Art, Science, and Advocacy: Interview with Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya
Noelle Chung: Hello, thank you for tuning into WHRB Cambridge 95.3 FM. This is Noelle Chung, and today I am joined by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, an illustrious artist who started as a neuroscientist before moving from promoting science in the lab to creating STEM-related art through murals, posters, and much more among the many other themes she explores. So welcome, Amanda.
Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya: Noelle, it’s such a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
NC: First, would you like to introduce yourself a little bit to our audience?
AP: I’m Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya. I'm a Brooklyn based multidisciplinary artist and a very curious and sometimes moody human. I love creating dynamic worlds filled with wonder and belonging that wrap our communities in joy, love, and care. I really enjoy creating portals of discovery that catalyze audiences to question their understanding of the world around them. I was born in Atlanta to Thai and Indonesian immigrants. I basically grew up in the kitchens of my dad's Thai restaurants. I was often surrounded by these vibrant colors and smells and just this beautiful sense of community. I had parents who fostered my sense of curiosity. I grew up surrounded by art and science and the rituals and craft and customs of Thailand and Indonesia. But I've always had this deep love for exploration, which definitely shows up in my practice. I was a nerdy kid, and I'm definitely still a nerdy adult. I came to New York, where I am now for school and studied neuroscience at Columbia. I've just stuck around ever since. So, for me, it's this thrumming sense of possibility here that I just find so energizing and can't get away from.
NC: You mentioned being around both science and art even at a young age. Before we talk about your work in the art scene, can you describe your background in neuroscience or your journey to neuroscience research a little bit?
AP: Yeah, that's a great question. Like many immigrant parents, my parents, especially my dad, wanted me to be a doctor. Coming to this country with very little and kind of working his way up from busboy to restaurant tour was a very hard-fought battle for him where he was often disrespected for his accent, his background, or lack of education. So I completely understand why he'd want his only child to pursue a career that commanded a lot of respect in his mind and required an undeniable amount of schooling. I dutifully excelled in math and science. But I always loved art and gratefully found refuge in the art or dance studio whenever STEM work felt overwhelming or stressful. I started working in a lab that studied Alzheimer's and the aging brain in my senior year of college. One of the groups in our lab was studying interventions for healthy aging, which included everything from diet to video games to art. What I found interesting in our research was just how important social connection and community were for healthy aging. That led me to a paper that talked about how a sense of belonging is crucial for our mental and physical well-being, something I think we all know, deep down. But researchers found that when we feel isolated or alone, our bodies react as if we had experienced physical harm, which is really interesting. I felt like I should just be doing more to foster a sense of belonging in our communities. But I really wasn't sure where to start. I was also wanting to share all this fascinating research we were doing at the lab with a broader audience, but also was not very sure where to start, which is actually how I found design. This was a methodology to explain complex information in a way that was easy to understand and approachable. I learned what I could about storytelling through night classes and online, but I still felt like I needed more.
NC: So, art ended up almost being your medium or vector through which you share what you discovered while doing neuroscience research?
AP: That's right! It felt like a way to help folks access what we were doing and why it was important. I think art generally is such a bridge for so many folks in so many communities. I think that's where its power is as well.
NC: There’s a clear connection between science and art for you. Even at a young age and throughout your life, I can definitely see how and why you chose art to share your messages with the world. Do you think there are any other reasons you chose art for, such as some particular advantage that art has in transmitting these findings in neuroscience, or information in general?
AP: I think art is just a medium of engagement that most everyone can connect to in some way. I think we can look at the research behind why art is so good for us, at least the making of art is good for us, as it lowers our stress levels. But I also think in the sense that art is something that can grab your attention in an instant. Neuroscience tells us that we process visual imagery 60,000 times faster than written language. It's something that is sort of immediately communicative and powerful in that way.
NC: Moving on to your artwork, could you give an overall description of what your work is like for anybody unfamiliar with your pieces? What mediums who use what colors or visual motifs you favor? Anything else relating to the visual elements of your pieces?
