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[Seoul, South Korea] I’m happy to be back here in Seoul for a bit for some exhibitions and talks. One of those talks is in the interestingly named Emotion Engineering Department at Sangmyung University. Professor Jieun Kwon, my dear friend and fellow SVA graduate, warmly invited me to give a talk in her class and to observe the lab.

In the beginning of my afternoon in the program, I was impressed by a class assignment—the students had to draw diagrams about the definition of Service Design, and it was interesting to hear a design class in another language. Professor Kwon will be asking them to do another one at the end of the term so they can observe the difference and witness the breadth of what they have learned.

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They gave me a tour of the Emotion Engineering lab. We played with a Star Wars game that uses brain waves. Here we had to make the ball rise to the top.

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I took a few minutes to successfully do so—I thought my brain died—and Professor Kwon was a lot faster than me.

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Afterwards, I gave an artist talk about my background and how I came to do my projects on art and science.

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I’m really happy to be back in Korea; I have, as you know, a lot of great memories from this place and it’s great to be meeting new people. I think it’s fantastic how art, science, and technology are explored in different countries around the world, and how collaborations bring about the coolest projects.

Sangmyung University's Emotion Engineering program with Professor Jieun Kwon

Sangmyung University’s Emotion Engineering program with Professor Jieun Kwon

Warm thanks to Dr. Kwon and her class at the Sangmyung University’s Emotion Engineering program for hosting me!

 

The first step out into the real world is a fight for your dreams.

In the past weeks, I’ve received emails and had subsequent conversations with some prospective SVA IxD students. What was it like? How has it impacted me? What am I doing now? It’s only been four months since I moved away from New York City (although it feels like a few years already) and there are things I did not have time to tell them because, oh I don’t know, we were busy discussing the classes and the teachers and the lovely donuts and the Prosecco and what was awesome and what was not.

Perhaps one of the most important questions they haven’t asked yet, or were afraid to, was one about fear. I don’t blame them. Shouldn’t an MFA make one feel invincible, as though getting through two years of grueling work and critique from the best in the industry gave you immunity for the toil and turbulence that comes next?

Eh, no. An MFA is but a tool, not an end. So here are some personal (i.e not one-size-fits-all) thoughts about what happens after you shake David Rhodes’ hand onstage at Radio City Music Hall:

The biggest fear after graduate school is that one will no longer be able to do what she loves. In the first few months after graduating from SVA, at least after the chaos of saying goodbye and moving camp (again) halfway around the world, I was filled with the choking feeling of dread. It was fun playing the nomad for a few years, but once again, one goal was fulfilled and I had to give myself another one. But which?

I was (and still am) terrified of losing momentum, that I’d be stuck doing a primarily administrative job for the thing I loved instead of doing the thing I actually loved. There is quite an ocean of a difference. I think in addition to what you want to do, it’s also important to determine how you will be doing it. It also matters for whom you will be doing it.

I am extremely grateful for unexpected kindness. I am writing this post from the wifi-equipped living room of a dear friend who has generously loaned his space to me (as well as many other artists and friends before me). It feels like a co-working studio, complete with two dogs. I just replied to an email from a curator of one of my favorite museums who has always listened to my ideas and made as much room for my work as she could since the day we met a few months ago. The other day, I said happy birthday to an editor who several weeks ago very kindly agreed to let me write for her section of the newspaper as long as she had space. Two mentors have taken time out of their extremely busy schedules and have been sending recommendation letters on my behalf to prospective opportunities. I am still producing new work and continuing old ones. I seek out potential collaborators every single day. For one who doesn’t have a full-time job yet, there is hope, you all.

I really pick who I work for. By now, I realize that when I don’t like the project (or the client), the work doesn’t end up to be something I’m proud of. While I still like doing commercial projects (you do get some cool ones!), I hope I won’t forget about asking people to draw what makes them happy, draw on clouds, smell memories, eat poems, and hug each other. And other projects that are currently in the works. Those are the ones that make me feel like the world was still magical.

There are times when I do see life as a taekwondo match. No, really. You bounce around, jump forwards and backwards, and throw a kick when you find an opening. You are not kicking every single second and getting exhausted for no good reason*. A creative life feels that way sometimes—each time I do a project, I use up energy that gets less easily replaced the older I get.  And so I try to reserve the best of my creative arsenal for work I really love. Creativity is boundless, but I am a finite being, and so with that comes a  heightened perception of time.

(*Although outside competing, it’s awesome to train just … because.)

