Hunger + Survival = Mother of Creativity
Posted on March 19, 2013
Clara Balaguer, Philippines
Founder, Office of Culture and Design
“To us, art, literature and design are not elitist luxuries. They are useful necessities.”
Clara Lobregat Balaguer is an oddball.
As she meets me for this interview, it’s not so difficult to notice that she does stand out in a crowd than it is to pinpoint why. Yes, she is rather tall compared to the average Filipina; her woven sombrero towering over everyone else makes it easy for me to spot her. She greets me with a smile, full and fiery red. I am relieved; she says she’s been stressed. She has been buried deep in work, which at the moment is in post-production for a film about an active volcano in the Philippines and the displaced indigenous people living around it.
This is just one of her hands-on projects for her company, the Office of Culture and Design (OCD), which serves as a platform for artists, writers, and designers in the developing world. That description barely sums up the OCD as a leveraging multi-platform. Based on the mixed composition of its projects, its stakeholders and the diverse range of collaborators, the Office of Culture and Design is a constantly fluid, constantly evolving entity engaged in as many diverse forms of mixed media as the opportunities it aims to create and open. And that’s the striking feature of this creative enterprise: whether it’s a book, or an art workshop, or a film documentary, there is—and always will be—a bottom line. Each creative project identifies and directly engages with its stakeholder—real people.
And without an actual label for the OCD (a social enterprise? a creative social enabler? a design thinking firm?), it is pretty much an oddball in the business world. A mixed-breed and ongoing experiment in various aspects, albeit effective—just like its founder.
I find it truly exciting, creatively, to be surrounded by such honest creatives. If you take the time to look, you will find such beautiful and honest work that just needs encouragement.
So, what’s the story behind OCD? What were you doing before and what spurred its creation?
The story behind OCD was to link the one thing that I’m good at with the one thing that I’m really interested in. That one thing that (I think) I’m good at is communication. I was lucky to have been able to work in a creative agency in Spain and be trained (under the tutelage of some of the most brilliant, creative minds that I’ve ever had the pleasure to connect with) how to properly communicate an important message, and how to build a brand. I was able to work on very interesting experimental projects; we produced a documentary, a large school photo exhibit, made books—interesting stuff. Through this working experience, I realised I was very interested in—no, I love art and design. Another thing I realised: advertising is not art. The philosophy was that it (the work) had to respond to a corporate demand or need—and that’s it. Eventually, I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do; it just wasn’t fulfilling for a person.
So, that—the need for meaning—is what led you to start a company?
Well, a lot of things happened. I had to leave Spain and return home because my mother was sick. Being with her for 7 months and watching her die—that’s got to change one’s perspective on life. Contact with death is the greatest lesson you can have on life. My mother left me quite a modest inheritance; just something she had saved up in her life and given us—a gift—for us to buy or start something that we really wanted to do. And I sat there, wondering, what am I gonna do with it? And yes, being in a somewhat cheesy, tender stage right after the death of a mother, you can’t help but feel idealistic. So, I decided to share it. I would use it (the inheritance) to create something that I like, but still share it with people. This was my mother’s gift to me so I felt that I must make something of it that she would’ve been interested in or proud of. So there, I basically took what I had learned from my professional life, took what I wanted to do in my personal life, and put them together. And that’s the rather emotional story behind OCD.
How would you describe what it is that you do?
With OCD, I put creative people and creative projects at the service of a communication message. I think right now there is a global crisis affecting both the cultural world and the advertising world—the lack of finances. So I thought, if we can put corporate/public/institutional, or even dwindling, private funds that need a marketing message and connect them with those projects that are suffering in the cultural field, and somehow find a way to touch both fields at the same time, then you have a winning combination.
It is difficult to serve that fine line between the cultural and corporate worlds; you have to be ethical, you have to be a good supplier, you have to meet halfway. For the corporate side, it’s important for them to realise that they are not just marketing or doing advertising; they are creating content—in this case, cultural content. At the same time, it is important for the cultural creatives to know that, sure, they can create anything they want but it must still fit within a certain framework. So, basically what I’m trying to do is create ways to put CSR and funding at the service of culture and design projects that actually have a real sense of social responsibility.
Why here in the Philippines? Why not back in Spain, where you already had an established professional base?
