Beyond Concrete artist Leeroy New and Montreal-based artist Kelly Jazvac connect about the practice, poetry, and production of public art.
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Brian Sholis: The Bentway has invited me to guest edit an online publication related to “Beyond Concrete,” its summer 2023 programming season, and I’m pleased to be introducing an interview between Leeroy New and Kelly Jazvac. New is a Filipino artist who has created a large-scale installation on view at The Bentway from late May to late September 2023. Jazvac, who is based in Montreal, is, like New, interested in engaging with questions of sustainability, material refuse, and public art. We spoke in person at The Bentway on May 5, 2023.
Kelly Jazvac (KJ): Hi, I’m Kelly Jazvac.
Leeroy New (LN): Hi, I’m Leeroy New.
Brian Sholis (BS): And hi, I’m Brian Sholis. Leeroy, you’ve created a lot of work in your native Philippines. Last summer you made an installation in England and now you’re working in North America for the first time. Can you give us a little bit of your backstory and talk about the differences you’ve found working in the Philippines versus working elsewhere?
LN: That’s a question with a lot of history [laughs]. I kind of started to veer away from traditional art making as a student, having problematized our status as artists and creatives in the Philippines. And contextualizing a creative practice in relation to the Western canons that we were studying. So that led me to using found objects, scouring our huge market districts, and using familiar objects that I would randomly encounter. And this has led me to focus more on the found and discarded aspects of these objects, which people gravitated toward—as opposed to the new materials I would use. And so, there began a conversation between how I directed my work and the people that experienced it.
I had to hustle as a creative, so I did all sorts of odd jobs. I did production design for TV and film, for theater, so I did sets. So I had a tendency to build large-scale stuff. The question of materials and the life cycle of these materials always came up. And so, currently, my practice … well, it’s a challenge, it’s a work in progress. But you always aspire to make use of available materials, of renewable resources.
Part of the process of me working in different places is … there’s a good part of research that goes into preparation, like, where can we source surplus materials, as opposed to new materials? So I’ve always ended up going to sorting facilities, recycling centers, these other centers that set up a kind of materials library where they redirect these still usable materials toward the educational system, toward creatives, to whoever needs whatever things they were able to collect. It’s interesting to find the different materials in different countries. It was also easy for me to focus on using plastic bottles in the Philippines because they’re everywhere. We have a very ineffective, inefficient waste sorting system. It just ends up everywhere. I try to feel out the material culture of a particular place. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of visits to all these facilities, a lot of meeting very interesting people that are engaged in attempting to provide solutions for these concerns.
BS: Kelly, two things he said made me think about your art practice. The first is the material specificity of a given place. The second is the idea of research, which is important to you but undertaken in a different way.
KJ: The specificity of a place is interesting to me. The trash one can find and how one finds it almost becomes a portrait of the place and a symptom of infrastructure, lack of infrastructure, power, the speed of consumption. I mostly work in the Great Lakes region. And I’m mostly looking for plastic advertisements, billboards and images printed on a plastic medium. They really become like a portrait of that place, both in what’s being sold on the images but also how those images end up in the environment afterward.
And in terms of research … yeah, I’m endlessly fascinated by what’s found in the trash or in these material sorting facilities, and even just how they’re run. They’re different in every place. For me, research has become this whole other important tangent to my practice. There’s the artworks I make for museums and galleries, and then there’s also collaborating with scientists, publishing scientific papers. But that scientific work is all collecting trash as well, collecting plastic waste and trying to figure out precisely what it is, what kind of chemicals are in there, where it’s coming from, tracing the paths of movement through the environment.
Can I ask more about the Toronto context for you? For sourcing, what has your path been like here and how does that compare to other experiences you’ve had?
LN: It always presents certain challenges, because at first you have to get to know the city, get to, you know, learn the systems that govern these certain movements of material surplus[es]. I’ve gotten to meet organizations who actually do different initiatives, like filtering the lake of plastics through the plants that grow in the water. And we’ve gotten in touch with factories—
KJ: Oh, interesting.
LN: So we’ve received a lot of bottle-container factory rejects—
KJ: OK, amazing—
LN: … that we’ve used for some of the costumes that we’re doing. At first, we’re never sure if there is one source where we can get all this. So we end up setting up a system. For example, all the people who work at The Bentway would find ways to donate their weekly or monthly use of plastic bottles. It just seems like there’s always something that they will use or end up using that I can apply in the work that I do.
In the Philippines we have these big mangangalakal. They have these improvised wooden carts that they push all around the neighborhood and they shout, “Bakal! Bote! Plastik!” Metal, plastic, and bottles. So all the houses would like … all their stored discards of these materials, they would hand over to these people who just roam around the neighborhoods. I’ve befriended a few of them in my neighborhood where, instead of bringing their collected plastic bottles to the junk shops, I would purchase it off them so that I could use them for my own work.
