Cian Dayrit on Counter-Cartographies, Making Shared Work and Grappling with Incredulous Confutations



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Creative Conversations
Issue: On Psychogeographies

Cian Dayrit (born 1989, Philippines) studied art at the University of the Philippines. Cian Dayrit’s work investigates notions of power and identity as they are represented and reproduced in monuments, museums, maps and other institutionalized media. They often respond to different marginalized communities, encouraging a critical reflection on colonial and privileged perspectives. His projects which combine archival references, protest imagery and grassroots counter-mapping show how empire scored out the maps of the modern world, how its aftermath perpetuates industrial development, and how alternative territories might be imagined from the ground-up. Informed by the experience of colonialism from the perspective of the Philippines, Dayrit’s work nonetheless resists being fixed to a specific position or location.







¹ Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica de las Islas Filipinas, Pedro Murillo Velarde, Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay and Francisco Suarez
Library of Congress, 1734

One of the things you picked out for our conversation is the Murillo Velarde map, made by the Spanish Jesuit cartographer Pedro Murillo Velarde, and two Filipinos, engraver Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay and artist Francisco Suarez. The map has since been widely disseminated and published, and one of your works, Tropical Terror Tapestry, seems to reference this map as well. Could you tell us more about your own encounter with this map?


The 1534 version of the Murillo Velarde map, in particular, was the first comprehensive map of the Philippines as a colonial subject of the Spanish crown. The Philippines was named after King Phillip II of Spain. From that point, our nation was conceived of, surveyed by, measured, and eventually exploited in various ways. This map charted the vastness of Spanish ownership and control over the Philippines – as maps do. It has also been branded as the queen of Philippine maps, or the holy grail of Philippine maps. Copies of the map have been sold at auction houses here over the past couple of years, which has been both funny and painful at the same time – to think that this piece of heritage, an important artifact of significant historical and cultural value, is to be sold at auction to the highest bidder.

The map has also been pivotal in the case against China at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The map features some of the disputed land masses which China illegally occupies today by installing military facilities there. China has also been flattening mountain ranges along some of the provinces along the coast of the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea to get soil. They have been reclaiming some shoals, or land masses, to install their facilities. This is all happening within Philippine waters, inside our exclusive economic zone, and technically just off the coast. The difficult thing about this is that the current regime is practically allowing it.

Going back to the map itself, I haven't actually seen the real thing, and I probably won't ever get to. I'm not exactly counting on it. I suppose that's why I'm interested in making my own versions of it, like with Tropical Terror Tapestry, or previous works that have referenced its format or its context in one way or another. The map was meant to function as a survey of colony, and I now use that same format to survey the existing status quo of a semi-colony. How do we spell out semi-colonialism in relation to how we’ve historicised colonisation, colonialism, and the legacies of colonialism? I'm interested in plotting the spaces of state terror and abuse, as well as resistance and hope.

Maps seem to have emerged within your practice, as a system of knowledge, a visual language, and a narrative tool as well. Could you tell us more about how this came to be?


I would say that I'm at the start of my practice, vague as it may be, in terms of looking back into the past decade or so of my life. I'm generally interested in looking at objects, images, or spaces that somehow convey notions of power, or assume authority. Museums, for example, function as educational and social institutions that dictate one's heritage and identity. The format of display in museums, where textual labels can sometimes take on a very didactic tone, is something that I find both horrifying and intriguing at the same time. Expanding on that trail of thought, the variety of things in museums also function as museums. Monuments and large public objects loom over visitors, occupying space, dictating origins, and imposing a single narrative onto its viewers. I have looked into the archives of different libraries or museums here in Manila, playing researcher or archaeologist by trying to locate a selection of materials, wield certain narratives, and figure out gaps within the collections.

In the process of doing so, the image of maps, particularly antiquarian maps, caught my attention. Beyond being very visually intriguing, they too function like monuments. Yet at the same time, our encounter with them can be quite intimate. In thinking about the materiality of maps, they are often drawn on paper and rather fragile. At the same time, they claim a certain level of stature by imposing structures of power. Maps present a God's eye, all-knowing view of what happened, where it happened, how it happened, and who was involved. Yet all of this information is presented on a rather fragile sheet of paper. Even if these maps are outdated or antiquarian, they are still overtly political objects of power. That’s how I started getting interested in making my own maps, or subverting maps. I was interested in the gaps within these all-knowing and all-powerful maps. What were they excluding?