AP: I would describe my art as vibrant eruptions that reclaim space for our communities. I'm always moving from medium to medium from murals to digital work, participatory installations, and augmented reality. But every time a medium has to feel right for the purpose. Much of my work is about challenging preconceived notions and moving people to action. I find that taking an unconventional approach is what often makes my work and my message most memorable, because folks aren't expecting it. I like to take a very experimental approach. It's almost scientific in that way, and I love asking questions. What if we put the piece in an unexpected place, like a highway tunnel? Or what if we make people work together to create a state change? You know, how will folks react to that? Well, they like it. Well, they hate it. Who knows? But it's really fun to prototype through these different scenarios. Some other questions are will they know that the sculpture was modeled after a beta folding protein? Probably not. But does that matter? Each work is an opportunity for me to learn about process, about people, about perception, and it's also an opportunity to speak and engage and to catalyze. As I mentioned before, I like to have different access points in my work, I think it makes it very accessible and engaging in that way. People might come to the work captivated by the colors, or actually understand that I base it on a piece of science. But no matter how they come in, I hope that they come out having their emotions and their curiosity sparked.
NC: It sounds like the creative process of each piece is pretty unique and almost catered to the message of each individual work, if I'm understanding that correctly.
AP: No, you're absolutely right, spot on. I just wanted to add that I never want my work to push people away. I know science and technology can kind of have a coldness to them that holds people at an arm's length. I intentionally create work that invites people in and hopefully wraps them in warmth and belonging. When I use art to highlight how science underpins our very existence, I take a world that is typically only accessible to an elite pedigree group and open it up to a much broader audience. We're all trying to understand what it means to be human. We all deserve wonder and connection in our lives. Sciences expressed through art can often help us understand our place in the universe, while drawing us closer to you know, this shared sense of humanity.
NC: Absolutely. I know that you mentioned this a little bit, but you did say you have some interactive aspects to your art. In fact, I know that some of your pieces have an AR, or augmented reality, component to them. So are these details included with the goal of inviting people in as you say?
AP: That’s right, I love to create pathways to discovery and organic ones, because I think, especially with distance learning these days, nobody needs another lesson. But instead, if it's sort of like an engaging, organic space that people can step into and choose to take and journey how they like, I think it's much more inclusive and compassionate.
NC: Do you take any artistic influences from anybody, any particular people or pieces that you draw from?
AP: Not particular people or pieces by way of artists themselves, but I think I take a lot of inspiration from my collaborators and my heritage. I'm often thinking about how the rituals that I grew up with can be shared with broader audiences. Often the colors that I use you'll find on the streets of Thailand or Indonesia. The murals that I make that are portals of discovery are often inspired by conversations with scientists who study the very entities that I'm depicting.
NC: I was first introduced to your art through your many posters of the “Beyond Curie” project. They decorated my school, so I am pretty familiar with those, and they were pretty inspirational for me. I always loved the messages you embedded in them. Can you talk a little bit about that series in general or the process behind it?
AP: I started “Beyond Curie” after the 2016 election, where we saw just waves of misogyny crashing down around us. I wasn't sure what to do, where to volunteer or give my time. A friend said to me, “you should contribute in a way that only you uniquely can.” I started thinking about my experience as a woman in STEM, how challenging it was, and how so many of these very same stories go unseen and how so many women doing incredible groundbreaking work aren't being recognized and are underfunded and left out of history. I started a series of portraits depicting women in STEM, as I saw them, vital and luminous and using their power to shape our world. I think I was a little bit sheepish to admit that a lot of these names I actually didn't know when I started doing the research, mathematicians like Maryam Mirzakhani, engineers, like Mary G. Ross. These portraits are what scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists look like. We have to say that representation matters -- because it does. A collaborator of mine who teaches a survey course on astronomy to freshmen told me of a small experiment that she ran where she only included photographs of women in her course materials for her class. It's important to note that the texts remain the same. She didn't emit any male scientists or diminish the significance of their discoveries in any way. But a student walked into office hours one day and exclaimed, “I didn't know all astronomers were women!” I just found this so powerful, but also funny at the same time,
NC: That’s a pretty striking moment. You had so many of these posters, and quite a number of them. Was it thirty-something?
AP: I think it's 42. There's always folks writing to me about scientists who inspired them that I should include in this series. I love those messages.
NC: Did you get most of the women that you wanted to depict these posters from other people who suggested you look into and research them?
