The Crying Game is a series of conversations with artists whose work evoke senses of nostalgia and with it notions of sentimentality and an exaggerated tenderness or sadness for the past.
For this second installment, curator, Christina Millare chats with filmmaker and artist Shireen Seno a member of Philippines based art collective, Tito & Tita who through installation, film, photography and collective actions explore the spatial, architectural, performative, and cinematographic elements of image-making.
Christina Millare: Who are Tito and Tita?
Shireen Seno: Tito and Tita are mostly Gym Lumbera, Timmy Harn, Jacyn Esquillon, Jippy Pascua, Charles Salazar, and myself, although this varies depending on our individual schedules and points in our lives. At other times, the collective has also included Raya Martin, Pam Miras, Malay Javier, Mikey Red and John Torres, among others.
CM: What would you say lies at the core of your practice both individually and collectively?
SS: We are all involved in filmmaking in various capacities, and we often shift roles for each other. Timmy was art director for my film Big Boy and Gym’s Anak Araw. He also played the leading role in his own film Reptilia in Suburbia, along with Charles. Pam acted in Big Boy, and I helped on cinematography for her film Pascalina together with Malay. Gym was Cinematographer on Big Boy, Anak Araw, and John’s film Lukas the Strange. Jacyn was costume designer for most of our films and was the production designer for Pascalina. Jippy helps with cinematography and is our go-to guy for loading and changing film. Most of these works were shot on film except for Pascalina, which was shot with the Digital Harinezumi, a small toy camera that mimics the look of film but with its own lo-res digital quirks.
You could say our films are all very personal works that deal with our individual histories and neuroses. That being said, they all share a tendency towards the playful and experimental with varying degrees of humor and satire. Charles and Jippy work a lot with photography on their own. Charles uses a kind of collage of cutouts of various photographic media – his own, along with ads and pop culture to create hilarious mash-ups of icons and the everyday. Jippy shoots exclusively with analog film and captures mostly unstaged occurrences with poetic poignancy. I believe it’s this mix of humour and poetics that lies at the core of our collective practice.
CM: Being Filipino, I was really quite intrigued by your name, ‘Tito and Tita’ (‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ in Tagalog). When we were kids, my sisters and I were encouraged to refer to all elders as ‘Tito’ or ‘Tita’ regardless of family connection. In that sense anyone within the Filipino community was viewed as extended family! How does this notion inform the group’s dynamics, particularly in terms of collaboration and creative networks? You’ve talked briefly about skills sharing for individual projects, I wonder how this translates across collective works.
SS: The name came naturally because we actually do call each other “Tito” and “Tita”. Gym became a father when he was quite young, so we were all Titos and Titas already. Beyond that, I guess we were sick of the whole idea of promoting yourself. With film and art and anything I guess, it’s all about who’s who.
When we made my film Big Boy in 2011, I bonded with this group of people. We were shooting on Super 8- I remember long periods of waiting for the rain to stop and Gym, Timmy, and I having extended conversations about photography and photographic processes. Before our shoot, the two of them went back to Gym’s hometown in Batangas (a province in the Philippines located in the Calabarzon region of Luzon) and shot an experimental film called Class Picture on 16mm, to which they credited themselves as Tito & Tito. We started hanging out a lot and eventually ended up becoming Tito & Tita! We’re a loose collective, and have been open to working with others we happen to connect with. There are a few constants, but it depends on who comes together at the time. We are filmmakers who come together and try to make something other than a film, but somehow make something relating to the elements and processes involved in filmmaking — photography, installation, performance.
CM: Class Picture, is on the surface, exactly that – a moving school photograph. However, from what I understand, the working process behind this piece was quite unusual in that you decided to project the negatives and not the developed film, telecine this projection and then edit the footage digitally. The natural working process for the film interestingly turns in on itself and becomes self-reflexive – a memory being played out over and over until it becomes something completely new. Consequently the images conjured in the final piece are faded, the colours and images muted. It’s interesting that your first collective work is a class picture that goes through these stages of devolution in order to essentially ‘evolve’.
