Clara Balaguer | The Office of Culture and DesignJob title or how do you explain to people what you do?
Social practitioner. Writer. Publisher. Graphic designer. Producer. Filmmaker. Any of the above, depending on the context.
Correct term would actually be social practice artist, but then again I'd have to launch into spiel of what it means to be a social practice artist. Also, it would only really be relevant in the art community, and much of the art community here is rather classically neoliberal in their views of what is and isn't art or an artist. I don't always have the time or inclination to get into certain battles with certain people. I reserve the social practice artist identifier for conversations with individuals who are open to the concept.
If people I'm talking to don't understand the term social practitioner--they generally don't, LOL--then I tell them I do cultural projects with underserved communities. People usually ask what kind of books I publish, as a follow-up question, to which I reply that I write and publish (and sometimes graphic design) art research books with a focus on vernacular material culture. Or popular street culture, if they don't seem like the anthropological type.Favorite work space
Home, for desk work. For project sites, outside of Manila.Favorite work experience
There are many moments that make up the answer to this tapestry question. Working in the field, literally, producing activities on the periphery. Not having to ask permission for split-second decisions. Lying on a bamboo mat in a bamboo hut by a tiny pond, listening to moaning carabaos while scribbling tomorrow's plan by candlelight. Renting a flatbed truck from a mobile disco company to transport workshoppers and lumber. All the random memories that setting up independent "shop" allowed me to create. The operative idea here would be moments where I feel I've agency or freedom to choose how and what to build.Dream collaboration
Anything involving the Institute for Human Activities, a research center for art and economic inequality in DR Congo. The IHA was set up by Dutch artist Renzo Martens as a collaboration with cacao plantation workers who live in extreme poverty. It is the most critically inclined and community-committed social practice project I know of in the contemporary art world.Pros/Cons of working in a company
The main pro is that you have a safety net in the form of higher ups and interlocking departments. Failures imply only a limited liability for you, as an employee dedicated to one part of the process. Responsibilities are compartmentalized, so you don't have to do so many things at once, not unless you choose to go beyond the call of duty. The cons are less freedom to choose your own schedules and adventures. And slower turnaround from the appearance of a problem to decision-making for solutions, on account of many more people having to weigh in with opinions. For women: the glass ceiling and machismo are extremely alive and well in the Philippines. Working in a corporate environment makes dealing with these inconveniences necessary. It also makes keeping your self-worth intact in the face of so much pointless aggro dick-waving a more complicated endeavour. Working in an all-female environment does not necessarily spare you from chauvinistic attitudes in the workplace. Some alpha females simply assume positions of power as carbon copies of male chauvinist figures. Pros/Cons of running your own company
The pros and cons of running your own company are diametrically opposite to those involved in working for someone else. Pros in one scenario are cons from the other, turned around. And vice versa.How do you get shit/work done?
I have intense spurts of activity that last several weeks, average of 3-6 weeks of non-stop activity and high-level productivity. And then I take a few days to a couple of weeks off to recharge batteries, depending on how long the productive spurt lasted. I do nothing or whatever I please during this time, which is sacred. Weekends and holidays don't really register in my consciousness. I'd rather give up sleep, weekends or holidays and then have a longer chunk of time to fully rest, regroup and think about the next project. Sometimes, weekends kill the momentum of a project. During the intense spurts, I will randomly take a full day, morning or afternoon off, depending on how my energy levels are doing and if there is a favorable ratio of work advanced to days left towards deadline. How do you measure your success?
On a theoretical level, by how much I learn from mistakes and how that learning translates into improvements from project to project. Have gotten a bit better at evaluating successes and failures. We are doing a lot more data gathering in this sense. Not necessarily multiple choice questionnaires (haven't the technical knowhow to properly evaluate this sort of data). More in the line of post-execution focus groups and sustained discussions with participants. Knowing the faults of a project, most especially, brings strength in the form of critical solutions in the next installment.
On a practical level, and I almost can't believe I'm saying this, the other half of the bottom line of success is how much money you have in the bank. Either for your personal use or for production of projects, cash liquidity is a telling measure of how successfully you are executing AND communicating your work.Where do you usually get your ideas for your projects? What is the creative process? Do you start with a concept? Look for funding?
Over the years I've observed that projects usually begin not from one specific point. They materialize from separate, parallel lines of inquiry. The job of intersecting these lines in a complex and constant program is the arch of my artistic practice, under the alias of The Office and Culture and Design, which strives towards real world applications of culture towards social issue resolution or commentary.
Before, during and after projects, it's important to keep a rolling discussion with members of the community, whether or not they are involved in activities. Conversations should try to discover pre-existing interest in skills, subjects or activities that you can bring in. Or else they should tell you what the community lacks or aspires to. Documenting answers from as many people as possible informs a program that could engage in the long term. One that fits the specific situation of the community and does not clash with the (social) landscape.
In parallel, we might meet or reconnect with someone in our network who has an interesting related practice. Else we might find out about someone's work over the Internet, usually by following link trails on websites, news channels, social media, messages sent by friends, random Google searches. Going down the hyperlink rabbit hole is a favorite pastime and often leads to fruitful contributions. Instagram is a good place for finding creative excellence. Printed matter also have link trails. They only require retyping parameters in your browser
Reading critical books and papers and articles and industry reports is a great source of inspiration in terms of finding conceptual bases for projects. Reading anything really is enlightening, even street signs, fiancé visa brochures and information posted on barangay bulletin boards.
