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A portrait of the artist as a young woman

MANILA, Philippines - In an attempt to gain a different understanding of my good friend and collaborator Clara Lobregat Balaguer and her projects, I will subject her to the Proust Questionnaire. The set of questions, a Parisian parlor game made popular by the novelist Marcel Proust in 1890, has been said to reveal one’s true nature.

Clara, a Parañaque-based artist, has a practice that embodies many forms and spaces — writer, guerrilla documentarian, unorthodox designer, social engineer, casual botanist — amongst all these hats can Proust help us find what keeps them together?

YSTYLE: Before we start, tell me about yourself and the work that you do.

CLARA LOBREGAT BALAGUER: My name is Clara, but I dropped my first name when signing personal work to give my mother some posterity through what I do, as I think it's unfair that society only credits the father for a child’s accomplishments, which are a genetic and social indoctrination project of both mother and father. Also, I didn’t want to be classified immediately by my gender. I am neither a feminist nor a chauvinist.

Concretely, as Lobregat Balaguer I do film and writing projects that are interested in the complex relations between images and words. As Clara and since 2010, I have run the OCD (The Office of Culture and Design), a platform for socially implicated art, design and writing in the “developing” world. In 2013, with you (Kristian Henson), OCD branched out in a publishing house and design studio called Hardworking, Goodlooking. And in 2014, we are set to launch a product line inspired by rural Filipino lifestyle. It’s called SAIAO, or Selected Artifacts in Alphabetical Order.

My work is contradictory. My aptitude or inclination to do social innovation within the realms of culture or design stems from having grown up in a background of some degree of privilege, never having to worry until a few years ago about how my basic needs were being met. Privilege, however, comes with responsibility to share the wealth you have arbitrarily received. Wealth as education, information, skills and the capacity to come up with ideas. I choose to share it through the work that I do, trying not to compromise any of my aesthetic or intellectual convictions. That in itself is a contradiction: to make art, to write or to design with the intent to contribute to the well-being of others. It is a contradiction because art, literature and design cater to the very same systems that create inequality, so the solution to any social challenge can never come from doing any of these things. Mental masturbation, maximum. The only thing you can do is soldier on through the confusion, try to learn as much as you can and hope for the best results from your ignorance.

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As an aside, I am also really into the comic possibilities of the Filipino obsession with acronyms.

You’re rightly being mega self-critical, but something seems missing in your answer. I feel like I’m lacking a feeling of all the good will and joy I’ve associated in your work since starting up the Office of Culture and Design.

In the past, I have tended to wax very inspirational when talking about OCD. I felt that it was necessary to talk with perfect words to get people interested and involved. I don’t think that anymore, or at least I try to steer away from it. (I even think the first answer was too lofty.) If anyone should talk in large parameters about what OCD does, it shouldn’t be me. If it is me, then it definitely should not be in writing. It breeds too many misunderstandings. I know you think I should sort of get over the whole self-flagellation thing, but I disagree. It’s a good thing to have learned (somewhat, sometimes) to approach things from about as small of a soapbox as can be managed. It’s the only way to let people judge for themselves, and let the work speak for itself.

Fair enough?

 

 

Can we talk then about a recent work you just completed, "Lupang," a multiple-screen, multiple-chapter film about the current lifestyle of the Ayta tribes around Mt. Pinatubo. It is a visual and structured piece that flows in different rhythms, patterns and voices. As a journalist, how would you describe "Lupang"?

Who: A tribe and three outsiders with a camera. Carlos Casas, Stefan Kruse Jørgensen and the Aytas and me.

What: A film about a volcano, a 30,000-year-old tribe and music and  karaoke. And a cookbook that turns into a livelihood project.

When: 20 years after the Mount Pinatubo eruption.

Where: In villages of tribespeople who have returned to the upland  mountain slopes. In a village of tribespeople who have decided to settle near the city.

Why: In order to understand how landscapes, social and natural, change after a disaster. Because to be Filipino is to understand and confer with the Ayta. Because the only way to contribute is with a livelihood program.

How: With manna from the Earth Observatory of Singapore at Nanyang University.

