I am interested to hear more about your series Aliens of Manila (2014-), a multi-disciplinary work that explores the experience of immigration and cultural displacement through costume, performance and installation. Before delving into that, could you explain how you came to the idea of making wearable pieces as part of your artistic practice?
It all started in high school. I went to an arts high school and I was a visual arts major but I studied alongside theatre, dance and music majors, even creative writers. I would describe the training I received to be very holistic: the visual artists would end up collaborating with classmates from other disciplines designing sets, costumes and performing ourselves, so the different fields of study blurred into each other. There, I learnt to adapt my further studies in sculpture to accommodate the human body and movement. I never actually lost touch with my classmates from that school and we continued to collaborate, doing guerrilla performances out in the streets of Manila, developing experimental works with different communities in different public spaces. The idea for Aliens of Manila came one night when we were just drinking and joking around Humans of New York [Brandon Stanton’s street-style photography project launched in 2010]. We thought: “Hey, we are not being treated like humans here in Manila! We are treated like aliens, less than human.” We talked about the problems with infrastructure and governance in the Philippines: bad public transportation, the drug war, political corruption, I could go on for hours…
Aliens of Manila started from the body, from an intimate dimension, with the creation of your wearable sculptures. Then the project progressively went out into the world with public installations and performances. Can you talk more about your creative process?
It is part of my methodology to apply my training in different disciplines to different industries. My training in production design was crucial to the world-building and myth-making process that is at the chore of my practice. I create fantasy worlds, I have to be able to build interactive spaces that my “aliens” can inhabit. Through collaboration, I can also take myself out of the conventions of my practice. Traditionally, sculpture is an isolated practice and I was not excited by that anymore. I am excited by the intersection of different specialties, knowledges and contexts. It is my way of educating myself further by collaborating with performers who are able to bring something into the sculptural and material component of my work. The wearable sculptures are activated depending on the performers’ expertise, be they dancers, theatre makers, or conceptual performance artists.
The interdisciplinary nature of your work challenges genre conventions and collapses the traditional separation between “high-art” and craft, elevating humble materials to the status of artworks. Why is it important for you to overthrow these hierarchies and how do you see your work in relation to the museum and gallery system?
I think my practice evolved towards this direction out of necessity. When I was starting out as an artist, the museum and gallery system wasn’t as developed as it is now. We had four to six art fairs happening last year when previously we had none. We had independent art events but nothing in the scale of an art fair, so we had to tap into different industries as a means to survive: I did production design, theatre design, I exhibited, and I did sculpture commissions. In the end, I was able to tie all these different worlds together in the context of world-building. I needed to know how to build the costumes, the props, and the sets for my projects. I wasn’t keen on depending on an individual system, such as the gallery system, and leave it dictate how my work looks. Art in the Philippines is still majorly traditional, it favours two-dimensional works, like paintings. Getting different projects from different sources helped me to develop a more multidisciplinary practice.
Aliens of Manila is a travelling project: it started out in the Philippines and then was presented internationally in different locations, such as Taipei, Lyon and New York. For each iteration of the project, you worked locally with found materials to realise your wearable sculptures and installations. Can you explain your choice of materials, what they represent and how they relate specifically to the different contexts in which the work was presented?
The travel came later on in the process. The project started in the Philippines, we presented the Aliens of Manila characters in different regions across the country, and then I got invited to do projects abroad. In our minds, the work was still related to the idea of the Filipino migrant worker – my mother is part of that Filipino workforce that had to leave the country and move to the USA to work. I am also part of that cultural and economic phenomenon, of that sense of displacement motivated by the fact that the Philippines cannot provide sufficient jobs for their people so we have to look for it elsewhere. To my mind, my mother’s experience was no different from mine as I was getting offers to work abroad. I was an overseas Filipino worker too, but I provided a specific creative service.
