Kiri Dalena amplifies Philippine social realities at Germany's documenta fifteen

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Artist Kiri Dalena shares her ruminations on art, culture, and the market during the pandemic as well as her process and practice as visual artist and filmmaker through her body of work. Photo by KIMBERLY DELA CRUZ (Kiri Dalena)/NILS KLINGER (Fridericianum, Exterior view, Kassel, 2015)

Coming from a family of artists, visual artist and filmmaker Kiri Dalena deliberately tried to pursue something different, hence her choice to take something related to the environmental sciences. Since her university days as a Human Ecology student at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, Dalena has been constantly active in activities to advance social awareness and uphold human rights. Being part of a gardening society and Red Cross Youth, she felt that she needed to be more engaged in social matters. She co-founded the student political alliance Samahan ng Kabataan Para sa Bayan as its first secretary-general and was chairperson of Gabriela Youth.

She was propelled to pursue a career as an artist in her last years at the university when she joined political student organizations. During this time, she shares that she saw a few individuals or groups who had video cameras. “This was the late ‘90s and then I started to document what was happening on the campus like dorm fee increases, the protests against it, as well as around the UPLB campus there was a lot of factories where we had a chance to immerse to find out the issues for example in enclaves,” shares Dalena.

Her works have been known to mirror social inequalities and injustices in the Philippines as she has been engaging in prolific artistic practice for many years now. In this interview, Kiri Dalena talks about her recent work and participation at documenta fifteen (established in 1955 by Arnold Bolde), a long-standing showcase of modern and contemporary art taking place every five years in Kassel, Germany. In between, Dalena shares her ruminations on art, culture, and the market during the pandemic as well as her process and practice as visual artist and filmmaker through her body of work.

documenta is held every five years in Kassel, Germany. This year's artistic director is the Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa. Photo from DOCUMENTA FIFTEEN

documenta fifteen's artistic directors, ruangrupa, back row (from left): Iswanto Hartono, Reza Afisina, farid rakun, Ade Darmawan, Mirwan Andan; front row (from left): Ajeng Nurul Aini, Indra Ameng, Daniella Fitria Praptono, Julia Sarisetiati at the installation Vietnamese Immigrating Garden by Tuan Mami (Nha San Collective). Photo by NICOLAS WEFERS

Congratulations on being part of documenta fifteen! It is interesting to mention that Jakarta-based artists’ collective ruangrupa leads the ongoing iteration, knowing your practice involves collaborative gestures. I wanted to ask how the preparations are going as the world is just opening from isolation.

The world is just opening. I think that is something we could qualify in terms of how different the situations are in different parts of the world. We were just opening in the Philippines but in the other parts of the world they were opening last year, and I think that was a shock for me that in August of 2021, they invited me to come here [Kassel] to do research as well as to understand lumbung more or the concept that ruangrupa introduced for documenta fifteen. To be able to come here I felt like I’ve gone through an eye of the needle because we were still [in] ECQ wearing masks. It was so difficult. I think I was only able to come through because of a strong letter of support from Kassel. When I came here, there were already children out on the streets and persons 60 years old and above. Establishments were open and I saw that they had testers which were free, while the tests in the Philippines were so expensive. I also did not understand that. You can get tests here for free or very cheap, just about one Euro, while it costs thousands of pesos in the Philippines. So, that’s a lot of difference for me to take in — how different the circumstances are, and that they don’t know that it was different in other countries. I wanted to say in terms of the world opening just now, the circumstances are different, and we’ve had one of the strictest rules during the pandemic in the Philippines.

I think the challenge for ruangrupa was the decision to continue because it’s such a large project done every five years. Considering the setback of the pandemic, it became largely online. In terms of exchanges, what was good about it is that it was the first international platform that I joined where there were a lot of opportunities to meet the artists first even if it was largely online. Also, the transparency of how we work including the finances. Also, the possibility of sharing resources was there. It’s a new format for me and it opens a lot of possibilities however difficult it is to perform.

I understand lumbung is an Indonesian word that means communal rice-barn, and this echoes a sense of communality and collaboration. Can you tell us more about your work in documenta fifteen? Are we expecting a film? Perhaps an installation?

My work is in several parts, but the one that I’m presenting when it opens publicly on June 18 is a five-channel installation with large projections. When I was invited, we were still locked in and it was so difficult to imagine what I could do when you cannot move. The installation is titled “Lines” or “Pila” (2022). We shot it outside of my house. The lines that collect, converge and the lines of people who come as we thought as early as 3 a.m. We found out they come in as early as 1 a.m. to wait in line for the pantry. But we were able to shoot last December of 2021, because of the conditions in the Philippines where we’re not allowed to get close to people.

