The topic of climate change as a pressing global issue has been dominating conversations across mediums in the last couple of years, but there are those who have been wrestling with the palpable effects on the environment and manifesting these questions in their work longer and way ahead than many of us.
Martha Atienza, a Filipino-Dutch artist lauded for her sound and video art installations worldwide, has been examining the realities of marginalized communities, particularly those that are most vulnerable to the changing conditions of their direct environments, and exploring the pressing questions she is confronted with through her work for a decade now. Her project titled Gilubong Akong Pusod Sa Dagat (My Navel is Buried In The Sea) in 2010 brought her back home to the island where her family is from (Madridejos on Bantayan Island in Cebu, Philippines) to examine and portray the daily life of seafarers as a way of understanding her own father who was a seafarer himself. The project also gave rise to a larger question that has also galvanized her to leverage her medium as a platform for discourse and collaboration towards social change and community development.
Her most recent solo exhibition at SILVERLENS, Equation of State, was born out of the artist’s reflections and observations from that maiden project in Bantayan Island nearly a decade ago. Although the exhibition has already passed, the works in the show have left an imprint in our minds. Described as a documentation of climate change’s effects on the island coastline while examining the close relationship between its human inhabits and the environment, Equation of State refers to a thermodynamic equation that calculates the relationship between variables and a given set of physical conditions, thus creating an experience that begs us to pause and question the realities of environmental management and socioeconomic development in lesser development areas such as rural Philippines.
Martha Atienza talks video art, techniques, and how her deep relationship with the coastal communities of her home-island propels her work. Photos and video by Mohd Sarajan and Chaz Requiña, interview by Chiara de Castro
On how social and environmental issues inform her work
“So people have been asking me, “Why did you decide to tackle environmental issues [in your art]?” For me basically, I feel like there’s really no choice. When you’re on an island and you get to know the people who live there, and see the effects of climate change and environmental decline on their homes and their daily life—you just can’t ignore it. When I stayed in Bantayan Island for two years for the project Gilubong Akong Pusod Sa Dagat in 2010, the images that came out of it started dialogues—though it wasn’t the original intention—and I realized how important it is to for the community to have dialogues about seafarers and local fishermen, because they are so disconnected. I had gone on international cargo ships in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and the five-year Transatlantic ships and so on, and that project was the start of this; this [Equation of State] stemmed from us having a conversation and asking, ‘Why do we have a problem with the sea?’ And exploring all the surrounding issues such as illegal fishing and other human-caused reasons for the destruction of the sea, but it’s also clear that there are environmental and socioeconomic factors that drive our fishermen towards desperate ways to survive and find food.
“After winning at Art Basel and then having this huge prize [Baloise Prize in Art Basel Statements] and everyone’s talking about you winning that prize, then you come home back to the island and you see that the conditions are worse and you realize that there needs to be more happening. Maybe it takes more [than winning at an art festival], like working closely with community organizers and having more conversations together to work on solutions together, etc. This is just another step in my long-term work that I’ve committed to.
On her process and developing Equation of State
“Normally, [when I work] I start somewhere and it just doesn’t end. The parts and pieces of this project are things that I had been working on for several years now and recently realized that they are related and fit together. For example, I had gone through a training under the Zoological Society of London and had a lot of mangrove seedlings and figured I should really do something about them. Mangroves are often seen as a the ultimate solution to all these different environmental problems, but there are a lot of issues unknown to many—such as planting species in incompatible areas, and it’s so much more complicated than we think. It’s important to do research on what type of species were originally growing in a particular area or which would be the best type to grow there, instead of just planting one type anywhere.
“So when we talk about solutions to climate change, sometimes we end up taking on actions that might not really work; imposing solutions to certain problems but the execution might not be the best way to go about it. So the process, really, involves these important and difficult discussions about these issues, sitting down together and thinking, “Now what’s the next step?” or “How do we get organised, and what is organising actually going to do for us?”
On the relevance of art and the importance of conversation in social change
“When we talk about all these issues, we need to come together. It’s not just one person who will find solutions to save the world—it takes several people, coming together. I like thinking about the process [in my work], that it’s not just this machine here and there, but it’s the conversations that we have through the course of working together about what we can do and what we can create and dreams of what we can make together.
“Through the course of developing the mechanism for this mangrove installation, through all the trial and error and discussions amongst my team in this project, we’ve explored different possibilities of this machinery that we call “island technology” and what it can do. For example, there’s a lot of garbage and plastic on the island and we’ve talked about coming up with some sort of machine that can do something about all that plastic, and we’ve already been researching about it, so it’s ideas like that that emerge from these conversations.
“We need to consider, acknowledge and look at the knowledge that these people [living in coastal communities] already have and utilize.”
On her relationship with the island communities
I’ve known these people that I work with [on the island] since I was really young, so they’re also just so used to me running around with my camera like I always have and so there’s this trust, but there’s also responsibility on m y end that comes with that and that’s something I take very seriously. I’m sharing to the world about people I know and care so much about [through my work] so there’s this instinct to protect them, but I also want them to feel proud of who they are, for them to see what I see—and I see them as these strong beautiful people with all this knowledge and wisdom. A lot of fishing communities tend to feel insecure or embarrassed about where they’re from or what they do, which I guess comes from a place where they feel they are marginalised and categorised as poor and below the poverty line.
We need to consider, acknowledge and look at the knowledge that these people [living in coastal communities] already have and utilize. When we speak of rising sea levels and coastal communities living in the front lines, it may seem like a scary dramatic thing coming from a different place that’s so far removed from the reality of actually living it every day. For them, it’s just their reality; they understand the sea, they can navigate, they have knowledge of the currents and they have this natural connection with the sea. It’s important to understand how people who are living this reality every day are able to adapt and to stay resilient, how their food and income is directly related to the sea and they are understandably more concerned at the moment with feeding their families and getting their kids to school. Yet they do survive and I’ve learned so much from them.
“Through the documentation of Bantayan Island’s coastal conditions, both human and environmental, and the re-contextualizing of mangrove plants, Equation of State creates an experience which asks us to question environmental management and socio-economic development.” – Excerpt from Equation of State exhibit statement written by Jake Atienza
Art Basel Hong Kong: artbasel.com/hong-kong
Equation of State exhibit: silverlensgalleries.com
Rodgie Malagad, compressor diver in training
Orlando Abasado, compressor diver
Ramon Alontaga, Jr., light and overall work
Roberth Fuentes, organizer of fishing boats and camera man
Ieusef Santillan, camera technician and post production
Herogene Araño, mangroves, fish and filters
Avelino Villarosa, electician
Gladys Regalado, arduino machinery
Jozef Michael Heij, AV
Jasper Niens, build up