The Apocalypse Project: Investigating cities and climate change through art and science
Singapore, 2013. I was in the Lion City for a residency at the Singapore-ETH Zurich Future Cities Laboratory to collaborate with their scientists who worked on sustainability. As an artist who works on environmental issues, I had a problem. Despite the fact that climate change affects everyone, it’s hard to get people to care about it enough. “Climate change” are two big ominous words that feel far removed from our modern quotidian existence. Even the other buzzwords around it—“Anthropocene” and “sustainability”—seem too heavy for non-academics to pay much attention to. It was two months into my art residency and I was starting to panic; none of my initial ideas had seemed cool enough, and the clock was ticking.
As I observed the people in hot and humid Singapore and continued to interact with them, I realized that clothing was a way to make climate change relevant for everyone. At any point in the day, we wear clothes in response to environmental temperatures. On a hunch, I went back to the lab and designed the first collection of Climate Change Couture, where I worked with scientists to design garments in response to the issues their research was about. Finally, my residency started to become fun, and instead of the quiet stranger hanging in the back of the lab, I was starting to art again, and art hard.
Perhaps it was that high one gets from creating a project one is so enthusiastic about, but I thought I’d take it one step further and ask the scientists to model the clothes as well. It was this part that made me more nervous than any other part of the project. Surprisingly, they humored me, and so went my first fashion shoots with scientists. Communicating about these issues to the pubic is often a challenge, but through an engaging and relatable format, it became easier to make people pay attention and discuss. Through the years, The Apocalypse Project has held Climate Change Couture fashion shows and also lets visitors wear the clothes in exhibitions.
Vanishing scents: The ephemeral marvels perfume store
Manila, 2014. It was a month since I left Singapore and I was in my hometown of Manila, the Philippines, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. In fact, in the middle of my residency in Singapore, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the southern part of the country.
Ironically, the apocalypse I was trying to foretell had in fact happened not so far away.
There are a lot of things that climate change will make us lose, and a big part of my creative practice has to do with scent—a sense that to me is the most intimate yet the most overlooked. For a country that had a lot to lose, what could I bring to this conversation? I decided to create the second work in The Apocalypse Project, a perfume line of things we could lose because of climate change. Here, The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store was born, with scents that smell of coastlines, trees, coffee, and other smells that we are slowly losing because of rising sea levels and increasing temperatures.
Of course, it’s not just these scents we would miss. Each of us has our own olfactory memories that will erode when we lose these things in nature. During workshops, I let participants take a Smell Walk where they pick things whose scents they will miss and distill their essential oils to make their own perfumes. The more we can remember the things we love, the greater our desire to preserve them.
Children are among my favourite audiences because they are often the most honest and open. I remember one encounter with a nine-year-old girl who eagerly smelled the perfumes and nodded with full comprehension when I explained how coastlines could disappear. Sometimes, to make people understand the effects of climate change, one doesn’t have to do it with graphs and blocks of text.
Drowning with the fatbergs: The Sewer Soaperie
Medellin, 2016. It was hard not to stare at the beautiful buildings that make up some of the city’s dramatic urban renaissance. Here I was in another residency at Casa Tres Patios and Platohedro, arts organizations in the city. I was working on The Sewer Soaperie where I turn sewer grease into soaps, a project inspired by one incident in Manila where I was trapped in flooded traffic during a storm, because sewers were clogged with used cooking oil. Indeed, in many cities around the world, sewers have been getting clogged by what have been nicknamed “fatbergs”— big blobs of coagulated fats, oils, and toiletries that get stuck in the sewers, making urban flooding even worse.
Thankfully, Medellin doesn’t have this problem. I was curious to see how a city that turned its urban planning around dealt with their sewage, and EPM, the company that manages the sewer system, gave me a tour of some of the sewers and donated some sewage for my project. I also got to investigate the Medellin River, which served as an alternative sewer for people living nearby and reeked from many meters away. Back in my studio in Manila, I realized that to raise awareness on an issue that is too disgusting, it was effective to transform this raw material into something that was aesthetically more digestible. People who interacted with the soaps have told me they smelled like cookies, to my horror.
Towards collaborative interdisciplinary art
In the four years of working on The Apocalypse Project with exhibitions and residencies all over the world, I have had the honor of learning from and collaborating with all sorts of people, from researchers to private companies to think tanks to local communities. Some people I’ve worked with joked about me being a climate “gypsy” because I move around a lot. As a nomad, I have seen how climate change affects people in vastly different ways, from what they eat to how they live.
To discuss climate change in a way that relates to everyone, we should move away from talking about polar bears—which I have a lot of compassion for—to topics that relate to people’s everyday lives. This is what will make them pay attention. Most importantly, through my work I have seen the common humanity in all of us. Despite where we are and what we believe in, we all want to live safe, happy, and prosperous lives.
While I realize the word “apocalypse” has a dystopian connotation to most people, I use it while invoking the original meaning in Greek, which means “disclosure” or “lifting of the veil”—something we will need to keep doing in the years to come. Believe it or not, I’m actually a pretty optimistic person. Ironically, working on apocalypses has made me more hopeful about humanity (yes, even in 2017). I initially made these projects to figure out these issues for myself, but thankfully they’ve also brought people together not just to debate things that are uncomfortable, but also to discuss our hopes and dreams for the future. When we can imagine the worst, we can begin to build for better.