KJ: I was really excited when Brian asked me for this interview because I’m also working with The Bentway and the Synthetic Collective on developing a toolkit for looking at sustainable or best practices in public-art making. And your work stood out as a key example of this. You’re using reclaimed materials, more sustainable materials like bamboo, and I’m very curious to hear how you got there. What’s driving you to make these large public artworks in this really sustainable way?
LN: I grew up in the south of the Philippines, where there was no access to art. We had no galleries or museums. It was like a city that grew out of a fishing industry. So I had to rely on other sources for creativity and art. I watched sci-fi films, like movie magic shows, animation, so a lot of my work is inspired by manifesting in real space these imaginings of the future, a kind of Filipino sci-fi. I kind of reached a point where I realized the sci-fi I was consuming as a child was all from first-world countries. They didn’t really have my specific context in mind. These sleek futures, always speaking about going into outer space and, like, terraforming another planet. We’re always left out of these narratives for some reason. This attempt to create these large-scale spatial constructions, these retro sci-fi alien costumes, out of trash is a kind of response to this vision of the future that’s left us out. I feel that once we develop our own sci-fi language it will help steer us to develop new ways of preparing for the future.
I watched sci-fi films, like movie magic shows, animation, so a lot of my work is inspired by manifesting in real space these imaginings of the future, a kind of Filipino sci-fi. I kind of reached a point where I realized the sci-fi I was consuming as a child was all from first-world countries. They didn’t really have my specific context in mind.Leeory New
Our model of this sci-fi future is one that has to do with our immediate concerns, issues, the environment on this planet, as opposed to, like, finding ways to leave it. So these manifest in my works as like bamboo spaceships or like these alien growths that feature, uh, bamboo and synthetic materials. I’ve used this as a kind of skill set to transform my physical reality by actually building these structures—but injecting in them practical and functional features as well. Like, a recent work of mine, back in the Philippines, it’s called Mabuyen’s Colony. We worked with Jose Felix, who is like an environmental scientist, to integrate agricultural systems into the installation. You know, we’re trying to find ways to actually make these structures and spaces practical and functional and to serve as an alternative model.
This attempt to create these large-scale spatial constructions, these retro sci-fi alien costumes, out of trash is a kind of response to this vision of the future that’s left us out. I feel that once we develop our own sci-fi language it will help steer us to develop new ways of preparing for the future.Leeory New
BS: I have a question for both of you about circulation. Kelly, perhaps you can start because you brought up the distinction between your art for galleries, which is, in one sense, about moving something from a consumer-to-waste cycle and putting it into a different kind of circulation in the museum. And Leeroy, perhaps you can follow up by discussing how you take things that are already in the public realm but invisible and reframe them so that they enter again into visible circulation.
KJ: For me, both spheres are really interesting. I think the public sphere is where we should all be looking right now. Especially with the scale that we’re talking about—of both the problem but also the potential for scale with art to dive into that. It feels to me that there’s a good match there between what art can do and the complexity and presence of this major issue that’s so much more complex than just recycling our bottles, as we know.
In terms of the circulation question, the museum, I’m interested in the museum as a frame, so it’s this rare opportunity where this infrastructure exists to take something out of the context of the world and put a spotlight on it and ask people to think more carefully about it. Especially with something like trash, that’s a simple gesture but it’s a potent gesture. But then there’s this conservation conundrum that the Synthetic Collective is researching as well. Because the museum’s job is to protect things in perpetuity. It’s supposed to last forever. And we know plastic, uh, breaks down. But it lasts, it persists, which is very different. And, in a museum, that’s a problem.
And yet it’s a different kind of problem in the environment where it’s breaking down but it’s still persisting despite people’s efforts for it not to exist. In the museum, people are trying to keep it existing [laughs] and it’s still breaking down. In terms of my own personal practice, I’m following Synthetic Collective kind of best practices, which is if the piece is collected to not have its conservation as part of its life plan. Please don’t spend more polymers and chemicals trying to conserve this polymer that’s going to degrade anyway. That becomes part of the piece. What if Claes Oldenberg’s hamburger just gets that patina of use on it and we just accept that as the material life of the object? I’m curious to hear your response, too, around public space and circulation.
LN: I guess this has to do with, again, an attempt to veer away from art-sanctioned spaces. As practitioners in the Philippines, this is something that is always an issue that we have to tackle in terms of developing an art language that is culturally specific to us. Not to mention the grave inadequacies of our infrastructures in the Philippines, like the lack of public spaces. Everything’s monopolized by private companies. We are in dire need of more green parks, you know? We don’t even have proper sidewalks. I think this has a lot to do with political will and the priorities of our government.
