It was under the brutal, dictatorial regime of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos that the concept of the mosquito press came to life. A response to the fact that he controlled the media, the limited-run, underground newspapers were dubbed “mosquito” as a way for Marcos to belittle their power. But to the reporters and readers of the mosquito press, the term held a double meaning, recognizable to anyone who’s ever faced the persistence of the tropical nuisance: They will get you.
Thirty years after the toppling of the Marcos regime, there are those — like self-identified “cultural workers” Kristian Henson, Clara Balaguer, and Dante Carlos — who will tell you that Filipinos are back in the same place, this time under President Rodrigo Duterte, known for authorizing the killing of thousands of alleged drug dealers not long after he got into office.
That’s why the trio is here, in Fishtown, scrambling to finish their own publication, which is going to press the next day.
It’s part of a residency, backed by a Pew Center for Arts and Heritage grant awarded to Ulises cofounder Kayla Romberger, called “Publishing as Practice.” The residency wasn’t political by design, but Romberger says it’s not surprising that the three participating artist groups have a political bent.
“That’s one thing that independent publishing can do,” she said. It can explore the question: “How do artists who are working with publishing use it as a form of activism?”
Henson, Balaguer, and Carlos, who, along with Czar Kristoff, make up publishing house Hardworking Goodlooking, originally had a different project in mind, but as they watched the political situation worsen in their country, they felt they had to respond. It was the government’s move to shut down Rappler, a news site that has been critical of the Duterte administration, that inspired their mosquito press revival, a two-week process that included a series of academic talks, archival research, and listening sessions to create material for a publication that casts a critical eye on Duterte.
Schedule of events for April 8-22 at @ulisesbooks . If you in Philadelphia this Sunday and want to join our first event, a potluck dinner forum with talks by Vicente Rafael and Sharmila Parmanand, RSVP to email@example.com Entrance is free, but you have to bring a potluck dish (if no time to home-cook, we won't judge, bring takeaway!). Last 5 seats at the table up for grabs. First come, first served 🙂 #publishingaspractice #hardworkinggoodlooking #youcanneversilenceallofthemosquitoes #ulisesbooks #kaylaromberger #pewcenterarts
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Talking to Hardworking Goodlooking sounds uncannily like talking to an American who’s been inspired to rise up against a Trump presidency — the rage, the sense of urgency, the vacillation between hope and hopelessness — which they acknowledged: American news is like Filipino news now, Balaguer said. And the parallels between the two men are hard to ignore — their attacks on the media, their “everyman” appeal, even the way they’ve used social media to their advantage.
Here are excerpts from a conversation with Henson, Balaguer, and Carlos about their act of resistance.
What’s the point of creating a publication like this?
C.B.: It’s important to write these things down, to share knowledge, and to become visible in this way instead of putting this work into a gallery or a museum … if you put [this work] inside a white cube, the meaning changes and the context changes. Putting these experiences into books is a bit more honest to the process, to the performance itself.
D.C.: This also speaks to why we’re doing it so quickly. When you talk about mosquito presses, they had limited means and not enough time to design and present. It’s pretty rough around the edges. We’re adopting that strategy by taking away that luxury of needling something until it looks perfect. It comes out as more urgent.
C.B.: In the Philippines, in activist circles, we all know it’s very possible that we’re being surveilled. If the government ever wanted to surveil, it would be very easy. This idea of print becoming a safe place — you can do it semi-anonymously. You can destroy it, if you only have one copy. The romance of print is starting to surface a little bit.
On the other hand, you can’t organize completely on a pen and paper. You need to use the tools that you have, and that’s why all the material that we’re creating in the residency is going to go online
I mean, quitting Facebook — I would love to quit Facebook, but especially in the Philippines, where Facebook penetration is so high, sometimes it’s the only way to keep in touch with certain people. You can’t just go offline. either. This romantic idea, ‘Oh, I’m just going to delete Facebook.’ Well, some of us don’t have the luxury of doing that.
Essay section or Vol. III of Kulambo Bulleting, the publication we are launching this Sunday. Kulambo means mosquito net. And bulleting was mispelled on purpose, at first just because, for no good reason, but then… thought… maybe it's because the letter "ng" exists only in Tagalog… or maybe because mistakes of urgency are the soul of the mosquito press… It's cool when things make more sense as they unfold or take root. #youcanneversilenceallofthemosquitoes #publishingaspractice #hardworkinggoodlooking #ulisesbooks #kaylaromberger #pewcenterarts
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What’s the thinking behind including excerpts of academic papers in the publication?
C.B.: There are a lot of Filipino American academics and local academics going to conferences to talk about Duterte and the Philippines, but it was, like, I can’t access this information because I can’t travel to UCLA. No one is putting the audio up online. All the papers are behind paywalls. So how can we at home access this information?
You said it was the Rappler news — how the government revoked its operating license — that really pushed you to take a more political bent to this residency.
K.H.: That was sort of like, wake up, it’s getting worse. … I just thought, that’s so f—ed up, we need to do something about it. That’s a big claim, like, what are we doing really? But it feels good to document this and to put it out and to have it be free.
C.B.: It’s probably just a shot in the dark; it’s probably not going to do anything. The president’s trust and approval ratings are like 80 percent, that’s ridiculous, that’s like eight out of 10 people in any given room are all-out supporting this regime.
How does memory and forgetting play into this project?
C.B.: It’s important to remember these things. We have such a recent history of brutal dictatorship, and it’s like we’ve forgotten it. The activists that are organizing now, for quite a few of them, this is their second tour of duty. They were already active during the Marcos era. The last generation is not even in the ground yet, and we’re already falling over the same story. It’s the act of publishing to remember.
And how does that context, that knowledge of history, affect how you think about Duterte and the current state of the Philippines?
C.B.: It’s a long game. He just got into power. We’re in it for the long haul. But maybe if we can speed up the process. You never know what’s going to catch fire.