I guess because there’s more work to be done here. Yes, I am from here and I have roots here, but not more or less than in Spain—I am from both (the Philippines and Spain) and for me, home is both—not either/or. I guess it’s a sense of responsibility. I have been very lucky; I had a lot of good opportunities for both education and work. There are so many people here that aren’t that lucky, and I feel like I have a responsibility to share that luck and help create opportunities.
In addition to linking the worlds of business and culture, you also bridge the East and the West. What’s that like?
Well, I’m a half-breed, so it’s my natural condition as a human being to constantly think in 2 cultural contexts. It’s what I deal with constantly in my own head and just a natural extension of what my personality is like. For OCD projects, I began with Spain because, after living and working there for about 6-7 years, I had a network of people whose work I really respected and thought to just keep working with them from here (the Philippines). This keeps me both in the East and West; I can’t choose, I am both. I need to find a way personally to keep bridging the gap so that I’m not missing the other 50% of me. I’ve started branching out to people from different places; it doesn’t really matter where they are from: Spain, the United States, Denmark, Singapore. The waters that I swim in naturally are just in 2 different places, trying to find a common tangent and common understanding. It’s just a way of life for me.
Would you call OCD a social enterprise?
There’s no real established vocabulary for it. In other industries, there’s always a name for this. There are different established terms for people who combine their business ethics with their personal ethics, and do work that’s coherent for them in both spheres. In this (cultural-business) world, it’s definitely something that’s not quite established. It’s not really new; it has existed for a long time, but just recently started gaining momentum as a movement.
I’ve discovered in the last 2 1/2 years is that there are a lot of people doing the stuff that I really like and can relate to, and you actually just have to…Google them. We are all doing it as independent cells. There aren’t many places for us to meet, talk, and exchange information. So we all have the feeling we are alone, but we’re not. And connecting is easy—easier than it seems and easier than we think. Have a portfolio. If you show that you are working, producing, and not compromising your framework. If you are doing good work, then, yes, it’s easy to contact and connect. It’s quite simple; if they don’t respect your work, then they won’t connect with you. I’m not saying that my work is good. I’m saying that for those people I’ve connected with also believe in the work that I do. So, the proof is in the putting.
How do you make money?
There are 2 different avenues through which we get funding: One is through grants, from cultural institutions and embassies. The other is through client work. What’s really interesting is how projects can open doors and branch out to other projects and client work. For example, our project here (an outdoor installation) in Bonifacio Global City is connected with one of our other projects. We proposed a collaboration between a local and foreign artist. The foreign artist is engaged in a project with us, called Homeschool, which is an art workshop in difficult areas in Metro Manila. In lieu of an artist fee, he asked for 5 workshops to be funded.
We implemented these 5 workshops in 5 different parts of the city, wherein children produced drawings, painting, and sculptures. These works will be part of a textile exhibition happening sometime in May or June. Through this client- funded, cultural-commercial endeavour, we were able to get funding for 5 art workshops for underprivileged kids. You really just need to be creative in spotting opportunities: when one comes in, I try to see how it fits in with what I’m doing overall.
Another example: we got this grant from the Earth Observatory of Singapore in Nanyang University. They told us they had this grant for a project that should relate earth sciences with the arts. And we thought, “Oh, and we have this little film about a volcano that we’ve been wanting to make.” The great thing about this formula for creating communication messages is you get to invent your own rules. You can be flexible. How do we make money? How ever the situation enables me to. You must be able to make connections, connect dots and create links, and see how what you’re doing responds to someone else’s needs—something valuable that I learned in advertising.
And what’s it been like to run a company of this sort in the Philippines?
(Laughs) Oh, it’s been interesting. I think it was Confucius who said, “Wish interesting times upon your worst of enemies.” By interesting, it is difficult. But you see, I’ve never been one for the easy road. If you’re doing something that you find interesting, you are discovering, you are creating something new, you are constantly exploring. And exploring is demanding—but that’s the fun part. I don’t think I could ever do something just because it was easy. And it’s certainly an interesting daily learning experience.
What’s a regular working day like?
There is no such thing as a regular day. I started my own company because I wanted to work on what I wanted to work on, how I want to, when I want to. So, I could be working for 20 days straight, or take the day off on a Wednesday. I think I’m a work horse too, so the priorities to get the job done entail me to fix my schedule according to what every project needs. Different projects, different needs. So that makes it impossible to have a regular day.
