An Interview With Interdisciplinary Artist Catherine Sarah Young

by Amy Brady

Today I have for you an interview with Catherine Sarah Young, a Chinese-Filipina interdisciplinary artist, designer, and writer who creates works that investigate nature, our role in nature, and the tensions between nature and technology. We discussed her latest projects and why she’s drawn to the subject of climate change.

Your work combines art and science. What are you hoping to communicate through your interdisciplinary work that art or science alone can’t?

I am hoping to communicate the beauty and fragility of nature and how our actions create impact on the planet. More importantly, I hope to inspire people to redefine our relationship with nature, with each other, and with the self – and to get them to act. With this broad aim and lots of things to be inspired by, I am usually driven to create many different things. I was trained in molecular biology, fine art, and interaction design, and all these have brought me a myriad of lenses with which to see the world. Science helps me to see the world for what it is in its many dimensions, while art creates emotional connections that are important to see nature as part of our identity. Design is incredibly useful, too, since it’s about empathy, and we need that when we want to effectively communicate or facilitate something to another person, especially when this might be a complex topic that is not easy to swallow.

Tell us about your most recent project, Wild Science.

This is a project I started in Vienna in April 2018 during an art residency with KulturKontakt Austria and the Austrian Federal Chancellery. I did this after five years of working on The Apocalypse Project. I had observed a shift in conversation since 2013 when I began work on climate change, where we went from asking what climate change was, to what were the systemic issues that were causing it, such as wealth inequality, lack of access to science, lack of collaborations between disciplines, etc.

It was great to start this in Vienna, which has a rich history of both art and science, so I was able to go through a lot of museums. I also had the fantastic opportunities of working with Dr. Gerhard Heindl, the historian of the Schönbrunn Tiergarten which is the oldest zoo in the world, for the project, Der Tiergarten: Human Forces on the Animal Kingdom, and to have conversations with people from the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, such as Dr. Silke Schweiger, curator of the Department of Herpetology, and Ms. Melina Franz and Ms. Mirjana Pavlovic from the taxidermy team for the project, Scientific Method.

One of my favorite projects in this body of work so far is Letters for Science, where I ask people to write letters to science denialists. I was able to go to Eferding thanks to KulturKontakt Austria’s Artist in Residence Go to School program, and a group of thirteen year olds chose to write letters to climate change deniers. (The project is still ongoing and everyone is welcome to contribute.)

I like being prolific and there are always all these questions in my head that I need to answer by doing projects, so I’ll likely keep working on both The Apocalypse Project and Wild Science for a while, and perhaps others.

Der Tiergarten board game and cards by Catherine Sarah Young.

You told me something during our very first chat that I haven’t been able to get out of my head: that an artwork you created using a breathing mask actually became a part of your wardrobe while you lived in China. This is an extreme example of just how relevant your work truly is. It’s also an example of how a piece with humorous connotations evolved to be a lot less funny as the world we live in has grown increasingly more polluted. Have you noticed other works of art changing in meaning as the world changes?

Futurists often quote William Gibson, “The future is here; it’s not just evenly distributed.” I remember including masks in the Climate Change Couture series almost as a joke, and I brought one of them to Beijing with me for a potential exhibition or just to show people. Instead I ended up wearing it because the smog was just too much for me. I think visions of the future catch up to us more quickly because we are changing the planet so fast. I keep revisiting the works of people such as Buckminster Fuller, Agnes Denes, Cai Guo-Qiang and others as I feel that their work keeps being relevant in different contexts.

In your artist statement, you write that your work is “critiquing broken real-world systems and proposing alternative realities.” Are you hopeful that humans will create a future reality that is actually sustainable?

We are all part of these broken systems, and this can make one feel helpless. But for me, to make art is to be hopeful. It may feel easier to be willfully blind or uncaring about these realities, or make them even worse by manipulating our consumerist tendencies, but creating art is a way where I can face each day with purpose and have a stake in the future. So I am hopeful that we will make a reality that is sustainable – we have to, if we wish to survive. Right now I’m thinking of my experience with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s (Un-)Learning Place, which ended for me just a few hours ago, because I was surrounded by academics, artists, and other cultural practitioners whose work and lives were so different than mine. One prevailing emotion I felt in myself and in others was a disquiet with institutions that have failed us. So I hope that we will dismantle these or find ways to fix them and keep engaging with people who are different than us and who may even disagree with us. I grow so much with these art residencies and fellowships – they are not only ways for me to connect with people and to challenge myself and my assumptions, but to also remind myself that among the greatest of freedoms is the ability to think for oneself and to question everything without fear.

What’s next for you?

After a short stint in Berlin, I’ll be taking a much-needed rest in Manila, then I’ll be back in Beijing in March to continue my residency with China Residencies and Red Gate Residency. I’ll be in Kampong Thom, Cambodia in May and in Bangkok, Thailand in June for parts 2 and 3 of my fellowship with the SEAΔ program of Mekong Cultural Hub and the British Council. I’ll also keep making more art, writing more stories and articles, and training more in taekwondo.

Read more about Catherine Sarah Young and her work at her website.

For previous articles about Catherine Sarah Young’s work, check out:

Scientific Method: Documenting the Invisible Processes of Research
Wild Science: Experiments in Nature and the Vanishing Amazon
Turning Sewage into Soaps: The Sewer Soaperie by The Apocalypse Project
Climate Change Couture

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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