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'Artistic production should not be limited to formal spaces'

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In this essay, artist Czar Kristoff (in photo) talks about the possibility (or impossibility) of reclaiming one’s identity, memory, and power through (re)constructing image and space. Photo by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Czar Kristoff is an artist, educator, and publisher. His works have been exhibited in various galleries and museums around the world such as the Showroom MAMA Rotterdam, Jogja National Museum, Bangkok Arts and Culture Center, and Vargas Museum Manila. He is the recipient of the second Portfolio Art Prize, a grant program funded by the sales of a portfolio commissioned by Italian Ambassador Giorgio Guglielmino and Hugo Bunzl, available through the Drawing Room Gallery.

When I started formalizing my photography practice, I was consuming a lot of images from the West/Global North, most of them were made by cis male photographers. I am not really sure why but maybe my/our conditioning (as a result of colonialism and contemporary media) play a big role in deciding where/how to look. Or maybe because of the awareness that photography originated in Europe that they hold a certain power of telling what is a good and bad image? Assimilating as a form of belonging.

But I was able to take a detour through this project called Laguna Daily, which started in late 2013 or early 2014. The project (initially) documents everyday architectures such as shelters, clothing and design, in my neighborhood using an old model smartphone. Making photographs in low-fi quality, a total opposite of what modern photography should be, provides and/or stands for. I mostly shot during lunch time.

"Photography aims for permanence. But in order for the archive, for the memorial, for the images to exist in the long run, it requires caretaking. What if care is limited?" Portrait by JL JAVIER. Workspace photo by CZAR KRISTOFF

I was able to expand the project as long-term research and in other forms. And this particular work “Part Wall, Part Door, Part 3” (2020), was a great opportunity to (re)assemble these images/ideas I have been gathering through the years. Images of informal and unfinished tarpaulin structures, which my friend Clara Balaguer refers to as a form of vernacular architecture. Tarpaulin is often used in big construction sites to cover the structure but in many cases both in rural and urban areas, tarpaulin becomes part of the building itself, whether temporarily or long term. They become (part of) a wall, (part of) a door, (part of) a roof, (part of) a floor, (part of) a window, etc. Because it is lightweight, can endure extreme climate conditions, accessible (in the rural areas they recycle campaign or advertisement posters), and most importantly its adaptive nature (it can be rolled, folded, etc.) somehow the material mimics the nipa or bamboo used in the construction of a bahay kubo, which I find really interesting. What would shelter look like in the future when all the natural resources are gone? How would we define or construct a home in the midst of a crisis?

The printing format I used for this work is blueprinting, which fades through time when exposed to extreme light or alkaline environments. I really wanted to extend or maybe emphasize the ephemerality of the subject, which contradicts what photography is used for, to memorialize time and space. Photography aims for permanence. But in order for the archive, for the memorial, for the images to exist in the long run, it requires caretaking. What if care is limited? What would happen to the memorial if it is abandoned? Would we still consider them as valuable?

“Part Wall, Part Door, Part 3” was part of To Be Determined active cell at the Fictioning Comfort group exhibition at Showroom MAMA, Rotterdam in 2020. Organized by WorkNot Collective. Documentation courtesy of Ernie Buts. Photo courtesy of CZAR KRISTOFF

The installation of “Part Wall, Part Door, Part 3” was made possible using postcard plastic curtains. Mimicking the tarp itself or in Clara’s words, the sachet, which does not only serve as display/vessel of the product but also act as burloloy/décor/part of the architecture of the sari-sari store.

The realization of this project became possible with the help of Clara (and I want to emphasize this because of her direct involvement in the project) who shared her platform, resources and valuable insight not only to me but also to other artists that were part of the exhibition. And I will be forever grateful for her generosity and care.

Returning to image (making), maybe by constantly questioning what is a proper way of documenting/way of looking and being loyal to the ephemerality of materials and/or memory, is a way to reverse the colonial gaze? It is something that I have been trying to articulate in my work throughout the years. How to reclaim one’s identity, memory and power through (re)constructing (image and) space. And if it is even possible.

Czar Kristoff photographed in Laguna. (Right) A portion of Kristoff's workspace in Laguna. Portrait by JL JAVIER. Workspace photo by CZAR KRISTOFF

With that being said, there’s another work I want to talk about called “To Destroy Is To Build” (2019-2021). In the middle of 2019 I stumbled upon these demolition videos on my Instagram explore feed. And I found it really interesting not only because of the fact that the algorithm did a great job in providing me material but also to find them on the platform. Instagram was a space for nice and beautiful pictures/moments back when it started but through the years it transformed into something else. Maybe because of the Facebook acquisition or I don’t know. News agencies and other institutions started using it, meme and horoscopes accounts proliferated, it became also a space for artists to showcase their/our work and life and so on. There are many types of images uploaded every day and what we see on our feed is only a portion of that digital (dumpsite) infrastructure. According to a study, there are 95 million images (both still and moving) uploaded every day.

If we see documentation as a form to honor time and memory, like a monument, the act of sharing the documentation online somehow resembles a (public) ceremony, to celebrate such a monument. In this particular project, I was curious whose monument(s) we are celebrating.