I tried to get a sense of what my mother went through. I would shop for materials in dollar stores in migrant communities, I would go to recycling centres and places where I could get free materials. I thought of the use of plastic and of the idea of plasticity as a methodology, as an ability to adapt to different situations in a similar way to how migrant workers tend to quickly adapt to a new place. I try to get a sense of the culture of a particular place through what people discard, through the material artefacts they use. I like giving myself the challenge of transforming these very basic objects that I find. I try to maximise the hell out of ordinary objects.
This is also related to third-world frustrations of being left out of sci-fi narratives, of narratives about futurity. When I was a kid, I loved sci-fi films and fantasy and I used to ask myself: “How come we do not get to make our own sci-fi narratives, our future worlds?”. We are always left out of these narratives. Developed countries create and materialise sci-fi worlds whereas we, in the Philippines, are becoming trash islands, islands where first-world countries dump their waste. This is what I am working on now and I am excited to see where it goes.
Speaking of your recent projects, how has your work been affected by the pandemic? I saw on your social media accounts that you launched a project titled Aliens of Quarantine (2020). Can you talk more about how your practice has adapted to the current situation?
The pandemic wasn’t much of a disruption to my creative process because in Aliens of Manila I was already working within my means, with whatever was available to me. However, since most of my work is site-specific and travel-related, I lost many projects, but I was able to make the most of this situation. I am part of a group of artists and media practitioners who are against the drug war and judicial killings here in the Philippines, so we found a way to harness the Aliens of Manila series to organise online protests.
During the first months of lockdown, I was stuck in my studio with a large amount of plastic bottles that was meant to be used for an installation for a local music festival. People were sending me pictures of locals who didn’t have access to proper face shields, so they would use cut-out plastic gallon containers as coverings. We had frontliners use garbage bags and plastic bottles to protect themselves because we were so unprepared. There was a desperate need for PPE. Along with my peers in the design and art industries, we converted our studios to produce improvised face shields and we were able to send those out to a few medical centres. We managed to provide over a thousand face shields and that was a big help according to the medical frontliners. I also did “statement” face shields that were posted online. They were calls for the government to respond better and faster. We used them for physical protests as well when lockdown eased and people were allowed to go out in the streets. I was quite surprised that these statement face shields gained momentum and we still continue to make them.
Shifting to the relationship of your wearable sculptures with the environment, some of your works draw from natural elements – I am thinking of your Anemone and Carapace series for example. Can you talk more about the entanglement of natural, human, and artificial elements in your sculptures?
This has a lot to do with sci-fi mythology, with the idea of fusing man with nature and with a desire to respond to the human body in a more organic way. How do we visualise the future in terms of architecture, product design, and costume? This is also my way of participating into the world by transforming industrially-made objects into natural-looking forms. Before lockdown, I would use a mix of new and found materials in my works. My aim was always to use at least 90% of reused materials and one good thing about lockdown was that I was forced to use pre-used materials because resources were scarce. No one was sure when the situation would getter better and I tried to turn it to my advantage: I went out and collected plastic bottles from my friends, I did online calls asking people to send them to me or I would pick them up. Instead of spending on new materials, I spent time collecting used materials, washing and preparing them. So the current situation fast-tracked that aspect of my practice.
Your alien characters remind me of Donna Haraway’s idea of the cyborg as a figure that resists categorisation and normative structures. Haraway interestingly defined the cyborg as existing both as a creature of social reality and as a creature of fiction. What role do you think fantasy can play in re-shaping culture and social reality?
Aside from the more practical attempt to address the issues of environmentalism and ethno-futurism in my work, I use fantasy to consider the complexity of Filipino national identity, marked by its colonial history, and as a tool to reclaim indigenous narratives. For so long, we have been buried under layers of Spanish Catholicism and American Nationalism, and a lot of our original narratives have been demonised or relegated to folklore and superstition. This is where the importance of bringing these stories to the fore lies. Together with a friend of mine, I am working on a film or a TV show on pre-colonial mythology, recontextualising it through modern media and in relation to the present. For us, that is part of the practical solutions we can engage in to reclaim hidden histories. We hope this project will encourage more of these narratives to emerge. The current administration has a very bad relationship with the indigenous people of the Philippines and I work with people who champion indigenous people’s rights to try and challenge the current state of affairs.
