Conducted over a few weeks in early summer 2020, this conversation took place in text and video form between Allison Collins, in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada, and Mayumi Hirano and Mark Salvatus (as Load na Dito) in the Cubao district of Quezon City, the largest city in Metro Manila, Philippines. It follows up a residency undertaken in May 2019, when Load na Dito visited Vancouver, together with their young son, Yoji.
Pacific Crossings: Having left the Philippines in a hurry in March, I have been following the news as it unfolds, and inevitably comparing our two very different realities. I have my own (distant) perspective, taking in pieces of information from international news coverage, but to begin with I wanted to ask, how is the current situation for you? How would you describe life during the pandemic in Quezon City/Manila?
Load na Dito: We still remember the night when we were together at a bar in CubaoX, chilling out after the hectic schedules during the art month in February, the Kamias Triennial, Art Fair Philippines, exhibition openings, etc. People were still going out, sitting, drinking and chatting, although there was already news going around about the lockdown in Metro Manila. After the first local transmission of the virus was reported, in mid March, the whole island of Luzon was placed on Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) a subtle term for a lockdown. It was the last drink! Alcohol was immediately banned. No one could go outdoors unless they had a quarantine pass issued by the barangay (the local government unit) to buy essentials. Checkpoints were installed here and there that you could not cross, meaning you couldn’t access another city within the Metro Manila region, and public transportation was also stopped. We made no big plans, we thought it would be okay, that it would be manageable. Waiting for it all to pass, we became increasingly anxious about the things that could happen. Movements were restricted; so the only way to connect to the outside world now is through the Internet. Despite the physical disconnection, news is so fast, with different sources constantly updated. Our family and friends created threads that we communicate with. For us, these lockdown measures have built many online connections amidst this social distancing order. Time became very slow. It was the longest lockdown in the world.
After two and a half months, the lockdown was finally lifted June 1st, but we still spend almost 24 hours a day and 7 days a week at home. People aged 20 to 59 are now allowed to go out without a quarantine pass, and public transport is slowly coming back but with limited routes. Curfew hours in Quezon City are from 10 pm to 5 am, but in our neighborhood, they ring the siren at 8 pm, alerting us that we have to be inside and that no one can be on the street apart from essential workers. The total number of COVID positives is drawing a steep curve, with 2,000 new cases daily. We know the medical facilities are in critical condition. Staying home is the only way we can humbly contribute not to worsen the situation. This will prevent us from becoming carriers.
The same one virus has been at the beginning of everything [around the world], but the consequences are different in each country. The government of the Philippines is employing military and police, as if force could terminate the virus. While in this coercive lockdown, the government is announcing that police will conduct a house-to-house search for asymptomatic COVID-19 patients.
PC: How are you managing things as individuals? What is the daily reality for you at present? Do you have a routine?
LnD: As a family, we made a daily schedule. We don’t force ourselves to follow it, but it helps us to see it written on the wall. The home and family become the new micro-ecology during this pandemic and lockdown. For us it has created new ways of making systems that we haven’t really explored, like gardening (we don’t even have a yard), or discovering banana flour for making noodles and pizza, as we are all confined in our homes.
Load na Dito was also born in our home. When we conceived another initiative, 98B, we saw the house and household as a model in creating and adapting to different ways of living. For us, home has been a nest for our family as well as a place to incubate our immediate art community in a time of crisis. As we are conditioned, controlled and forced to be immobile, we connect home with the larger world through the screens, to communicate and to create solidarity.
PC: As a family you have been active on social media. Your activities at home now appear inseparable from your work as Load na Dito (if they ever were to begin with!) Since March you have created a few new projects. In particular, Mark, you have been making the “Exhibitions for Yoji,” Instagram series, which come from a place of humour, but also deal with the serious implications of being stuck inside.