Admittedly, my candor has been both an asset and liability each time I shamelessly cold email someone with a more formal and polite version of “Hello! May I please meet you?” I’m still invited to speak about and share my work. (Hurray!) Sometimes people don’t call me back, like, ever. (Oh, boo.) But for each interaction, I am extremely alert to subtext. Many times, when I directly ask people who have jobs with awesome-sounding titles, who have to spend most of their days in meetings and other things they might not necessarily love, I do get the sense that if life gave them another choice, they would take it.

I am still learning every day. The letters MFA are not an end to my education. Just this week, I’ve devoured books and online resources about marine conservation and aviation—topics we never discussed at SVA but are things I was curious about. By now, I suppose few things surprise me anymore. Ten years ago I thought I would end up with a PhD in cancer biology and have a stuffy career in academia parroting what textbooks had to say but instead things got happily crazy.

As I wrote before, I never went to grad school so I could get a “respectable 9-5 job” afterwards. I wanted to explore and to do things I never thought I would do, but I didn’t want that intellectual and creative freedom to end. Ever. Yes, while graduate school challenged me, it wasn’t any different than how I was already challenging myself before that. People have different feelings about school, especially about doing a thesis, but I’ll say it: I loved doing all my thesis projects and I would do a thesis every freaking year if I could.

And you know what? I will. And I am.

But I can’t for the life of me see what’s going to happen within the next year or so. Each tomorrow is cloaked in fog, and I can only see the next few steps, and afterwards, nothing.

And so for those who wanted to ask, but haven’t yet, let me correct my earlier statement:

Every step out into the real world is a fight for your dreams.

For SVA IxD’s Class of 2013, who are neck-deep in thesis (you can do it!), and for myself, when I feel like giving up. 

What graduate school, TEDx, and speaking up have taught me about creativity, empathy, and the ego

Lessons on Creativity from TEDx and Grad School, page G4, Learning section, Philippine Daily Inquirer.

There are many types of makers, but alas, I am a reclusive one. My dream house will likely resemble the Bat Cave, with wifi and a martial arts room. I can work in yoga or taekwondo pants the whole week. I have gone for days without speaking to a soul.

The agony of the Powerpoint

In the School of Visual Arts, where I attended graduate school, I was notorious for taking over the back room, where I would spend hours working on projects. Occasionally, I would come out, corner one of my colleagues, and squeal, “Guess what I made?” One of them said I was like a crazy scientist.

I grew up loathing Powerpoint presentations. And so it wasn’t without biblical agony that we had to keep giving them in all my classes at SVA.

In the beginning, my slides were admittedly very simple. Coming from a very scientific upbringing, I grew up thinking that presentation was secondary.

Slides as currency

But like it or not, slides and videos are the currency of today’s digital world. It is, according to a friend of mine, a way to figure out what is going through my head, so that one does not exist in a vacuum.

Graduate school is an exercise in, among other things, humility. And so I sucked it up and improved myself, one Powerpoint presentation at a time. I concentrated on making my images pretty and my fonts well thought out. One time, my classmate Benjamin sat me down and made me redo all my slides for a final project in class. It was late in the evening, but I gritted my teeth, silently wished him evil thoughts, and worked on the feedback that he gave.

Taking feedback

Speaking in public was also an ordeal I learned to get over. Graduate school critiques tend to be overly, well, critical and skeptical, as they are supposed to. It’s easy to be wounded by comments from your professors and classmates who just want your projects to reach their full potential. I learned to take feedback with a grain of salt, listening politely and acting on the things I agreed with and ignoring those I didn’t.

Pay-offs

Towards the end of the two years, I realized something. I actually like giving talks. Because my work tends to be interactive, each presentation I give leads to the audience doing something. I have hugged people, drawn on clouds, recited poetry, and fed people candy on many different occasions. It’s quite fun.

I also learned to be able to do these talks under extreme stress. Right after my thesis defense, I had to hop on a train to Connecticut to speak at TEDxNewHaven the very next day. It was a test of not passing out and still looking alive and peppy, since I had four talks to give throughout the day. One of my fellow speakers told me that she thought I was very brave, “having four interactive talks while I have one memorized talk.” “Oh sweetie, if you only knew I was dying inside,” I said silently through my frozen smile.

Presos as performance

A slide presentation is just like theater. The audience matters just as much as your talk. The times when I felt most alive while clicking through a Powerpoint were when the audience was warm and receptive. I would feel joyous when I saw that my work, which I did primarily out of curiosity, actually touched another human being. I learned that I didn’t have to talk as though I were on a home TV shopping channel, and that I can engage the audience in an actual meaningful conversation. Slowly, I finally got out of my hermetic shell.