I was in conversation with some geographers at the local university, and they introduced to me the idea of counter-cartography. Immediately, I saw how that could relate to my practice by feeding into ideas of counter-ness, or against-ness, and finding ways to subvert certain power structures. Maps started to form a large part of my practice, and how I understand or look into things. Having said that, I'm not really a geographer or a cartographer. I just play around with different roles. I prefer it this way, because there's more room for me to collaborate and to consult with other people. I’d like to maintain this dynamic, because the work becomes everyone's work as a result.

Maps present a God's eye, all-knowing view of what happened, where it happened, how it happened, and who was involved. Yet all of this information is presented on a rather fragile sheet of paper.

² Neocolonial Landscape, Cian Dayrit
2020

Courtesy the Artist and Yeo Workshop


³ Neocolonial Landscape, Cian Dayrit
2020

Courtesy the Artist and Yeo Workshop


Since we’re on the topic of the counter-cartographic, maps function as political documents, but also help to reinforce certain structures of power, hegemonies, and certain biases or constructs as well. Given this context, and in relation to what you were speaking to earlier, could you expand on what the counter-cartographic means to you?


Before we try to unpack what the counter-cartographic means to me, we should unpack what the cartographic is. What is mapping, or what are we trying to counter? Broadly speaking, I think of it in relation to hegemonic power structures that reinforce the dynamic of a North–South divide, of East versus West, of the orient or occidental, and of capitalist or otherwise. At the same time, hegemony isn't exclusive to the global north or Western power structures. If anything, it is omnipresent in contemporary society, particularly in the global south with puppet regimes and fascist states profiteering off inequity or injustice and the accumulation brought about by corporate greed. In short, what we’re countering is everything I’ve mentioned above. If counter-cartography or counter-mapping challenges the hegemony in spaces, as authored or dictated by positions of authority, I am interested in challenging all the forms of meaning-making that are being used to impose narratives of dominance. It’s not exactly that black and white, but it’s about recognizing the contradictions and gaps within the machinery employed by dominant power structures. This is especially pertinent when we think about how the perspectives of marginalized populations are excluded and deliberately silenced. To me, that's the gist of the counter-cartographic, though it shifts every time time I try to define it. It also constantly evolves into what one feels it needs to be, what one feels we need to counter, or how we need to counter. It is about reimagining how the world is and how we want the world to be.

If counter-cartography or counter-mapping challenges the hegemony in spaces, as authored or dictated by positions of authority, I am interested in challenging all the forms of meaning-making that are being used to impose narratives of dominance.


Let’s turn the conversation towards the tools of the trade, so to speak. A lot of colonial maps were made by way of charts and compasses, and I’m also interested in the way you have pushed against that by working with the needle and thread, zines, and woodworking — just to name a few. How would you describe your approach and relationship to your materials? This is in considering that each of these tools come laden with a set of signifiers, histories, and references. Do you see them as an extension or embodiment of the resistance and refusal inherent to your work?


I was trained as a painter, and my work is informed by spaces, objects, and the relations of power between and beyond these spaces and objects. As a result, the meaning-making in image-making naturally expanded to expression and knowledge production in varying formats. At some point, it became clear that I could no longer contain my ideas or processes by simply making flat images out of them. I work with what I have, what I feel best fits the idea I have, or a material that can best simulate the sort of materiality I’d like to achieve. The work only goes as far as my budget, obviously, but I am also keen on collaborating with different craft practitioners and researchers from various disciplines. These collaborations help to keep my practice grounded, and they give me a sense of what is possible or appropriate based on the immediate conditions that define the means of artistic production.

