Kiri Dalena

By Natsuko Odate and Akira Rachi

From Erased Slogans (2008), collection of 97 Durst lambda prints, dimensions variable. All images: Courtesy Kiri Dalena.

Working both as an artist and an activist, Kiri Dalena explores the socio-political issues affecting life in the Philippines today. Often incorporating video or other media elements, her works span diverse media and practices. The project Erased Slogans (2008) uses photographs of postwar-era street protests that Dalena found in the archives of the Lopez Museum in Manila. Dalena selected 97 photographs from the archives and digitally erased the slogans from the placcards carried by the protestors, then reprinted the photographs to create haunting – and haunted – documents of the tensions between authority and popular political action. The work is currently on view in Tokyo as part of the exhibition “Time of others” at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT). Dalena’s participation in “Time of others” comes on the heels of her inclusion in the 5th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in 2014. ART iT met with Dalena prior to the exhibition opening to discuss her work in greater detail.

“Time of others” continues at MOT through June 28, and then travels to the National Museum of Art, Osaka, as well as the Singapore Art Gallery and the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.


ART iT: You work across a range of media and practices, from art to journalism and documentary film to activism. Do you define yourself in any particular way? For example, given your work in journalism, do you think there is a difference in approaches between making an artwork and making a documentary film?

KD: I am an artist, and I am a human rights activist. In my art practice I work with different mediums, but my grounding is primarily in sculpture and film.
I believe in the importance of documentary and journalistic practices, and they are also part of what I do, but I feel there are so many other meanings that cannot be expressed in documentary and journalism that I can freely express as a visual artist. As an artist, you can work in a way completely opposed to journalism, so that instead of giving as much information as possible, and being exact or precise, you do the opposite, and yet still can produce very essential reflections and discoveries that simply would not be possible if you were limited to the practice of reportage.

ART iT: At the same time, it’s important for viewers to understand the background context to the work. For example, with the video Requiem for M (2010), it’s a bit strange to see the footage of the funerals in reverse, but then, in your artist talk at the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in 2014, you explained about the Maguindanao massacre incident and the people who were killed, and this changed my understanding of the work. How do you balance keeping viewers informed about certain things and allowing the work to maintain its own silence?

KD: I was dealing with very specific incidents that happened in specific times and places. What I expected was that at most it would be viewed by Filipinos who already have a broad understanding about what transpired. After all, the same footage of these locations – the dirt road that led to the remote hill where the killings occurred, the back hoe that dug the mass graves – were on the news on a daily basis. I never expected that what I produced would eventually be viewed by people from another country like Japan. But perhaps that uncertainty about what is happening can also be seen as something positive, in the sense that it allows people to project their own experiences onto the footage. For some reason, I feel that taking away information markers – the dates, the places, the names – provides an entry for people to empathize with or see themselves in that situation.
The paradox is that it’s still a way for people to ask questions and learn about the situation, so I don’t want to limit it, or say that you shouldn’t find out about what happened. For me, Requiem for M is a rejection of something that was so real, something that I had no way to change – there was no way to alter what had transpired – but by reversing the footage it became possible, in my imagination at least, to disable this reality and restore life as it should be. I think that’s how we cope in our private lives, and maybe that’s the function of art, too, because even if the work cannot affect the concrete situation, it has begun with changing something within me.

Above: Requiem for M (2010), video still from single-channel video, 6 min 53 sec. Below: Video still from Memorial for Filipino Journalists (2011) – gravestone of Edgar Amoro, killed February 2, 2005.

ART iT: You were actually invited to attend the funerals and visit the site of the massacre, but was anything expected of you in return? For example, did they specifically ask you to make a documentary?

