About halfway into a talk held at New York City’s Museum of Art and Design, Clara Lobregat Balaguer dropped a bit of a truth bomb: “When you’re immersed in the hardships of fisher folk or tribal communities, making art seems like a really first-world way of dealing with third-world problems.”
As one-half of Hardworking Goodlooking, a graphic design and publishing studio started by New York aesthetes in the Philippines, Balaguer has spent years grappling with that idea. Along with her design partner, Kristian Henson, Balaguer runs The Office of Culture and Design (OCD), a Parañaque City-based platform for artists, designers, and writers to launch projects that examine issues in the developing world. (Hardworking Goodlooking is OCD’s publishing arm.)
It doesn’t matter how many lectures you attend or how many TED talks you listen to: reckoning art’s ability to create social change will never be easy. There’s a myriad of approaches—from JR’s portraits to Ai Weiwei’s installations—and many schools of thought. Should art expose issues to the developed world? Should art be the change we need? At their “Emerging Markets: Design and Publishing With Hardworking Goodlooking” talk, Balaguer and Henson—who are both part-Filipino—tried to make some sense of the question by shedding light on their own methods.
Balaguer committed herself to creating art with social agency after her mother passed away and left her a small inheritance. “It just didn’t feel quite right to spend my portion of my mother’s savings on something artsy fartsy that benefited just me,” she said. So she spent it on a “shitty car” that would enable her to get an early project up and running. The vehicle purchase is symbolic, because hands-on work is at the core of OCD. More specifically, the duo believe that in order to engage, art should escape the white walls of a gallery. “Making art relevant to people who subsist around the poverty line is a really tall order,” Balaguer says. “And making art relevant to that group and the art community is a veritable minefield.”
One way OCD reconciled that? Through publishing. After years of design-driven studies and performances, OCD created Hardworking Goodlooking to document it all, satisfying both the art community’s scholarly interest in published works, and giving them the chance to work with local Filipino printers. Then, “the book itself is like a satellite exhibition space,” Balaguer says.
Part of OCD’s approach to igniting the Filipino art scene is to embrace the eccentricities that already exist. For example, Balaguer learned that at the most esteemed universities in Manila, students submit coursework on blue scented paper. The teacher isn’t having any of it: she says she has to tell students they’ll flunk if they turn in perfumed paper. “I get where she’s coming from,” Balaguer says, but when it comes to these “strange, kitschy, inappropriate, totally non-Western things…instead of trying to polish ourselves, perhaps we should be working towards embracing our oddness as a strength.” In a nod to the students, Hardworking Goodlooking published a book on scented paper.
In another project, Hardworking Goodlooking sought to document the lettering of Filipino sign-makers. “It’s very prevalent, because they don’t have silk screening or vinyl,” Henson says. “Most typographers will make a case for this as calligraphy, or just take it down a notch, saying it’s a casual script. But per our philosophy we like that it engages in a humanistic form.” The results are compiled in one of Hardworking Goodlooking’s booklets.
At the 2013 New York Art Book Fair, Balaguer and Henson set up a Sari-Sari store, just like the ones they’ve frequented in the Philippines. Unlike boutiques, or even some fancier New York City bodegas, Sari-Sari stores are kind of a mess. “We love this unkempt, unpretentious presentation,” Henson says. The goods for sale—like sandals made from bicycle tires or barbecue grills made from old tin cans—are all upcycled and recycled. “They’re tactical in terms of taking whatever material you have and making use out of them. It creates an aesthetic of its own.”
Like the scented paper and the hand-painted letters, the beauty is in the irregularity. Henson calls it a “karaoke aesthetic,” and we only hope Hardworking Goodlooking can bring more of it stateside.