We started in December, so the duration of the shoot was until May just after the elections. It is a one-hour long installation consisting of five screens and for the first 15 minutes, it’s just people steady, static, seated in the dark, [and] physically distanced. Before, visually I thought it was seeing people in the darkness waiting quietly, but by 6 a.m., they start to walk. But then we decided to ask permission. We’re a group of three filming this — camera person, Jippy Pascua, the sound recordist, Che Villanueva, and I as the director. We asked permission from the people in the line if we could record their conversations.

Installation view of “Pila” (2022). Photo from KIRI DALENA

Installation view of “Pila” (2022). Photo from KIRI DALENA

So, we told them, just talk about what you would normally talk about, and if you would just sleep, just sleep. You know, just do what you would always do. We were recording so we could hear and amplify whatever you want to talk about. We have hours and hours of recordings and transcripts of what the people were talking about; talking about things ranging from how during the pandemic, they would, just to be able to fall in line and not to be caught by the task force discipline. For example, some of them would hide in the shadows as well as climb trees just to escape being arrested; some of them even talked about how for people who already walked to be in lines, struggling for food, they were charged ₱300 as a fine. They didn’t have food and still, they’d get these tickets. It ranged from that to discussions about housing, the settlements, how “nasunugan pa sila” just before the pandemic. They were resettled, pero ayun wala ngang bayad but there was no water, there was no electricity, and there were no jobs nearby. Those were the discussions [that included] how to stretch food. What can you do with half a kilo of rice? How do you feed five people with half a kilo of rice? How do you save gas? Their conversations also included the vaccine and ayuda.

Until it came nearer to the elections also talked about how the bigayan from politicians, those were also discussed. How many times they were able to get money or how they should get money. Which politician gave more, how was the process? They were comparing, and I did not know for example, that it was not a one-time thing, it was several times. Also discussions about martial law, the differences. Someone said, “I do not know anything about this at all, about this history, this martial law because I was born in 1980.” And then someone talked also saying “Oh, I was not able to study because my father lost his job after a Marcos kinakamkam yung kumpanya.” There were those stories. But then there was also this someone who says, “Ako iba yung experience ko kasi I was an officer in our barangay and I was first in line to get a scholarship given to 10, so nakapag aral ako. Mabilis ako eh I was an officer.” I mean it was really enlightening for us. Grounding us into something that would be difficult to get in a sit-down interview. Sometimes it could be as simple as them discussing “Oh tingnan mo yung tarpaulin na yan, bakit magkasama si Marcos at si ganito. Ah, kasi mayroon yan din with Leni. Para palakasan. Para kung sino ‘man ‘yung manalo.” So, ganun yung mga discussions. But it could also be as simple as, marami rin kasi ‘yung mga pumipila ay ‘yung mga mangangalakal “Anak, mamaya ‘yung kukunin mo ha kunwari may makita kang walis, kunin mo pa rin. Maraming kalakal diyan.”

A still from “Pila” (2022). Photo from KIRI DALENA

Ayon, so, it was an insight. For us involved in listening and transcribing and editing, parang I guess it was a look into the conditions of [how] difficult it is in the last two years. It was already difficult before that and then suddenly this elections parang may dumagsa na pera, and people were hand to mouth existence, ‘yung isang kahig isang tuka. You also wouldn’t be surprised why they would grab this chance. Even afterwards they would ask me more about it na parang ‘di naman lingid sa kaalaman na ang panahon ng eleksyon ay panahon na maglalabas talaga ng pera. That is for me, given that there was very little money coming out during the pandemic, and then suddenly may dagsa ng ganito. It was very, you’d kind of understand ‘yung ganoong strategy. Pero ‘yun ‘yung naging reading ko doon na may na-capture siya na landscape ng mga pinakanahihirapan na Pilipino sa isang particular na panahon, run up to the elections. May mga bahagi na hindi rin masabi kung this is corroborate, ‘yung stories sa ibang lugar na kasi may mga naguusap about buying of a cellphone yung tig-₱7,000, it kind of like matches with the stories na maraming mga malls na right after elections sa Mindanao na naubos yung 7,000 plus peso worth unit.

Nakita ko rin ‘yung pinaguusapan nila na kahit kami magutom wag lang ‘yung mga anak at apo namin. Ayun, siguro para sakin it’s a challenge that’s there’s so much needed to be done. There’s so much needed to connect.

Wow, I hope you could show that here also at some point. You did mention there were also other works. Are those films also?

