Manila’s mean streets: The Filipino Street Art Project – part 2 – interview

The founders of the Filipino Street Art Project discuss their hopes and goals for the initiative, and their experience of street art in the Philippines.

For the second installment of our three-part series on the Filipino Street Art Project, Art Radar presents an exclusive interview with Founders Kim Dryden and Austin Smith about the idea behind the project, the journey so far and what lies ahead.

Kim Dryden and Austin Smith of the Filipino Street Art Project.

Kim Dryden and Austin Smith of the Filipino Street Art Project. Image courtesy FSAP.

Read “Manila’s mean streets: The Filipino Street Art Project – part 1 here.

Part 3 coming soon.

The Filipino Street Art Project is a transmedia project that seeks to explore street art scene in and around Metro Manila, telling the stories of the country’s urban artists through their work. Through a documentary film, an interactive website and a blog, a monthly newsletter and various other aspects, the Project highlights the broader scope and function of street art.

Art Radar asked Kim Dryden, a documentary filmmaker, and Austin Smith, a Filipino-American storyteller with degrees in South and Southeast Asian studies, more about their experience and goals for the future of the project.

Lee Salvador, 'Untitled', 2013, acrylic paint. Image courtesy the artist.

Lee Salvador, ‘Untitled’, 2013, acrylic paint. Image courtesy the artist.

Could you introduce our readers to the Filipino Street Art Project and its various facets?

The Filipino Street Art Project (FSAP for short) is a documentary-based transmedia project that seeks to explore the Philippines through street art. It is comprised of a longer form documentary, the Imagination Project, a series of short videos and an interactive website to tie it all together. The goal is to use many storytelling elements – video, photos, written content, maps, etc. – to explore the Philippines and celebrate street art as a vibrant, populist form of communication.

We began working on this project in October 2012 and our first production trip started in October 2013. This trip was mainly about documenting seven artists and collecting materials for the Imagination Project.

Tell us more about the Imagination Project.

In the spring of 2013, we began developing the Imagination Project. It’s a media production class at Wake Forest University – our alma mater – where groups of undergrads and graduate documentary filmmaking students produce interactive e-books, each group focusing on one artist. We developed this class based on an existing model at Wake Forest’s Documentary Filmmaking Programme, where Kim received her MFA.

Primary instructors and guest lecturers give the class context about the Philippines – economy, politics, the history of colonialisation, effects of globalisation – so they have a solid understanding of the place as they create their projects. Each group is instructed to not only tell the story of their artist, but also use their artists’ work to dive deeper into issues affecting the country or the individual artist. For example, the group working with Gerilya is looking at how comics have contributed to the social dialogue in the Philippines, especially as it pertains to identity.

Kim Dryden (KD): These students are very talented – I might be biased because they’re my colleagues and good friends of mine – they’re doing amazing work. I’m so excited to be working with such creative minds and also excited to be working together on a transmedia project, a frontier of storytelling I’m very interested in exploring more.

Austin Smith (AS): It’s a dream come true. All these American students, from all over the country, are learning about the Philippines. As a second generation Filipino American (FilAm), it’s really heartening to see. The Philippines is so overlooked from an American perspective and I’m happy to be a part of bringing these Filipino stories to light.

As we move forward, we’re focusing on cutting short videos to accompany the Imagination Project e-books, and generally creating new media content for our website and social media platforms. We’ll then use that momentum to launch a Kickstarter campaign, with the goal of returning to the Philippines to document the street art scene more in-depth, plus raising money to pay for post production. Ultimately, we want to create a really interactive, engaging website that marries all of these elements, so that users can dive into street art as a form and learn about the Philippines and the issues affecting the country in a really visual, hands-on way. Then, who knows? This project may serve as a template for another transmedia project we’ll tackle down the line or we may continue to focus on street art as a communicative form.

Austin Smith films street art in progress. Production still. Image courtesy FSAP.

Austin Smith films street art in progress. Production still. Image courtesy FSAP.

How has the project grown and diversified from your initial plans for it?

The project has grown incredibly from when we started. We launched our Facebook page – the basis of our project to start with – in January 2013. It grew quickly and we began to do interviews on our Tumblr page, accompanied by Facebook photo albums, to feature a new street artist (usually Filipino, sometimes others) every other week or so. Then we added a bimonthly newsletter to keep our growing fan base engaged and we developed the beta launch of our website which is what’s currently up. In the meantime, we’ve been attracting press – the FilAm, GMA, The Post Standard (Kim’s hometown paper) and some blogs. People were excited to see more in-depth coverage of the street art scene.

How did the project begin? Where did the inspiration and interest come from?

KD: Austin and I were camping in North Carolina in the Fall of 2012, taking a mini vacation from university. We were having a couple of beers, talking about what we wanted to do after graduation. I told him I really wanted to position myself as a transmedia storyteller and that I wanted to do so through some form of contemporary art, using it as a way to tackle larger issues. He suggested street art – he’d just read an article about the street art scene in the Philippines.