AP: Many of them were certainly sourced from the community who were excited about this project, and I’ve continued to slowly add to it. I started with a set of Nobel Prize winners that most of us, unfortunately, haven't heard of, and some notables. But to kind of see this steady stream of suggestions come through has been really great.
NC: Do you have any particular favorite among them?
AP: You know, my favorites change every day! That's a tough question.
NC: In addition to the number of posters you've made, you're also pretty well known for the murals you've done. So can you describe how making those are different? Do your messages behind them change or just the artistic process of such a physically large project as compared to making these posters?
AP: You know, this is an interesting question. It's certainly different. “Beyond Curie” was largely a digital work that was released online as a resource. It was, you know, really democratized in that way, which was nice. But with mural making it's obviously very physical. Some of these murals are 250 feet wide by 35 feet high. It’s certainly an endeavor, but we never do any of this big work alone. I think what is most beautiful about the process of mural making is the community that's involved. I have my scientific collaborators who do the research on which I base the murals on, and the conversations that we have inspire exactly what the imagery will be. I hire locally for my assistants to come and help me with the actual production of the mural. We invite youth, local youth to come and learn about augmented reality, and the subject matter of the mural. It's a really beautiful time where the community just gets to take part and make their mark in a city they call home.
NC: Sounds like you're almost describing even in these individually motivated projects a very collaborative process, not just on your end when you're planning and figuring out the logistics of these murals, but also when you get community involvement.
AP: I love working with others. For me, it's the diverse perspectives threading together. That's just really exciting. Whether I'm exploring microscopic worlds or quantum physics or community care, I think it's crucial for my process to work with both subject matter experts and audiences that the work might impact and this feedback is really such a gift and most folks really enjoy being part of this process to
NC: Could you describe your more recent murals, some specific examples of a project and how it went and the logistics?
AP: One of my favorites was actually created in partnership with Dr. Cindy Regal at the University of Colorado. She is a physicist that studies how light can be used to move matter. Super fascinating stuff. We were kind of noodling on where we could put a mural that depicted this. It just so happened that Washington Park and the city of Denver was excited to have this mural in this particular location on a building that wasn't sort of like a rectangular wall, but was a little bit sloped and kind of unique in its construction. I love this particular mural, because it's not only unique in shape, but also in the way it came together. Oftentimes, I am creating the design ahead of time and then finding a place or a home for the mural. But for this, I really had the opportunity to design specifically for this space. What you see is just this flurry of light, and women harnessing that light to move sort of like blue bubbles of matter. I think it's really just striking in its movement and dynamism. I think anyone who comes through this space is kind of captivated by the power of these women. Of course, they appear larger than life as well. I think the best part, though, of the whole experience was working with the DAVA Arts youth local nonprofit that uses art making to promote a sense of belonging and foster curiosity, and they were able to come out and meet the scientist and me. We were able to talk a little bit about mixed reality projects and what the possibilities of those are. It was just a really great day that I will always remember.
NC: Wow. I know you mentioned earlier that you're always trying to get people to really feel invited and understand the overall messages of your work, and you try to really have your pieces be very open to them. Where did you get the idea for the community involvement in the actual creative process? Where did you get the inspiration for that?
AP: One of the very first murals I made was in collaboration with local youth. I've kind of stayed with that method of creation, because I think it's so important to uplift youth voices, I think oftentimes, we don't give us enough credit. It’s really great to be able to see them grow in the span of a few days of creating something larger than perhaps they had ever imagined.
NC: I'd also like to ask you about some of the other themes that you've been exploring in your works. Very relevant to our turbulent times is your goal of amplifying the AAPI presence in your pieces. We've seen a lot of your art respond to the recent anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that's been skyrocketing during the pandemic. Can you talk about I suppose these projects and where the specific inspiration came from, such as for your “I still Believe in Our City” campaign? Or the Time magazine that you did this past March?
