This interview was published in the author’s previous personal blog, Sustainable by Design in 2015. It is syndicated here with modifications, in anticipation of her upcoming talk with Speculative Futures Bangkok on June 10th, 2020.
Early September 2015, back when political discourse at least feigns optimism for environmental issues, I attended a curious exhibition organized by swissnex San Francisco on the fashion of climate change — the Apocalypse project. It was an eye-opening glimpse into the role of art in public conversation for someone who, at the time, was squarely in the science and engineering side of the fence on climate change. I wanted to get to know the person behind the art so in the weeks that followed, Ms. Young and I exchanged emails which lead to this interview.
An exploration of climate change through the medium of fashion (wear and perfume), the Project is a thought-provoking attempt at creating a different, more accessible kind of conversation about climate. (Unfortunately, the gas masks she used in her speculative artwork had since come in handy in Beijing during her recent trip there). Armed with a degree in molecular biology, Ms. Young blurs the line between the neat boxes of ‘artist’ and ‘scientist’ and ‘provocateur’ that one might try to prescribe her. She leverages all the disciplines in magical proportions in her works since (including one on disappearing smells, An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest).
Having gone through a small transition myself from engineering into more murky design waters, she’s inspired me to keep my own curiosity alive. Now, over half a decade after we first met, I am excited to reconnect with her and share that she will be our first guest speaker in our FutureX talk at Speculative Futures Bangkok on June 10th.
Below is an archive of my interview with Catherine Young on the beginnings of her career, and her views of art, science, and everything in between.
Paricha: Can you share your feelings during and after the transition from your molecular biology aspirations towards art and design? What pushed you over the edge?
Catherine: What pushed me over the edge was meeting someone who was on her 9th year in her PhD program and had no data or paper to show for it. I love both art and science but it was always a struggle to stay within those boxes, whether in a science program or an art program. As I went my own way, I also got to meet a lot of like-minded people who were doing similar and even cooler things. I had to learn a lot of things on my own, but it helped me find my own path eventually.
P: What do you feel sticks with you the most as a scientist and how you see things? How do you see things as an artist? Am I making broad generalizations here that these views are necessarily different?
C: This is a question I ask myself, too, but I also realize it’s a strange question — for me, art and science are not very different from each other and so it’s a bit counter-intuitive to keep defining what is art and what is science. [What] I remember from my science background is the work ethic, especially in biology, since it’s a challenge to get results from living systems. I can work long hours with little sleep. I also think my science background has made me ask deeper and more comprehensive questions as I try to see my work in different contexts.
As an artist, especially when I do my residencies, I felt more free to pursue more creative paths because it was a relief to not be in academia. I also get to engage with the public more, which is a really important part of my practice.
While I see art and science as very similar, I do think that they are practiced very differently in our society. Scientists usually have to deal with being published in journals, getting tenure, having a professorship, etc., while artists usually have to deal with exhibitions, curators, residencies, and other things. But when I, as an artist, hang out with scientists for a project, I don’t feel that we’re that different. The scientists I know have an artistic side — most of the ones I work with moonlight as DJs, for example.
I also think that we’re all artists and scientists — we all have a level of curiosity that could either be enhanced or diminished as we grow up. More than “what is a scientist” or “what is an artist”, I feel that I have to remind myself of “what does it mean to be curious” and to keep the excitement of discovery going.
Q: The Apocalypse Project is, to me, a successful conversation starter for climate change in a completely new and fun way. For those who are going to see the exhibit, what do you hope are the key takeaways from your show?
A: Thank you for the kind words! The project itself is meant to instill empathy, and thus the works are interactive. You can wear the garments and smell the perfumes because I want you to be able to put yourself in the climate change discussion. The idea is for you to create your own personal story with the environment instead of letting it be solely a political one.
Q: How has the Apocalypse Project affected you personally and professionally? And what kind of responses have you gotten from your audience?
A: I feel that personally, it has made me more aware of my own relationship with the planet, and what I am doing to make it healthier or sicker. When I started Climate Change Couture, for example, I did a “closet audit” to see what bad habits I had. As a result, I gave up fast fashion, learned to sew, design some of my clothes, and bought clothing that I will wear for a long time.
Professionally, I have had the honor of working with a lot of amazing people, particularly researchers who are out there in the field working with people who are more affected by climate change effects. The project has reached so many countries and individuals. It has been very eye-opening and enriching, especially since I’m only into my second year of this project. Most people get it, and email me wanting to know more. Occasionally I’ll get some haterade from a climate change denier but that’s ok.
Catherine Young will be the first guest on Speculative Futures Bangkok’s Future X series on June 10th, 6:00 PM (GMT+7) where we explore new ideas from practitioners in the futures design space. Her talk, Dismantling the Apocalypse: Speculative Futures in Pandemic Times, will explore the case for speculative design in navigating a post-COVID world. All images from publicly provided by Swissnex San Francisco.