I was invited as an individual artist, but I was also part of collectives back in the Philippines. I’m part of a collective called Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings. We started this in 2016, just six months into the Duterte administration. We are artists, cultural workers, who were really opposed to the extrajudicial killings that was happening that time. Noong December, 2,000 na yung bilang, but now the estimate would be around 30,000. We created a protest banner in June of 2017 and showed it to the Philippines, so it spells “stop the killings” and it is made of thousands of mourning pins, the black acrylic pins, that we use to signify a death in the family, so it spells the words. We have been taking it around, first sa Pilipinas, then may mga humiram, napunta siya sa US, tapos napunta rin siya sa Colombia, tapos later on dito naman sa Europe. Tapos bumalik rin siya sa New York last month, padala ko yung picture sa’yo kasi sumama rin si Spider-Man sa protest (Laughs).

A poster of the "Stop the Killings" collective action by Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings and Gabriela Germany. Photo courtesy of KIRI DALENA

Tapos ngayon dadalhin namin ito ulit and this time sa opening ng Documenta, sa June 18 at 4 p.m. in front of Fridericianum Museum. It’s a Philippine solidarity action where we will unfurl the banner and we are gathering Filipinos who are based here, not just Kassel, they’re coming in from Munich, Berlin, Cologne, Stuttgart, and we will converge for solidarity to continue the cause na kailiangan hindi makalimutan ang dinanas ng libo-libong Pilipino dahil sa policy ng drug war and also, condemn yung continuation ng ganitong policy sa panahon ni Marcos, ng tandem ng Marcos-Duterte. Panahon din ito to take stock of where we are, ‘yung situation and the need for a stronger solidarity given that ngayon pa lang we are receiving a lot of challenges sa tail-end ni Duterte. I just read na there’s 97 illegally arrested peasant rights advocates in Tarlac, for example. We have a member who is also there. So yun, we gather.

I hope the banner returns here, too! I just can imagine the impact it holds when people see it. Kiri, you’ve mentioned you’ve been working both individually and collaboratively. I’m curious how you approach these collaborations. For example, the exchange of ideas, as an artist, or as an organizer in this context.

For “Pila” (2022), it really would’ve been impossible to do it without a team, yung production team namin. I was working with director of photography Jippy Pascua and Che Villanueva for sound. We would meet every week with our team of transcribers who would just transcribe the recordings that were led by Bea Mariano, also an artist and a writer. We invited more people since it’s over 500 pages of transcripts. And then, the editing team Majoy Siason and Vincent Bascos who were responsible for putting together the five screens and the layers. The post-production team really did the hard work to be able to piece that work together and the color grading was finished here. The sound mixing and sound scoring were also done on-site by Datu Arellano.

Just to let you know, it’s my first time to participate in documenta. Nakita ko we’ve only been to two other venues other than ours. Ang massive pala talaga ng efforts that went into the works. I would hear descriptions that Documenta is like the Olympics of the art world but honestly I don’t think it is an appropriate term because the Olympics conveys competition. Here, the concept is very different as it’s also trying to see how we can build better art communities and solidarities as well as rethink ideas like the gallery system or sharing of resources, among many other things.

Kiri Dalena's "Erased Slogans" (2016). Photo from ART BASEL/1335 MABINI

I can imagine the amount of work you guys are putting in. Too bad, I don’t get to see them in person. Hopefully, in another venue.

Delving more on your body of work, one of your most notable works, Erased Slogans (2008), where you mention “the blank placards offer a silence that is necessary for reflection.” Can you tell us more about this for the record? Perhaps considering its future iterations given current contexts, us having new administration, for example.

Unfortunately, it became too real in its slogans. In 2008, when I was motivated to do it was nasa Senate na ang mga Marcos, and nandon na yung anxiety na why are they here and inching their way back to power. But I think you quoted the black placards offer a silence that is necessary for reflection. Perhaps I was just not articulate enough in terms of words, but I think what I meant is the visualization of the silencing creates a space for reflection. I don’t think that the erased placards, erased slogans offer silencing, but it visualizes the silencing that happens, that happened. This is where I think we can talk about it. Like it just didn’t fall silent, it was silenced. I think it became clear that we just did not have amnesia, but it was a more active imposition of this historical amnesia, for me I hesitate to say that.