You’ve mentioned the needle and thread, zines, and woodworking, and it’s interesting that you bring these up because I haven't actually made my own zines. In terms of needle and thread and woodworking, I have specific go-to collaborators and I've been working with them for a couple of years now. With woodworking, for example, I work with woodcarvers from Paete. Paete is a three-hour drive from where I live, and it is a town that is well known for woodcarving. The Spanish or the church still commissions wood carvers from Paete to make and carve religious icons today. In my own work with carvers from Paete, I do take this historical context and the socio-economic conditions of the people living there into consideration. The demand for wood carved religious icons has declined over the past few decades, and wood carvers in Paete have begun making Christmas decorations for export to Europe. The wood carvers there are also finding it difficult to compete with cheaper modes of fabrication that have been recently developed. As a result of these conditions, it is a craft in decline. There aren’t many young people practicing or continuing the craft. I’m not sure how relevant my practice is to these concerns about the survival of the community and its heritage, but these are questions that I’m constantly thinking about when working with wood carvers from Paete.

Beyond the objects themselves, I'm also interested how objects are presented. When you put things around space and within the context of a physical exhibition, meaning is made. Exhibitions become temporary repositories of research for the objects that I make, either myself or through collaborations. They are points of synthesis, at best, for various trails of thoughts. In making exhibitions, I prefer keeping things concise. The works need to process the information I've gathered. If not, they’d be better off in books and texts. Having said that, physical exhibitions aren’t always the most conducive environments. It’s important to consider how people experience exhibitions. There's often only so much a person can take in, both physically and mentally. I’ve been trying to think about how I can expand upon the objects I make by considering their afterlives as well.
Tree of Death and Decay, Cian Dayrit
2018


Courtesy the Artist and Yeo Workshop

Tree of Death and Decay, Cian Dayrit
2018

Courtesy the Artist and Yeo Workshop


Whilst preparing for this interview, I chanced upon a previous interview of yours. In that interview, you talked about “looking into how the language of power and dominance and control is reproduced by institutions via objects and traditions”. Beyond the visual language of authority and control, your practice is interested in textual language as well. Many of your maps reference the old European language of Latin, for example. At this point in time, what would you say the place of language — in all its forms — is in your practice? I would imagine this is something that would also shapeshift with the different urgencies of our time. Does language clarify, undermine, or explicate your artistic approach towards making work?


The written text can be thought of as a visual tool as well. I don't really have a background in typography, and just thinking about it now, I am conscious of the small range of fonts that I am able to make. Language can add specific social, cultural, and historical layers to an image. With differences in fonts and language, that can be amplified. I think of text or written language as a window of opportunity. It can be used quite literally to spell out what some images or objects might leave out. You can also say that the converse is true, and that images and objects can be used to spell out what text or the spoken language leaves out, but I think it works both ways. Something I enjoy about the idea or the format of maps is that there is the image and there is text. Because of this, it somehow thinks or believes of itself as a systematic format. Yet there is still room for subjectivity within all of that. Maps are essentially infographics, and that's why I think it never gets old. Today, we experience maps as interfaces within our smartphones or computers.

I've been using Latin because it is an archetypal, archaic language that institutions of authority often use. My approach to Latin comes from a rather casual, or even humorous, approach. I feed Google Translate with text commentary, jokes, or protest slogans, and then embroider the resulting translations onto tapestry. I like the idea of the image of text as an encoded sound, or encoded meaning. When I use text, I read it out loud or I sound it out in my head. I like this idea of including a signifier of sound, incantation, or chanting in the visual language of my work. If anything, I like this detachment from the representation of sound. I just hope that viewers read it aloud or in their heads too. More often than not, Google Translate really fucks up the text. What results is usually badly translated Latin, which I very much enjoy. I think it's natural for mistranslation to happen. In a way, this recontextualises our angles and perspectives – not by neutralising or making them more abstract, but by allowing us to fill our own meanings, tenses, or genders into the language. This has become one of the ways I’ve subverted the visual language of dominance in my work.

I would say that I work with text and written language in the same way that I work with materials. I've been exploring ways – both involuntarily and subconsciously – as to how I might incorporate text or written language into my work. At the same time, I’ve had to tone it down because text might end up overwhelming the work. I do think that text allows me to inject humour into my work. A lot of my work deals with very agitated content, and I’ve been thinking about how I can make these jagged pills a little easier to swallow. I’m not interested in neutralising the themes I touch on, but I’d like to make people stay and look at the work for a little longer.