AP: There's a lot to unpack there. I think before I released “I still Believe in Our City” I wouldn't necessarily have called myself an activist. I think until then, I'd only ever self-identified as an artist and an advocate. Perhaps this was because I was afraid to fully embrace the mantle and visibility of being an activist. But I was also probably holding on to the immigrant mentality of putting your head down and not making trouble as my parents did. But as I was creating the work, I considered that maybe they had endured all that hardship and racism so that I could have the privilege of raising my voice. When you look at how pointed some of the languages in this series, “I didn't make you sick,” “I'm not your scapegoat.” It's almost as if the work was sharing my truth before I could find the words on my own. I think that part of it is really beautiful. But ultimately, I wanted the work to kind of hold space for our community to be a visible presence that provided a sense of belonging, and to remind us in our grief of our joy that we deserve to have, and the resilience that we know we possess.
NC: I think these were certainly very poignant works. As an Asian American and New Yorker myself, I've been pretty familiar with the number of pieces that you've produced. Do you think that in the future, you'll be continuing to create pieces that simply promote the API voice, and in general, go towards more of that activist direction?
AP: I'm sure of course. I mean, it was definitely nerve wracking to start to do this kind of work. But I felt so strongly about responding to the anti-Asian hate hurting our community that there was such a sense of urgency and anger that made the fear subside. We live in an incredibly noisy world. I wanted to create art that stops people in their tracks and makes them look and listen, even if they don't want to. I think it's so important to help folks feel pride and joy as expansive as the public works that they see. I think it would be a gift if every time someone sees one of my works that they're reminded of their own strength and resilience. I think these works are also a reminder to question if we're doing enough for our communities, which we rarely are, and a reminder, check on our friends and neighbors.
NC: And you have all of these quotes. I'm very curious how you were inspired to write these specific phrases, did you hear them from actual people?
AP: Not actual people, but myself, actually. On the subway, I had this encounter with a gentleman who was pretty hateful. I went home, because I just was too stunned to say anything in the moment. I just did a bit of journaling. These are some of the things that I wish I had said, in the moment. I think “I still Believe in Our City” was about responding to very specifically anti-Asian hate, the companion that I released with Time Square arts, called “We Are More” is more about celebrating our resilience and range, because I think it's so easy to scapegoat us and stereotype us because our stories just aren't out there. If we can have a platform for celebrating our expansive diversity, then hopefully folks get to see more of us and get to see that we aren't a monolith and that there's great beauty and diversity and depth in our community.
NC: It is very interesting how at that moment on the subway you found yourself speechless and unable to respond, but by creating this were able to respond very broadly. I suppose even more powerfully.
AP: I think many artists speak through their work. I certainly for one am one of those people.
NC: That's really interesting. It’s great that artists are playing a greater role, in the activist and political spheres.
AP: Yes, I think so. I also think that artists often make the very best collaborators in this sense. I think that art can help us see a future that we can't yet imagine. It can soothe grief and amplify joy and move us to action. It can help us heal our wounds and access catharsis and really be a rallying cry for systemic change by raising our voices. The process of creating art that is deeply resonant for communities is one that requires active listening, adaptation, and compassion. It makes us well suited to partner with government agencies and institutions across sectors who are looking for creative ways to fight for our shared futures.
NC: In addition to just using art as almost a medium of responding like you did in these moments, do you find that creating is also an explorative process?
AP: Absolutely. I think for me to be an artist is to be an explorer, but it's also to be a healer. I think I take an incredibly experimental approach with my work. I hope that going forward in my career, I have the privilege of the freedom of creativity to explore the subject matter and the mediums and work with partners that I want to but obviously that remains to be seen, but I'm hopeful.
NC: Well, with so many pieces, do you have a specific work that stands out right now as a favorite, and if it does, what makes us so special? Visual elements? Message? Sentimental reasons?
AP: Nothing means more to me as an artist and to hear how my work has touched and shapes people's lives. I think the work I've done to uplift the AAPI community has been just deeply personal and particularly healing for me to create. Every piece is a loving portrait of our people and creating this work helped me process some of the anxiety and grief and fear and anger. Hearing from older API folks that seeing my work around town made them feel a sense of safety and belonging just kind of brought me to tears, and seeing people proudly carry that work at rallies and protests or hearing from moms that their children are bringing my art to school to combat anti-Asian bullying. I can't even describe actually how meaningful that's been. But I also think hearing from young people that my career makes them feel like they don't need to fit into boxes to make an impact is also just as meaningful.
