How To Hold Your Breath
Kiri Dalena and Raffy Lerma
Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden
by Jasmine Grace Wenzel
Kiri Dalena, From the Dark Depths, 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; photograph: Peter R. Fischer
Jasmine Grace Wenzel: I was really happy to read your name in Wiesbaden at the Kunstverein, an exhibition space focussing on contemporary art. This time I was really interested in their approach showing video works and journalistic photography revolving around the political landscape in the Philippines. Could you introduce how you combine your artistic practice and political engagement?
Kiri Dalena: For me it almost comes naturally and seamlessly, they are both inseparable. My political engagement directly influences or resonates in my artistic practice. I would say that my political engagement often would be overwhelming in a way, that a lot of my decisions of material, theme, subject in my artistic practice just follow this sensitivity. When I’m invited to an exhibition it is always in relation to whatever political involvement I am in, and that has been the case for a very long time. Especially as a lot of political and human rights issues in the Philippines are continuing and remain unresolved. It is not something I enjoy to do, meaning I do not find pleasure in making artworks that reflect sadness or violence, violence against human beings, but it is a reality which needs to be discussed. I think as artists who have somehow gained a little length of experience, we no longer just simply show but we have the sensitivity of knowing when to step back or to speak up.
Raffy Lerma: I am new at this. I used to be a staff photographer for a newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and I just resigned last year. I turned freelance to focus my documentation on the war on drugs.
I guess the reason why I am doing is that it has turned into advocacy to stop the drug war and the killings. No drug war has ever succeeded in its aim to solve the drug problem. I am looking for all possible venues to show the photographs and explain to a broader audience the realities of the drug war. Yes, of course, I have my political views but to be honest, I try to stick to the work and hope that it speaks for itself.
JGW Especially since June 2016, after Rodrigo Duterte[1] was elected as president of the Philippines, you both are engaged to work with subjects involved in extra juridical killings during a so called ‘war on drugs’ in the region of Metro Manila. How are you able to work in these times when you have a critical or even opposing political voice?
RL It is one of the drives that keeps me going. We have to continue educating people and explain to them why this is wrong. Killing is not the solution to the drug problem. There are other solutions, better solutions. These people have rights, and they deserve due process.
One of the first exhibitions we did was at Redemptorist Church in Baclaran during the Christmas pre-dawn mass or the Simbang Gabi[2] in December of 2016. People were shocked to see photographs inside the church premises of those killed in the war on drugs. We received lots of criticisms but that was ok. It was an attempt to engage with the public. At present, killings have gone down in Metro Manila. There have been more arrests which are good, but I can’t say the same for the provinces.
Raffy Lerma, Nightshift, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; photograph: Janine Drewes
Kiri Dalena, Jasmine Grace Wenzel and Raffy Lerma (f.l.t.r.), Nightshift, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; photograph: Peter R. Fischer
JGW In which provinces?
RL Bulacan and Cebu in particular. In Cebu, there was a spike in the killings in the past few months[3]. We continue our work in these areas, trying to document as much as we can though it is tough to sustain. But at the same time, we try to explore the different venues where we can present our photographs to the public. Each one in our group has their own skill: one is great in creating content for social media, I am the one who is more comfortable in presenting in public. Others are more low-key, they help victims like social workers.
KD This is a point and I would say that we are no longer doing our work only as photographers or as visual artist, filmmakers. It has become more. The conditions make it necessary for us to become organizers, public speakers and take different roles. At the same time the commitment made it necessary for us to always make sure to return. Even if we would like to stay longer or have these residencies, we know that the time in the Philippines is crucial, so we always have to go back as soon as possible. It is also not easy financially. We may look like we are okay and we always like going to other countries try to put our best foot forward but it’s not always easy. When we get invited, we accept, we don’t require to be paid, we just need to have the opportunity to speak.
JGW It is for the expansion of discourse.
KD Yes. I would say that this task is a marathon in a sense. We’ve been doing this for almost three years now. And we have come to realize that it will take a long time. You know it is not going to be finished after 6 months or after a year.