SS: Much of our practice as a collective has been in response to dealing with a lack of financial resources and instead, mining our strengths as a group. Class Picture was shot using 16mm short-ends, basically the leftover strips from other film shoots, which were given to us for free by a fellow filmmaker. Since these short-ends were already expired, we had to expose the film five stops under to compensate and then had it processed in a local film lab. Scanning to a digital file was quite expensive, so we asked a projectionist friend at the University of the Philippines to project the negatives and then shot the projection digitally and yes, digitally inverted it to a positive. After a few screenings (including the Toronto International Film Festival’s WAVELENGTHS program), we were able to raise enough funds for an actual film print.
CM: Analogue materials and various film formats seem to be the medium of choice for many of your works. What is it about the texture, aesthetic and perhaps tangibility of these mediums that draws you to them?
SS: With analog film, there’s this feeling that what we’re shooting is more alive. The material itself is very sensitive, and susceptible to moods, like a person almost, like us. It’s also quite expensive. This makes us all the more alert and present when we’re actually shooting. We have an idea but there’s still a lot of mystery as to how the actual images will turn out. So the film is a documentation or rather, approximation, of this presence in a certain moment in time.
CM: Your live photo-installation project, Casual Encounters (at Green Papaya Art Projects in 2013) married together your understanding of Green Papaya’s prevalent artist community along with the organisation’s distinctive location and resident communities (Green Papaya is located in a densely populated, red light district of Metro Manila). Could you tell us a bit more about this project and why it was important for you to explore this juxtaposition? Why was it crucial to open up and broaden your creative dialogue for Casual Encounters beyond the project space itself?
SS: Casual Encounters took place during our month long residency at Green Papaya. We knew we wanted to make use of this particular space and we were kind of obsessed with darkroom processes at the time. We were thinking about how to go about doing a dark room for the opening, wherein the idea was precisely to be together in the dark – an opening where you wouldn’t see anything. Or put in a darkroom safelight, where we’d literally develop film during the opening and then project it during the course of the night. We thought, there’s something about the red light – how it relates to the idea of selling yourself.
We noticed that the Manila version of Craigslist.org (an international buy-and-sell website) isn’t really good for anything except “Casual Encounters”, a Classifieds section for people wanting to meet people for sex. They post photos of themselves — some are just flirty, while others are overtly sexual. We decided to use photos posted on Craigslist Manila’s Casual Encounters section with locations specific to Green Papaya’s actual location: Kamuning, Scout area, Cubao, Quezon City. We would pull these images and project them on the wall as a slideshow. We also installed a silver pole in the middle of the space, and hung a darkroom timer on the wall. “Casual Encounters” spelled out in neon lights would be both the signage on the window and the title for the show.
On the closing night of our residency, we played pop songs typical of Filipino bars and gave out unique editions of what we called a ‘single-frame zine’, consisting of a black-and-white negative enclosed in a slide frame. The idea was for each of us to approach someone we did not know or did not know well and give them this single-frame zine. The project ended up putting into play the elements of filmmaking without actually making a film — performance, surprise, image-making, the idea of playing different roles, selling yourself.
CM: Ah, what I was trying to get at with that question is that there’s a keen social consciousness with your work. Not just within the dynamic of your collective but the area/locale in which the work takes place. I was wondering if you could expand on that.
SS: I don’t think we actually intend to make statements so much as set the parameters for a kind of experience that might provoke thought or exchange. But the great thing about Green Papaya is that it’s in a high-density residential neighbourhood that’s accessible and in a central part of Quezon City along a jeepney route (Manila’s main form of public transport). The space is also near a wet market, with tons of foot traffic so there’s potentially a lot of dialogue that can happen within this locale with residents and people passing by. But what tends to happen is that the people who come to openings and events are already part of Papaya’s community or friends of friends. Perhaps the locals have come to associate Papaya with the general notion of art as a high-brow activity. Turning it into a bar of sorts, however, can make this distinction fuzzier. I’m not too sure we got anyone new to come inside the space, but hopefully we raised some eyebrows.