In terms of graphic design inspiration, our best work comes from the continuous, undirected research/documentation we do. I usually record things found on the street and in the bottom shelves of Filipino bookstores, where book sellers keep the fantastically special niche books they think nobody cares about. This is where our visual cues generally come from. Kristian
--head of design for OCD and co-founder of Hardworking Goodlooking--usually brings in the high-end or trend-true references. As a Filipino-American based in NY, Kristian is in a better position to cull the gist of what's happening there and in other capitals of design. His visual references are then mixed with my vernacular ones. What has emerged is a style and, most importantly, a conceptual position that is differential because it consolidates developed and developing world languages, with impetus beginning in the latter. Flow of influence goes east to west, not the other way around, which is the more standard case.
Precarity pushes you to search for funding sources constantly. Also, friends who believe in the project play a key role. They often email with funding opportunities they think we could apply to. Or they might invite us to participate in their funded projects. To keep ourselves liquid in times/locations of cultural precarity, networked opportunities offer the best solution. Lately, client work in graphic design area has picked up. We hope this will remain a steady funding source. At this point, client work helps keep our personal expenses covered so we can keep doing the culture and research projects, the fundamental root of everything else.
What leads to project materialization is putting two and two together. Connecting the dots between a community that wants something; a theory we'd like to test out or area we'd like to research; a funding source directed towards this kind of activity, and a person or collective whose practice can bridge the gaps. Everyone should be willing to engage in a collaborative process. Not everyone who says they want to collaborate actually has the will to do so. The local research, theoretical framework, creative/curatorial direction, and logistics of how all of these moving parts come together is what The OCD does. Did you ever let go of projects? What made you quit if ever?
All the time, more so in the beginning of The OCD's life than now. Quitting has come from realizing we were taking the wrong approach, that our theory was not appropriate to the context. Or because funds ran out. In one of the more painful instances, a series of projects were dropped because of personal differences with a collaborator. That particular experience was a turnkey moment. Though the differences stemmed from events unrelated to work, it did make me realize that if concepts were garbled in communication with such a close confidante, there was something I was doing wrong. From the pain of failure, of losing a friend and a couple of projects, a better formula emerged. A better barometer of who to work with and how to communicate our project intentions.What are your thoughts on technology and how it can affect publishing? Are you currently working on ways to prepare yourself?
Pretty exciting times for writers who want to embrace the possibilities of publishing across multiple platforms. Now more the ever, McLuhanian predictions of how images and text create complex webs of meaning are relevant. Writing in sensorial layers, disposing information in moving and movable fragments, to be read in waves and webs instead of top to bottom, left to right (or right to left, in certain languages)… this only begins to describe the playground for contemporary writers who also speak the language of imagery. E-books are the tip of the iceberg, and perhaps an outdated iceberg because most e-books only remove paper from the equation. They’re basically scanned paperbacks, no different in essence than the first bible churned out by Guternberg on his screw press.
Right now, we are reworking the first book we ever printed, Tribal Kitchen: The Aytas, which was an offshoot of Lupang, a multi-channel video installation by three filmmakers: Carlos Casas, Stefan Kruse Jørgensen and myself. The book we made in 2013 was more of an add-on than an integral part of the film. Jørgensen and I are working on a new version of the project wherein printed book and film converge in a seamless narrative. We’ve made other attempts, as the publishing hauz Hardworking Goodlooking, to weave hyperlink language, sound, moving image and even smell into our books, but nothing as committed to new media writing as the upcoming version of Lupang/Tribal Kitchen: The Aytas.Work advice?
Don't assume that not answering phone calls, emails or text messages will automatically communicate a "no," "won't make deadline," "meeting is off," or "your quote is too expensive." There is nothing more unprofessional than not answering communication. This is unfortunately a very common occurrence in the Philippines. We all have trouble making deadlines, admitting mistakes or saying no. Being able to face the discomfort head on instead of cowering behind the non-reply is what marks the difference between the professionals and the nightmares. Better late than never also applies.
In times of need, take and actively seek whatever work you can get. Not everything needs to go in your portfolio, which should be updated regularly. Not every job requires emotional implication. These kinds of "white label" jobs, things you don't sign or advertise, are on everyone's docket, whether they admit it or not. There should be no shame attached to accepting these commissions. They are opportunities to observe and learn from other work environments, conduct personal research in new locations, and cultivate humility. Most importantly, they help one stay afloat and keep working on more fulfilling projects.Money advice?
Find someone who can help handle the money side if you aren't good at it. I still haven't taken my own advice. COO-type partner is on my New Year's wish list ever year. Have gone through a few candidates but none has been quite the right fit. If you aren't in a place where you can outsource this sort of stuff, keep all your invoices and receipts well filed by year and month. And keep them on a cloud storage service like Dropbox. So if your computer dies like mine did last month, the drama level is manageable. Learned this the hard way.Love advice?
LOL. Still trying to internalize the patterns of courtship, mating and cohabitation. What I do know for sure is this: Philippine pickings are slim for heterosexual women who do not fit girly-girl molds, i.e., who are not submissive in character, whose beauty challenges normative ideas of prettiness. This is frustrating of course. I love boyfriendables. But I'd rather be single than in a relationship of convenience that chips away more than it satisfiesLinks
Instagram: @clara.balaguerThe Office of Culture and DesignCockfights and Cop Tests: A History of Graphic Design in the Philippines