Alternative Toolkits: Interview with Kiat Kiat Projects
By Dominic Zinampan
In 2018, shortly after graduating from the Department of Fine Arts at Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City, Arianna Mercado and Yuji de Torres founded Kiat Kiat Projects, a nomadic curatorial initiative that focuses on alternative exhibition formats.
Kiat Kiat Projects has organized three group exhibitions to date: “Spin Cycle” (2018), which sought to recreate a 1998 event staged in a house in Magallanes village; the email-based “How to Prevent Hair Loss” (2019), inspired by malware; and “Pizza Party” (2019), inspired by the beloved dish.
In this interview, Mercado and de Torres discuss these exhibitions; an upcoming project revolving around notions of tools, cultural work, and precarity; and how their initiative is moving past institutional critique and toward engaging a broader social sphere.
How did Kiat Kiat Projects start?
Yuji de Torres: The initial idea started around 2016, when we were both getting into Roberto Chabet’s work and artist-run spaces like Shop 6.
Arianna Mercado: At the time, I was interning at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), and Yuji was with Green Papaya Art Projects. Through our research, we got interested in alternative spaces.
What I found attractive about these spaces we were learning about was the experimentation that they enabled. Even today, alternative spaces often feature things that are not in the vein of what is being shown in commercial galleries. It seems more fun. You can be more free to do whatever you want.
YDT: I think it also stemmed from our mutual interest in DIY filmmaking. Institutions and grants can be daunting but you actually don’t need a high budget to work on projects. You can just do your own thing and have fun with your friends.
In 2016, I thought it would be cool to have a project or space like Green Papaya, which occasionally used its co-founder Norberto Roldan’s house, or 98B, which started from Mark Salvatus and Mayumi Hirano’s home in Cubao. But as an undergraduate student at that time, owning or renting a house in Manila would have taken forever and put us in the red so Kiat Kiat Projects was shelved.
AM: That’s why, at first, Kiat Kiat was a Tumblr blog that featured my writing. It was a very short stint around early 2017. I don’t remember how we decided to move into actually organizing exhibitions.
YDT: A few months before our first project, we would float around our ideas to our friends at gigs or Green Papaya events and then we would gauge who would be willing to work with us.
AM: “Spin Cycle,” our first show, happened in late September, 2018. A few weeks before that, we wrote our manifesto.
What drove you to write the manifesto? Why did you choose that form?
YDT: Aside from Shop 6, our main inspiration was Fluxus and Gutai. Both movements had manifestos that stated their methodologies. We wanted to write something like that, to say what we want to do very clearly while acknowledging the ideas behind these actions.
AM: We were also inspired by Judy Freya Sibayan. Judy’s project Moving House (2018) was taking place at Calle Wright, where I was working at the time. Yuji would drop by and we would talk to her. Having successfully conceptualized and executed projects like Scapular Gallery Nomad (1997–2002) and The Museum of Mental Objects (2002– ), she helped us legitimize Kiat Kiat in our minds because her practice took a simple, humorous, yet pointed approach to critiquing institutions.
What I find interesting is that a manifesto is typically a polemical and strongly worded position statement, but yours contains mostly quotes and hyperlinks on concepts, such as “non-white cube” and “decentralization.”
AM: It was less about pushing forward an agenda than communicating how we wanted to guide ourselves.
YDT: It was also because we knew that being “non-white cube” was a well-trodden path, so we had no intentions of making it sound like a new thing. I remember talking to Arianna regarding the use of “non-” instead of “anti-”, and agreeing that “non-” encapsulated our worldview more.
AM: It was also the only way we knew how to articulate our position, having thought that this was how the system worked. But looking back, I don’t cringe at what we were writing. Even though I don’t think about things like “non-white cube” as much as I once did, it’s all part of the long story or process of where Kiat Kiat is going.
YDT: I think it’s a step in the right direction, of us being critical and thinking about institutions.
How did “Spin Cycle” (2018) come about?
YDT: In 2016, we were exploring the Roberto Chabet Archive and we found this one-day event that they did in 1998 in Magallanes village, where Arianna used to live.
AM: The lack of information and the mystery surrounding the event intrigued us and that was why we wanted to repeat or explore it.
The prompt we gave to the artists was the word “recreation” because it denotes two things: repetition and relaxation. Repetition because we were remounting an exhibition with a different set of artists, and relaxation because it was in a domestic setting.
YDT: Hence the title. “Spin cycle” reminds us of washing machines, domesticity, and repetition. Thinking about it now, it’s funny how we didn’t even own the house.
AM: That’s true. The people who owned the lot and were living there were about to sell the house, which was why they let us do that and also why some of the people who attended were other senior citizens in the neighborhood. I think what was most memorable about “Spin Cycle” was the number of people who turned up. It was shocking.
YDT: It made me feel a sense of accomplishment, like I can do what Green Papaya does.
AM: We had just graduated so we were still figuring out what we were doing, but it was really encouraging for artists we looked up to tell us things like “I did a project like this when I was younger,” or “This is so fun.”
Could you elaborate on your second project, “How to Prevent Hair Loss” (2019)?
YDT: I learned that e-flux started as a mailing list for an exhibit at a Holiday Inn. This led us to look up email-based art projects that had been done.
AM: It was also our first exploration into Onel de Guzman’s ILOVEYOU virus. We found it fascinating because it capitalized on not just the vulnerability of computer systems but on the recipients’ desire for affection. We began thinking about different kinds of malware like the Trojan horse, and how all you have to do is to get people to open the email and something will happen.
