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Dismantling the Apocalypse: Speculative Futures in Pandemic Times

June 10, 2020: For the FuturesX series of Speculative Futures Bangkok, I was invited to do an online talk on my work in the context of these pandemic times:

𝗙𝘂𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲𝘀𝗫 𝘀𝗲𝗿𝗶𝗲𝘀

How can we use speculative futures to think about systems and enterprise in the COVID-19 era? In this part-science, part-art, part-design talk, Catherine Sarah Young elaborates on her experimental practice that explores our environmental and collective futures, and how using a systems-led way of thinking and global perspectives can help shape the new world emerging from the pandemic.

My favorite thing about today aside from talking art, science, design, and taekwondo: finally being able to do my first acknowledgement of country as this is my first talk in Australia: I am on Gadigal Land of the Eora Nation, traditional custodians of this land. I pay my respects to elders past, present, and future.

Drawing from my martial arts experience, I also talk about how dismantling the apocalypse is a way of life and how we should train for this for the foreseeable future:

Dismantling the apocalypse is a way of life. Let’s train!

Thanks, Speculative Futures Bangkok!

This week, I got my holiday presents done. Since most of my friends are scattered worldwide, I decided that origami was the way to go—I can ship them flat. This year’s creation: Santa on a Velociraptor:

My fleet of Santas and velociraptors is complete.

My fleet of Santas and velociraptors is complete.

Ho, ho, ho…RAHR!

Ho, ho, ho... RAHR!

Ho, ho, ho… RAHR!

I also folded a lot of butterflies for those who might not get my sense of humor.

And more traditional butterflies for a safer choice.

And more traditional butterflies for a safer choice.

And finally, black belt Santas for my taekwondo brethren.

TAEKWONSANTAS. yeah!

TAEKWONSANTAS. yeah!

Happy holidays!

On my last day in Korea, I took my second pilgrimage to Kukkiwon, World Taekwondo Headquarters. I’m kidding about the pilgrimage; I wanted to go shopping in the taekwondo stores on the way. At Kukkiwon, it was amazing to see a class in progress. Look: adults! People my height, if not taller!

A class in Kukkiwon

A class in Kukkiwon

Round the corner from the gym and above the cafeteria, I walked up to the Kukkiwon Museum, which was closed the last time I was there. It was fascinating to see all this memorabilia from competitions around the world.

Check out this championship cup from Nepal:

An early championship cup.

An early championship cup.

It was interesting to brush up on taekwondo graphic design:

Old posters

Old posters

And look at this old hogu made of bamboo:

An old hogu made of bamboo

An old hogu made of bamboo

There were some posters from championships in Manila:

More graphic design from Manila

More graphic design from Manila

I’m remembering my first pilgrimage here.

 

The most hilarious moment during my weekend, a summer camp with the kids from my taekwondo class in Daehyeon Beach in Boryeong, was this 17-year-old personal mystery finally solved:

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Behold, the fate of taekwondo boards once they’re broken. The masters reuse them to fire up the barbecue grill to make bulgogi (Korean barbecue). Cycle complete.

The mixing of the traditional with the modern and the foreign have been a consistent source of fascination for me, as a waegukin (foreigner) living in Seoul. And so this official video of an excellently produced version of Les Miserables by the South Korean military hit home (from the official Youtube channel of the Republic of Korea Air Force):

This video is emblematic of my experiences here in taekwondo, which is used in the Korean military. While it is a daily 90-120 minute class of grueling militaristic training, there are some exercises that initially seemed to be a peculiar amalgam of tradition and Westernization.

In my class here (dojang #14 and masters #29 and #30), the language barrier is higher than the Namsan Tower, leading me and my teachers to communicate via our smartphones. They are quite patient with the first foreigner they have ever had in class (and for many, in their lives). While I’ve trained in other countries before, I have never experienced doing jump rope and taekwon dance until now. Two weeks ago, I remember laughing when the grandmaster mentioned Gangnam Style, without realizing he actually meant for us to dance it.

I thought he was kidding. He was not.

I suspect they didn’t think a waegukin will want to do it, but perhaps to their surprise, I did. (Hey, it’s still cardio.) So for the past few weeks, most of the cognitive load in my class have been devoted to learning how to dance K-pop with taekwondo moves, and learning how to jump rope to the beat of Gangnam Style and its parodies. It is quite a huge change from the traditional military-style training I’ve been exposed to. Instead of thinking it ridiculous, I actually feel that it contributes a lot to coordination and rhythm. And it shows. I see these nine-year-olds to be so disciplined, with side kicks past the level of their faces. They even gave me my own jump rope, which I need to practice with by myself as this is something I haven’t done since I was a little kid.