When I use text, I read it out loud or I sound it out in my head. I like this idea of including a signifier of sound, incantation, or chanting in the visual language of my work.


On that note of incredulity, I found a couple of things that you picked out for the conversation quite interesting. Real estate booths in shopping malls are one such example. These booths are a microcosm of neoliberal free market dynamics, with shop windows functioning as billboards for individual listings of land, houses, or commercial space. They have been interesting encapsulations of your critique towards the structures and forces of neoliberal capitalism. Could you speak a little more as to why you picked these real estate booths out for our conversation, the context within which you encounter them, and what they mean to you?


I'm not sure how relatable this would be to those who do not live in the Philippines. For readers in the Philippines, these real estate booths are common sights in shopping malls, in airports, or both. I’m intrigued by this idea of selling real estate by way of miniature models of the development. The miniature models of the development site itself are often made with opaque or coloured materials. The surrounding buildings or sites, however, are often represented with clear, acrylic sheets. Although these are the buildings that are already on site, you aren’t meant to see them. Instead, you’re looking at something that’s not there yet. There are so many different ways of approaching these real estate booths. I go to quite a few of them, but the thing about them is that they’re so irresistibly set up to be criticised. They are museum, monument, map, media, and market all at once.

These spaces are the actual facades of consumerist culture. They sell us a fantasy of a city with abundant spaces for the taking, but this is bluntly contradicted by the realities of homelessness. Things such as a home, a stable job, a purpose, and a life – all of these are things I would consider to be our democratic rights. Yet these high-rise developments do not house people. They house investments instead. It comes back to these contradictions we are faced with. It is the question of why are farmers landless? Why are indigenous peoples displaced? Why are so many people homeless? It begs the question of what these real estate booths really represent. I'm fascinated by just how ingenious yet insidious these booths are, although they function within the wider machinery of the real estate industry.
Monuments of Great Divide, Cian Dayrit (Collaboration With Felman Bagalso)
2019

Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola
Courtesy the Artist and NOME, Berlin


Monuments of Great Divide (detail), Cian Dayrit (Collaboration With Felman Bagalso)
2019

Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola
Courtesy the Artist and NOME, Berlin

Staying on this point regarding real estate, I’d like to spend some time of the colonial architectural ruins you picked out for our conversation. For many European imperialists who travelled to Southeast Asia, it can be said that they saw this as an exercise in acquiring real estate. They often exoticised or romanticised the structures they came across, and even if these places were not in ruins, they would often be embellished to look that way in lithographs or sketches. When you speak of colonial architectural ruins, do you have a particular site in mind? How would you situate your interest in these ruins, especially in relation to the above-mentioned history?


There are many sites that come to mind when I think of the phrase “ruins of colonial architecture”. As I’ve mentioned, I’m interested in monuments, and I suppose that would include architecture as well. With this particular trail of thought, I was thinking about Manila in general. Manila was once a great sultanate that traded with Chinese, Arab, and other merchants from different parts of the world. When the Spanish came, Manila was one of the more established states or sultanates within the archipelago. They set up the capital there and built the walled fortress, the Intramuros, which still stands today. When the Americans arrived 300 years later and bought the country, they expanded the city with Western urban planning, such as Art Deco architecture. In order to chase the Japanese out of the city during World War II, the Americans subsequently bombed all of this architecture to the ground. For the most part, we were caught in the middle of this inter-imperialist war, and the city hasn't really reclaimed its old glory since then. Having said that, I don't really know what old glory means. The post-war regimes were all installed by the US, with the goal of advancing neoliberal policies that enable the colonial exploitation of the country. As a result, healthcare, education, housing, and food are virtually unattainable or very difficult for most of the population to gain access to. The literal ruins of colonial architecture, bombed by colonisers in order to get the other colonisers out, have become the bedrock of systemic oppression and inequality. While I'm thinking about the ruins of colonial architecture, I'm also seeing the societal ruins brought about by the legacies of colonialism, and crystallised by imperialism and neoliberalism. I'm trying to frame this with less -isms, but so far, it has proved to be the most straightforward way for me to explain the way in which I’m thinking about Manila.

