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Notes from the Field: Shireen Seno & Norberto "Peewee" Roldan

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. For this edition, Matt speaks with Shireen Seno, and Norberto “Peewee” Roldan, about two spaces they are involved in running in the Philippines - Los Otros, and Green Papaya. Los Otros is a critically acclaimed film and video studio & platform dedicated to supporting works with unique personal voices. Green Papaya Art Project is an independent initiative that supports and organises actions and propositions that explore tactical approaches to the production, dissemination, research and presentation of contemporary practices in varied artistic and scholarly fields.

Shireen Seno is an artist and filmmaker whose work addresses memory, history, and image-making, often in relation to the idea of home. A recipient of the 2018 Thirteen Artists Award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, she is known for her films which have won awards at Rotterdam, Shanghai, Olhar de Cinema, Vladivostok, Jogja-Netpac, and Lima Independiente and have screened at institutions such as Tate Modern, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Portikus, NTU Center for Contemporary Art Singapore, Taipei National Center for Photography and Images, and Museum of the Moving Image. Norberto "Peewee" Roldan is a multimedia artist and curator who has worked at the forefront of cultural artistic practice in the Philippines, having founded the seminal artists group Black Artists in Asia in 1986 (a Philippines-based group focused on socially and politically progressive practice), and initiated the longest-running VIVA EXCON Biennale in the Visayas region. Norberto Roldan’s work offers commentary on the social, political, and cultural conditions of the Philippines.

Sentient Art Film: Could you briefly describe your backgrounds and how you become involved with the spaces that you work with? How did you come to Los Otros and to Green Papaya, and how did they come to be?

Shireen Seno: My partner John [Torres] set up Los Otros - which translates in English as ‘The Others’ - before I met him. He would gather with friends, watch films, and mess around musically. He picked the name because he felt like he was on the periphery of the film industry. He never really got into the studios or became involved with bigger productions, and he started making works more as a way to stay in touch with his friends, almost like letters. His work evolved from there, but he continued mining his own archival footage. He used to shoot a lot, and then later find a way to make sense of this myriad footage he had recorded.

Some years later, I came to Manila. I was coming from Japan, where I grew up and where I had been trying to organise an alternative Filipino film festival. Everything that I had encountered at the time in Japan was very stereotypical and sappy, and it always seemed to be feeling sorry for the Philippines. I wanted to show work from this other side, this very lively independent movement going on that I had heard about online. I came here to see the scene for myself and ended up wanting to be part of it. I didn't necessarily plan on making films, I was more into writing and curating films than making them, but once I was here I got the bug. The energy is kind of contagious. Everyone made it look so fun, and I also felt that I had a lot of things that I wanted to express and that film seemed like a perfect way to do it.

So, John and I formally started Los Otros up again in the garage of our house. It was more about showing John's films at the time and it was very casual, starting with a post on social media asking local people to come by. We were showing some of John’s films and then word of mouth got around, and more people started coming to the events.

Did John decide to show his own films in his own space because there weren't other venues where they could be shown, or just because he wanted to skip the steps that would be involved with screenings in festivals or institutional spaces?

Shireen Seno: It was just the easiest thing. If you are showing your own work and you own the rights to it, you don't have to ask anyone's permission or pay any screening fees. It was also a way to find an audience that we didn't know we had in our neighbourhood. We had a community more internationally than locally in this experimental film world, so it was nice to find people nearby too. In the beginning, It was mainly people from the neighbourhood who were creatives of all kinds that we hadn’t met before, so it was great to have them come to our place and get to know them better. The first thing we showed that was not our own work was an event with Lisa May David in 2012, where she did an artist talk and showed some video works of hers. It became more organised after that, and we had a number of friends who wanted to come to visit Manila and get to know us and our circles. George Clark and Jangwook Lee wanted to come, and we were happy to host them. They came and showed work at Los Otros and Green Papaya, and after that we had multiple crossover events and visits from artists. Things slowed down when John and I became parents in 2018. We decided to organise things more, but host less, as we needed more space in the home for our children.

Norberto ‘Peewee’ Roldan: I really liked the name of ‘Los Otros’. I haven't told anyone this, but to me this name is quite subversive. I don't know if my translation is correct but I read it as ‘the others’, or ‘the outsiders’ - an alternative to the mainstream. I also like that it is in Spanish because we of course have a long history with Spain, and in some regions in the Philippines, people speak in a broken form of Spanish. I come from the Visayas which was the entry point of the Spaniard in 1521, and my mother spoke Spanish and some old people still speak Spanish there. The name ‘Los Otros’ brings up many things to me.

Green Papaya and Los Otros often collaborate. They sometimes host our resident artists, we’ll screen their film program, or share our equipment. Beyond this, we’ve always tried to take care of each other outside of our spaces, even with family matters such as asking John to pick-up my son from school if I couldn’t make it.

