By Catherine Sarah Young
It can be easy to spot an artist at an academic conference, and I, together with my colleagues, definitely stood out at the recent AAS-in-Asia in Bangkok. I wore, at times, a floral gas mask with a Cambodian theme, a piece from my Apocalypse Project series (left). My business card was a pop-up piece of art with no institutional logo. My fellow presenters and I wrote no academic papers; instead, we brought cardboard architecture to display. Let me explain.
From July 1 to 3, I was among ten SEAΔ fellows at the “Asia on the Rise?” AAS-in-Asia Conference hosted by the Association for Asian Studies in Bangkok. We were about three-quarters into our fellowship, and this time we found ourselves in Thailand in the middle of monsoon season.
SEAΔ: Exchange, Create, Share, Reflect
SEAΔ is a program co-created by the Mekong Cultural Hub and the British Council that makes space for cultural practitioners to reflect on how their work can contribute to sustainable development within Southeast Asia through their individual and collective leadership. Each year, 10 fellows are selected from 10 countries in the region. Over the course of a year, they meet up at four main gatherings. Each gathering takes place in a different country and has a specific purpose: to Exchange, Create, Share, and Reflect. After our first meeting in Taipei, we were divided into three groups; mine did SEAΔ Create in Cambodia. Now, for part three, SEAΔ Share was in Thailand, where we held an exhibition in the conference exhibit hall to showcase what we did, as well to attend the talks.
I had applied to SEAΔ as an interdisciplinary artist who works on environmental issues such as climate change. As one who has fellowshipped her way through adulthood, this has been one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. From screaming at rude beetles finding their way into my bed in rural Cambodia, to meeting passionate academics discussing the Anthropocene and film in a hotel beside Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, SEAΔ has been a wild ride—and it’s not even over. While art residencies would usually see me pressured to produce work (and produce we did anyway, because old habits die hard), SEAΔ was a way for us to collaborate with each other and with local communities to instigate conversations that will continue in the years to come. AAS-in-Asia was a fitting platform to showcase the outcome of these conversations thus far, narrating our successes, failures, and questions in a region that is pulsating with possibilities.
Adapt to the Future
Specifically, my group presented work called “Adapt to the Future,” which delineates the projects we did at the Art and Environment Festival in Kampong Thom, Cambodia. We focused on how art can contribute to adaptation in the climate crisis. Through performances, exhibitions, and workshops for social development, the project inspired co-creation and action regarding Cambodia’s collective futures through the lens of climate change. The little cardboard houses you see in the photo above are the outcomes from the Future Resilient Communities workshop, where our participants involved the elders of the community. Most have never had art classes before, and so it was enlightening to see their vision for a future community that was resilient to climate impacts, as Kampong Thom faces environmental problems that include drought and plastic pollution.
Another group, “Clayground Theater,” held a workshop series in Thailand using dance and craft to explore childhood memories. The third group, “Three Women and a Duck,” connected with groups inside several markets in Vietnam and Laos through an intimate sharing space, coming up with workshop sessions and recording stories, music, and objects.
I enjoyed telling conference participants about our stories and saw how important it is to bring these on-the-ground experiences to formal academic settings like the AAS-in-Asia conference.
Finally, it was fantastic to connect with so many amazing people, both at the conference and in the Bangkok art scene. Bangkok is a dynamic, pulsating city packed with people working in art and sustainability. We had field visits to the Fine Art Magazine office, where we met Tawatchai Somkong (artist, editor-in-chief, and curator of the Thai Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale), the community in the beautiful Bangkok 1899 cultural hub, Chris Oestereich of Linear to Circular and the Circular Design Lab, and many others thanks to Mekong Cultural Hub regional representatives Siriwat Pokrajen of Thailand and Mimi Heaungsoukkhoun of Laos.
Even on my days off, I was still meeting people, by taking advantage of opportunities such as a chance visit to the traveling exhibition of the National Museum of the Philippines, where they presented the pineapple silk cloths of the tropics at the Museum of Siam, and some people from the UK and China art scenes in the Airplane Graveyard. When I can still work in the decaying corpse of a Boeing 747, I know I’ve had a good trip.
Art and Science for Sustainability
Fellowships have a way of teaching us a lot of things in a short amount of time. Among others, I have no doubt that it is imperative for the arts to be integrated into other disciplines to reach the communities that we all aim to serve if we want to have a sustainable planet as we battle the climate crisis. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals do not stand a chance if we do not break barriers. The divisions in our society will not disappear if we keep on being around people we are used to; we must intentionally begin conversations with others and see the good that might actually come out of them and create more impact.
While academia can seem trapped in its ivory towers, I have also met through this conference many professors who are keen on interdisciplinary collaborations. I am so excited to be in this unique position to come from both the arts and the sciences doing projects on the environment, and to work with all of these incredible people. I look forward to how these experiences will shape me and my work in the years to come.
Catherine Sarah Young (www.theperceptionalist.com) is an award-winning Chinese-Filipina interdisciplinary artist, designer, and writer who creates works that investigate nature, our role in nature, and the tensions between nature and technology. Trained in molecular biology, contemporary art, and interaction design, she has an international exhibition, awards, and fellowship profile and works with scientists, industry, and communities, most recently in Berlin, Vienna, Beijing, and the Amazon. She writes science fiction and has been practicing taekwondo for more than twenty years. You can reach her at email@example.com, Facebook and Instagram at @catherinesarahyoung, or Twitter at @catherineyoung.
Thank you to Jennifer Lee, Frances Rudgard, and Patty Chan from the Mekong Cultural Hub, SEAΔ creative facilitators Nicola Turner and Sudebi Thakurata, Katelijn Verstraete, Daniel Donnelly and Julia Davies from the British Council, and the Association for Asian Studies!
The inaugural SEAΔ Fellows for 2018-2019 include: Anwar “Jimpe” Rachman (Indonesia), Catherine Sarah Young (Philippines), Đỗ Tường Linh (Vietnam), Jing-Wen Tseng (Taiwan), Khouanfa Siriphone (Laos), Moi Tran (UK), Sinath Sous (Cambodia), Thanupon Yindee (Thailand), Thet Oo Maung (Myanmar), Zikri Rahman (Malaysia).
This post is expanded and adapted from one that previously appeared at Catherine Sarah Young’s website, The Perceptionalist.