I wanted to reflect on the notion of camp in relation to your work. The theatrical, playful and excessive character of your wearable sculptures recalls Susan Sontag’s famous definition of camp. I am particularly interested in her statement that camp is ‘a private code, a badge of identity among small urban cliques.’ This statement highlights the potential of camp to provide a dissident aesthetics that can be reclaimed by marginalised groups to gain visibility in the public arena. Your work deals with this question of visibility in relation to the alienation experienced by overseas migrant workers. Can you talk more about how camp aesthetics might provide a path towards visibility?
I would always say that this idea of using found objects and transforming them into decorative objects is something that I see all the time in the Philippines. I see all these urban and rural Filipinos transforming plastic bottles into Christmas decor, into props and costumes for religious festivals. We love to decorate, Filipinos love to decorate. It is part of our sensibility: the abundance, being in the tropics, celebrating the bounty of nature… The idea of camp exists in our very ostentatious traditional costumes. In South-East Asian culture, we are obsessed with beauty pageants. Contestants go all out with their costumes: costumes are almost as big as buildings and contestants sometimes even have people in costumes as extensions of their costumes. Costumes for religious festivals are also often made by a combination of reused materials: transformed plastic bottles, rubber slippers cut out into different shapes… I am really working under this tradition. We love our camp, that’s where all the camp in my work comes from.
I wanted to end with some concluding remarks on how your wearable sculptures defy gender normativity. Your sculptures often fuse “masculine” and “feminine” elements and go as far as imagining a new form of embodiment that transcends gender difference. Can you talk more about the aspect of queerness in your work?
This aspect has been constantly evolving throughout the course of my practice. I started to experiment with it in high school when I was working with my theatre major friends. That was a queer-safe space that allowed me to explore these ideas. Being a queer artist myself, by actively choosing to work within this community and being involved in costume-making and dressing-up, practices that were traditionally considered as “emasculating” and “feminine,” we worked to overthrow these binaries. The references to androgyny and ambiguous gender expression in my work are all intentional. My costumes can be worn by anyone, I have ended up wearing them myself and personally that took some time. We inherited the conservatism of Spanish Catholicism, so that was the context we were working against. As a society, we are also behind in terms of equal rights for the queer community so visibility matters. I see my peers’ works and they are very “masculine” in the traditional sense. They stick to painting and traditional structures, and I just want to disrupt the norm by bridging the gap between all these different elements.
Interview by Elisabetta Garletti
Leeroy New (b. 1986, General Santos City) is a Manila-based artist-designer working in the interstices of visual arts, theatre, product design and fashion. Originally trained as a sculptor, New is best known for his public works that fuse wearable sculpture, large-scale installations and performance. New’s practice develops as a form of world-making that draws from science fiction and mythology to construct alternative spaces that invite reflection on critical contemporary issues, such as the environmental crisis, ethnocentrism, immigration and Filipino colonial history.
New has presented several exhibitions and public art projects worldwide. Most recently, he presented a solo show at Pintô International, New York (2019), at PDNE at the NoMad Hotel, Los Angeles (2019), and at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2019). New also participated in the 2008 Singapore Biennale and the 2009 Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale. He was the recipient of the CCP 13 Artist Award in 2012, the Ateneo Art Award in 2008, and was an Asian Cultural Council fellow in New York City in 2016. New also presented his brand of experimental fashion at the Istanbul Forum Fashion Week in 2013 and was the recipient of the 2013 Philstage Gawad Buhay! award for Outstanding Costume Design.
Elisabetta Garletti is a PhD student in History of Art at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on gender representation in contemporary British moving image art, with a particular interest in how representations of ‘femininity’ are being challenged and re-imagined in response to contemporary queer, post-feminist and posthuman discourses.