Could you tell me a little about how and when you became involved with Green Papaya Peewee? What were you thinking about during its foundation?

Norberto ‘Peewee’ Roldan: I started my art practice in Bacolod in the early 80s, the capital city of Negros Occidental where I did cultural work during the Marcos years. I founded Black Artists in Asia when Corazon Aquino became the president. I was involved in the protest movement, organizing artists, exhibitions, and different cultural platforms. In 1992, I was offered a job to work in a design agency in Manila. I took that as an opportunity to move out of Bacolod and lay low from an activist life. It was some kind of a complete turn-around to find myself in the capitalist world. In 1998, I decided to retire from my last corporate job as creative director for a media broadcasting company and went to graduate school at the University of the Philippines to work on my MA in museum studies. I met Donna Miranda who at that time was completing her degree in UP and in 2000 we decided to open Green Papaya Art Projects.

I mentioned that short timeline from the 80s to the 90s because Green Papaya to me is a continuation of my cultural work that started in Bacolod. Opening a space and running it is political. Whatever you present there as part of your programme is basically a reflection of your social and political awareness, or how you deal with such issues. There is not much support for the arts coming from the government and the private sector in the Philippines. There are no funding institutions either that support independent initiatives. So opening a space is a way of taking control of your own need to produce, disseminate, and discuss art; and to encourage other artists to participate in this process. Another motivation for us in opening the space was to provide support, however small, to young artists to present their work to the public.

Most of the artist-run spaces were concentrated in Quezon City, north of Metro Manila. I think this is mainly due to the location of the University of the Philippines (UP) which is based in Quezon City. Many artists and collectives who started their own spaces were mostly graduates of the UP College of Fine Arts.

The pioneering artist-run space Shop 6 in Manila was started by Roberto Chabet, a pioneering Filipino conceptual artist, a revered mentor, teacher, and curator who used to teach at the UP College of Fine Arts after his short stint as founding director of the Museum of Visual Arts at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Most spaces that opened up in the late 90s to the early 00s were founded mainly by the students of Chabet. Third Space, Surrounded by Water, The Cubicle, Big Sky Mind and Future Prospects, all in Quezon City had all closed down.

The art scene started to change when the art market started to grow in the mid 2000s. After slowly recovering from the 1997 Asian financial crisis through the intervention of the IMF prescribing the liberalization of the financial sector, big international art fairs began to proliferate all over Asia, commercial galleries stepped up by moving to bigger spaces, and emerging collectors in Southeast Asia started to pay interest in Philippine contemporary art. Since most of the artist-run spaces were run by young graduates who were starting their careers, the market eventually caught up with them. Most of them became in demand by collectors and so the artists needed to devote more time to their individual studio practices. Some of them have already started their own families thus there was added pressure to establish a more viable economy.

That was one of my questions actually. How have you both been able to sustain?

Peewee: Like those spaces, we had already considered closing way back in 2007. But those artists who used to run their own spaces didn’t want us to close. We exhibit a lot of them and they have become part of our community. That’s when I realised that the community has taken a stake in Green Papaya. With works these artists donated to us, we were able to fundraise enough money to continue our operation for the next two years. We were even able to move to a bigger and new location where we have grown our community of independent curators, writers, researchers, sound artists, filmmakers, performance artists, musicians, and those who are into inter-disciplinary practice — a community that is not necessarily anti-art market, but doesn’t actually care about the market.

Eventually though, I still thought of closing Green Papaya. During the Asia Society Art and Museum Summit in November of 2017 in Manila, I publicly announced that Green Papaya was closing in 2020. Of courses, people were surprised, and no less than three individuals connected to foundations approached me after my talk to ask what they can do to help Green Papaya continue to operate. But I’ve made up my mind by then. During that year, the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong has started to help us with archiving. The following year, 2018, Green Papaya was tasked to undertake artistic and curatorial management of the XVth edition of VIVA ExCon, the longest running artists-led biennale in the Philippines. And so, because we still have to do some post-event publications, we re-set the date of closing in 2021. Then the pandemic happened, and Manila started to suffer under the longest lockdown in world starting in March 2020. As if that was not enough. Green Papaya’s space was razed by a fire a few months later in June.

To still close, but close slower? Peewee: Yes, we are still closing, at a later date.

I think it was from the statement at the conference you mentioned actually Peewee, but I read this quote that said that “Green Papaya is sustained by a small community who like the kind of art that no one else thinks of as art - yet”. Related to that, I wanted to ask you both what connects the sort of work you are drawn to and the artists that your spaces are involved with? Shireen, you said about outsider art, and Peewee, your quote is about art that other people wouldn't even think of as art, so I wonder if there is something in that?