We chose “How to Prevent Hair Loss” as a title because we noticed some big-time male curators were balding. We thought the title would get them to open the email.
YDT: We were wondering how we could get the attention of Big Art.
AM: When you’re in Manila and you think about these internationally known figures, you’d wonder how you could even reach them. But the easiest way is to just send them an email. That’s the most direct way to get inside an institution and to bypass all of that stuff. At the time, ArtReview’s Power 100 of 2018 was just released so we were looking at who were the big-timers that we could email.
YDT: The email exhibition itself, I think, was all over the place. In it, both koloWn and Jun Acacia Orlina linked to their respective websites, Lockheed U. Deux had a Google Drive, and Judy had a Dropbox. Alfred Marasigan’s work contained a lot of hyperlinks.
AM: You couldn’t manipulate much except for the colors. That was the challenge for the artists, to create something that would fit in with the limitations of the email.
Before the exhibition, we released a Google Form so that whoever wanted to see the exhibition could sign up and then we’d email them. We also did end up searching for the emails of specific artists and curators to spam them with the project.
It’s not as visceral to us, the kind of impact “How to Prevent Hair Loss” had, unlike a physical show like “Spin Cycle,” so it’s always interesting whenever I hear people reference it or say that they received the email. We have no idea how far it could have possibly reached but I think that’s part of the project.
YDT: I think we achieved what we set out to do, which was to make an email exhibition that still felt like an email.
AM: Yeah, the project felt like vandalizing something, or ringing a doorbell and running away. You don’t know what the other person thought or felt about it.
YDT: Yeah, the act of doing it was rewarding enough.
What about “Pizza Party” (2019)? What were the events that led up to it?
YDT: We were inspired by “101 Artists” (1974) at Shop 6, where anyone could attend, bring whatever, and become part of the exhibition. I don’t remember how we ended up at Shakey’s [pizzeria].
AM: I think it was because after “Spin Cycle,” we were throwing around ideas about what we could do next, and I said I wanted to have a pizza party. We thought, “What if we did an exhibition and asked people to bring pizzas?”
We invited around five people and asked them to invite more people. We also made a Google Doc available so that anyone who wanted to come could just sign up.
YDT: You could also go to the event and make whatever at the venue itself.
AM: In total, there were 27 recorded works that night. We just wanted to have a party where everyone can enjoy and have food. When we booked the place, they had a package deal that included a mascot and giveaways. We just leaned into that, and had a party and games.
I think what was interesting about that event was we also met a lot of different people that I don’t think we would have known otherwise. I also remember being stressed that night because there were so many people and we didn’t have enough pizza so we had to buy more.
YDT: We also had to explain to the Shakey’s people what was happening.
AM: And why some people brought pizza boxes from a rival brand.
YDT: We told them that the boxes were empty but they were baffled at why anyone would bring that.
AM: That was why we had to set the boxes aside. They didn’t want to see it.
How’s your new project, “Tools of the Trade” (2021), coming along? What are your plans for it?
YDT: Right now, we’re just collecting the works, images, and descriptions. We’ve always been fascinated with tools and toolkits both in a literal and metaphorical sense. With curatorial work, people have to use tools like levels, hammers, and nails just as they need conceptual and theoretical frameworks, a metaphorical toolkit which offers ways of seeing the world.
AM: When you think about cultural work, a lot of the work involved is very menial. At the CCP, for example, a lot of paperwork is required for an exhibition to happen. It’s a process of curatorial work that not too many people see. For this project, we invited six people to submit a tool that they use in their work. The focus is on the tool that enables them to do their work, not the finished products themselves.
This is your first project in more than two years. How has Kiat Kiat changed in that time?
AM: A lot has changed because I left for London in 2019 [to complete an MFA in curating at Goldsmiths, University of London]. It has given me a different perspective on my work. One reason we made Kiat Kiat was because we didn’t want to be institutional. But as I was saying, we didn’t know how to articulate ourselves at the time. Having lived away from Manila, I feel like my conception of what my work has to be has evolved a lot. I no longer find myself drawn to strictly making non-white cube projects here because I don’t think that it’s useful for what I want to platform. I guess the “non-white cube side” of our practice has been put in the back because we think there are more important things now that we should be talking about.
YDT: In those two years, I began volunteering in national democratic organizations and alliances like Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA). My analysis both broadened and became sharper after joining educational discussions and programs on the struggles of Filipino peasants such as the fight for food security and sovereignty.
AM: At the time, we were trying to understand contradictions in the art world, like matters of funding, that we didn’t know how to deal with. That’s why our projects were mostly anti-this-and-that because we couldn’t articulate our own positioning or understand how complicated it is. But now, I think our purpose and positioning has become a lot clearer to us, changing how we approach and think about our work.
YDT: I think we’re moving away from defining ourselves contra- something, to pushing for genuine change and liberation.
AM: Kiat Kiat has changed in the sense that we used to be more concerned with the spaces which we inhabit, like the peripheries of the gallery system, and how we could subvert them. I would say that we were working within the limitations of an art world context and thinking how we could change those. Now, we are more conceptually driven. If I were younger, I’d probably wonder why we’re making another online exhibition. But now, I just see it as the best way of getting our message across. It’s not so much about where it’s placed but what it’s trying to say or what cultural formation it’s trying to push forward.
YDT: Before, a part of not receiving external funding was that we don’t answer to anyone.
AM: We felt like we don’t answer to anyone but in reality, we actually do. But instead of being bound by capital, we’re bound by our own convictions and where our allegiances lie.
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