Are you a morning or a night person?
I’m a night person, but lately, my plants have forced me to get up in the morning. They are morning people. (Clara has a little garden in her own home that she fondly refers to as a plant hospital, wherein she nurtures sick plants to recovery.)
So what excites you enough to get up and out of bed?
Well, my daughter gets me out of bed because she has to get to school early in the morning. After which, I get up and say hello to plants and water them. Gardening is such a healthy pursuit, and much more so in a city like Manila.
Do you have some sort of grand vision for OCD?
Yes, I do have a vision of a final goal for OCD, and though longterm plans don’t really come that naturally to me, I know where I’m headed. In the meantime, all these projects create mid-term goals that have actual timeframes, each one a step further. Having these mid-term goals with definite timeframes make it less daunting than just aiming towards one grand plan head-on, which can be rather intimidating.
As a writer, the idea of a publishing house feels natural to me. I relate to the idea of all our projects becoming books. I also relate to it because all our projects have a strong research and experimentation element. See, when you do research work, it never fully materialises until it is published. So, for people to appreciate all the work that’s been put into it, it must be condensed into an object. For me, that’s something to aim towards: a publishing house that exhibits all these projects as books, with all the research work, all the cultural content. Creative projects with a strong social element.
What do you think of the overall creative culture in the Philippines?
Filipinos are very creative people. I think that all the difficulties and struggles our people went through in the past have made us survivors, and Filipinos had to be creative to survive. There’s a Spanish proverb that goes, “Hunger is the mother of science,” so I think, hunger and the need to survive is the mother of creativity. In the Philippines, you have to be creative! How will you feed your 8 kids when you barely have an elementary school education? You must come up with something, and use your imagination to create that something and be competitive.
The issue here is the lack of opportunities to put all that creativity to use, in a more productive sense. The creative cultural side of the Philippines is just incredible. We often expect it all to be in Manila? But when you start traveling around and outside Manila, and work in more rural settings, you will find the most amazing people doing the most amazing, groundbreaking things. Like, you’ll find video artists who have no idea that they are even video artists. These people are not taught, trained, or schooled to do what they do, neither are they consciously affected; they just do it naturally. If only they could be exposed to certain tools, then maybe they’ll give more direct importance to what it is they’re doing and their potential. There’s so much of this everywhere in the country.
I find it truly exciting, creatively, to be surrounded by such honest creatives. If you take the time to look, you will find such beautiful and honest work that just needs some encouragement. The great thing about this kind of work is being able to help create that opportunity; helping to open closed mindsets and supporting people that have no such support system where they are from. It’s kinda like being Mary Poppins, it’s kinda nice. I don’t know if it’s all misguided; there are no rules to this kind of work, and I just make them up as I go along, learning from all the people that cross my path.
What upcoming projects do you have in store for OCD?
We’re currently working on a film, Lupang. It’s about a volcano, Mount Pinatubo, and the displaced [indigenous] Aeta community that used to live around it. It’s like a blueprint of the volcano and the people who drew their identity from it.
Another is a book, Zamboanga Hace 2. It’s a project that’s been ongoing since 2010, funded by the William J. Shaw Foundation. It is composed of 4 workshops and 4 bodies of commissioned artwork from 4 different artists, with around 60 high school students in each workshop.
There’s also the Islands Project. We have access to a small, private mangrove island, and we plan to use this as a space for an artists’ residency. We have 2 in the pipeline. One is a textile project, wherein foreign textile designers get to work with a local cooperative of over 90 weavers. The other is a performance art residency for Spanish, South American and Filipino performance artists, to be curated by Colombian-born/ Barcelona-based, Alex Brahim. The aim is to find the nexus between Spanish post-colonial cultures; exploring post-colonial history through the prism of Spanish, South American and Filipino performance arts.
Clara Balaguer is an oddball and a half-breed, yes. And perhaps it is this multicultural composition, with that mix of Mediterranean and tropical passion burning in the fierce heat of a developing world, which keeps Clara a creative force to reckon with. Constantly experimenting, constantly evolving, and constantly bridging. (Even her recovering plants seem quite happy.)
If you’re keen on learning more about the Office of Culture and Design and its projects, check out