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Un Magazine 10.2

Export quality extended: an exchange with The Office of Culture & Design

Michelle James

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17/33

Article

Design by Kristian Henson

I remember walking past the vacant retail space on the corner of Lonsdale and Swanston Streets, quietly charting the course of its transformation. The shop came to be filled, sparingly, with trestle table desks, flat-pack cardboard boxes and rolls of packaging tape. The most salient clue that this store was ready to trade came with the application of the blue and white identity of the light-box sign — Chiang Jiang International Express. Existing somewhere between satellite post office and dingy warehouse backroom, the shopfront had become dedicated to sending domestic packages: bulk bargains, souvenirs and keepsakes overseas.

Stopping at the pedestrian crossing, I looked back to see a couple standing at the window, gawking. They spoke to each other in the language of disapproval; their eyes darted around the store, fingers on the glass, exchanging physical nuances of criticism in an effort to be acknowledged for their disdain. And with all the unfairness for which we judge strangers, I felt certain of their situation — I knew they’d never lived away from their loved ones.

The Office of Culture and Design is a platform for social art practice and cultural research in the Philippines. Clara Lobregat Balaguer is the Director of The OCD; identifying as a writer, artist and self-taught researcher based in Manila. Kristian Henson is a Filipino-American graphic designer based in New York; he is Head of Design at The OCD and co-founder of The OCD’s publishing arm, Hardworking, Goodlooking.

I first discovered The OCD online through documentation of their project, DIY Diskarte,1 a series of informal design workshops in collaboration with Ishinomaki Lab and Filipino carpenters. I was drawn in by Clara’s clever, honest and ambitious blogs — she recounted hours spent in unforgiving trapik (traffic), moments lost in translation and most poignantly, an intrinsic sense of worth for the value of a pinoy (Filipino) project, despite the numerous contradictions of facilitating social arts practice. Instantly, I felt close to this project. As a half-Filipina Australian, the role of race, culture and privilege often manifests in both obvious and ambivalent aspects of my arts practice. The sensibility of The OCD brings clarity to some of the clouds that prevent my ability to assimilate into my mum’s culture — our exchange helping to make sense of my role as an artist and strengthen my ties with our shared pinoy culture.

Clara Lobregat Balaguer
Since 2010, The OCD has been a platform for social art practice and cultural research, which means we do community-based projects that use art and design as a way to address social issues. As our projects generate experiments that produce content and data, we decided in 2013 to set up a publishing hauz and design studio called Hardworking, Goodlooking (HWGL) to share our findings with others and represent an independent publishing scene in the Philippines. HWGL books also represents a mobile exhibition space for our projects, which are ultimately performative. Unfortunately, our brand of artistic practice and critical exploration of identity does not have a large audience at home. So we must turn to other places for feedback, support and sustenance.

Poster for DIY Diskarte workshop, where Japanese industrial designers from Ishinomaki Lab and Bohol FabLab collaborated with local carpenters and industrial designers from the earthquake stricken island of Bohol to build a hangout space for the Tubigon Loomweavers Multi-Purpose Cooperative. Funded by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, Japan Foundation Manila and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Michelle James
My memories of Ninoy Aquino International Airport are based on two small certainties — the availability of toilet paper in the CR (‘Comfort Room’ or toilet) and the queue of outbound Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) accompanied by trolleys of plastic-wrapped cardboard boxes with addresses for Dubai, Saudi Arabia, etc.2 With the scale of migration, I would think it unlikely that The OCD are untouched by the phenomenal scale of Filipinos seeking ‘greener pastures’ for lack of opportunity?
CLB
The exigencies of living in a megacity like Metro Manila makes every single errand an Homeric odyssey. Unbearable traffic, larger and cross-generational family units, mall culture, the incomplete offer (and chaos) of the wet market (fresh meat produce) … all of these challenges compound, making domestic life a team effort. It takes a village to raise a child. This is something internalised in the Filipino family unit, where many of us, women especially, leave home and country to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Once a Spanish friend confided in me that she suspected her Filipino nanny didn’t really love her own children because she had spent so many years away from them. The ignorance of the statement was appalling, but I suppose understandable. It is not the most ideal of situations, as we are plagued with the traumas of a generation raised without parents. But not always is it a trauma. It can be worked to an advantage, as many Filipino families do.
MJ
Impermanent occupancies and transitory communities become the consequent effects of the OFW, withheld from the rights of citizenship. This status can appear at odds with the balikbayan3 given their acquisition of foreign citizenship, often procuring a more ‘powerful’ passport. Do you have any ideas for ways that art and design can help serve communities affected by long-term absence?
CLB
Design and art are complicit with the systems that create inequality, making this a difficult question to answer. I am of the mind that trying to work with the system from the inside is a viable answer; using the critical, emotional, even economic power of cultural practice to transform power structures from within. But there is always the doubt about whether the system is too rotten, whether working within set parameters is merely perpetuating what is wrong with neo-liberal Capitalism, shadism,4 strong man-ism … It is a contradiction that each and every project struggles with.
Kristian Henson
Art and design are tools for communication and agency. In the case of OFWs and the Filipino diaspora at large these tools give our community voice. I feel like Filipinos have been seen for decades as a silent minority. Through art and design we can outwardly project our politics, our anger, our desires, our psychosis and identity. The platform to utter or express such things is not trivial but essential.