It’s just painful for me to show it now, “Erased Slogans,” because they were just reminders but then it became at this point, there was a full implementation or manifestation of this because of the return of the Marcoses to power. I’m not saying that we’re going to stop, or going to give up easily, even if there’s no certainty of how we’re going to do it and there is no certainty that we will win, because if we stop, talo na tayo. I have a clear position about the Marcoses, about what they have done to our country and our people. There is so much evidence backing this up, and it’s not a simple opinion. It is based on facts and that’s why I have a clear position. And with “Erased Slogans,” perhaps it was a teaching moment. I think the call now is to make sure we make new ones, we remember our slogans and give more — qualify these slogans, they shouldn’t stop at that. It’s one way to say, “Stop the Killings” or “Reject Marcos,” what is needed is to have more discussions, like what the activists are doing, that we protect our history and the rightness of our aspirations and our stand for the Filipino people.

documenta fifteen, workshop with ruangrupa, Artistic Team and lumbung members in Kassel, Germany. Photo by NICOLAS WEFERS

Thank you, Kiri, there’s just so much to process every day. For example, with recent happenings, elections, and the pandemic. Do you have reflections/observations on arts, culture, and the market on both local and global scale about the pandemic? Did it change anything regarding how you perceive them? I wanted to ask this because I know you have a prolific practice as you engage with archives, you do research, you work with collectives and various artistic resonances.

During the pandemic, there [were] a lot of discussions and reflections on how the art market could change. I just wish that since the Philippines is opening up again, we don’t go back to status quo. I’m not very active with the art market in the Philippines, but I know for sure there are very basic issues like, yung 50/50 [scheme], I mean those are very difficult things for artists lalo na kung wala namang help sa production. I just wish that the gallery system could find a way because that’s a fundamental, a very basic thing, to make sure that the artist is protected and comes first. Siguro ‘yun, if we look at something fundamental and direct.

And at the same time, I think that we need to have more spaces for works that are not necessarily sellable. I mean it’s difficult if the art scene that we have is only hinged on what is possible to sell. There are spaces like artist-run spaces or spaces in museums and universities. But alam ko limited ‘yung bilang na iyon. At best, what it could provide is the space, and the basics like posters, and production wala. Struggle. So, more support for that. And I think, engaging with archives and museums should be more open and less intimidating, meaning kailangan na lalo na nandito tayo sa crisis ng history, may mabigat na pangangailangan na magkaron ng access ang mga tao, also to provide a proper context para dito sa mga objects and documents na ito. Dapat di mahirapan ang mga tao sa ganito. Mahirap maraming mga artists… iilan lang ang nagsusurvive as full-time. Nagsusurvive lang ang karamihan dahil may iilang trabaho, as teachers, sa prod design work, layout, ganon. And hindi ko pa alam din how to solve this given that to survive on your work, you have to sell the work, and who has the money to buy these works, syempre. Di ko alam if masasagot kong properly yung part na ito kahit parang alam ko nascan ko, pero malalim na usapan yan eh. Nandun rin yung concern ko na I’m really hoping na we can support spaces who are fair to artists in terms of ganitong set-up sa ganitong percentage, and at the same time really support the works like proper installation atsaka giving, really promoting the works. Another layer of it is, I really want to support art spaces who also have clear human rights stand, for example.

I like what you mentioned about accessibility and inclusion. Of course, these are very important things, also in the art world. You also mentioned that it is important to engage with archives which we’ve been talking about. This made me reflect for a bit. In other countries, they have a strongly collaborative GLAM sector comprised of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums which work together on some projects. I hope at least in the Philippines there would be more. In this era of disinformation, I would say it is important that we work together in achieving these.

Yes, cross-over is so important na parang hindi lang artists. I was checking this, and pangalan ng author… nung nasa isa kaming room kung saan kami nagcocolor grade sa Documenta archive, and habang nagcocolor, nagbabasa ako ng books doon. The title is The Metabolic Museum by Clementine Deliss, ang ganda ng end niya. I’ll just read it: “Let’s take control of these reservoirs of ingenuity and change the ergonomy of museums. Those orgone accumulators of consumerism. Build spaces for inquiry with rooms for conceptual intimacy sites for transborder art production and disciplinary transgression centered on these anxious and contested collections. Museums and universities to welcome the new generations of students and researchers more diasporic than ever before but their politics of communication and future transitional methodologies so that with patented prototypes based on these occluded historical collections they can rename the excluded authors and return both respect and copyright back to their ancestors, organs and alliances. All of you, artists, writers, curators, filmmakers, lawyers, architects, ecologists, brothers, and sisters, there is no time to lose.”


documenta fifteen runs from June 18 to September 25, 2022 across locations in Kassel, Germany. Kiri Dalena invites Filipinos and the rest of the world to their opening on June 18, 2022. More details can be found on their website. Dalena's short film will be released in September 2022 and her group RESBAK’s space in Cubao Expo, Quezon City, co-shared with Silingan Coffee Shop, where survivors of the drug war serve as baristas as well as available books by Gantala Press.