While its name suggests a grandiose collective occupying its own impressive brownstone office, in fact the Office of Culture and Design (OCD) consists of founder Lobregat Balaguer and a continually shifting group of worldwide collaborators communicating via Slack and WhatsApp. Founded by Balaguer in 2010, the group organizes and funds art and design programming for culturally underserved local communities as part of its mission to increase the relevance and impact of cultural work outside centers of power and institutions.
One part of its many divisions is publishing arm Hardworking Goodlooking, set up by Balaguer in 2013 along with graphic designer Kristian Henson. It’s dedicated to publishing the results of OCD’s research as well as work by local artists and researchers. Primarily, Hardworking Goodlooking works with cottage industry Risograph presses in Manila to produce its books, zines, and other printed matter; its complex and ambitious aim is to “decolonize Philippine aesthetics” through promoting and implementing the often overlooked contemporary vernacular.
Filipino Folk Foundry is one example of many books it’s produced, exploring the postmodern nature of Filipino street typography—its culmination of influences, cultures, and histories. Other titles have been cookbooks, like the Ayta Tribal Cookbook that documents 30,000 year-old recipes, a “migrating” supplement called Edit that always appears in a different magazine, and also an OCD Project Reader, which considers issues of developing world communities via the Philippines. Here and elsewhere Balaguer tackles a great preoccupation, namely how “making art seems like a really first-world way of dealing with third-world problems.”
When I ask Balaguer what it means for a piece of print like this to “decolonize,” her answer reveals an unwavering commitment to the radical potential of print. “Decolonization is a refusal to conform,” she says, “by refusing to see cottage industry printing mechanisms as less valuable, by refusing to see error and inconsistency as worthless, by refusing to acquiesce to global north/west standards of quality, by eschewing emotional restraint, and accepting passion as a necessary component of our work, rejecting the idea that optimism and ethics are utopian, and refusing to accept our own invisibility in the printing sector as an non-commutable sentence… This is how we decolonize.”
What Hardworking Goodlooking suggests here is rousing: to self-publish, to reject the oppressive power structures that define value and worth, is to assert individuality and selfhood, which in the Philippine post-colonial context is a decolonizing act, “no matter what the content.”
Lobregrat Balaguer paints a picture of the local art and culture scene to contextualize her ideological bent. She notes the individual zine efforts by local artists and designers like Apol Sta. Maria, Shireen Seno, and Bru Sim-Nada, as well as Artbooks.ph, “the only serious bookstore dedicated fully to art and culture publications in the Philippines,” and the Better Living Through Xerography zine fair that’s been running since 2010. But with little institutional support, low visibility, and few options for turning a profit, artists are under enormous pressure to fully self-fund their publishing ventures—the OCD offers an alternative.
The choice to work with street-side Riso presses in undeveloped neighbourhoods is of course financially motivated, but it also comes from a tenderness towards the gritty and “uncouth” quality of local, popular book making. Rather than attempt to imitate the production quality of western publishing, Hardworking Goodlooking rejects it and embraces the limitations of its locale.
“Our books directly reflect the socio-political conditions for critical knowledge production in the Philippines, with the corresponding patina of imperfection,” says Balaguer. “Our books have scars, birthmarks, and wounds.”
The posters and prints Hardworking Goodlooking produces combine a swirl of influences, and bridge a distinctly postmodern, post-colonial tension. “Even though we are using elements of our own local culture, the danger of appropriation still exists because of a class divide. We are privileged practitioners of design dealing with influences from marginalized practitioners of design,” says Balaguer.
“Perhaps it’s not always possible to credit the source of inspiration when you are designing a flier or book as Hardworking Goodlooking, but as the OCD, the tender research into vernacular aesthetics can and does continue. I don’t know if this is the perfect solution, if we are effectively managing to not appropriate, or at least do so ethically, or if we aren’t just part of the gentrifying machine that subjugates. But this is how we try to work through the issues at hand, embracing contradictions and being constantly aware of the ethical minefield we operate within.
“Dealing with subaltern subject matter, from the dual position of underrepresented cultural insider and class-privileged outsider, is not an easy task. Just because it’s hard, though, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.”