AS: I had been looking for ways to tell people about the Philippines or at least make them aware of the relationship between our countries, because it’s a country that’s very overlooked by the US media and people. When we looked more into the street art in Manila, we realised that we came across it at the right time – it’s growing quickly and just starting to gain the international attention it deserves.

The Filipino Street Art Project's Facebook page. Image by Art Radar.

The Filipino Street Art Project’s Facebook page. Image by Art Radar.

What has been the role of social media in driving your project forward?

This project really couldn’t have existed, in this form, without social media, especially Facebook. That’s how we got in touch with the artists in the first place, and how we kept up with them and their work before we met in person. We use Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and, to a lesser extent Twitter, to engage with our followers, share the work of the artists we work with and reach out to new potential audiences.

How has the journey been so far? Could you tell us about any surprises and discoveries along the way?

KD: The journey has been incredible. I think the most surprising thing is the reception we got from the artists. I assumed that street and graffiti artists would be edgy, maybe a bit “hard.” I also figured we’d face some resistance as we’re both Americans, outsiders, coming into this community that’s very new and foreign to us. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The artists we’ve had the privilege to get to know have been so immensely warm, welcoming and helpful. Everyone has been so supportive of the work we’re doing and never laughed at any of my probably very stupid questions, especially early on. They quickly became good friends and some of them became like family. I was surprised at how hard it was to say goodbye and how much we miss them!

AS: I grew up in the Filipino community in the Bay Area and always considered myself Filipino. When I got to Manila, though, I realised just how American I am and how much I have to learn about the country. It was a intensely personal experience for me – to learn about my heritage, where my family is from, the ins and outs of life there.

Looking back, it was so incredible to be immersed in so many different lifestyles – we went from sleeping on a floor in Crus na Ligas with community organisers and staying with my family who are rice farmers in Pangasisnan, to going to a club in Makati, all in one week. Mostly, though, I found it so rewarding to live like your average Manileño – we ate at carinderias, took jeepneys, shopped at tiangges and crammed into the MRT at rush hour. I feel like I’ve had such an amazing opportunity to understand part of my roots, to get to know the environment that shaped my family.

What is the aim of the FSAP? What impact do you hope it will have?

We want to do a couple of things. First, to show people how amazing street art is. We’re trying to use it as an approachable way to start talking about heavy topics. Around the world, street art is being used to make people think about and discuss things like the effects of globalisation, consumerism, colonialism, etc. Street art is a seemingly simple thing that can be used to take on really big issues.

We also want to expose international audiences, especially American audiences, to the Philippines. Our two countries have such a long, complex relationship, but most Americans have no idea about the Philippines – it doesn’t show up on the news or in conversation until something like Yolanda happens. We want to change that, to show people that not only is the street art scene there really incredible, really dynamic, but also that the country as a whole is very complex and interesting and becoming more and more important to pay attention to.

Dee Jae Paeste, 'Animal Spirit Murals', 2013, spray paint and stencils. Image courtesy the artist.

Dee Jae Paeste, ‘Animal Spirit Murals’, 2013, spray paint and stencils. Image courtesy the artist.

How much freedom do street artists have in Manila? Is street art frowned upon?

Most people are just starting to take notice of street art. Your average bystander who watches a paint session will say at first, “Hey, this is vandalism.” But when they talk to the artists, see how skilled they are and finally witness the quality of the final product, they come around. At the end of the day, sometimes the people who’ve been watching make requests – they want the artists to come back and paint their buildings!

Street artists continuously have to justify their work as art – to cops, barangay officers, the general public – but the more people see it, the quicker perceptions are changing.

How do residents and property owners feel about street art? And the authorities? Have there been any controversies or run-ins with authorities?

This is a question better directed at the artists themselves. However, most of the time, the authorities don’t care too much. If you have permission from the owner, they mostly just ask questions and make you jump through the hoops of being respectful of their authority. And the punishments for “vandalism” aren’t very severe most of the time. The police probably have way bigger problems to worry about than some artists creating some pretty nice work on public walls.

In the above context, were the artists open to talking to you about their work, letting you film and photograph them and revealing their identity?

Yes, all of the artists were incredibly open and receptive to our work. There are very few artists or groups in the Philippines who are anonymous, so that helped. Almost everyone was really curious about why we’re doing this project, but very supportive of the attention and helped us as much as they could. Most creatives are happy to talk about their work, their motivations, their stories and we’re giving them a platform for that because we believe in them, their art and what they’re trying to do with it. It’s really a win-win.

Jood Clarino, 'Untitled', 2013, spray paint. Image courtesy the artist.

Jood Clarino, ‘Untitled’, 2013, spray paint. Image courtesy the artist.

How has street art impacted or altered urban space in Manila?