Shireen: For us, this was also about practicality, because we made use of others. We made use of friends who wanted to come. It's not like we had any money to run our space. It is just a subspace of our house. We put energy into cleaning it up if we have a screening or an event, and so it was a kind of coming together of energies. There was energy coming from friends, or friends of friends, who had shown interest in our community, and our energy in welcoming them to come here. We made use of those other energies, and then drew from the resources of others. We didn't even have a projector sometimes. It was borrowed from Green Papaya, who themselves shared it with another artist-run space called 98B. The same is true for the sound system. Los Otros happened through the generosity of others and a coming together of resources that we didn't have. It was about relying on our friends, and bringing them together.

In terms of the work that we were showing, it was work that we knew wouldn't really be shown anywhere in Manila. There used to be an artist-run cinematheque called Mogwai in Quezon City, and there was another alternative film-based space called Cinekatipunan, which ran screenings out of a restaurant/bar/gallery, but these spaces had closed down so we felt a need to share the works that had inspired us and kept us going.

Peewee: With Green Papaya, we weren't really looking for any particular type of work. In fact, we were less interested in the finished work, but more in how the work came about. We were more interested in artists sharing and presenting their processes, their strategies, or their ways of collaboration, because we think there is more to learn from these things than what can be gleaned from looking at an exhibition where you are confronted with products that are shown on the wall or as installations or sculpture. Also, while it is interesting to watch beautifully filmed and edited films, it is also interesting to learn how the filmmaker was able to create such works. We would always ask the artists to walk us through their experiences, or to do an artist talk or an informal dialogue with the community so people would have the chance to interact with the artist in a more intimate way.

Yeah, that's interesting. I think it's not often that you get to see process as a member of the public. As you said, you see a finished piece but not always how it came to be? You can speak to the artist or you can go on the tour or whatever, but it's interesting to think about the process of production more.

Peewee: We are not really a white box, and we’re not strictly even an exhibition space. In fact, some of our projects are not in this space, and since the pandemic started, we all know that spaces have become somewhat irrelevant. Everyone has migrated online, and are trying to make what we can via the internet.

I wanted to ask both of you actually about that because reading about you both, it seems to me that your spaces and your art-making practices are very social - they’re based on people coming together to discuss ideas or, as you said Peewee, share processes. How have you both dealt with this increased distance or the inability to bring people together so much? Have you started to think differently about what a space means, or have you both just been desperate to get back into common space?

Peewee: Even before the start of the pandemic we have realized that physical space is only a part of the logistics that we need to be able to keep on with the programme. We seldom hold exhibitions anymore. Besides, we have partner institutions we can work with should we need a space. Los Otros can show films at the UP Film Center if need be. Or Green Papaya can co-organize an exhibition and a symposium with the UP Vargas Museum if we need to.

Prior to the pandemic, Green Papaya was preoccupied with archiving. Since the lockdown in March last year, the current Papaya collective composed of seven members have to work from home. It was of course difficult in the beginning because but we eventually got used to it. We have worked out how to do our tasks in our respective areas, and we have hosted many talks online. We’ve also been participating regularly in many discussion panels and symposia every month, so it is good that we have seven people to spread out this workload now. We have divided subject matter among us and can assign people who are the most versed with a certain topic. Today, most of the work of Green Papaya is in publishing, and we hope to release four books before the end of the year.

We don’t have to stress about not being able to gather together for a drink, although eating and drinking was a big part of our community. We love to drink. We love to cook. We love feeding people. And we love the conversation that comes after the talks.

Shireen: I really miss that too, Peewee.

Peewee: I don’t know when we can go back to that, but for now we can just continue our projects. We’ve decided internally to continue Green Papaya until 2025, though we have not announced this officially yet. We are setting a goal to complete all remaining publications, and stay active until then.

Peewee, you said earlier that running a space is always a political act, but it seems to me that it is especially hard not to be politically vocal in the Philippines when you are running a space like this? I’m interested in how you both manage the risk, and also how you ensure that your politics are aligned within a collective and that everyone is in agreement with how those politics are communicated to the world?

Peewee: Our premise is that in the Philippines one cannot reflect on contemporary culture without reflecting on your social-political condition. You can’t speak about anything in the Philippines actually without it being related to this social and political quagmire that we are in. We don’t talk about that explicitly, amongst ourselves or with members of our community, but we know that each one embodies that consciousness and awareness that there is this common sense of resistance against what is happening in the Philippines. You don’t have to verbalise that if you are doing work related to these issues.