LnD: (Mark) “Exhibitions for Yoji” is an exercise for me and our five-year-old son Yoji. His classes were suspended towards the end of their school year and summer schooling was transferred online. Yoji cannot go outside under the quarantine law, so he is confined to the house, interacting with us and his phone, playing games. I presented everyday objects to him as an installation in different parts of the house and he decides if it’s good or not. It’s an act of play. We treat it as a game, not to make myself busy but to make him busy and engaged, since he is growing and exploring the world. And since the world is now so limited and controlled, I used the materials we have available like vegetables and gloves, everyday materials and objects in the time of pandemic.
PC: Can you also tell me about the Instagram account @paper_panic_project?
LnD: (Mark) In the first few weeks of the lockdown, it was crucial and urgent to make collective projects. The @paper_panic_project collaboration on Instagram is a daily collection of works submitted by different people. The shared account has no author; it is a group effort to show what has been happening, using a very personal commodity which has been essential during the pandemic—toilet paper. People send in intimate, playful and political works. There was an urgency to do something politically, but it doesn’t always have to take the form of a fight. It is also important to set up a record of this time. Images and texts. The urgency to do something can also be imaginative. There is no owner of @paper_panic_projects. I’m one administrator of the Instagram, but the account is shared, like the experiences. @paper_panic_project tries to relay experiences and feelings during this crisis. It’s a data collection of people’s angst, boredom, and has become a record of this time.
PC: This kind of collective organizing seems to work really well in the Philippines and across other Southeast Asian countries. Having an initiator, projects can really gain steam and be upheld up by many people working together. For me this is very fascinating and a very different way to organize events in the art community. In Canada there is usually a central figure who organizes, with others folding in. It’s far more hierarchical. This more distributed method seems to allow for lightness and humour, as part of the connection that draws people in.
LnD: (Mark) Participating is also not just about joining or looking, but also about sharing and contributing. It is a mutual support. We could also refer this to a crowdsourcing fundraising model. When there is no other source of funds people band together and make work to sell for a common cause.
(Mayumi) Artists don’t have money, but they can use their work. There is currently a fundraiser for Jeepney drivers who have lost their income during the COVID crisis. Artists are holding an online auction to support them. They make connections between collectors, who are the people with the money, and those who are in need of it. It would be possible for those with means to support the Jeepney drivers directly, but in this country there is a big socio-economic divide, so artists are the ones who make this connection.
PC: A surrogate to social service. By comparison, we have robust social services here, and a more individualistic scene. I’m very hopeful that one of the things that can come out of this time is a new commitment to social behaviours that reinforce people’s wellness and likewise reflect a community’s desire to be creative.
LnD: Here, people have to take care of each other, as the government does not take care of the people. Artists are not excluded from this reality. This may also reflect why people don’t want to choose who will be participating in their events. It’s not just about art; it’s about life. It also is a resistance to the colonial institutions of art. People may not say it, but collective organization is also very connected to activism.
PC: Load na Dito has been a community-oriented project from the start, but you have also been making things happen in many formats, sometimes in person, sometimes remotely. Were you always conscious of using the internet and other social media methods to lead a distributed group of collaborators and communities? I’m thinking of projects like Kabit at Sabit, where you used Facebook as a platform to document and distribute information about an ‘exhibition’ of sorts that was happening in many different locations all at once.
We are interested in exhibition as the process of generating energy, and we believe people’s voluntary participation is key to that. Through our projects, we hope everyone gets their energy charged to continue a practice as part of their life. With Kabit at Sabit, we wanted to create a constellation of energy spots across the archipelago. We came up with the idea of using social media live feed. It happened last year, but we are only now writing about it. After COVID, Kabit at Sabit felt advanced, as if it anticipated something.
From the Kabit at Sabit call for participation:
“Kabit is a Filipino word for attached, connect or installation and Sabit is a Filipino word for hang or hanger. Inspired by the local and communal tradition of Pahiyas festival in Lucban, Quezon, where houses are decked or adorned with food, produce, crafts and anything that reflects the resident’s life, like vinyl records, teddy bear collection, books to bikes, this project aims to be a ceremony of vision, a ritual bricolage, an energy for imagination for just one day.”
PC: What I was really struck by in that project is how it inhabits so many places simultaneously and uses the internet and social media to foreground each unique place.