Me and my colleagues, my collaborators, who are art practitioners—like, we joke that we’re in a 24/7 disaster response as creatives working in the Philippines. It’s always so very guerrilla.Leeory New
Me and my colleagues, my collaborators, who are art practitioners—like, we joke that we’re in a 24/7 disaster response as creatives working in the Philippines. It’s always so very guerrilla. We have to make do with what we have, what we can. It’s not the easiest direction to take, but I like the challenge of actually trying to transform my immediate environment through my creative practice. And trying to be more of consequence by actually working with urban planners, urban designers, architects, environmentalists, trying to move away from mere representation of this sci-fi fantasy.
I like the challenge of actually trying to transform my immediate environment through my creative practice.Leeory New
KJ: That sci-fi thing is really interesting to me. I mean, I love sci-fi, and it strikes me that you’re part of the new voices making Filipino sci-fi, you’re inventing these stories through your works. And your aesthetic, from what I’ve seen, from the images and things you’ve shared, is really interesting to me. We’ve seen a lot of tropes in sci-fi representation. There’s the 2001: A Space Odyssey, where everything’s super-clean and sterile; there’s the Mad Max, everything looks like a landfill version. But yours feel very different from both of those. There’s a vitality or a livingness and I guess that comes through in the bamboo and the forms as well. I’m curious about how you, how you see the worlds you’re making function. What do they offer for viewers?
LN: Well, it’s a work in progress. I mean, I try to work with as many different specialists as I can, to inform and move forward these ideas. We try to integrate as much information and specialities to make these projects grow and be practical. To have consequence, essentially. A current project we have is this spaceship-looking structure by the shores of La Union in the Philippines, this surf town. It’s kind of a semi-architectural vessel made out of interconnected pods. It’s called Mebuyan’s Vessel. Mebuyan is like a goddess in the south of the Philippines that’s described as having breasts all over her body, from Bagobo mythology, in the south, in Mindanao. And she’s both goddess of death and fertility. She nourishes the spirits of dead children, hence the breasts. They have to continue a journey in the afterlife, it doesn’t end in death. This alternative archetype for determining our visions of the future would manifest in how we use this space, and the consequences of our actions in this slowly developing surf-town industry.
We’re slowly moving away from this practice of commissioning art pieces to actively finding ways to harness these spaces and inject function and purpose into them.
KJ: It’s still poetry. [laughs] I’m also very interested in the function and the action. How can what we do actually result in change? And then there’s the, like, intangible part of what we do that touches on the complexity of the humanity involved. This story of the goddess who nurses, is both fertility and death in one being, that’s really quite amazing and complex and, um, a different mindset than dominant narratives.
LN: A big part of the work that you do is trying to harness like these pre-colonial stories that guide our actions. You know, these models of beings and figures and principles, nature principles that we were not taught. We’ve had to rediscover these stories because, you know, the Philippines is predominantly Catholic because of our three centuries under Spanish rule. And, uh, fifty years under Hollywood. So we had to rediscover these stories and use them as a model for future actions.
BS: Kelly, two things he said made me think back to your work: the idea of interconnection and the notion of the pod. In terms of interconnection, I think about the plastiglomerates you and your colleagues researched—synthetic materials that are made of other synthetic materials. And, at the same time, you get four or six people, from different disciplines, together as a kind of pod to conduct fieldwork—that’s another form of interdependence or connection. Can you talk about this concept of interdependence and about … the pod not as a shape, but a unit of action?
The thing I am endlessly excited about is what happens when our pod is together with shared interests but all coming from very different backgrounds and areas of expertise.Kelly Jazvak
KJ: Oh, I love that, the pod as a unit of action. That’s like a really succinct way of putting how I work without me ever having thought of it that way. [Laughs] Leaning on experts heavily, I relate to a lot. I think that’s part of the pod mentality. The thing I am endlessly excited about is what happens when our pod is together with shared interests but all coming from very different backgrounds and areas of expertise. It could be just something very simple, like what’s this industrial pellet doing on this beach, um, [but] what emerges from that is always fascinating and spectacular and different than the kind of more straight-ahead, uni-disciplinary way of thinking about it. Despite how dire this crisis is, I’m very hopeful about that method of working, because it’s so … ego-less. [Laughs] You need to check your ego to do it.
Despite how dire this crisis is, I’m very hopeful about that method of workingKelly Jazvak
BS: Leeroy, your comments about how context-specific and culturally specific your work is makes me want to return to the earlier part of the conversation, when I asked about working outside that context. Let’s flip that earlier question: what kinds of questions about representation come up for you as a Filipino artist working with those histories but in a place thousands of kilometers away?