JGW Do you mean the state of martial law[4] or what exactly?
KD Duterte (sighs). We have seen that it is based on experience, it will really take a long time. We found ways supporting each other, forming support groups, or organizations of artists or journalists and trying to find ways to sustain these initiatives. One thing is certain: we know we can’t operate alone as individuals. We really need support from like-minded journalists or artists.[5]
Kiri Dalena, From the Dark Depths, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; photograph: Peter R. Fischer
Kiri Dalena, From the Dark Depths, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; photograph: Peter R. Fischer
JGW And you also collaborate with politically active groups who already exist, right? I’ve seen in your video From the Dark Depths [Gikan Sa Ngitngit Nga Kinailadman] a lot of symbolic red flags, a Communist motive which was also shown in your other short film with footage from a near past. Would you like to talk about that a bit?
KD Yes! The footage of the short film spans over two decades, a lot of it was shot around 2000 - so almost 18 years ago. It’s a hybrid of documentary and fiction. In the Philippines there is an active revolutionary movement. It’s known to be Marxist/Maoist/Leninist in thought and is waged in the countrysides in a protracted manner. In fact, this year this ‘people’s revolution’ is now 50 years old. I did that short film as a sort of homage to young people I knew from 20 years ago who lost their lives after they decided to join the movement. It is told in a layered and rather fractured manner, not only because I still have fears about the repercussions of being too direct and transparent, but because I wanted the film to somehow reflect a range of emotions and sensitivities that I gained from my brief exposure to life and death in this revolutionary movement in the past. In 2016, there was a resumption of the peace talks between the government and the national democratic front. That’s also when I thought that it was a good time to make a public/private film like this, I now have the chance to mourn something that happened 20 years ago. I can attest that it can be difficult to mourn because atrocities happen one after the other. Impunity has emboldened the corrupt and as a consequence, the bodies keep piling up. Looking back now I find it tragic that it became necessary to calibrate even mourning. So that was the idea for the film, it gave the agency to remember and mourn the irreversible, the lost.
JGW Yes, I felt these heavy feelings of the past as well. As you mentioned repeatedly surfacing atrocities through political events in their historical movements, also their mournings, I thought about the state of exception which is still going on. What is about the current situation of martial law in the Philippines?
RL So far it’s only in Mindanao at the moment.[6]
KD The southern part of the Philippines remains under martial law and there is always the possibility that they will declare martial law in a formal manner. More and more they are militarizing civilian positions in our government. The cabinet is filled with former military associates. I think that the president when there is a problem, he doesn’t really seek for people who can solve things e.g. in the environmental department. He just needs people who will follow him, and that is the reason why he puts military men in charge. And they are trying to expand their control, when they get the chance. For example in cinema, there are attempts to enforce more censorship. There are proposals to review scripts first before they are filmed. Filmmakers are also being ‘red tagged’. When we say red-tagged that means being accused of being communists in association with the New Peoples Army, the armed wing of the communist party.
Raffy Lerma, Nightshift, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; photograph: Janine Drewes
JGW Did you receive red tags?
KD Yes, a lot of us were tagged for simply organizing screenings in universities. The screening programs on films on the Marcoses or the martial law period. So the military comes up with this accusation that filmmakers are showing these films in universities as part of a plot to overthrow the president and recruit young people.
RL I have been invited to do talks in different schools and universities in the Philippines and abroad. It is unfair to be red-tagged for being critical to the government, the Marcoses or the martial law period.
KD We go to schools or universities because these are still the places of academia and freedom. We can’t do this in any other institutions or commercial venues, so even now they are keeping a closer look at universities. In fact, even professors are being watched and criticised. The military and police have started to have dialogues with heads of the commission of higher education… The artists who have a social advocacy, for them it’s hard now to have a counter action or resistance towards this situation.
