Clara Balaguer is a creative shapeshifter. For seven years, the Manila-based writer, graphic designer, publisher, and cultural historian has led the Office of Culture and Design (OCD), a social practice that produces art projects and research in marginalised communities.

Under this banner, the Filipina-Spanish multi-tasker has published books on street-style typography, postcolonial cultures and native cuisines. She has also produced a film about typhoon victims, hosted graffiti workshops, and circulated an online taxonomy on nationalistic graphic design. For Balaguer, cultural consumption should not be treated as a luxury, but rather as an everyday necessity for the masses. There is more work to be done. But as the Philippines enters a dictatorial political chapter, the 36-year old has had to evaluate the shelf life of her projects.

Mariam Arcilla: What is your elevator speech?

Clara Balaguer: I’m a cultural worker using whatever tools are at my disposal. I collaborate with others to create residencies, critical gatherings, tactical projects, and research publications that question and subvert the idea that cultural production is reserved only for the exclusive consumption, investment, return, and pleasure of the elite.

MA: Your projects under the Office of Culture and Design seem to have this ever-fluid and non-conformist manifesto. What was the defining moment that made you realise you needed to start such a platform?

CB: It all sort of just fell into place, and I started doing things before really knowing how to define what I was doing. All I was sure of was that the things I was interested in—contemporary cultural production, at large, call it art or whatever you want—mostly seemed at odds with the glaring inequalities of a developing-world context.

MA: Alongside this platform, you direct a publishing arm—Hardworking, Goodlooking—with Filipino-American graphic designer Kristian Henson. What are some of the books and zine-like companions that you’ve released?

In Darkness was an archive by Kristian and his brother of anarcho-crust punk music and aesthetics. Then there’s Hunt and Gather, Terraria, where Manila locals invited local artist Wawi Navarroza to forage for plants, soil, and fragments around the city, and turn them into a 300-odd-page psychogeographical guide and a photographic exhibition.

CB: We printed a cookbook called Tribal Kitchen: The Aytas that included 30,000-year-old recipes and remedies from an Indigenous tribe. In our research book, Filipino Folk Foundry, we explained why handmade sign-lettering should be considered a form of typography. We also released Homeschool Recto Verso, a collection of writings and diaristic insights from our collaboration with Canadian artist Kaid Ashto, which involved tactical art workshops and feeding sessions for street kids around Metro Manila.

MA: How do titles arise for your projects?

CB: They just sort of do, at some point, when the time is right—like when I’m on the toilet, or when a grant application requires me to decide what something will be called. Kristian and I named our publication arm Hardworking, Goodlooking after we saw those words painted on the trunk of a taxi.

MA: Graphic design tends to have a slippery identity in the Philippines. Why is that?

CB: It’s because there is a lack of a written history on the topic. It’s a problem that manifests in the ignorance of the term ‘graphic design’ itself. Here, practitioners often refer to themselves as graphic artists, layout artists or print technicians. So if the industry—aside from a few mavericks—can’t even call itself by its proper name, it becomes a severe design literacy problem.

MA: How has your digital publication Tropico Vernacular tackled this void?

CB: We studied the lay of the local land and gave things a name, a face, and a point of view that wasn’t dictated by modernist, Western design institutions or players. For instance, we categorised the modern graphic designer into two studio models: fancy and tropical.

Fancy means North/Western in its functioning, so this may refer to designers who run a proper graphic design studio with employees, corporate or independent clients – plus air-conditioning. Or their studio has a website that identifies them as a graphic design outfit.

In the tropical model, a graphic designer is subsumed into the production assembly line of a larger print production company. The designer may not even know she is a designer or think highly enough of herself to identify as such. She might call herself a print technician, as she might also be the one actually operating the print mechanisms. The tropical design studio is more like a one-stop print shop where design becomes one of the things thrown in to sweeten the deal for clients.

MA: Of all the projects you’ve worked on, what surprises you the most?

CB: I suppose the survival of the OCDas an entity for seven years is what I’m most surprised at.

MA: Yet, you’re planning to retire the OCDsoon. What propelled this? Is it a slow death?

Yes, a slow one, in the sense that it’s been difficult to continue the work with such few options for sustainability—which is the buzz-wordy term for making a decent living, being able to pay your bills, send your kid to school, and buy a car that doesn’t fuck up every two weeks. But there definitely was a quickening to this death—and [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte and his minions sped up the decision.

MA: So, what’s the vibe like to conduct social projects in a Duterte era?

CB: Pretty fucked up. It’s called for a massive retooling of the way I approach community engagement and fieldwork. I never wanted my projects to espouse or force an alien political view on people. So it became a conscious choice for me not to spoon-feed communities with sweeping political statements that—from my privileged perspective as a half-Caucasian, educated, middle-class cis woman from the capital city of Manila—seemed ethically attractive.

My projects were formed through humane and collaborative working systems, gender, good governance, and identity politics, and they were always at the service of much more pressing concerns. Like, how do we improve our livelihood, our employment prospects, and our sense of self-worth? We can implode this system from within during peacetime. But I don’t think we’re in a time of peace anymore—what with massive human rights violations, systemic misogyny from the government, and constant threats of martial law.

Because of this, I feel that the OCD has run its course. It cannot function if the system is in such flagrant disarray. In the meantime, I’ll focus on residencies and workshops through Hardworking, Goodlooking.

MA: How do you know when it’s time to pause, bury, or reincarnate a project?

CB: I believe that ends are not final. So reincarnating a project can be an easy decision if interest resurfaces, or if the time is right. Also, if the project seems to have the opportunity to reverse its failure, or if the right critical conditions are present, then rebooting a project is always an option.

That said, the constant pressure to be ‘sustainable’ in the face of seemingly insurmountable precarity has led me to realise that the only truly sustainable project is the one that dies. Maybe living and working in the Philippines and its climate ring of fire—with our super-typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions—ingrains in you the value of creating ephemeral, morphing structures with a finite life cycle. The fantasy of permanence is a form of human vanity.

ACCLAIM magazine

All images courtesy Clara Balaguer, Hardworking, Goodlooking and The OCD.
Video courtesy Walker Art Centre.