who took me in past closing time last Friday when they realized I was close to passing out. Kudos!

It’s post-exhibition at the International Sculpture Festa 2013 in Seoul. While installing my exhibit took hours, taking it down last Wednesday took a mere 30 minutes. Here was how it looked:

Oh hey, you.

Oh hey, you.

I exhibited four pieces:

1. Seoul37

This is the main project I’m doing in my residency at the National Art Studio in Korea. This country has quite a lot of mountains, and they have been its foundation. Despite Korea, especially Seoul, changing so much in the past centuries, these mountains have withstood the test of time. I became fascinated with them (there’s quite a strong hiking culture here), and, upon learning that there are 37 mountains (or hills) in Seoul, decided to hike them all. Yes, ALL. I track each hike with a smartphone app and borrow a jar of soil. During our exhibition here at the National Art Studio, I will invite people to plant using these soil samples I have collected, and will ask 37 volunteers to plant them back to the mountains.

An earlier image of the piece

An earlier image of the piece

I was about midway through the hikes, and exhibited 18 soil samples, with 19 empty jars to show the ones I still have to hike. (As of this writing, I have hiked 27 mountains and nearly died from two.) More information to follow, and no, I don’t usually exhibit things that are not finished, but here I wanted to ask for future participation. I’m very happy that Seoulites seem interested in signing up (I posted a sign-up sheet beside the piece and so many emails were written on it.)

I... whoa! I'm speechless. Thanks, everyone!

I… whoa! I’m speechless. Thanks, everyone!

2. The Smell Wall

I glued twelve squares of different smells on the wall and invited people to smell them. It looked almost invisible, but I suppose that’s the point.

Can you see twelve squares?

Can you see twelve squares?

3. Mondrian Hopscotch II

I made another interactive hopscotch board that would fit my exhibition space. I loved seeing people, especially children, jump on it. On May 5th, which was Children’s Day, it was incredibly rewarding seeing parents with their dressed-up children playing with it. Aww!

Cutie on the board!

Cutie on the board!

It’s quite fun having to write down instructions for every piece.

Art with instructions.

Art with instructions.

4. The Hug Vest

This is a vest made of thermochromic fabric that changes from purple to blue when you touch it. This feels a bit vintage to me now, since this was designed during my grad school years. However, people always get a kick out of seeing it change when it’s touched. Oh, the history this vest has had—from the nights in SVA IxD, to the conferences and lectures, to me using it on the streets of New York as protection from the cold that week when I was freezing and desperate, to being exhibited here in Seoul. This never gets old.

Hugging! With my friends Hyomin and Amy in the background.

Hugging! With my friends Hyomin and Amy in the background.

My friends were laughing at the phrase “willing volunteer.”

"Willing" being the operative word.

“Willing” being the operative word.

Very happy to have my friends there:

Group hug!

Group hug!

Thanks for coming, unni! <3

Thanks for coming, unni! ❤

Fun times. Now back to work.

In the wonderful If There Ever Was: A Book of Extinct and Impossible Smells, Robert Blackson commissioned some of the “finest noses in fragrance production” to design accords of things that were absent. For instance, smells of Hiroshima (inspired by the vibration of the atomic blast), surrender (as manifested through incense, which was burned as an indication of defeat in ancient Egypt), the space station Mir, and the sun, become blank pages of olfactory fascination. One of my favorite smell artists, Sissel Tolaas, created the scent of communism.

If There Ever Was: A Book of Extinct and Impossible Smells by Robert Blackson. Image via Amazon.uk

Currently, I think smell is, for lack of a better word, “trending” in design. Consider Tolaas’ work in MoMA’s Talk to Me exhibition last year, the delightful Olly by Mint Digital, or the slew of smell sensors that are or will be available on the market. And not a moment too soon for one of our most visceral and powerful senses. Blackson writes:

“Smell is an unlikely subject in the aesthetic discourse of contemporary art. The tendency to exclude our sense of smell from philosophical and art historical discussions began in the Age of Enlightenment. It was then that philosophers such as Kant and Descartes argued for the power of vision over our ‘lesser’ senses. These thoughts were further reflected in scientific advancements such as Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough that germs rather than miasma (foul stenches) were the carriers of disease.”

Thanks to designer Nikki Sylianteng who lent me this awesome book.