LnD: (Mayumi) It is also about the energy of information circulation. We used the internet to create an alternative cultural map of the Philippines. It was also about connecting to different people’s drive for creative expressions in a way that is not mediated by curators or institutions. Accidental encounters were linked by using hashtags and by sharing the posts in a nonlinear order, which prompted some artists’ spontaneous participation; thus the exhibition was spread as a rhizomatic network. The exhibition had no central hub or command structure, and its entirety was rendered as formations of parasites, rather than an organizing host.
PC: The offering is one of context. It goes against the assumption that showing the work will arrive at some kind of notoriety, which is often at play when people have a curatorial focus. Instead it is open-ended.
LnD: For us this was a different way to practice making projects. Kabit at Sabit is organized through an open call, which creates unlimited possibilities because it doesn’t have any certain criteria; you just do whatever you want to do, in front of your house. It’s a private and a public space because it’s a facade, a space in between. It’s the first thing you see at a home, and the entry to the private space of the house.
We also relate this to the question of how we are coping now that we are all locked down in the house. The house has become a micro-ecology, but we have also to be sensitive that not everyone has a house to live in. This micro-ecology creates new ways of living, a 24/7 lifestyle of family, pets. It creates an intimate ecosystem. We expand within our artistic networks, neighbours, the barangay and online community. We are part of the larger world, but due to the lockdown our physical positions are controlled. The question now is where do we position ourselves to perform different ways of living and connectedness.
PC: These simple things have made me feel grateful here. I can go outside, which is a very different reality that is not so contained. I still stay in a lot, to avoid the virus, and have been exploring many of my connections online, and also dedicating time to simply being at home by myself surrounded by others who have to do the same.
LnD: A place is a local context, and a local context is not just about a physical location. It is also our own bodies and the language that defines our location. One of our other projects, Flex*, was made in order to flex our mind. It’s a talking game, in which the participants are invited to massage, stretch, connect and cut words that are commonly used. It is not really a conversation, but the participants still have to connect one story to another by choosing a word and flexing it.
We are currently using Flex* as a tool to develop an exhibition with four artists in Kyoto and three from Manila. Our initial plan had to be changed due to the COVID outbreak. Given the unforeseeable situation, we simply decided not to plan, but just use Flex* to lead the way to an exhibition. No one is really curating it, but there is a thread woven by the interactions of words and ideas that are developing imaginations in each of the artists’ minds. Using the imaginations as a clue, they will bring their individual artworks into the gallery space like a potluck.
We see Load na Dito as a portable idea, compact and lightweight, that can be assembled and disassembled depending on the needs and situations. Like in mass actions in rallies and protests, people assemble in a certain time and space and they also disassemble as the gathering is finished. Portability is also flexibility and adjustability. We adapt in the fluid actions and mediations of art in different contexts.
PC: Some of your activities overlap, as Load na Dito, and others are just one or the other of you. Do you feel the need to draw boundaries around your individual practices?
LnD: (Mayumi) I don’t separate my individual practice from Load na Dito projects. I view it holistically, in this way I can breathe better. Categorizing and separating what I do from another creates weird territorial thinking in my mind, and during this lockdown I realized it doesn’t really make sense to separate. I only have one body.
(Mark) We talked a lot about our individual projects and about Load na Dito to each other and we see it as a healthy practice of communication and critical conversation. With Load na Dito, we really have to be in the same phase and space to discuss things—from the context to execution. I still see the difference when I work with my individual projects. In Load na Dito I become more of an organizer, planner and mediator. I work as a collaborator with artists, the space and of course with Mayumi. When it comes to my own practice I have my own process and method in artmaking.