I was born and raised in Manila – not in old Manila, but in one of the cities that the Americans built, or that was built during the American Commonwealth era. You can still see traces of this city planning today. I’m thinking through questions such as: Has this mode of urban planning worked for Manila? Did it ever work? How do you orchestrate a city? The ruins of colonial architecture, to me, are both literal and metaphorical.

You’ve also singled out tourists’ souvenirs from developing countries, which could include postcards and keychains, for our conversation. Could you expand on if and how the notion of the souvenir features within your practice? I’m thinking about this in relation to the insidious extraction, for example, of natural resources — historically, metaphorically, and literally.


These souvenirs kind of function in a similar way to the real estate booths we were talking about earlier. There are so many ways to angle a conversation around souvenirs, but personally, I really love them. I hoard souvenirs. The tackier the souvenir, the better. I find them to be such intimate yet definitive objects of what a place wants to project. That’s just thinking about it from the perspective of the place or the people making or selling these souvenirs. For those who purchase these souvenirs, they’re often not from the place the souvenir was sold. It’s like a token of conquest. You’ve gone to a place, been there, and this is now something small that you can take home to remind you of your time there. You may not have extracted like mountains of ore, but you spent your time there and extracted memories. Souvenirs are products of tourism, which is a phenomenon I’d like to think more deeply about as well. I often feel like a tourist in my own country because of this constant feeling of alienation sometimes. Yet, alienation might also be something that’s quite local and relatable.

As an artist from the global south, whatever art I produce is an artifact of my economic, political, and cultural reality. I play around with the contradictions and exoticisms of my own context and conditions. My intention is not to bask in this, but to playfully challenge it. In my part of the world, contemporary art can also be seen as a big souvenir shop. In the Philippines, an artist’s career is often based on their marketability. It’s hard to be an artist full time, unless you’ve somehow got it big, or you have a different gig, a day job, or a part time job. That creates this dynamic of having to make things that sell, but at the same time, trying to find your own voice within the things that you hope to sell.

Coming back to tourist souvenirs, I’m interested in how we might make sense of tourism and shift towards thinking about it more progressively. How might we move away from ethnographic tourism, and towards a tourism that is interested in community development? These little trinkets are just one of many ways into having such conversations.

As an artist from the global south, whatever art I produce is an artifact of my economic, political, and cultural reality. I play around with the contradictions and exoticisms of my own context and conditions. My intention is not to bask in this, but to playfully challenge it.

Beyond the God's Eye, Cian Dayrit
2019, Installation View at NOME, Berlin

Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola Courtesy the Artist and NOME, Berlin


Beyond the God's Eye, Cian Dayrit
2019, Installation View at NOME, Berlin

Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola Courtesy the Artist and NOME, Berlin


How would you say your role as an artist given you unique insight into the issues you examine? How would you situate your artistic practice in relation to this activism — do they work synergistically, are they two different facets, or is action simply a responsibility?


For me, I think that my artistic practice and activism are one and the same. Having said that, I'm not entirely sure if my role as an artist has given me a unique insight into the issues I examine. Rather, I would say that my role as an artist has given me a responsibility or a function to convey the stories of the people, to provide a visual or experiential analysis, to understand or make sense of, and to be in solidarity with the people.

I would say that me identifying as an activist has informed my artistic practice, because it is important to recognise that artists are workers too. Our work provides us with the opportunity to somehow internalize or process certain impulses and to make something out of that. The question then should be: What is our art about? What is cultural work for, if not to contribute to raising the consciousness of the people? I don’t think art can or should be isolated from the rest of society. In fact, we should calibrate our work to be function as counter-culture wherever possible. We need to make powerful work that can support the people’s struggles and effectively amplifies the people's voices. Of course, that's just my opinion. I don't really feel that there is much room for myself in in my own work – or maybe there is, and I just haven’t recognised it yet. I'm still figuring out a lot of things within my practice, but I know where I’m at in terms of ideology. But The culture that we practice should be grounded in the unities of our shared political and economic realities. There is still a lot more work to be done.

The question then should be: What is our art about? What is cultural work for, if not to contribute to raising the consciousness of the people? I don’t think art can or should be isolated from the rest of society.






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