Here is a video of taekwon dance by Youtube user cOOlfren77:

A more extreme version of taekwondo jump rope is here in this video from Korea’s Got Talent by Youtube user taekwonropegirl:

Needless to say, I am absolutely transfixed at a rigid Confucian society making way for jaw-dropping creativity such as these. Especially for taekwondo, I like to imagine that such rigidity might have caused someone to snap and just do it to K-pop. Great fun.

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Yesterday, I took what may well be the start of a monthly pilgrimage to Kukkiwon, World Taekwondo Headquarters. Located in Gangnam, popularized by Psy, it was my first trip south of the Han River, not for horse-dancing but to visit the mecca of my favorite martial art in the world.

The Kukkiwon arch

The Kukkiwon arch

It definitely felt like a pilgrimage, since it was an uphill trek on a side street from one of the main roads, which was lined with South Korean flags. Nearing the end, I find a traditional looking arch, with the name Kukkiwon in Korean. World Taekwondo Headquarters itself is, well, just a gym, but, oh what a gym! It’s quite symbolic to have a public site specifically for a sport that welcomes practitioners around the world. I suppose it was apparent that it was my first time, at least to the security guards who were mildly amused and puzzled at a (deceptively) Korean-looking woman skipping on the mat and taking photos.

I had to. Please don't judge me.

I had to. Please don’t judge me.

It didn’t look that much different from any gym, except with the flags on the ceiling, the important-looking seats on top, and the rubber mat which seemed firmer and harder than that of most dojangs. But think of all the athletes from all over the world who walked this mat! (On that note, I’m glad I was wearing socks.)

I know it just looks like a gym, but to me it's also a mecca.

I know it just looks like a gym, but to me it’s also a mecca.

Outside the gym, the hallway was decorated with photographs of taekwondo history. One showed a photo of taekwondo jins from North and South Korea. Another showed people practicing taekwondo on the streets of Cambodia, barefoot. Surprisingly, there were two old posters from taekwondo championships held in Manila. I even recognized some of the people in the pictures.

A bit of history

A bit of history

It was a chilly foggy day in the perpetually busy city of Seoul, but as pilgrimages go, the journey was long but destination was worth it.

I was training by myself in the dojang tonight. While in a full split, I decided to draw. When I looked up, the hour had passed.

A sign I need a break.

This is why I usually take a class. My hips are killing me. But at least I still have this drawing. Ole!

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. 

“You’re 29? You look so much younger!” one of the teenagers in my taekwondo class exclaims, incredulous. (As I’ve discussed before, more kids get into martial arts at a younger age in Asia. Whenever I train in the western world, I’m always one of the youngest, but back here in Manila, I always feel like their token geezer.)

We live in a world where we are judged by numbers. We are obsessed with stats—the number of miles we ran or biked, our waistline, the number of wrinkles on our faces, our credit score, the number of exes, how many times we get a retweet—the list goes on. There’s probably a smartphone app to track each one of them.

These are numbers we can improve upon, manipulate, transform. But there’s one that is universal and irreversible: birthdays. The passage of time. The number of candles on a cake that signals another 365 days have gone by.

From my experience, it’s considered rude to ask someone’s age in America. In Asia, people can ask quite directly, though it’s a question I believe people secretly don’t like once they hit 25. The question, “How old are you?” almost becomes accusatory, and the answer is usually followed up with “Do I look it?”

Consider some of the articles that have recently had so much discussion. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “The Busy Trap” by Tim Kreider, and to a lesser, but no less important, extent, “Friends of a Certain Age” by Alex Williams. Among obvious issues the articles are primarily about, such as feminism, work values, etc., lie a crucial factor that unwittingly drives our questions of achievement and meaning: time, and whether we have enough of it to do all that we, in our limited existence in the world, desire to do.

We feel that time is a resource we are constantly running out of, and then comes the inevitable question we ask ourselves: “What have you got to show for it?” Where is the book you’ve promised yourself you were going to write? Have you gone on that big trip you said you would? Did you learn that second language, get that graduate degree, make that movie? Why are you single, separated, or divorced?

Perhaps some of us go through time hoping we can pause it. Please, hold off until I catch up. There are way too many decisions to make, hurdles to overcome, and relationships to manage to be able to check things off of our personal bucket lists. But time is like a cab ride; the meter keeps going until your journey is over.

