Visual artist Nice Buenaventura on how the internet is important in her work

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With projects tucked in the corners of cyberspace, Nice Buenaventura tells us how technology became an essential element of her practice. Photo courtesy of the artist.

There are distinct shades of green that have permeated many corners of the city. When I look out the window, I see one on the walls of the house next to ours. The sari-sari store adjacent to it dons a similar hue. Even the high concrete fence of the elementary school I attended, which a few years ago was converted into a warehouse, also sports that kind of green. Something more familiar to internet dwellers: the walls of vlogger Mimiyuuh’s old home had this green too.

These greens, so cool and vibrant and garish even, reign wherever possible. Not even the colors politicians assign to their respective districts could transcend the ubiquity of these greens in public.

“An initial local survey suggests that this aesthetic preference, categorically baduy and full of character, is motivated by the colors’ perceived cooling effect,” reads a statement on the Tropikalye (Tk) website. “‘Malamig sa mata,’ as some would say.”

Tk is an online community index started by artist Nice Buenaventura in 2018. Here, Buenaventura, along with her co-director Cos Zicarelli, collates fragments of our contemporary vernacular culture including these familiar shades of green.

Tk is just one of the many projects the artist pursues. Over the years of her practice, Buenaventura, who is one of the recipients of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ 13 Artists Award this year, has interrogated the intersection between technology and the traditional.

Take last year’s “Boolean Garden” for example. Developed for her postgraduate program in media and arts technology at Queen Mary University of London, “Boolean Garden” unravels the legend of Apung Sinukuan through a digital channel. “The apparent incongruence between message and medium only serves to expose an underlying congruence: nature and technology can be mutualistic,” her artist statement reads. But like Tk, what a virtual walk in the Boolean Garden gives us is a better understanding of our culture.

A screenshot of "Boolean Garden (Part I: Interface as Landscape)." Photo courtesy of the artist.

In this interview, Buenaventura tells us how she found her medium, how ideas come to her, and how she manages labor during the pandemic.

First of all, I’d like to congratulate you again for being one of the recipients of this year’s CCP 13 Artists award. What does a recognition like this mean to you as an artist?

Thank you. I’m very honored to be a part of the tradition. The award, as a form of encouragement, does wonders to the spirit — and, if I’m honest, my stress level. All of a sudden there’s more room to imagine better conditions, in work and in life, despite the lingering pandemic.

Do you still remember the first artwork you made? What was it?

In recent memory, the first Wave Drawing. It would later blow up into a series my son would accurately call “a bunch of rectangles.” (Laughs)

When did you realize that you want to be an artist? And when did you realize that what you do is art?

Since I was a kid, I think. Except, of course, grown ups, pragmatists as they are, modeled the exact opposite. In the beginning I did believe that art couldn’t be anything more than a pastime, and growing up I wanted to be proven wrong.

My parents were very busy people when I was little, and I would spend after-school hours at my lola’s house. One of my titos who also lived there moonlighted as a painter who did commissions. I remember him teaching me some basics and letting me prime his canvases. Looking back, that was probably the earliest time I would see art differently.

You work with both digital and physical mediums. How did you discover these mediums? Or perhaps what guided you to them?

As for graphite and paint, I suppose I have to thank my extended family who took care of me and my sister while our parents were working. We grew up around uncles and aunts who are incredibly skilled in drawing, painting and even handicraft. Most of them were untrained, and all of them eventually turned to business instead of art to make a living.

Digital media, in the context of contemporary art, would only become appealing to me much later on, when I received a grant to do postgraduate studies in arts technology in London. The Boolean Garden projects would come from this detour, its second installment yet to be transferred from the studio to a gallery space because of the pandemic.

This is still related to the previous question. “Boolean Garden” involves programming while the context of the narrative the work presents is hinged in folklore. Then, there’s the attempt to replicate the mechanisms of a printer through human labor in “Copies will not fool but fools will copy.” When did you begin reflecting on the role of technology in art and in your practice?

Circa Wave Drawing, since it involved the handmade transcription of seismograms. That technology would become a recurring theme in most of my work wasn’t premeditated, though. I see it as a kind of stubborn residue from my time as a designer. Design and technology are almost inseparable, and when I made the transition to art, technology — but as concept rather than tool — tagged along.

Nice Buenaventura's "Wave Drawing" exhibit. Photo courtesy of the artist.

How do ideas for art projects come to you?

Following a tension. These are issues or concerns that I can’t understand or resolve immediately, and that which get offloaded into the process of artmaking.

I think I first learned about you through the Tropikalye project. I think I only began to see the aesthetics of contemporary Philippines (e.g. green houses) after following the project. How did this project start?