Finally, it is important to involve your friends. I think that 80% of the work should be done before you even go onstage, and my friends have always been silently in the background. Thankfully, I have friends who know more about styling one’s hair and clothes than I do, and this will likely be something I will always entrust to them.

I suppose my department at SVA was relieved when I finally switched fully to a Mac, using Keynote instead of Powerpoint. (Actually, I am, too!)

But I still hate using flashy animations.

For everyone who has helped, listened, and critiqued. 

An edited version of this essay appeared as “Lessons in Creativity from TEDx, grad school,” on page G4 of the Learning section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 3 September 2012. It also appears in its online edition on 2 September 2012 here

Last May 10th, my class and I finally marched (!) on stage, culminating two years of graduate work here at the MFA program in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts.

Our commencement speaker was the incomparable Laurie Anderson, experimental musician, composer, performance artist, and inventor, among other hats she wears. During her speech, she recounted her time as NASA’s first artist-in-residence and recalled how she was also the last one, after a politician sought to amend a bill making sure no such thing happened in the future. Anderson suggested that really, we should create artist-in-residence positions in institutions such as NASA, Congress, and other such places, which generated applause and laughter from the audience.

Laurie Anderson. Image via The Guardian.

It’s strange to be listening about art when I spent two years studying to be a designer. I have always questioned my artistic leanings, especially coming from a scientific background. I am and will always be immensely grateful for my geeky past (and who am I kidding, present), although from my experience in that world, to want to be in the arts was almost tantamount to self-banishment.  Thinking about the past six years out of undergrad—all the cancer lab rotations at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, art school in Spain, the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona—and frankly, I have to ask myself whether I actually have found what I’m looking for in a design program. And to a large extent, I did in interaction design. I always thought it was a way to humanize the sciences and the arts, which thankfully doesn’t always have to translate to something on screen. Two years in a design program have found me to be stubbornly conceptual, not because I wanted to upset my class but because that’s what I came to graduate school for. I think that if I do work for a company, I will probably spend all my waking hours designing apps and websites, and I have all the time in the world to do that.

So what is the use of an artist? After being immersed in interaction design for two years, I think that IxD shares an important thing with the arts—empathy. To be an artist, at least for me, requires me to place myself in different shoes and absorb various identities. The same is true as an interaction designer. Perhaps one thing that has been enormously helpful to be a practicing artist is the familiarity of actually inhabiting a character instead of simply watching people from afar, taking down notes.

To be an artist is to challenge the norm. While it’s wonderful to design apps and websites, it’s not the first thing I turn to when trying to give form to a project. Ironically, I do not own a smartphone, which will probably give most interaction designers a heart attack. No smartphone? What do you do when figuring out a bill, trying to find a place, or bored in a subway? Well, I try to do the algebra by hand, I talk to strangers a lot, and I write and doodle in a sketchbook constantly. It’s not a perfect system but it is a cheaper and more entertaining one. I think that we are more than our gadgets, and I think that an artistic practice allows one to experiment not just with what is, but what could be.

But more importantly, at least for me, artists are always questioning the self. Art will never lose its relevance, particularly in a time that is rife with uncertainty, though as I get older, I think each year in human history is tumultuous and unstable. On a personal scale, art allows for the exploration of selfhood in a manner that is less contained. I suppose that’s why I keep hearing of the banker who finally turned to painting, or the lawyer who is now a musician. As a scientist (I’m still wondering if I can call myself this), there are certain terminologies and protocols I have had to use for the scientific institution to understand where I am coming from. As an interaction designer, I do feel sometimes limited (although “limited” isn’t always a bad thing) by the words I have to use (hello, “user”) and the media by which I practice (wireframes and sticky notes). As an artist, I am moored to no such arbitrary islands; I can easily experiment with musical instruments as much as kitchen appliances and be equally at home with both of them

But enough with all this labeling. As I leave the comforts of school—though my classmates and my teachers alike are betting I’ll go for a PhD eventually—I would like to embrace the hyphen the comes when saying that one is a writer-artist-interaction designer-etc. I sometimes cringe when I’m only referred to as one of these, because to seemingly pledge allegiance to one field may appear as though one is relinquishing all her other interests. And wouldn’t that be such a shame.

Laurie Anderson with a pillow speaker in her mouth

But back to the red landscape of graduation at Radio City Music Hall and the blinding strobe lights. My favorite part of Anderson’s speech was the finale, when she stuffed a pillow speaker in her mouth and proceeded to sing to us for quite a long period of time with a sound that resembled Darth Vader’s voice, waking up even those who were dozing off. Afterwards, the school gave her an honorary doctorate. Lady, I just adore you.