How do we address the risks? We have been testing the waters. Last year, we were supposed to celebrate two decades of Green Papaya. The pandemic prevented this, as otherwise there would have been a really rock n’ roll party. Instead, we published twenty posters during the month of May reflecting on the current political situation. We were addressing issues of the day: how the government was responding to the pandemic, how the military is taking advantage of the lockdown to kill more people in the countryside, or how the country’s health workers are not being taken care of properly. After publishing these posters, we expected some reprisal from the government, but surprisingly - maybe because we have a small social media following - there was nothing. We thought that people didn’t pay attention to us, but from these posts, we realised that some people outside of the Philippines were listening. To our surprise, Art Review Asia, which is based in London, got wind of our posters, and asked for an interview about them and about the fire that had razed our space. Later we were included in the ArtReview Power 100. We were 99th, but who cares! Some people are listening.

It's interesting to think about press and attention and whether you want it. I was talking before to someone who works with lots of Chinese filmmakers, and she was saying that in some cases, filmmakers actively want to avoid press because it's a risk for the films to be covered. This makes sense, but to me was quite shocking as often people seem to want to bring international attention to localised issues. That’s why I asked about this balance between being able to say what you need to say and it not being safe enough to say it, so it's interesting that you said about testing the waters and becoming bolder and bolder.

I had another question which is also quite difficult, but that's why I like to be the person asking the questions but never someone has to answer any. Do either of you feel that hostile or inhospitable conditions can cause more creativity or ingenuity and maybe even produce more interesting art, or is that the wrong way to think about things? Peewee: It’s not wrong to assume that. You only have to look back at our history to see this. It was during the time of Marcos that a really strong art movement was born in the Philippines: the social realist movement. No other movement has developed so clearly after that. It was also during the Marcos years that the Concerned Artists of the Philippines was formed. It was started by a very progressive filmmaker by the name of Lino Brocka who was making commercial films that also showed the social realities of the time. This was also the time that Philippine Educational Theater Association was born, which became a model of street theatre across Asia. All these progressive movements started during the Marcos regime, a dark, dark period in Philippine history, and we are seeing similar developments today since [Rodrigo] Duterte’s election as president in 2016. There are similar progressive organisations that are now at the forefront of the protest movement of the Philippines.

How do you feel about that question, Shireen? Shireen: I’m still thinking about the previous few questions. I was thinking about how we had a little bit of a scare a few years ago. During Duterte's administration, there have been a lot of fear tactics. He has started this drug war and he makes the local villages keep a list of people who are potential drug users, and I remember John getting a strange phone call from someone requesting lots of personal information. He didn’t realise that someone was fishing for information, and afterwards, we were so scared because he gave so much away. We thought we might be on the list, but at the same time we realised that, up until then, the only problem we had faced with Los Otros was noise complaints from neighbours. We knew we had nothing that would incriminate us, so we thought that if they are going to start making lists of artists, we just have to keep continuing to do the work we do. If we show any sign of waning, we are self-censoring and letting that fear control us.

I was also thinking about your coping question, and being parents has really led us to question how best to continue making films and art while maintaining a family. We always think about how Green Papaya has thrived and how Peewee’s own family has been such an integral part of that. The only way maybe is to have the two things merge, so before the pandemic we were thinking about having more workshops geared towards young people and then we could involve our daughter more in our events.

We have been lying low for a while now, as it is hard getting by day to day with kids, but we had built enough of a reputation to host events elsewhere if we wanted. Patrick Campos from the University of the Philippines Film Center said that his venue could always host us and he knew we could always fill a room. Our space has turned into a playground for our kids, so it is nice to be offered outside support instead.

How do you feel about that? I wondered if it was important to you both to remain separate from institutions and institutional spaces? Running Los Otros at the University would be a different thing than an event hosted in your garage? It would change the context, perhaps?

Shireen: I think it completely changes the context. It would not be our house anymore. It's a public university and it would attract a bigger audience. Random people in the university will stumble into something we are bringing and be pleasantly surprised. We have been having trouble finding the energy to set up our space as we have our hands full as parents. We will have to continue relying on institutions I think, but we’ll see what happens and who

I think it is interesting that when people talk about sustainability, they talk about funding and financing and resources, but for both of you it has been more about sustaining energy. The resource is time, and shifting commitments in your life will change how much time and mental energy you are able to devote to these spaces.

My last question was about the future of these spaces and other spaces, and where you see the next step for yourselves, but you have kind of answered that. Shireen, it sounds like your children are going to take over Los Otros in the next few years, and then run it for other children in the area, and Peewee, you talked about an inheritance plan for the organisation and widening who is involved? How do you see things changing, post pandemic, post fire, post everything, and are you hopeful?

Peewee: It's funny you mentioned the term inheritance. I told you that Donna and I had a son, who practically grew up in Green Papaya, meeting all the artists until he became a teenager at which point he decided he would never be an artist himself. He was fifteen when he heard that I planned to close Green Papaya, and he casually approached me and looked at me seriously and said: “I don’t want to inherit Green Papaya”. I said: “certainly not, as inheritances are usually assets, not liabilities.”

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