Around the time I started doing the work that would eventually become Tropikalye, I was teaching Philippine Design at the Ateneo de Manila University. In those classes, I tried my best not to just rehearse old dichotomies. This was motivated by a belief that there is a rich post-folk grey area in between the cultures of the indigenous and of the cosmopolitan elite, often overlooked and undocumented. Tk is an attempt to fill that perceived gap, a project that was going to study the intersections between contemporary Filipino aesthetics and the everyday.

After about three years of collecting images from the community, have you figured out how we’ve developed this contemporary aesthetic?

I have my theories. One is this — and I hope you don’t mind that I’m just repeating myself verbatim from another interview:

Maybe it makes sense to unpack “post-folk grey area” here. I see modern Filipino vernacular culture as largely a result of internal migration, a folk acumen traveling with the Filipino breadwinner from the province merging with the sensibilities imposed on newcomers by a gritty urban landscape. Add to that a postcolonial haze blown around by tropical winds, and what you get is a patchwork of beliefs, values and practices, along with their tangible manifestations. In our case: uniquely bricolaged objects, an architectural infatuation with the color green, and other triumphs over scarcity or hot weather that are neither indigenous nor elite.

On the website for Tropikalye, you briefly talk about fetishization and appropriation. How do you make sure that the project doesn’t exoticize these aesthetics and the communities where these objects belong to?

In the same notes, I did mention that Tk recognizes how some of us in the community may not have a direct hand in the culture we study. And yes, socio-economic backgrounds have something to do with it. But then again, the cultural class is not flat, and it is the duty of every Filipino to take steps towards decolonization. As in any collective action, different roles are assumed by different members, and I see Tk’s as a facilitator of mutual co-learning on the subject of our postcolonial identity by way of vernacular culture. In the effort to decentralize learning, and maintain a dialogue that is insider-first, I think that Tk is so far able to avoid othering in all its forms.

A look at the Tropikalye Instagram (@tropikalye). Photo courtesy of the artist.

You continued participating in the academe during the pandemic. How has the current situation affected the way you work?

I’ve been on study leave for more than two years now. As a student, especially in 2020, it’s been extremely difficult to do postgrad research against the backdrop of a pandemic. I was always aware that there was more important and urgent work needed to be done. There was also the matter of making sure that my household didn’t get sick, as well as adjusted to the new normal. At some point it all became too much that I had to file for a leave of absence. The moral of the story is pause and rest are just as productive as the other aspects of labor, and it took a pandemic for many of us to realize that.

I saw the snippet of the interview you did with Pandemic Pop-Up wherein you briefly discuss the kind of labor motherhood and art require. With the current systems and institutions that we have, could you please talk more about how you navigate motherhood and your work as an artist?

I’m afraid we’ve got a long way to go before caregiving is normalized within the context of work. As far as I know, there are no ongoing conversations about diversity of this kind at the institutional level, much less plans to change the systems that are not very equitable in dealing with workers who are parents. I haven’t figured out how to effectively navigate this except at the expense of either my ability to work or my ability to parent. I think that there are ways to address the issue so that it doesn’t have to be one or the other, especially for artists who, to begin with, live on the fringes of security.

What are you currently working on?

Apart from planning (worrying euphemized?) for the projects and commitments lined up for the next six months, I’m revisiting my visual essay for School of Commons via Learning in Island Ecologies, as it looks like it will see publication very soon. The text, being about archipelagic thinking vis-à-vis the climate crisis, is accompanied by water drawings of thrashing palm trees based on found footage of tropical storms. Also, while typing my answers here I’m working on my breathing for when I give birth. Any time now!

What do you think are the essential traits of an artist?

You have to be lucky. (Laughs) I mentioned on Pandemic Pop-up that luck is actually a big factor in how an artist’s career plays out. This is not to say that you can’t work on beating the odds against you. I guess what I mean is it wouldn’t hurt if artists were madiskarte, on top of being curious, hardworking, and responsive to the issues of their time.

"Boolean Garden (Part II: Soft Engineering)" in-studio installation views. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What is the last great piece of art you saw? And why is it great?

It’s hard to say because I literally haven’t been out of the house. I’m not a big fan of consuming art online, unless the screen is the point of the art. The last memorable show I saw was the Nam June Paik retrospective at Tate Modern, which, incidentally, included a lot of screen-based installations. But, what stuck is seeing a document in a vitrine showing a binary code transmission from a spacecraft on Mars. It was supposed to be mankind’s first glimpse of Martian terrain, and it was just a series of 1’s and 0’s. Thanks to techno-magic, IBM would later convert these numbers into pictures.