Spread from <em>Homeschool: Writings of a Project Recto-Verso</em>, a book about a series of art workshops and feeding programs held over the course of 18 months for street children all around Metro Manila. Contributions by Dr Minna Valjakka, Kaid Ashton, Lobregat Balaguer and Marc Chavez. Design by Lobregat Balaguer. Photo by Wawi Navarroza.

CLB
I guess the only thing I could say is that awareness and open negotiation with this innate contradiction is the only way to generate work that could devise a way forward. Another lesson learned is that for social practice to be effective, on a palpable and immediate level, one must involve communities in processes, decision-making and keep long or, at the very least, midterm commitment in mind.
MJ
Through globalisation, our social progress appears marked by our ability to embody a post-national identity. Is there something to be said about the privilege of those able to live out a ‘transnational identity’ versus the burden of those affiliated with a nation and culture?
CLB
Transnationality is as much a burden as it is a privilege. The question of identity is not just a nationalistic, racial or cultural concern. I believe it is integral to our experience of being human. Not being able to identify with a place, to call somewhere home, to find a tribe … all of that is profoundly confusing. Especially in this day and age for OFWs and their children moving to places like the US, where the discussion on race and culture has such a strong social prominence.

As a half-Filipina — with racially distinct features, a privileged upbringing away from the poverty line and a hybrid set of cultural influences — it is difficult to explore identity politics because my circumstantial traits set off a bunch of ‘chip-on-the-shoulder’ discourses. Up to a certain point, there is truth in the argument of my not fully belonging to the Filipino cultural value system. The fact that I can observe as an outsider and insider at the same time is advantageous. You are constantly asked to pick a side, manifest either your whiteness or brownness as an absolute. I cannot do that.

KH
There is fluidity to the Filipino identity, which I think is very powerful. We live at this very specific nexus between so many other countries and cultures. Historically we are traders, sailors, nomadic and multicultural in our economy, which is what one associates with a homogeneous culture. I can only speak as an American citizen. As much as I try to be fully Filipino through all the projects we do in the Philippines, out of respect I have accepted being Filipino-American, an hybrid identity, which I personally feel is neither here nor there.

A page from <em>Tribal Kitchen: The Aytas</em>, a cookbook of 30,000 year-old tribal recipes and remedies. Part of the larger documentary film project, Lupang, by Carlos Casas, Lobregat Balaguer and Stefan Kruse Jørgensen. Illustration by Ines Agathe Maud. Design by Kristian Henson. Funded by the Earth Observatory of Singapore Visiting Artist Program (EOSVAP).