LN: Well, I guess I am part of the global phenomenon of the overseas Filipino migrant worker. My mom is a nanny in New York. The rest of my team, three of them, all have ties to this phenomenon. Their parents or their brothers work as seamen on boats. The Aliens of Manila series that we do, um, it all started, of course, with these documented displaced bodies seemingly trying to interact with urban space.
It’s evolved to accommodate the ideas of the migrant working class, which I’ve come to experience in recent years, since I’ve been getting invitations to work in different countries. Because there’s actual labor involved when I fly and stay for like a couple of weeks building the thing. Actually using our hands from 8:00–5:00. It’s performative to me. I take it in, this idea of working in a different place and kind of colonizing, in my mind, this new space. Like it’s my turn to build something in this alien terrain, and like create the entities that inhabit these environments out of the refuse and discards that I would collect.
BS: I’d like to ask you both about how “public space” gets defined. There is formally designated public space, such as the large park we’re looking out on right now. It is land designated as public by the city and maintained by the parks department. Then there is public space that becomes public by virtue of its informality, that there is a lack of oversight or regulation. I’d love to hear you both talk about making art in different quote-unquote public settings.
KJ: The informal, at least in my experience with Canadian cities, is getting more and more rare. But that’s exciting to me, when things pop up, people decide that, “OK, this is just going to be a dog park because we’ve decided it’s going to be a dog park.” And then this community that forms around that collective decision. Montreal, of all the cities in Canada, probably has the most of the scrappy [laughs], kind of punk ethic of, like, “This is how we’re going to use this space.” That’s exciting to me, when there’s a little room for people to decide what they want a space to be out of their own urgency. Of course, urban planning and planning for green space is extremely important in cities. But that also comes with all sorts of nudges into the “correct” type of behavior in those types of spaces, and the correct type of visitor. Something a little more freestyle has a potential to be way more inclusive, in theory, and potentially more creative as well.
Of course, urban planning and planning for green space is extremely important in cities. But that also comes with all sorts of nudges into the “correct” type of behavior in those types of spaces, and the correct type of visitor. Something a little more freestyle has a potential to be way more inclusive, in theory, and potentially more creative as well.Kelly Jazvac
LN: From my experience, living in Manila, we do get a lot of these guerrilla reclamations of small pockets of space. You’ll see, like, vegetable gardens being grown by the side of main roads. Policies in terms of how, uh, a building or house should look is not as enforced or strict, or maybe there’s not a clear standard or guide. Everyone can push the envelope. “OK, I’ll just hang a lot of improvised planters at the front of my house and grow, you know, water spinach.”
It does inform how we employ the strategies for creating these spatial-structural interventions. Me and my peers in art school did a lot of, like, street art as a response to not being able to get into the gallery system that early in our art practices. So we ended up pushing the envelope by doing street art along main roads, and these evolved into structural interventions. And then, because I work a lot with my performance-artist and theater-maker friends, we’ve, again, explored this idea of public space as the body and movement, going through the city, through donning these bizarre space suits. It has a lot to do with world-building.
KJ: What do you want the new world to be?
LN: Well, wow. I’ve never really given myself the privilege of such a question yet. It seems a lot of my practice is bound by the current issues and restrictions that I find pleasure in trying to navigate around and solve. I guess it would have to be being able to, like, harness all that’s already existing and being able to transform it into something that will not lead to the destruction of the world.
LN: That would be like … the minimum. [Laughs] I love nature, I live in an archipelago with 7,700 islands, I love the water, I love being close to the water, I would love to retire and build structures by the water and provide a kind of alternative way of living and responding and interacting with the world.
KJ: In the new world we’re building, I want [laughs] … I don’t want to be making more materials. For me, it comes down to the chemicals involved. So, melting down plastic is never good for anybody’s body. And when I say “bodies” I think of, like, the entire environment. I don’t see people separate from nature or the environment.
BS: Leeroy, one final question. Will you reflect on working in the specific space under the Gardiner that is in the process of becoming formalized as The Bentway?
LN: Well, coming from a city that is still … it’s not even in their consciousness to provide such spaces, where we’re still trying desperately to claim spaces for ourselves and we all just end up like hanging out inside air-conditioned malls, I treasure the opportunity to be able to learn from different approaches and models and like how we can use this to inform what we do moving forward to develop our own spaces back home. It seems like the ideal would be to, like, start over [laughs] in these neighboring regions and really redesign how we sustain ourselves and support ourselves.
I treasure the opportunity to be able to learn from different approaches and models and like how we can use this to inform what we do moving forward to develop our own spaces back home.Leeory New