NC: Wow. Do you have any advice to people or growing artists, especially to those who might want to carry similar messages to you or have similar goals?
AP: Yeah, I think I just would want to remind folks that there's room here for all of our voices. I'd want to encourage us to all embrace all the weird and wonderful quirks about ourselves. I think the world is often telling us to be one thing or the other and to choose one path over the other. If you're feeling discouraged, because someone said something hurtful or racist about your work, know that it means you're probably on the right track. Because if your work says something that is deeply meaningful to you, and it's resonant for a community, when it reaches a certain threshold of people, some people just aren't going to like it. And that's totally okay. You know and its beauty and power isn't for them. Art that doesn't confront probably isn't saying that much to begin with. This tension that I'm talking about is important. This agitation is how we instigate change.
NC: What future direction do you think you're planning on bringing your art towards? Or what are you even working on right now or have just completed,
AP: My career has been so unpredictable. So far, not exactly sure what the future will bring. But lately, I've been proudly exploring more of my Asian American identity. Taking care of my aging parents is kind of hitting me hard. To see the years of sacrifice that way on their shoulders is just bringing up a lot of emotions that I'm sure will make their way into my art. I'm also leaning into the more participatory and sculptural parts of my practice. I've been reflecting on the rituals of my Southeast Asian heritage and playing around with ways I might be able to extend that healing and catharsis to others. Something in that realm, because I think as artists, we can be healers. Right now, what I can offer through my art is healing.
NC: Well, I guess then with that, is there anything else you'd like listeners to know about you that I haven't addressed? Or do you have any final message you'd like to share with the audience?
AP: I probably want to share a bit more about my jump from art to science, because I don't think I was able to fully articulate in the moment when you asked, because oftentimes, I think people assume that it happened overnight -- and it didn't. I think it's important to clarify that it took time, and it wasn't like a dramatic jump or a shift. Probably like many folks who are contemplating a career change, or a shift or a pivot, I was basically sitting in my bed at three in the morning thinking about this embarrassing encounter I had with a research subject where I struggled to communicate how our work in the lab impacted society. I just knew something had to change. But as I said, the journey to becoming a full-time artist took time, I saw art as a really powerful way to evoke emotions and tell stories and encourage folks to engage in our work at the lab. But, I just wasn't sure how yet, I was going to be using my voice. So not too long after I had this epiphany, I went to grad school for design. I wanted space and freedom to experiment and find my voice. I was certainly more surrounded by Art and Design, I found myself building websites for researchers and strategizing how to sell products that are focusing on expression or engaging with subject matter I cared about. I guess for folks who are trying to navigate a pivot or trying to shift what they're doing, just know it takes time, and it won't happen right away. Even though you look at other people's careers, it might feel like it just happened so suddenly. About five years ago, I decided it was basically time to craft a new path. I've always been nervous about supporting myself as an artist and doing so in a way that allowed me to still help my parents out if they needed me to. At that time, I was able to pitch a major foundation on running a design program for a Science Innovation Lab. Basically after confirming that grant was for sure good to go through, I quit my job. I was super excited. A few days later, I got this email letting me know that “just kidding, we actually can't fund this after all.” It was like the kick out the door that I needed to sort of get going. It was obviously rough news to take. But I figured it was high time I put my creativity to the test and make it work. I never really fit into any box. I just thought, why not just kind of work around the boxes that are available and craft this sort of like flexible ecosystem where I was free to collide the spheres of my life that I most cared about, art and science and storytelling and justice. To me, they've always been interconnected. But to anyone who's trying to figure out how to do the same to collide the spheres of their life that they most care about, sometimes the opportunity or the path lies in the unexpected place. Sometimes something terrible is the catalyst that you need to kind of take the next step.
NC: Well, certainly I think that leap of faith paid off for you. Well, with that I want to say, thank you Amanda so, so much for speaking with me, and to our listeners, thank you so much for tuning into WHRB Cambridge 95.3 FM
Noelle Chung, ‘25, is a reporter for WHRB News. Follow her on Twitter @Noelle_Chung_ . For any questions and news tips, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tune into "As We Know It" on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET for more stories like this one.