As a foodie, how would you review "Lupang"?

Stefan’s and my part of the film is a set of four meals.

Breakfast being a set of flavors to introduce the palate to being awake.

Lunch being the heaviest and least friendly to digestion.

Merienda being the lightest and shortest and most schizophrenic.

Dinner setting the stage for an introspective nightcap.

Carlos serves a single meal, a large exquisite one, like a big stew with distilled flavors, for an equally large day of mental distillation ahead.

 

LET'S CONTINUE WITH THE PROUST QUESTIONNAIRE. GOOD LUCK!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

It doesn’t exist. Nothing perfect does.

What is your greatest fear?

Not being able to face my fears.

What is your greatest fear within art?

Not being good enough.

Which living person do you admire?

So many people. Others are a constant source of inspiration to do better.

Yoko Ono, for her work and for being Yoko. Renzo Martens for his personal commitment to the people he films and for his honesty. Ai Wei Wei for putting balls to the wall. Okwui Enwezor for turning developing world culture into a new barometer for the developed world. Tara Birnbaum for turning my childhood idol, Wonder Woman, into a humorous and incisive piece on gender roles. Arthur Russell for believing that the popular can be of intellectual value. John Cage for being interested in the abstract representations of words and chance. Jose Maceda for his massive anthropological effort and how he applied it to groundbreaking artistic work. Basically, for being a game changer from the Philippines. Neil De Grasse Tyson for being awesome.

My daughter for her grounded approach to life. My mother for her wisdom and impeccable style. My father for his matter-of-fact acceptance of who he is.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Impatience.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Diplomacy.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

The fact that it doesn’t match the way I think I should look.

Aesthetically, what do you dislike most in a recent piece?

Budget restrictions.

What is the greatest love of your life?

Learning.

When and where were you happiest?

When I made decisions based on my own convictions and not on what other people thought I should do. Those times happened in many physical locations, but always in the same place, which is the center of who I really am.

What is your favorite word?

It’s a tie between caramel and schadenfreude.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Photographic memory.

What is your current state of mind?

Hope and worry, excitement and fear, time enough and deadliest deadline, contentment and thirst, in alternate waves.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Less paranoia about whether people like me.

If you could change one thing about the OCD, what would it be?

I’d love an accountant.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Embracing criticism as an opportunity to grow.

If you could choose to be reincarnated as something other than a human being, what would it be?

Something cheesy, like a baobab tree or the ocean.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Rock bottom is where you say it is. But if I had to be more specific, I would say it was being in a cage.

Your favorite occupation.

Backgammon on my iPhone, when waiting. Gardening, when worried. Underlining things in books, when in need of light.

What do you most value in your friends?

Common sense and sense of humor.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

The Count of Monte Cristo.

What is it that you most hate?

The fine line between love and hate.

What about art do you most hate?

The ivory tower.

How would you like to die?

Aware.

What is your motto?

"The past is gone and the future doesn’t exist."

Okay, so The Proust Questionnaire comes off a bit corny and antiquated; a holdover from a world without Facebook profiles and Buzzfeed “Which ‘Game of Thrones’ Character Are You” quizzes. However, as a device to parse through a complex and tangled persona, I read an artist driven to prodding and questioning not just the art and cultural systems at play but internally examining her own condition and complicity within those systems. Perhaps between these spaces, a contradiction—as you mentioned before—really is the only true state of being.

Such deep. Very profundity. Wow.

* * *

About the author: Kristian Henson is a New York-based art director and graphic designer who works with Clara Balaguer and the OCD on various design and publishing projects including the newly launched collaboration Hardworking Goodlooking. In addition, he is a part of the literary journal The Manila Review. Since receiving his MFA at Yale University in 2012, he actively seeks to build platforms for contemporary Filipino art both locally in PH and aboard, notably a showcase at the NY Art Book Fair last Fall and future ventures  *spoiler alert* at Printed Matter (NYC) and Ooga Booga (LA).

Photos by Geric Cruz Assisted by Geloy CONCEPCION, Sittings by Carla Villanueva

 

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