CM: In the UK there is a strong focus in the arts to develop cultural programmes that reach broader audiences particularly those within areas of low engagement. We face the same issue here with a large percentage of art audiences coming from art or creative industry backgrounds – it’s vital to communicate beyond this group in order to open up a broader creative dialogue. Going back to the work itself, the live aspect of Casual Encounters also shook up our perception of ‘live performance’ and working within studio environments in many ways. What are your thoughts on this?
SS: Making films can be incredibly intense and magical but also quite traumatic in a way. So our work as Tito & Tita tends to become a way of dealing with this strange experience of making a film. More specifically, how do we keep an experience alive? This is something that came further into play for a project we did after Casual Encounters.
In 2014, we were invited to be part of a group exhibition at the Lopez Museum in Manila, curated by the Philippine art organisation, Planting Rice. Both organisations encouraged us to explore the Lopez library and make use of their collections, which houses notable art historical materials and Filipiniana. The museum is owned by the Lopez’s, the same family that owns ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media corporation, which also has an extensive archive of films. After a number of sessions perusing their collections, we came up with an idea. We wanted to fill one room in the museum with talahib (tall, wild grass). We would then choose a particular position in the talahib where we would install a certain flowering plant that would be sustained in an artificial system, possibly a hydroponic one. We would bring life to the museum, as they had encouraged us.
True to the concept of the exhibition, we were in for a series of disagreements, between both the museum and ourselves. Naturally, the museum rejected our idea — organic matter would put the archive at risk. We decided to conduct a series of tests to try and work with actual talahib. We tried plasticizing it by infusing the grass with resin, but that didn’t work. We tried drying and pressing it. We also tried using light and shadow to create the illusion of more grass than we had. All our tests failed. We even looked into buying fake talahib but that was the worst. The idea of using smoke and mirrors with the grass crossed our minds, but that quickly faded as we didn’t have much of a budget. In the end, we decided to go back to what we already had. What if we installed our darkroom enlarger onto the ceiling of the museum, turning it into a projector? What image would we project?
We decided to draw from a seminal text in the Lopez collection, the Flora de Filipinas, a Spanish-era book of plants endemic to the Philippines; a colonial tool to catalog the resources of the colony. And it was credited to a Spanish friar who did not honour the local artists who did the actual work of drawing these plants. We took the drawing of the quintessential neighbourhood shrub flower, the santan, photographed it using black-and-white slide film, and then coloured it by hand. We installed this hand-coloured photographic slide of the flower in our enlarger, which we affixed to the centre of the museum’s atrium ceiling. Black curtains were installed at all four doorways of the atrium, so anyone who was going to the library would have to pass through this dark room with a single red bulb hanging in the centre. The only other thing you would see was the glowing face of the darkroom timer, which when activated, would switch the red light off and project the enlarged image of our hand-coloured santan onto the floor of the atrium.
CM: What did the santan represent to you – why was it emblematic in this work? Was this in some way an act of reclaiming or honouring Filipino history?
SS: We called this project Mga Talahib at Rosas, or The Tall Grass and the Roses. The santan is a common, unassuming, small flower that you can find amongst hedges and shrubs outside houses in residential neighbourhoods in the Philippines. It’s so common it’s even sometimes a street name or a section in school. You could say it’s anticlimactic compared to a rose. The steady, everyday over the romance and the drama.
CM: And would you say picking up on and exploring these subtle nuances in both social and living nature is an overarching theme in Tito & Tito’s work?
SS: You could say so, yes, although perhaps it’s a result more than an intention.
Christina Millare is an independent curator based in London. She is a graduate of the Curating Contemporary Art MA at The Royal College of Art and was formerly based at Abandon Normal Devices Festival and Cornerhouse in Manchester. Christina is currently working on a year-long cultural programme which takes place across London and Birmingham in 2018. The project features live performance, film and visual art created through a strategically devised programme of community engagement and education projects devised in collaboration with Birmingham City University, Grand Union, Hackney Showroom, Regent St Cinema and The University of Westminster.
Featured image: Single-frame Zine for Casual Encounters (2013), Tito & Tita