KD: I made two documentaries about the massacre which were shot in a straightforward manner and shown on television. These documentaries were dealing with facts: that the November 23, 2009, massacre happened in Ampatuan, Maguindano, on the island of Mindanao just before the national and local elections in the Philippines; that the masterminds belong to a powerful warlord family who wanted to prevent another politician from challenging their political dynasty by filing for a certificate of candidacy; that 58 civilians were killed, and many of these victims were women and media workers who believed that by virtue of their gender and occupation as journalists they would be protected; and how this brazen incident became possible only because of the reign of impunity in our country. Hundreds of other extra-judicial killings of both activists and journalists were never given justice, allowing perpetrators to roam freely, without fear. Those were the first things I did, and at the time I was not thinking of producing anything that would be considered “art” at all. I was not thinking of making Requiem for M.
It was only after the documentaries aired that I suddenly found a chance to make a video work where I felt I could freely express what I was dealing with when I was doing the reportage. I was thinking that, of course, with incidents like this we all want the perpetrators to be arrested, jailed, and punished, and we all want for there to be compensation for the victims’ families, and the laws to be changed to ensure something like this never happens again, but on a personal, private level, you also contend with feelings like regret, and just wanting to bring the people back. But these longings are not topics you can delve into as a journalist. They are always there, but you repress them as you do the reporting of information that is absolutely necessary. So it was also important for me to have the chance to express these ideas without the dictation that it should be news or reportage. It is rare and I am grateful for it.

ART iT: It’s similar to how you cleared away the weeds and grasses from the graves and cleaned them.

KD: Yes, I think those are necessary actions as human beings. So it’s not like I go there because I’m thinking, oh, I will make this video for an art piece now. In fact, I made the video much later. I was confronted by all the footage I had gathered and used for the documentaries, I was finally alone with it, and that’s when I thought of how it might be possible to express how difficult it must be to be in the shoes of those who were left behind.

ART iT: Here in Tokyo you are showing the work Erased Slogans (2008). Could you talk about how you came to make this work?

KD: About seven years ago, I was invited to make a work at a private museum in Manila run by a prominent family who owned media entities like TV stations and newspapers. I found that in the museum library there is an archive of photographs from their newspaper holdings, with material up to the 1970s when the Marcos dictatorship shut the newspapers down. I was interested to see what they had, and was surprised to see in the archived photographs so many images of protest actions. Although four decades had already passed, in reading the words on the protestors’ placards, I was struck by the depth and breadth of the aspirations of the people of the time, and felt that many of these aspirations still apply today. But I was also struck by the sad situation that many of those dreams have gone unattained. It was overwhelming to think about how all these important issues for the good of the country were drowned by some authority. And then, on an impulse, I started erasing the slogans from the placards. Previously I had worked as a digital restorer of damaged archival photos, but this time I was doing the opposite.
On a simple and practical level, this action of erasing was like a reenactment of the censorship that had happened, and the government’s attempts to suppress the ideas and desires of the people, but I think I was also challenging the idea of the impossibility of ever totally erasing or suppressing truths. Even if you erase them, they still come back – if no longer from the photographs themselves, then from the memories or projections of those who are looking at the work. At the same time, instead of confronting viewers with so many words, the blank placards offer a silence that is necessary for reflection.
Still, afterwards the guilt of erasing the slogans led me to transfer them all to a book. I felt, having erased all these words, there was something urging me to preserve them in some other container. In fact, in addition to the book, I read and recorded the slogans, and also inscribed them onto funerary marble markers. But I did not expect how strongly people could respond to the work. Instead of making people disinterested, it got them to engage and ask why the people in the photographs were protesting, or why their words were destroyed.

Both: Erased Slogans (2008).

ART iT: As part of your participation in the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, you made a new version of Erased Slogans in Fukuoka, using mainly photos of the postwar radical student movement in Japan. How was it working with this new material? Why did you choose not to mix the material from the Philippines into the new work?

KD: I spent less than a month in Fukuoka. Even if it was brief, the research there was intense. Learning about the parallels between the postwar Philippines and Japan – issues around US military installations, labor, and prices, as well as the Japan-US Security Treaty – was eye opening for me. I was inspired by the way the student movement worked with the farmers. I felt it was a beautiful time that I had no idea had ever taken place in Japan.
But I also found it difficult to work, because with such a short timeline, we were not getting responses from the local newspapers, and there was some hesitation regarding copyright. There were so many images that caught my attention, but there were many distinctions between the Japanese and Filipino contexts as well, and I decided not to mix the material for that reason – because I was not certain.
It was also a challenge working with a translator. We worked very hard to bridge the gap between us. There were nuances that I needed to comprehend, like issues of respecting culture and privacy, such as mourning the spirit names for the dead, which came up regarding the death of a student protestor. And there were also sensitivities about using images that critiqued politicians, like Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, the former prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi. I thought, these protest images are more than 40 years old, but the issues still resonate today. It was necessary to consider that resurrecting it could be taken as a critique of the current government. So I would have wanted more time to dig deeper.