First edition of "To Destroy Is To Build" is still available via Artbooks PH. The new edition (exhibited at MO_Space in Taguig) will be available soon. Photo courtesy of CZAR KRISTOFF

I took screenshots of these videos and gathered them digitally, printed them on offset sheets (made of aluminum) and reproduced them via offset printing. In the exhibition at MO_Space, I stack the reproduction together, allowing the images (of collapsing buildings) to be (re)constructed again.

And in this process, I realized that maybe the gesture of documentation, distribution (on social media platforms, through taking screenshots) and reproduction are ways to sustain the collapse, not particularly aiming to save them but to see the possibility that these symbols of patriarchy, greed, displacement, violence and power can be taken down. I do not think this project is about the celebration of destruction but the opportunity of creation. And it is not about reclamation of power by replacing a monument with another monument but a proposition that monuments could also be temporary, which in this case is made of paper instead of metal or concrete, that can be folded and opened whenever we want, and can be brought to any destination.

Kristoff currently lives and works in Laguna. Portrait by JL JAVIER. Workspace photo by CZAR KRISTOFF

***

I started with photography more than ten years ago. It was a hobby in the beginning and it turned into a passion after learning its other potential uses — as artistic practice, as a tool for social change, as historical evidence, etc. — through Youtube videos, pirated readings and conversations I had with peers both working inside and outside of local art and cultural ecology. And through the years, I have noticed the change in my practice. Not particularly on the materials I used, the themes, or images I make but on how I deal with my fears. Once equipped with knowledge, and I am not limiting this to intellectual knowledge but spiritual, social and emotional knowledge, the possibilities of one’s growth (in material and immaterial sense) could blossom.

Re-enacting memories is a method to embody people, embody space and/or time, that makes an impact on us. And after embodying negative memories for a long time, I realized I want to focus on beautiful ones when I was with my friends and mentors, learning together, sharing time and space.

In 2018, I started self-organizing bi-annual workshops in Laguna focusing on self-publishing and vernacular design. Surprisingly, people from the city were willing to travel to the outskirts to learn and listen. I made fliers with a minimum design knowledge using MS Word. I used my social media to promote the workshop and then I collaborated with local coffee shops to be the host space. They provided air-conditioning, projector, etc. In some instances, I also worked with computer/printing shops to publish the participants’ output.

The Temporary UnReLearning (URL) Academy discussed publishing theory/methods and then used an internet café as the production spot. Photo courtesy of CZAR KRISTOFF

Eventually it transformed into something bigger and I decided to create Temporary UnReLearning (URL) Academy. In the first series, I invited my peers to be my co-teachers, Cru Camara, Jem Magbanua, Aly Cabral, Mariano and Abbey Batocabe in collaboration with Dulo, as our host space. For the workshop I facilitated, we used the host space to talk about publishing theory/methods and then an internet café as the production spot. I asked the students to listen simultaneously to an ambient record via Youtube. And then afterwards they had to transcribe what they heard using shapes, images or text on MS Word. And they had to do the exercise in three cycles. In the end, each of them made a three-page visual transcription. Introducing the participants that artistic production should not be limited to formal spaces (in some way queering the idea of school or studio) but also to vernacular methods and tools on publishing, research and design and also meditation.

At the moment, Temporary URL Academy operates as a shadow library, inspired by Sucat Xerox HOHOL and counter-institutional platforms and organizations that came before us. Us meaning the past, present, and future collaborators of URL.

***

"Art making may sound like going to a park but it is more like going to a casino, it is a gamble." Portrait by JL JAVIER. Workspace photo by CZAR KRISTOFF

I was raised in the Bicol region which we all know is a typhoon-prone area. To experience extreme calamities constantly at a young age made an impact into my memory. Calamities outside and within the confinement of my home. So the idea of space (in the material and immaterial sense) for me has always been temporary and migratory. And I think with photography, publishing, and pedagogy, they allowed me to be the architect to the forms I want to save from collapsing, and to those I permit to let go. Choosing when to surrender is integral to the reclamation and/or reconstruction of self.

I am currently living in my apartment in Laguna. This is also my physical studio and storage. But in the beginning of the lockdown I was living with my family for practical reasons. Since there is lack of institutional funding when it comes to artistic and cultural work in the Philippines and if there’s any, you have to go through multiple layers and know the right people and that part is really laborious, so most of us fund our own artistic projects. Although I am not sure if this is also the case for my colleagues. Art making may sound like going to a park but it is more like going to a casino, it is a gamble, which pains me as I type this text. That we are willing to risk our financial security just to continue with our practice; that we are willing to disregard the violence of some institutions and gatekeepers just to secure a playground; that we are willing to travel long hours and skip meals just to feel we belong.

"I was raised in the Bicol region which we all know is a typhoon-prone area. To experience extreme calamities constantly at a young age made an impact into my memory." Photo by JL JAVIER

And with that being said, I think being unable to occupy these risky spaces allowed me to magnify the possibilities of being able to practice outside the institutional context or simply exist without thinking if the things we do are creative. The labor of care that friends and family have provided or shared during these times of uncertainty, for me, is the most beautiful and powerful form of shelter that one can occupy.

***

"To Destroy is to Build" is available through Artbooks.