Interview Alfredo + Isabel Aquilizan
Interview Alfredo + Isabel Aquilizan

Alfredo + Isabel Aquilizan
Interview by Dolla S. Merrillees, April 2012
Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation

This edited interview with Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan was conducted through email exchanges in April 2012.

This interview is published with permission of Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.

Q: Your artistic practice and projects have been described as an ongoing series of 'cumulative transactions': the work with local communities, the workshops for children, the sourcing, amassing and sorting of things. Can you explain the relationship between In-Habit, your Be-longing series, 1997–2006, and the recent Passing Through: Project Passages, 2012?

A + I: Be-longing began as a series of installations dealing with the ideas of identity, home, family and journey. The installations showed our instinct for collecting, as well as our techniques of exposition. For example, we stayed overnight in a museum and marked our stay by displaying objects from our own home. We collected mementoes from relatives in Australia; shoes, toothbrushes and energy drink bottles from Japan; colourful blankets – and the recorded dreams of their former owners – from Korea; and identification photographs and domestic items from the Philippines. In most of our installations, communities and the audience are invited to engage proactively in the production of the artwork and, in the process, create communal experiences.

When we and our five children moved to Australia in 2006, our relocation and settlement redefined our concept of space and site. The Be-longing project shifted to another series of works entitled Another Country. This series forms a quasi-documentation of our migration and investigates how art transforms the sensibilities of individuals who have been active participants in the creative process. In-Habit is part of the Another Country project and, in keeping with our previous works, deploys strategies of building, accumulating and rearranging physical objects. In-Habit centres on individuals and their personal stories, histories and belongings within the context of a marginalised community in the Philippines – the Badjao, or sea gypsies. Passing Through, exhibited earlier this year in Brisbane, concludes the Another Country series.

Q: Describe the process of filming in Mindanao in the Philippines and the experience of working with the Badjao children.

A + I: The Badjao, or sea gypsies, are a minority group in the Philippines. They originate from a Malay ethnic group that has lived on the sea for centuries, plying a tract of ocean between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Badjao traditionally spend most of their lives on boats that are typically just 5 metres long and 1.5 metres wide, landing ashore only to trade fish for staples such as rice and water. We first encountered the Badjao children on one of our trips back to the Philippines in 2008 and immediately the idea for a project materialised. However, it took three years before we had the chance to actually begin the project.

We flew to Davao, which is the largest city of Mindanao, a southern island, where some of the Badjao have settled. It was not as easy as we thought it would be: when we arrived we were warned about sensitive issues such as exploitation and conflicts with other subgroups like the Bisayan and the Moros. We had to be extra careful and approach the Badjao by going through particular channels. We had to seek permission from the local government to connect with the village leader and coordinate the whole project. All of these requirements made it more difficult to get on with the filming. It was also difficult to convey the idea of the project because of the language barrier.

We decided to film outside the community in places where the children usually perform their rap to earn money. Rap is now a popular music form played on radios, loud boom boxes and MP3 players. We discovered migrant Bisaya and Moro children who also have to rap to earn extra change in order to survive. These groups of children have, in one way or another, met along the streets in the city and local villages where they perform. In the end we filmed a mixture of all the kids – they all have to adjust to survive. But unlike the others, the Badjao kids embraced materials that might connect them to notions of being a Badjao. They played their beats on improvised 'tambols' (drums) using PVC pipes, aluminium wrappers of junk food, and rubber. They also mixed their Sama language songs with Bisaya rap, in the process highlighting their identity within an assimilated society in Davao, their adaptive, adapted, second home after the Sulu Archipelago.

Q: You have described your experience with the Badjao community as heartbreaking. How did you hear about their plight – in particular the rap music of the Badjao children?

A + I: Being migrants ourselves we have been touched by the plight of this itinerant community. We first encountered these children in the streets of Manila while they were playing their homemade drums to panhandle for money during the Christmas holidays. These are the children of Badjao families that, because of the massive relocations during the 1970s, started to move and live in big cities to look for better opportunities and seek an alternative way to survive. Considered as outcasts in the cities, they were forced to beg in the streets. We are interested in the children's performances, their ability to compose words spontaneously, and the way they express themselves using the genre of a foreign popular music but employing local dialect. Colloquial words are recited rapidly and rhythmically over an accompaniment from a crude makeshift drum.