ART iT: In magazines and newspapers, photographs are always accompanied by a caption, but in art this does not have to be the case. How do you understand the relationship between image and caption?

KD: Well, in the case of Erased Slogans, the photos from the museum archive were not presented in newspapers and I never saw them with captions. They were the original prints from which the editors selected what to run with the stories. In fact, in many of them, the photographer and incident were not identified. You can only deduce certain bits of information from what is apparent in the picture. Perhaps the images would appear completely different if they had captions. Words are very strong in influencing the meaning of the work.

ART iT: What about your video, Tungkung Langit (Lullabye for a Storm) (2013)? In this work, you gave a camera to two children, a brother and sister, and had them film themselves. You have said that you talked them through the process and explained how to use the camera, but did you feel any kind of actor-director relationship with the children in making this work? It’s not strictly a documentary, but the work provides a very intimate look into the children’s lives. How does it relate to or differ from you broader approach to making art?

KD: I met the children while I was doing voluntary reporting on the damage caused by Typhoon Sendong (also known as Tropical Storm Washi) in the city of Iligan on Mindanao island, my mother’s hometown. I was sending out reports on what happened in the communities that were cut off by the devastation. I met the children on the last part of my trip, when I visited a community to help distribute relief goods. Unlike other communities in the region, this place did not have so many reports of victims, but suddenly the people told me about these children who had been washed down the river and lost their parents, three siblings, and their home.
The incident was still very fresh when I met the children, and everyone around me – including the grandparents, who were taking care of them – was saying that I should interview them, that it would help them recover. I had the complete opposite feeling about the situation. I’m not trained as a trauma therapist and have never dealt very closely with children with such experiences, so just hearing the boy attempt to say the names of his parents, seeing the way he started and then stopped, was too painful. I couldn’t continue.
But then I saw that they were such courageous children and I felt it was important to tell their story, only I knew there had to be a different way. So I kept returning to the village and we started communicating through drawings. I had a notebook and they would draw in it. I would bring art materials with me on every visit and gradually I learned their story.
When I thought about the next step, I knew that I didn’t want the camera or the presence of the crew to feel like an intrusion. I wanted everything to be ‘therapeutic’ for the children – even our presence, even our camera. I wanted it to be playful. This was a different approach from my other works, and a long-developing approach. I wanted for the camera to provide a way for them to communicate with each other, so I made them comfortable with the camera, showing them how it works, and then I left it with them.
At the same time, I did come up with situations. For example, in the opening scene where they are talking to each other, I told them, ok, the camera is here and there’s sound, so we will hear you, but you can talk about anything, and if you are sleepy, just ask each other, “Are you sleepy?” and if you are, then we can stop. Of course, every time one of them asked the question, the other would deny being sleepy, although later when I watched the footage I could see them falling asleep.
So that was how it went. There were times when I was there, but then I would leave, and then the boy was very confident with the camera and started to be the one to ask questions, like he already understood how to conduct an interview. It was also important that his questions came from his experience, because he knew what he was asking his little sister, and he could ask things I would never think of asking. As children, they were perfectly comfortable asking each other difficult questions, like, did you smell a foul odor? Maybe he had smelled something like decaying animals or flesh. And then he would ask, what did you see? Did you see dead horses, cows? I would never have asked such questions, but they were laughing as they were going about it. It was a very intimate and innocent world.
In any case, I didn’t want to compel them to talk about their experiences. The film is about moving on, and living in spite of the burden of loss.

Both: Tungkung Langit (2014), video still from three-channel video, 20 min, 36 sec.

