6 October 2016, Bangkok, Thailand—In October, I was invited to give a workshop and showcase at the Climate-Resilient International Development Exchange at the Asia Regional Training Center of the USAID / RDMA (Regional Development Mission to Asia) in Bangkok.
The aim of this exchange is to facilitate a exchange with the larger development community to take stock of the collective knowledge, data, tools, information, frameworks, and lessons learned in assessing climate risks and incorporating climate-resilience considerations and development activities at large. The training focused on integrating climate risk assessment and resilience building into all international development projects, as directed by President Barack Obama’s Executive Order in 2014.
The first part of my participation was a showcase of the Sewer Soaperie, one of my works for The Apocalypse Project, where I turn sewer grease and discarded oils into soaps to raise awareness on urban waste practices and extreme weather brought about by climate change. I also showed a video of the history of The Apocalypse Project and the other works in the platform.
I was fascinated with the reactions from the Sewer Soaperie. Some people came up to me and said that the soaps smelled like cookies. Others were horrified (and to my great mortification, I giggled uncontrollably at these reactions because wasn’t this the point!). But regardless, I was excited to be able to present this project, straight from my residency and exhibition in Medellin and Manila to a discerning audience comprised of smart people from the development world, who have traveled the world and have seen it all.
The second part of my participation was a cybernetics workshop. Cybernetics, or the study of systems, is one of my core beliefs in both my personal and professional lives. I believe that aiming for climate resilience demands systems thinking, and I was eager to share what I had learned from Dr. Paul Pangaro at the School of Visual Arts MFA Interaction Design Program (hey I even thanked him on camera!), and the research I had done afterwards. Cybernetics rules, you guys. Without it, you might as well just do some half-assed ad campaign with stock photos of a burning planet and sad polar bears.
The interesting part of being the lone artist in a group of development professionals is that I had a feeling I was hired for this gig to wake people up, as my talk was right after lunch. And lunch at the Plaza Athenee was divine, which meant I had to wake people up from a food coma. I was easy to spot, wearing my apocalypse suit and my welding mask that people mistake for Mickey Mouse ears. I quickly borrowed a squeaky elephant from my hotel’s bathroom and used it to get people to pass it around later during the exercise. My talk introduced cybernetics history and principles to a lay audience and several exercises about first-order feedback systems where people had to pass around my squeaky elephant, Conrad.
My goal was to ingrain systems thinking into everyday life, and so we did exercises that involved things like personal health, voting, and environmental habits. What feedback, sensors, and actuators exist in such systems? What can disturb them? What can address these disturbances? I designed this workshop after finishing the Sewer Soaperie, where I realized that this art project can be used to address the disturbance of waste oils being discarded in the sewer system. At the end, I closed with A List of Supplements:
1. Be personal
2. Engage the senses
3. Get specific
4. Involve children
5. Don’t forget senior citizens
6. Use the internet
7. Don’t underestimate branding
8. Test your projects on strangers
9. Document your projects and share with others
10. Nurture your relationships
Some things I learned here: I loved being the lone artist in a field of development professionals. It’s like being the wildcard who was hired to show everyone a different perspective. I also liked learning a lot about issues I care about, but work on using very unique approaches.
I also had feelings of nostalgia. Actually, the development world is not completely new to me. In fact, if you dig deeper (way deep) in my CV, you can see I used to work in that realm. But I left because I was tired of seeing idealistic people grow weary over time, and I wanted to focus on honing my creative skills. Being the wildcard in an event like this made me realize that perhaps there was something useful I could contribute after all. Now if only this will happen again next year.
Deepest thanks to Aaron Brownell, Regional Environmental Advisor, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, USAID’s Regional Development Mission for Asia for the kind invitation; and Ms. Sirisaranya Pakninrat, Program Coordinator of Social Impact. Photos courtesy of USAID and Social Impact.