Within the community where we have filmed the 'Tamboleros' – the Badjao children making and playing the drums – the small children stay in the village and look after themselves while their parents go to the market to peddle. The time we spent with them was an eye-opener; it was heartbreaking to see these children being on their own and taking care of each other while their parents were away earning a living. As the Badjaos have stopped sailing the seas and have made houses on land, they are adopting/adapting to land. However, even though some of the Badjaos have been 'Christianised', or have migrated to Davao, their core values and culture as Badjaos remain. They have to innovate in order to survive. Despite trying to assimilate in Davao, they still stand out as Badjaos –their language, the architecture of their households, their proximity to the sea, their sea-based diet and their water playground.

Q: Your titles often address the idea of journeys and diaspora, settlement and resettlement, while the works themselves employ unwanted, discarded and redundant materials that are highly orchestrated and radically reordered. For example, In-Flight, shown here at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) in 2010 and at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2009, featured thousands of small, recycled handmade planes symbolising exchange, travel and migration. Do you see yourself as employing multiple vernaculars – matching materials, forms and titles – to argue a social position?

A + I: In our practice we always try to make sense of how the materials on hand relate to an idea. We tend to use everyday materials because the audience can relate to and interact with the artwork, and the materials themselves and the objects they become are signifiers of meaning. Another aspect emphasised in our collaborative projects is the visceral and experiential nature of the installations, whereby sound, scent, taste and touch are each important elements. For example, the In-Flight installations at SCAF and Queensland Art Gallery had an ambient sound component – the sound of an incoming and departing airplane intermixed with the soft background music usually played in an airport waiting lounge. Because of their physical characteristics and the emotions and ideas they bring with them, these elements and materials play an essential role in forming the work; nondescript things become valued through association, rather than being inherently valuable. To answer your question then, yes, most of the time our work indirectly argues social position.

Q: 'Collation', 'collections', 'cache', 'accumulation' and 'multiplicity' are words that have been used again and again in connection with your practice. Historian Philipp Blom deems collecting a 'philosophical project' that seeks to 'make sense of the multiplicity and chaos of the world, and perhaps even to find in it a hidden meaning': Would you agree with this statement?

A + I: Yes, our projects have become a way to formulate meaning. Our customary practice is to immerse ourselves in the community, employing narratives from the objects and fragments of facts we continuously collect, reconfiguring mundane objects and treating personal gesture as a metaphor of human existence with particular emphasis on contemporary culture.

Q: In-Habit is in part a commentary on the millions of Filipinos who live below what is internationally defined as 'the poverty line'. You describe the Philippines as 'a country so politicised, so impoverished that it has generated a collective sense of discontentment and exasperation'. Is it the metaphorical meaning that is important here or the artwork as an object of aesthetic contemplation? Or is it somewhere in between?

A + I: It is somewhere in between. All of our artwork is an object of aesthetic contemplation. Pictorial structure, spatial illusions, colour relationships, forms and shapes, and so on, are the basic concerns and the template of our installations. The juxtaposition of these elements, the choice of medium and its processes, the audience's personal associations to the work based on their experience and background and their engagement with the space created by art – all of these create the work. We are also concerned with the power and significance of objects. We feel that art is a potent tool for creating change, so the metaphorical meaning is habitually considered when creating our work. In-Habit indirectly conveys current issues in the Philippines.

Q: What, then, is your idea, or ideal, of the work's relationship with the viewer?

A + I: Engagement is the key element in the work; the interhuman relations that go into the artistic production. By setting up situations that create responses and fuel a collective interaction, our projects go beyond their material form. Our interest lies in the works providing a platform for exchange through creative processes, negotiations with the audience, audience members as active participants in the production of the meaning of the work, and the repercussions of the work with respect to the audience.

Q: How does this sense of reciprocity and exchange, in your collaborations with each other and with local communities, stimulate and inform your artistic practice?

A + I: In most of our collaborative and community-based projects we aspire to create new relationships within the world and the foundation for these relationships is cocreation. We employ interactive methodology, learning from each other through collaboration and creating in a non-hierarchical way; in most cases, ideas and concepts are the product of these exchanges.

Q: In-Habit reflects on issues such as dislocation, loss and cultural resistance. Does the medium of installation, or 'total installation' for that matter, and the use of your material of choice – cardboard – reinforce or emphasise the transient, ephemeral nature of your projects?