Time impacts everything we sense. In The New Yorker’s profile of neuroscientist David Eagleman, who studies time perception and synesthesia, he says:

“But the interesting thing about time is that there is no spot. It’s a distributed property. It’s metasensory; it rides on top of all the [other senses].”

With regards to birthdays, it seems that age does affect our perception of time. Burkhard Bilger, who wrote Eagleman’s profile, elaborates in the article:

“One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, [Eagleman] explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”

Many people try to cheat time by compromising. The hear the ringing of what I’ve heard called, rather amusingly, “marriage-o-clock,” according to Kate Bolick of The Atlantic. They set themselves a deadline for getting married and having kids. Or they choose and stay with jobs they secretly don’t love. The older we get, the less options we supposedly have, and no one wants to feel like they didn’t “make it” and that their time was a waste.

For as long as I can remember, I have always been guilty of  judging myself for what I have done in the time I was allotted. In my mental timeline of my slowly-disappearing twenties, I can narrate the past decade by the things I have achieved, such as exhibitions, degrees, residencies, personal projects, travel, and friendships I’ve made and developed. I’ve seen them as significant milestones, because each has provided me with a type of personal growth that I think is unachievable if I tried to live otherwise. I suppose that subconsciously, I do this partly in the hopes that I’ll never have to lie or feel embarrassed about my age, as the months slowly encroach into my thirtieth year, when I will ask myself whether I made excellent use of the time I had and if I feel the need to withhold the year of my birthday.

So back to my interrogation. “How long have you been doing taekwondo?” presses my gregarious young friend.

“Since I was thirteen.”

“Really? But you’re still good!”

Oh, bless you, my child. I think.

You know you’re home when old projects haunt you like spirits.

While my work is primarily about the “intersections of science and art,” I do, from time to time, do design work for things I care a lot about. Here are two of them that have appeared on my radar, physically and online, almost as if to say, “Hi! Remember me? Look at me now!”

It’s as though they were orphans I raised and gave to caring homes.

So, here are the children I gave away:

1. A logo for the Philippine Taekwondo Association 

As my friends and colleagues know, taekwondo is something that’s really important to me, but not in a competitive way. I think it has helped me a lot personally and professionally. I wanted to give back, not through competing (which I assure you, does not suit me) but through something else—design. Around 2008, I reached out to my old teacher, Coach Jobet Morales, a former medalist and currently the Philippines’ national coach, who said that coincidentally, they needed a new logo. I already had something in mind, but I also met with Coach Morales and Grandmaster Sun Chong Hong who discussed what they needed. (I remember that day! It was lunchtime and I thought that being with these two black belts was the safest place in the world. We had Korean bibimbap.)

The logo they approved has the association’s initials, rendered in the colors of the Philippine flag. The blue letter has the profile of a bird, symbolic of the Philippine eagle. The red letter is a roundhouse kick, which was a compromise because I initially suggested a side kick (better suited with the T shape), though was told that roundhouse kicks were more frequent in taekwondo (actually, true). The yellow letter has a sun from the Philippine flag.

Now it’s 2012 and, training at the central taekwondo headquarters in Manila, I keep seeing it all the time. On certificates, belts, chest guards, banners, etc. It’s quite an honor, and I’m thrilled they’re still using it.

2. A poster for Carlos Celdran’s Intramuros tour

My friend Carlos, who does these awesome tours in Manila, tagged me on this photo emailed to him by some European tourists and newlyweds. The poster on the right was my first graphic design poster, which Carlos gives away on his tours. I did this around the same time as the taekwondo project, and both remain among the graphic design projects closest to my heart. What he has done for the Philippines is fantastic, and while his tours are primarily performance art, it has contributed to the discourse of critical issues in the country.

(To the people in this photo, shoot me an email if you’d like to be identified. And thank you so much! You made my day. Oh, and congrats!)

A Disclaimer

I did these projects without any graphic design education at the time. The only things I had experience in were molecular biology and journalism. I was just a girl with a curiosity for Adobe Illustrator and a thing about “making the world a better place.” Years have passed and I’m done with an art residency and an MFA in Interaction Design, and looking at back at these projects made me both smile at the exuberance of youth and cringe at some tiny mistakes. (The kerning! Rats. I need to fix that.) But my friends / clients still seem happy about them, so I suppose that’s what counts. That brief time I was in Manila, I just loved their work and what they’ve done for me, and I thought that this was the best way to help them out. I may never be in the Olympics or Games of any sort, but at least my logo will! And helping cultural gems like Carlos’s work is something that’s always rewarding to do.

I have a cold. And this is probably why I’m sentimental.