Again, maybe a better one for the artists, especially Rai Cruz who has thought and written a lot about this. However, in our experiences, we’ve seen an interesting dynamic develop. Some authorities, like MMDA [Metropolitan Manila Development Authority], are buffing walls but also commissioning artists. While in some contexts street art is still viewed as vandalism, in others it’s very valuable. The artists we know are getting hired to do their art everywhere, from skateparks and restobars to SM Supermalls and Boniacio Global City. People in charge of public spaces in Manila are clearly starting to recognise that street art can be a very beautiful, powerful medium and they’re seeing how it benefits communities on so many levels, not just aesthetically.

How is street art in Manila different from that in other parts of the world? Is there anything that distinguishes it or makes it unique?

We didn’t know much about street art in general before this project, but overall we’ve experienced the scene in Manila as being open, accepting and more collaborative than competitive. There aren’t as many big egos in the Manila street art scene as there are in other international cities and in general they seem more welcoming of outsiders. Part of this is perhaps because the scene there is much younger than it is in cities like Berlin or LA. As it grows and matures, and as commission work becomes more plentiful and financially rewarding, that may change. We’ll see.

Why is graffiti an effective tool for change among Filipino street artists?

Not all artists are looking to make specific change, but for those who are, street art is effective on several levels. It’s visual and visceral – easy to read. It’s also really accessible on both sides, to create and to consume. Because it’s on the street, it’s approachable for everyone – people with low income, people who wouldn’t be comfortable going to galleries – so everyone is able to see and think about the messages the artists are conveying through their work. It can be colourful and fun, too, something that stands out, grabs your attention and makes you think critically.

Kookoo, 'Untitled', 2013, spray paint. Image courtesy the artist.

Kookoo, ‘Untitled’, 2013, spray paint. Image courtesy the artist.

What will your film reveal about contemporary art and contemporary society in the Philippines?

Our project looks to capture this hopeful, forward-thinking spirit that we’re seeing, especially in younger communities. We’re seeing more activism, more people being outspoken about their beliefs. There’s a sense of building momentum, of a cohort of people who are realising that they can have a say in their world, maybe make a difference, beyond the confines of what’s often felt to be a broken political system. The street art scene is ‘a small story writ large’, one small facet of an art scene that’s really coming into its own at a really exciting, turbulent time in the country’s history.

Beyond capturing that spirit, we’re hoping to develop a platform for people to explore the art and stories, more so than “teach” anyone in a didactic way. We see our project as telling stories of artists in the context of the Philippines, the global street art scene and letting people take away what they will. For example, we’re focusing on Dee Jae Paeste, a second generation Filipino American who came to Manila for a gallery opening, fell in love and never left. We’re also working with Gerilya, an art collective whose work is cultural, historical and socio-political – it’s fascinating how they deal with Filipino identity, for example. Then there’s Kookoo, whose work is very personal to her and seems to celebrate her idea of a Filipina woman: strong, fierce, confident.

Our project really just aims to put these stories out there, give them context, and make them fun and visual and exciting to dive into. The Philippines is a complex, complicated place and we are ultimately outsiders, so it’s not our role to teach so much as to explore and encourage people to explore along with us.

How do the artists feel about the film?

Everyone’s been very supportive of us and our work. I think they’re appreciative of the attention and understand that we need access to their lives and work to make this whole thing possible. It’s been a very collaborative process – we’re open about what we’re doing, why, what we need from them, and we also make it a point to really listen to what they’re saying, to take their advice and work together to figure out how to make this project the best it can be.

From the start, we’ve been honest about what we know and the many things we don’t, and have always sought the input and guidance of the artists. Rai Cruz has been especially helpful in talking with us about the big picture, how the street art scene has evolved since its inception and how he views the role of street art in the public sphere. People like Jood, one of the seven artists we’re featuring for the Imagination Project, has become a very good friend of ours as well and incredibly helpful to us as filmmakers. He’s always willing to help us with logistics – figure out where the jeep lines go, for example, and has talked us out of more than one sticky situation with the cops.

FSAP was recently invited to join the Google Cultural Institute. How did this come about and how do you think it will affect your project and the artists?

Google contacted us about being part of their Art Project – they’re making a push to work with non-profit street art groups, among others. Their aim is to make art freely available to as many people as possible by putting interactive, high quality exhibits online for free. This falls right in line with what street art is about, so we were immediately on board. It’s been a lot of work to collect, catalogue and curate the work, but we’re about done and it’s looking amazing. The launch will be in April and we’re excited to see peoples’ reactions. We’re hoping that this will further our mission to celebrate street art in general and to draw more attention to the work and stories of the artists we work with in the Philippines.

Next in this series

In the final installment of this three-part series, Art Radar features the seven artists that are part of the Imagination Project.

Read “Manila’s mean streets: The Filipino Street Art Project – part 1 here.

Part 3 coming soon.

Kriti Bajaj



Related Topics: Filipino artists, acrylic art, film, street art, interviews, documentary, graffiti, public art, urban art, art and the community, art and the internet, democratisation of art, art in Manila

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