A + I: Cardboard boxes imply impermanence, and they have a history of holding and transporting things. The choice of this material, combined with the medium of installation, supplements the idea of ephemerality and the transitory nature of the concepts that concern our projects. We have been working with the cardboard moving box as a material of choice over and over again for the past few years, notably in the Passage project at the TATE Liverpool in 2010 where we engulfed the entire gallery floor with assemblages of cardboard and packing tape dwelling structures, with upside-down boat roofs viewed through an elevated wooden jetty constructed around the gallery. The installation brings to mind the mercantile history of Liverpool in the nineteenth century as well as it being a major port of departure for migrants bound to Australia and to other parts of the globe. Another installation, Passage: The Eight Fleet, was created in New Zealand in 2010.We produced a massive inverted boat dwelling, an imagined community built out of boats, referencing the architectural ingenuity of past settlers who upturned their sea craft for shelter. Again, using transport boxes that have already travelled from one place to another is a metaphor for, amongst other things, journeys and the maritime history of migration in Australasia and Oceania. In-Habit will also be built with the recycled cardboard transport boxes to suggest the temporary settlements of the Badjao in the Philippines. The use of industrial scaffolding also implies the idea of temporary structures as well as stability. This temporary installation made and remade in different sites in varying configurations becomes a reflection on transience, dislocation, and our constructed – and in many cases fabricated – history.

Q: Are you influenced by the architectural environment of your chosen sites? How does the history and the idea of 'site' or 'place' inform your thinking for the project?

A + I: Another Country became a continuous investigation of the notion of 'place' through the use of objects and images, so the narrative of the site, and the participation of the locals and the audience, will always be the point of reference of the work. In-Habit is an installation of cardboard boxes crafted into structures simulating Torosiaje, the Badjao's temporary settlements. These cardboard dwellings on stilts will be created in a series of workshops and by encouraging the audience to create a communal experience by contributing their own communities of dwellings to the gallery installation. Corresponding to the life of the Badjao people, the house constructions will be displaced and transformed by means of meticulous reorganisation; presented together, the objects connote real or imagined community to offer a reflection on forced or voluntary settlements and a meditation on the impossibility of escaping our own identity and place of origin.

Q: German art historian and critic Doris von Drathen writes that 'it is a fundamental moment of human experience that the awareness of being uprooted not only kindles a wish to return to the place where separation first occurred, but also stirs a desire to go even further back and uncover the very origins of these roots'. In your case I would argue that you have transformed this phenomenon into an artistic process. Would you agree?

A + I: How important is it for you to re-engage with your homeland? Migration has always been a central issue in most of our works. When we decided to leave the Philippines and migrate permanently in 2006, we became a part of that community of migrants who choose to live outside their home/land and to seek a better opportunity and chance. As we painfully integrate ourselves into what we call a rootless land or diaspora, identity is inconstant and its construction becomes a continuous process of negotiation. The need to reconnect, the urge to come back, necessitates the creation of new projects back home where family, memory and nostalgia, language and the difficulty to adapt all become a part of our visual vocabulary. We are motivated and sustained by the anxieties and pleasures of a life that is constantly changing, turning our artwork into a quasi-celebration of daily life.

Q: Your work constantly returns to themes of travel, belonging, migration, dislocation, the stories that have been lost and the tales that can be told. Project Be-longing#2, 1999, with its collection of personal belongings sourced from Filipinos living in Australia is one such example. In-Habit, with its interconnected framework, can also be perceived as one such 'museum of memory'. Would you agree with this? Is it concentrated on individual memory or does it rather deal with some collective experience and phenomena?

A + I: Project Belonging #2 was a participatory piece created for the Third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1999. An invitation to the Filipino community to participate in the project was made through the Filipino community newspaper. Interviews were conducted by our collaborator Ric Aqui (a cousin who was then living in Brisbane) who then borrowed from each family an item they had brought from the Philippines. The objects were individually labelled to identify where they were originally from, where the family lived now, and the names of the owners. It was an extraordinary and quite voyeuristic insight into the lives of these families. In the exhibition the objects were presented on a bed of salt, accompanied by the scent of the Philippine national flower and the ambient sound of the recorded interviews. At the close of the exhibition, all of these objects were returned safely to their owners.

In-Habit can also be perceived as a museum of memory. It is partly an interactive and progressive installation: public participants contribute to the production of the work before the show and throughout its duration. With the premise of home and nostalgia, participants create a house fashioned out of cardboard boxes then add their 'home' to the main installation, contributing to an expanding formation based on the Badjao houses on stilts. Eventually, the whole installation will be a construction of individual objects based on collective memory. Like the Be-longing project, the In-Habit installation manufactures an imagined community; in the process it also becomes a museum of memory. Both installations paint an ersatz 'portrait', illustrating the past and present of a specific community.