ART iT: It’s almost a more natural way for them to talk about their situation. Even though they are small children, they somehow know how to respond to the camera, and their actions were not forced at all.

KD: I found that for children they were amazingly strong, and at the same time still very vulnerable.

ART iT: Do you still make conventional documentary films – not as artworks, but for television?

KD: Yes, especially if people ask me for help.

ART iT: It seems like you keep a clear line between things that you pursue for your self and things that you do for others.

KD: That line between the things you say I pursue for myself and the things you say I do for others is never clear. And if it does exist, my hope is for it to disappear completely. The others that you speak of – I don’t consider them to be separate from myself. I am infinitely inspired by their strength of spirit and selfless aspirations, and I would like to believe that I could share this same spirit and this is what moves me in all the things that I do.
At the same time, I try as much as possible to carefully choose the projects I agree to do, because I feel time is so limited. As a documentary filmmaker, you can do so many things about the most inane subjects, but I feel I have a responsibility to deal with subjects that I feel I am truly connected to.
If everyone is doing something already, then I feel it’s fine to leave it alone, and I focus on something else. Sometimes you just know what you want to pursue. At other times, even if it’s an issue that is important to me, if I think there’s another person who can do it better – because they have more resources and insight, for example – then I look for something that is still along those lines but more possible for me.

ART iT: Do you ever have difficulty deciding which approach to take for a particular subject? Or do you always follow both an artistic and a journalistic approach at the same time?

KD: Sometimes it takes a long time before I am able to do something, because it’s unresolved or unfinished, and ongoing, and I make these records which are available for use for journalistic reportage as well as by human rights organizations, who might use it for their campaigns, or submit the material to the UN special rapporteur for human rights. But then suddenly, after five years or so, that might be when the space opens for an artwork.

Tungkung Langit (2014), video stills from three-channel video, 20 min, 36 sec.

ART iT: So for you, artworks develop over a broader span of space and time?

KD: Yes. I have to admit there are times when I wonder whether making something in a space like art where you are free to do and say whatever you want actually helps, and there are also times when I try to assess whether I’m being indulgent or not in making artworks. I feel that the work I do should not be something I do just because I can do it, but should also have a purpose. In my case I find it really necessary to make the works. As I mentioned about Requiem for M, the whole time I was shooting, I never cried, because I was conscious that it was my responsibility to show fortitude as a documentarist. I repressed all these emotions that were affecting me, and then in making the work it helped me to reflect and imagine a different possibility in working as an artist.
In the same way, when I made Tungkung Langit with the children, the work reflected my desire for the children to always be safe, and my hope that in some small way – because they no longer have parents to put them to sleep, to sing lullabies to them, to watch over them – my film could become a surrogate, watching over them until they fell asleep, and having this beautiful music playing for them. So the film is also a projection of my hopes for the children.

ART iT: What is your next step? Is there any urgent thing to which you are responding right now? Do you have any plans for future projects?

KD: There is always something, but I’m not one to look too far ahead. It’s impossible for me to plan two years or five years into the future. Maybe it’s just a practical coping mechanism. After this exhibition in Tokyo, I have some months that are still open, and I look forward to that, because we need that kind of time. Of course, I am also currently helping an organization make a documentary on the plight of indigenous peoples in the Northern Mindanao region of the Philippines, as well as organizing a documentary workshop in the same region, but there are stumbling blocks to continuing it, like financial issues. I have faith that an endeavor will happen if it is inevitable.

ART iT: One last question: in all your work filming and reporting, have you ever felt that you were in any physical risk or danger? Requiem for M is a chilling reminder of the difficulties reporters face in the Philippines.

KD: There have been experiences in the past, but I don’t put so much weight on them. Those who are in danger are those who are isolated and live every day in places like the remote areas of Mindanao. I recognize the privilege I have that I can still get out and move and travel. The people who really face risks are those who are there, and that’s why I always feel a responsibility to return to a subject if it is unresolved. The risks to me are negligible compared to the risks the others are facing every single day of their lives.

Kiri Dalena: Time Recovered

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