Singapore Art Week 2021: The MeshMinds Foundation Champions Sustainability in Singapore Through Art and Technology
“Artists are some of the best-placed people on the planet to communicate complex topics,” declares Kay Vasey. “Not everyone is literate in the sense that they can read or write, but many people respond to visuals.”
The chief connecting officer of creative technology studio MeshMinds and founder of its not-for-profit arts organisation The MeshMinds Foundation is doing her part to address the single greatest threat to our sustainable future—and she is tapping on the power of art and technology. “When we are faced with important topics such as climate action, how can we use the work of artists to communicate what the problem is and what people need to do about it? Technology allows us to really expand on that storytelling ability.”
MeshMinds works with artists to translate their work into a set of social media tools that can then power youths and communities online to get behind causes they care about. Take, for example, its Clean Seas augmented reality (AR) experience, which was created for the ArtScience Museum’s Climate S.O.S. – Season of Sustainability showcase in 2019. Working with Singaporean artist André Wee, MeshMinds created a virtual ocean of sea creatures made from discarded bits of bottles and other plastic items. Audiences are encouraged to “clean” the sea and make a pledge they can share on social media.
Vasey has always been passionate about art since young. The former director of arts at the British Council would have pursued an artistic career but became a lawyer instead to appease her parents. While no longer practising, her time as a technology and media lawyer opened her eyes to numerous “industry x tech” initiatives.
BRIDGING THE GAP
While researching these “x tech” industries, she became curious about what was happening in the art world. “I discovered that big multinational technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Autodesk were running artist-in-residence or artist incubation programmes, primarily out of their US headquarters. I started to wonder why these opportunities were not being offered to artists in Singapore considering those companies all have their Asia headquarters here.”
Vasey quickly got to work to bridge art and tech. This led to the MeshMinds 1.0: ArtxTechForGood exhibition, which brought together over 20 Singapore artists, who underwent a four-month incubation programme exploring frontier technologies such as AR, VR (virtual reality), 3D printing and the internet of things, and then using them as the “canvas” to showcase their works.
The exhibition at the ArtScience Museum in January 2018 caught the attention of the regional marketing team of Apple (which came on board as the lead technology partner for MeshMinds 2.0 at the same museum in March 2019) and later led to a partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which strengthened MeshMinds’ focus on sustainability. Using these frontier technologies, the studio pushes for environmental education, communication and pledging.
“My dream is that we come up with a formula pegged to what we want to do, which is to educate, enable and transform Singapore artists to become creative technologists for causes. From that Singapore network, we will then teach the rest of the region on how to become creative technologists for causes, and allow people in Asia to raise their voices about the importance of protecting our environment and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” explains Vasey, adding that MeshMinds is concerned with SDGs 11 to 15, which focus on sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, and life on land.
The partnership with UNEP is highly collaborative. Last year, MeshMinds created a new AR game called Run for Nature on Facebook and Instagram for World Environment Day on June 5. Built on the Spark AR platform, the interactive game features the original artworks of MeshMinds creative technologist Tristan Lim of 25 endangered species, including the orangutan, sea turtle and polar bear, in their natural habitats. With a simple tilt of their heads, players navigate through obstacles such as marine litter to save as many of the endangered species as possible, before pledging #ForNature by sharing personalised photos and videos of their scores to their social media platforms.
There are numerous possibilities of application when it comes to creating art using technology. For its recent Sustainable Singapore online exhibition, the first one here powered by AR, The MeshMinds Foundation invited 20 Singaporean artists to share their vision for a sustainable future. Addressing environmental issues in line with the SDGs, the artists added additional storytelling elements to their static works using the AR app Artivive.
Born in Brunei, Vasey grew up being surrounded by nature. In her youth, she frequently spent her holidays at sea turtle conservation camps. These experiences have “always made me want to help conserve the beautiful biodiversity that this planet has to offer”. She considers her children as the third catalyst “for making meaning to how important it is to impress upon the younger generation that they have to protect what they are inheriting today and for the future”.
MeshMinds also works with Unesco on its mission to promote cultural heritage. Vasey explains, “If we teach people about their cultural heritage, from the buildings to the vernacular language they speak, they are more likely to protect and preserve their local environment.”
And this is exactly what The MeshMinds Foundation hopes to do with its latest project, Moo Moo Park, in partnership with the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC), which combines art, technology and Chinese cultural heritage in one immersive experience taking place within the SCCC carpark—a first in Asia. Together with local design studio Space Objekt, eight local artists such as Antz and Danielle Tay will present elements of the Chinese culture in various forms, including breathtaking installations enhanced with AR effects and Instagram filters.
Like many of MeshMinds’ collaborators, SCCC constantly seeks innovative ways to inspire Singaporeans to discover their cultural identity. “Artists have always worked with the materials of their time. Hence, it is no surprise that our local artists are increasingly looking to use digital technology in their art‑making. The new experiences made possible by digital technology include the blending of physical and virtual worlds, the simultaneous activation of our different senses, and the ability to interact with many people around the world,” says CEO Low Sze Wee.
“If used in creative and imaginative ways, digital technology could create unprecedented experiences that spark fresh conversations and new ways of thinking.”
So are creative technologists the artists of the new age? “Creative technologists can be seen as a progression of the artist’s role beyond the traditional sense of the word,” Lim, who is also the lead creative for Moo Moo Park, explains. “The democratisation of software and tech resources offers more people the liberty to utilise technology for their personal projects—and artists, with the way they think, can greatly push and innovate these ideas, pushing fantasies and stories into reality.”
While the exhibition, which opens on January 22 during Singapore Art Week and runs through the Lunar New Year period until March 28, can be enjoyed on foot, a fleet of electric cars is also available to offer an audio-guided tour, casting the spotlight on the future of sustainable mobility.
Since it first started in 2017, MeshMinds has grown from a team of three to 10 people, but the plan is to keep the organisation small and agile and work with a trusted group of creative technologists for causes. Some of its milestones include the MeshMinds 2.0 exhibition in 2019, which was seen by over 10,000 visitors in 10 days. The majority of them rated the show as nine out of 10 for how much they learnt about the sustainable development goals.
And as a member of the Apple Consultants Network, MeshMinds was also selected to meet Tim Cook during his first visit to Singapore in 2019 as Apple CEO at a Today at Apple session, where Vasey used the iPad to show children how to design and draw their own plastic sea creatures inspired by CleanSeas. To have Cook say: “This is exactly what we want to see Apple technology being applied for” was like a pat on the back.
For now, Vasey is seeing a lot of interest in AR—and this is where MeshMinds is focusing its work. And she is excited about the 5G rollout this year, “which will open up a whole new world of augmented reality that we don’t even have yet”. But the dream is to work with UNEP on a project about marine pollution, so as to capture the attention of renowned British naturalist David Attenborough, who recently joined Instagram and is all about protecting the blue planet.