PC: With the upcoming implementation of new legislation, the so-called “Anti-Terror Bill,” I have watched a corresponding resistance movement surge in response, in the Philippines. Your friends at Green Papaya Art Projects issued a series of very raw public announcements, a digital poster campaign that voiced a lot of the concerns shared among artists. A collective struggle to retain rights and freedoms is happening. This is in tandem with the recent demonstrations in North America and around the world that have begun to face and vocalize the injustices of systemic racism, with specific efforts to dismantle the pervasive structures of white supremacy that have oppressed Black, Indigenous and other racialized people in Canada and the USA for over 400 years, since contact between nations and the evolution of global trade. In very real ways all nations that have participated or have been impacted by colonial projects share this structure of disenfranchisement and abuse. Could you comment on how resistance movements are part of your work? Do you feel safe discussing that in a published form?
LnD: We are in solidarity with artists, cultural workers and people who uphold human rights. We respect different strategies to contribute to human rights advocacy. Some will have more effect than others. Some will get closer to the society we imagine. The situation is intensifying and alarming. We are trying to find ways to keep our imagination and practice. Continue it. We believe this is a form of resistance. We are in solidarity to fight injustice in the Philippines and all over the world. This pandemic reveals the serious threat of injustice to our society. Our practice explores the possible mediation of art in the current situation. To be heard and to be visible are the urgent matters. We see expressions as an extension of these urgencies, and Flex* tries to facilitate that in a simple form. Spontaneously uttered words may reveal critical thoughts and trigger dialogues to understand the situation.
PC: This also connects to the rights people are protecting. The right to have expression, which has been under attack in the Philippines. Facebook has been very entangled with this situation and the struggle to maintain free and uncensored media sources. In response to the very real crisis of misinformation that threatens people’s rights, artists have been very active on social media.
LnD: You are aware, of course, of the recent shut down of a major national media company, ABS-CBN. The company is so large that people didn’t believe it could be shut down. President Duterte made many threats after being alienated early in his term by a dispute with ABS-CBN. The shutdown has had a major impact.
We also reflect on the fact that artists are not part of a larger institution, and because of that they are less safe to be critical of the government. To combat that there is a unity between artists. There is no other way but to come together with one voice. Of course not all artists have the same views, but there is a cross-generational movement. Lately there has been the statement by Thirteen Artists Awardees.
Recently Load na Dito and other artists joined a private study group with a lawyer. We learned that this statement has no legal power; still, it is an important step. Under the new Anti-Terror Law, you can be arrested for criticizing the government. But art itself has a legal power. The context of critique within aesthetics offers a real legal defense and more protection. We are working on this now in order to be sure what we articulate can be part of the artistic context of what we are doing.
It is amazing to hear how a lawyer connects form, aesthetics and content to the law. There is a level to which art is defined by the law. Graffiti that says “Oust Duterte” offers a weak legal defense, but when something is discussed in critical writings, an artistic context, and can be linked to historic movements, it has more. We’ve been connecting this new knowledge to the Filipina art historian Alice Guillermo, one of the most influential writers on art in the Philippines. She wrote about social realism and established a connection between art and social movements. She wrote in mass publications like newspapers and women’s magazines. She spoke and wrote about art in an accessible language that is connected to her involvement in the People Power Revolution. She was on the ground working with artists here, but was making links to European movements as well.
Her influence is felt across the country. It’s a real alternative to institutional discourse, rooting the development of aesthetic actions and forms. She combines these pre-colonial aesthetic expressions that are rooted in the land.
PC: It sounds like an excellent model for resisting the adopting of the colonial form, which brings us back to your project Kabit at Sabit, but also your methods in general. Your work resists commercialization and the inheritance of the Western art world, focusing instead on behaviour, and connecting artists with one another and with larger communities that you don’t even know.
LnD: We always believe in small but honest action of self-organization, which takes courage and dedication. It is an ongoing drive for creating something that is shared, which can be a space, an idea or a dream. Load na Dito is always in flux; it has no fixed shape or steady form.
Those with a desire to help safeguard the wellness of Filipino citizens can improve access to healthcare, public education, or social supports through the following:
Concerned Artists of the Philippines
People For Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action
Para Para-an Paabot Naman: An Art Fundraiser for UP Jeepney Drivers
SAKA – Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo: Artist Alliance for Genuine Land Reform and Rural Development | Philippines