MJ
I recently read an article criticising ‘the OFW experience’ as portrayed through a Coca-Cola commercial; three OFWs had the opportunity to fly home to be reunited with their families over Christmas.5 Needless to say, this resonates with the viewer and the ad takes its desired effect. In a nation where drinking Coke is interchangeable with buying bottled water, positioning the Coca-Cola Company as a creative organisation invested in the lives of participants suggests uncomfortable parallels with socially-driven arts practice. Both performing merit-good, opting for creative, even temporary solutions to systemic problems. Can you offer some thoughts on the complexities of navigating the social art and design sphere of a ‘developing nation’?
CLB
This is a difficult question for anyone practicing in the cultural field, which is dependent on external funding for survival. In the Philippines especially, funding is scarce for cultural projects. This hybrid approach, beyond simply ‘relational’ but actually committed to social justice, is not even considered art by most critical circles here. So you either have to find your own funding, by prostituting yourself as all manner of raket (sideline work) or kind of just take what you can get. This may be an unpopular thought for hard-line activists, but when you’re more along the lines of survivability than sustainability, it’s hard to say no to an extended line of credit. Not that I get those very often…!

Public funds, private funds, market-driven profit, its all subject to the whims and agendas of external agents. Just this year, the Tate Modern had to drop BP as one of its sponsors due to massive protests. The more you pull at the money thread, the more it unravels into controversy. The art world itself is a glaring contradiction of neo-liberality; no matter how radical you may be, the fact that you must engage with the system of institutions, galleries and art media in order for work to be legitimised means you are already complicit. There should be a way to accept this openly, address it, and use the overtly expressed contradiction as a starting point for any artistic endeavour. Transparency, at the end of the day, is the only viable option.

MJ
Having read your article for Triple Canopy, ‘Tropico Vernacular’, I’ve been thinking about the disconnect between the tourism campaign, ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines’, and my past visual experiences of Filipino street signage and tarpaulin ads.6 Are Minimalist fonts, a product of European design, used in the campaign to redress the pinoy penchant for excess; to neaten, formalise and make elegant the offerings of jeepney (jeep) rides? Does The OCD propose strategies to decolonise the Filipino self-image? Or is it a necessary part of the mixed Filipino experience?
CLB
Decolonising local aesthetic, as far as The OCD is concerned, does not mean returning to this idealistic, precolonial, tribal imagery, as if every Filipino had the right to appropriate tribal culture because that’s the only thing they consider ‘pure’ or decolonised. Just because we are brown, doesn’t mean we belong to these tribes. Just because these tribes identify as Filipino, doesn’t mean we have a right to claim their culture as ours and halo-halo (mix-mix) it to our gentrified tastes. That being said — appropriation, when done properly, can be an enriching experience. But only if it reverses the source of power.

More than departing entirely from any colonial influence, the way we approach decolonising in our books is by encouraging tenderness for the vernacular, everyday aesthetic influences. The stuff you see in lowbrow design at street level. The further away the vernacular designer’s technical knowledge is from Western or Northern processes — hand-made, non-computerised production, for example — the greater the chance of mispronunciation. A step towards decolonisation is not denying that these connections to the occidental aesthetic exist, but rather a shift in the perception of value: what is local, however uncouth, is not of lesser value. It does not merit a whitewashing. It does merit close study and rigorous critical framing. Decolonising local aesthetic is an exploration of what is happening now. It is not a reaching into the past for a pre-colonial root of identity. It is a mining of the present for clues as to who we are — a making visible of our current face without shame for its developing nature.

Michelle James is an artist and writer based in Melbourne.

Michelle James’ full interview with Clara Lobregat Balaguer and Kristian Henson is available online as part of un Extended 10.2.


  1. Diskarte is a strategy taken from the Filipino attitude of making the best of what you have on hand to solve problems efficiently, cheaply, quickly and humorously. 

  2. Overseas Filipino Workers — also known as OFWs are Filipino citizens working abroad, often on a long-term contract basis. 

  3. A balikbayan is considered to be a Filipino who has renounced native citizenship to be naturalised into a foreign country. 

  4. shadism, in a Filipino context, is racial prejudice based on the social stigma of being a darker shade of skin. 

  5. Fritz Luther C. Pino, ‘Neoliberal happiness: overseas Filipino works and Coca-Cola’s Christmas commercial’, Transnational Social Review 4:2–3, 2014, pp. 299–302. 

  6. Clara Lobregat Balaguer, ‘Tropico Vernacular: The New Society Tagalog in Helvetica, and one-stop sari sari stores. A recent history of graphic design and nationalism in the Philippines’, Triple Canopy, 2016, pp. 1–30.