By Paricha Duangtaweesub
Catherine Sarah Young believes in the power of experiences and the impact of sharing them. “If you experience something, it stays with you forever,” she proclaimed at the speaker panel and fashion show event “Apocalypse Project: Ideas for a Hotter Planet.” Ms. Young and her collaborators are working on a version of the future where we live sustainability and in harmony with nature. And her weapon of choice? Art.
The event, held at swissnex San Francisco on Thursday, September 19, featured presentations by Ms. Young and her art-minded scientist collaborators: Stefan Müller Arisona of ETH Zurich’s Future Cities Laboratory on his study of future sustainable urban development through data; David Harris, Research Director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) on social activist perspectives of future cities; and Simon Schubiger, professor for computer graphics at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern in Switzerland, on the intersection of art and science in future cities.
“Climate change isn’t fun, but my shows are”
First and foremost, Ms. Young is a designer of experience. Her Apocalypse project, a “speculative design research” on our future environmental problems, was born out of her 2013 ArtScience Residency Program in Singapore. She listened to and distilled insights from her interactions with young kids to create a clothing line based on future climate change scenarios. Fashion is a medium that everyone can relate to, she noted, which makes it useful for communicating an apocalyptic future across time and space (and maybe even cultures). Apocalypse, by the way, comes from Greek for the “disclosure of knowledge” or the “lifting of the veil” - an act that Ms. Young hopes to accomplish through her current project on climate change. The Thermoreflector and the Aquatutu are just a few items from her collection of apocalypse-ready wear -- for heat and for water scenarios, respectively -- that might get you curious enough to check out her work.
In her other projects, Ms. Young plays on nostalgia and twists the senses to get people to think about climate change. Her Ephemeral Marvels Perfumes capture the scents that are disappearing from the world due to climate change (smells of peanuts, coasts, honey that we easily take for granted) and her Future Feast is an experiential exhibition where she serves food made from insects, a glimpse of an alternate, yet totally possible, reality. Regardless of the medium, though, it was her approach on sharing her art as an experience for her audience that was fresh and engaging in our current climate change conversations.
“Art cannot replace science - what art can do is hook people"
Ms. Young, who completed her Bachelor’s in molecular biology and biotechnology, sees art as a way of getting people to care about the science. “Art cannot replace science -- what art can do is to hook people,” she said from her years of experience bridging the science/art divide in her work. In a previous interview featured on her website, she confessed that she wanted to pursue her ideas outside of the lab and so “ran away’” to discover art in Barcelona before earning her MFA. Her ideas led her down the climate change road when she saw a gap between current research and public understanding.
When she showed pictures of her collaborators, scientists all dressed up, she admits that they were more cooperative than expected. “It’s cool to see scientists outside of their comfort zone,” she said in front of a projected backdrop of people wearing all forms of apocalypse wear. She was excited about the outcome of her work, and so were her collaborators, unrecognizable under plastic bubble wraps and gas masks.
“It’s cool to see scientists outside of their comfort zone”
Indeed, the questions that come to mind are: What is the value of art in scientific research? And what is the potential impact of art in the sciences? Like most of the people who were in the room, I’m an advocate of climate change (which is to say, not a climate change denier). Being trained in the sciences, however, I remained skeptical even as I look hopefully for concrete proof of the value of the arts. While her collaborators presented beautiful works on creating 3D cities from your fingerprints, on visualizing data on public transportation, and the Digital Marionette (exactly what you would expect of a digital marionette), the “so what?” punchlines are subtle in comparison to traditional research work that boasts innovations for big carbon reductions and clean energy.
The night concluded with a fashion show of her Apocalypse project -- a collection that will be on exhibit at Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future. There were fishnets, trash bags (“You’re so trashy!” quipped someone in the crowd), gas masks, and foil dresses that reminded one of the apocalypse of the climate change, but perhaps not the unveiling of knowledge. To be fair, though, I had just drunk the “art” potion that Ms. Young herself has obviously drunk years before, perfected, and served to us with a twist.
“Contribute in your best way"
After the show, Ms. Young slipped silently into the crowd in her unassuming blue dress and did her rounds of thank-you’s. Her work and determination is that of a scientist, an artist, a designer, a human being who cares very much for the future -- who is helping the future in the best way she can. The thought brings me back to her encouragement at the event to "contribute in your best way” toward a sustainable future.
After the event, my Lyft driver took us around the block and we ended up circling back past the bar. The crowd was dwindling, but the clusters of people chatting looked engaged and purposeful. And then it hit me that I was probably not as open-minded as I thought to see beyond the obvious punchlines of climate change work. Ms. Young got people to stay behind and talk about the work, about climate change, and maybe what they can do. Her intentions were to empower people through knowledge and to get them to ask questions. It’s the biggest first step in making change.
Rather than figuring out ways to measure the impact of art (which was what I tried to do), it’s probably better to question if we have to measure it at all. I kept looking back at the makeshift catwalk and the crowd of future visionaries on the street until it went around a corner. The veil was lifted, and I was hooked. Art worked.
Catherine Young’s work is current on exhibit at the Institute for the Future’s Future Gallery in Palo Alto from now until 15th April 2016. More information is available on IFTF website.
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