JGW I have an ethical question about the way how you work with your subjects or the people you are engaging with. Most of the time you’re in a solidarizing position with them, right? By showing their conditions, positions and expanding their part of the discourse?
RL & KD Yes. Their and your security have to be the priority. If you put them in danger, we won’t publish or show these footages, photographs. If we do so, we have to ask for permission to show them. It is important they know that these photographs will be used to educate people and expose the government’s cruciality. Of course, there is always the danger of showing too much of this, people will be desensitised. We have to balance between that because we have to show that these crimes are still ongoing. The pictures are graphic and some of them are quite disturbing. We do not intend to shock people but we are trying to explain what is happening and give more context to the killings.
Kiri Dalena, From the Dark Depths, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; photograph: Peter R. Fischer
Kiri Dalena, From the Dark Depths, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; photograph: Peter R. Fischer
JGW I think it is really important how you create a discussion about delicate and urgent political topics in the Philippines while you also travel abroad and expand this discussion. I am wondering how we can be touched by each other’s topics without being insensitive towards other experiences? Living in postcolonial disbalances, it is possible to transport the wrong image sometimes. That’s why it is really important to be there physically, talk about issues, build connections and keep up the contact with people who are experiencing this. After seeing your video, Kiri, From the Dark Depths, I just thought that the shot under water was impressively beautiful while at the same time the actress stomps herself forward with a red flag under water and needs to hold her breath. There is surely a reason why you’ve chosen this surrounding and these images. So I am asking you now, how you are holding your breath and going on in this sense? Or just… What is next?
RL What is next… To be honest, I do not know. I hope the killings end. As Kiri said, I am not enjoying taking photographs and talking about dead people. I don’t enjoy this kind of work. I wish I could do something else, but so few are doing it, so we have to continue.
KD Even if we deny it, we sort of have this responsibility because we are already public. In this case we do not just stop even if we are tired or even if you sometimes want to, because it will have implications. I want to encourage other people to continue. That is what I mean with being in struggle, we are also just human and we also get tired and sometimes just depressed and frustrated about many things. That is the responsibility we already have. Holding our breath is hard.
RL But also – We have to breathe sometimes! (We all laugh and sigh.)
KD I think it is interesting rethinking the symbolism of that film: you are doing difficult things but you have to do it in a way that is still correct and proper. But sometimes people don’t know how difficult it is internally. We have this privilege and this platform as artists and journalists in which we want to make use of in an unselfish way. So we just have to be our best and at the same time measure ourselves, our intentions, to make sure that it is always still in the right way and continuously reflecting on our practice.
JGW So it is going on (smiles)! Thank you so much, there has been a lot to think about for now and don’t forget to breathe.

[1] Rodrigo Duterte is currently the president of the Philippines. Frequently described as populist and a nationalist, he gained popularity during the election with his ‘war on drug’ campaign. Through a systematic practice of extra juridical killings Duterte received criticism by international human rights groups. Just recently the Philippines officially left the International Criminal Court. Source: New York Times (18.03.2019)
[2] Simbáng Gabi (Filipino for Night Mass) are held in nine-day series of Masses by the Roman Catholcis and Aglipayan Church before Christmas in the Philippines.
[4] Martial Law in the Philippines can be traced back to several episodes in history, in which the state of head, the president, imposes a military rule and suspends civil law and rights upon a certain territory.
[5] E.g. RESBAK (RESpond and Break the silence Against the Killings), an interdisciplinary alliance of artists, media practitioners, and cultural workers. The primary goal of RESBAK is to advance social awareness with regards to the killings brought forth by the Duterte administration’s ‘war on drugs’.

Kiri Dalena is a visual artist, filmmaker and human rights activist who lives and works in the Philippines. Her work deals with issues of political and social injustice, drawing from events in Philippine history. She is a co-founder of the filmmaking collective Southern Tagalog Exposure.
Raffy Lerma is a photographer based in Manila, Philippines. He has recently shifted to working independently to focus on his documentation of the Philippine War on Drugs.