Diego Ramirez in conversation with Miko Revereza
Interview for Recess, Melbourne, 2018
Diego Ramirez: I’d like to begin with your work DISINTEGRATION 93-96, a video that incorporates home movies documenting your family’s migration to America. There is a powerful statement in the monologue that explains how “in these home movies we are not represented as illegal aliens”. When we contrast DISINTEGRATION 93-96 with the idealisation of American life that we find in stereotypical American storytelling, such as The Wonder Years, we realise that we are encountering an experience of family that sits outside mainstream narratives.
Having made this work and presented it to the public, how do you think image culture in America integrates or disintegrates these “other” narratives?
Miko Revereza: Based on my own experiences of growing up in a Filipino community, I’d say there is an infatuation with American image culture deeply embedded in the Philippine national and diasporic identity. It incites fantasies and expectations of what migration is supposed to look like, what belonging and assimilation looks like. The reality of our exclusion breeds our overcompensation to match that ideal American image in our home movies to be sent home. To portray a sense of security and stability vs. hardship, financial burden and complicated immigration shit. The home movie format lends itself to performance. We contribute to the spectacle that lured us into this situation in the first place. I have friends and family who live in the Philippines but still only posts photos of their trip to the states on social media. They present their followers an illusion that they’re still here or are frequently visit. Traveling to the states is such a huge signifier of class because the time and expense it takes to apply for a Visa is simply inaccessible and unrealistic to most people. I understand that’s what motivates a person to overstay their Tourist Visa to become illegal. Thinking about this cliche “better life in America,” I realize the tediousness of having to present life here as better. To constantly show proof and results that you’re living a good life… That’s pride, that’s commitment, that’s serious patriotism. Looking back, I see patterns emerge in our home video visual language. It’s like an unspoken Filipino American shot-list of typical things to stand and take a picture in front of. This idea that back home they’ll know you’ve made it when you’re standing in the snow. As a Filipino… everything I know of my own culture is either Spanish or American. It is a testament to how deeply we’ve embraced the images and narratives of our colonizers. I find myself going through phases of searching and embracing this cultural identity but what is it even but a collection of Spanish and American images?
DR: It is interesting how you speak about sending home videos back to the homeland as, for example, Mexicans that cross the border to the States are characterized by sending money to their families (in fact, it represents a major percentage of Mexico’s GDP). This discussion on the Philippine diaspora makes me consider the ways in which this can also operate as an economy of images…
As you mentioned, both Spanish and American empires have successfully employed images to colonise the bodies that inhabit ‘their territories’. I often find myself thinking about how the lens—a piece of Western technology that has been instrumental in producing and reproducing misrepresentations of “other” peoples—extends this labour of conquest.
Do you find that by representing yourself with the camera, you’re able to step outside of this “collection of Spanish and American images” to make sense of the Philippine self?
Or do you see it as an entry point into this insidious realm of representation that enables you to embed yourself within a pre-existing imperial narrative but on your own terms?
MR: The later is truer to my practice, because there is no Philippine sense of self beyond the Western lens at this point, at least for me and as far back as any living family member can remember. There is no linkage to an indigenous Philippine culture when you’re living in America. When I find Filipino and Fil-Am artists that misrepresent and fuse indigenous images as a means of getting in touch with “our culture”… it’s like they’re re-doing 1904 World’s Fair, or National Geographic. I feel a stronger kinship towards the immigrants of the world than my own country. Departure and migration are my points of reference, that is where my story starts, that is my home. Because human movement is still predicated by borders and a hierarchy of passports established by wars, colonization, and exploitation, that is the realm of unrest which I am currently navigating through the logistics of living and inseparably, my art practice. It’s not even like I’m making films at the actual border. The border comes to us, the border is reflected in every interaction, transaction, relationship, travel itinerary and every hour of illegal labor. Finding a way to hack and liberate myself from the border has been the focal point of my investigations for years. A good friend of mine, the Filipino filmmaker, Jim Lumbera once told me, “Don’t worry, cinema is your passport.” Honestly, I’m working so hard so I can get out of here in the next couple years. I’m so exhausted of being undocumented and can’t stand the thought of ever pledging allegiance to a country that had me undocumented for so long… 25 years and they still refuse me! Migration is beautiful and it’s what produces culture and meaning to the world. It should be a human right not a crime… and if it’s a crime then it’s the society's loss. But I won’t put my life on hold for this citizenship like my family has. I’m ready to move on.
DR: One could say that film is also your country as the figure of the editor operates as a ‘government’ controlling pre-existent footage with montage techniques.
Your 8mm work Droga!(2014) focuses on the signage of LA to deal with your experience of diaspora. It struck me as a dream state where issues of kinship, (un) belonging and identity making seek to find a resolution. This is because familiar images such as brand logos and the rock band archetype surface in a new configuration that renders them unfamiliar—arguably due to the unique perspective of a diasporic gaze.
Did you record new or additional footage for this piece or is it comprised mainly of home movies?
MR: DROGA! was mostly new footage with the exception of some shots of vehicles rewinding towards the end. I guess I have always approached image capture in a home movie or tourist movie kind of way. This was my first film of its kind, meaning beginning to explore the questions I've always had with our migration and identity as Filipinos in America. I almost have no clue what I am doing here or even or more importantly, I don't know what I am trying to say. Dreams, nostalgia and Americana are conflated into a confusing mess of a film, a document of a hallucination if you will. This was the start of my connection and kinship with Philipine experimental cinema, with the likes of filmmakers like Jim, Shireen Seno, John Torres, Raya Martin. For a long time I thought this film was a failure, lacking discipline, finesse, education and articulation about Filipino cultural identity that I felt their films possessed. Looking back at DROGA! it is an accurate document of my head space at the time and it's the “wtf am I doing here” kind of lost or stumbling to articulate a thought, that stands out to me. It's my estrangement from the Philippines and disconnection from like-minded peers that allows this punk film to be created in its own kind of vacuum. Literally and symbolically an OFW film of Philipine experimental cinema tradition. Later on when it became part of Shireen and Merv’s curatorial initiative Kalampag Tracking Agency, a retrospective program of Ph EXP films spanning 30 years… I saw how films from 30 years ago are in direct conversation with mine, even exploring the same symbols and motifs. I think DROGA! serves as a marker in my life for when the wheels started turning in my head and a decolonial re-wiring was beginning to happen. I can trace that initial inquiry of how I begin to think about being a Filipino undocumented immigrant in America, to this film DROGA!