98B – a Space That Creates Energy, Collaborations and Conversations

Jean-Lorin Sterian interviewed Mark Salvatus from Manila, the founder of 98B – which started in his appartement.

Jean-Lorin Sterian: How did you start 98B? What was the inspiration?

Mark Salvatus: I’m living in a small apartment in Cubao in Quezon City, north of Manila. It’s also the studio where I work. In November 2011, after returning from a residency program in Yokohama, Japan, I invited Mayumi Hirano (now my wife), a researcher and curator who was working on the project that I participated in, called Koganecho Bazaar. It was her first time to Manila; I showed her different museums, galleries, and art spaces and introduced her to my artist friends. Thinking of where to go to meet other artists to have dinner and to talk, we just decided to do it in the house, inviting my friends into a very simple setting. After that, Mayumi and I thought of opening my studio for random gatherings like dinners or screenings with my friends; a much-needed space not only about showing art but creating exchanges and dialogues through intimate gatherings. Two months later, we decided to simply open my apartment to different activities. On January 28, 2012, the very first artist presentation was held in 98B with 15 people attending. The inspiration is simple; we wanted to have a space that can eventually create energies through collaboration, exchanges, and casual conversations.

J-LS: What was the context of your life when you started?

MS: My background is advertising art, and I started as a street artist and formed a collective called Pilipinas Street Plan (PSP) back in 2006. With two other street artists, we initiated gatherings, exhibitions, and discussions that formed a bigger community of street artists in Manila. At the same time, I was also part of another artist collective called Tutok, which is more geared toward the social impact of art and artists to the general public. Senior artists inspired me to respond to the current political situation in the country; these two artist-led initiatives built my understanding of how we can work together and using art and creativity as a vehicle for new and different possibilities. I see these two collectives as a foundation of 98B; the only difference is that 98B has a physical space where people can converge regularly. This is an important factor in building relationships and layers of connections with the different aspect of the society and not only art. In order to do that, I invited my artist friends to help me form 98B, and we started as a ten-member team with diverse background from art, design, education, publication, music, and curating.

J-LS: What was the art scene in the Philippines of that time? How is it now?

MS: The art scene was dominated primarily by the art market and auction houses when we started. There were also artist-run spaces, but those are always overshadowed by the big players. Now there are more artists compared to five years ago and galleries and art spaces are mushrooming every year. There is more diversity in terms of artworks and expressions now than before. But the main direction is still always the art market. I’m also interested in cities outside Manila like Cebu and Bacolod, which are more experimental and creating their own directions.

J-LS: What new things did 98B bring to the art scene?

MS: I’m not sure if we can call it new, but what we always inject into 98B is the idea and question of “What if?” We always ask this question if we’re preparing for a project and we’re not injecting it into the art scene, but discussing things as a collective or initiative. We produce works or projects that blur the idea of what an artwork is. We organize exhibitions, bazaars, performances, screenings; we archive videos, arrange parties, discussions, and more. For us, this produces a work that has a spirit of experimentation and collaboration, which should be visible to the public.

J-LS: Why did you move from the first location?

MS: A practical reason is the limitation of the space. The original 98B is where I also live and work; a maximum of 25 people can fit in at a time in the living space. I am still living in that space now, with my wife and son. It is also good timing that one of our members, Marika Constantino, met a building owner in downtown Manila. After six months of activities in my apartment, we moved to the old street of Escolta in Chinatown.

J-LS: What were the changes after the move?

MS: It was a slow transition for us. The new environment is located in an old district of Manila, which is a challenge since most of us members live in north part of the city. We continued our activities like talks and screenings in our small space and were happy to have a space that we can share with others. It was also a learning experience for us because now we’re working with a building owner and the language changed once we talked to them and eventually built new relationships in the process. For us, working and having the space in Escolta is an ongoing experimental development.

J-LS: Can you describe the original space?

MS: The original space is located in a residential area in Cubao, Quezon city, in the north part of metropolitan Manila. It is a small three-story house with living space, dining, and kitchen on the second floor where we used to hold talks, dinners, and screenings. But once in a while we still do it with a small number of people with our friends. On the first floor is a garage where we used to organize the weekly bazaar. The third floor has three private rooms; an extra room is for anyone visiting Manila to stay for a couple of days.

J-LS: How many people did you usually have as the audience?

MS: A maximum of 20–25 people on the second floor, and up to 40 people in the garage during the weekly bazaar.

J-LS: How have you advertised the space?

MS: We’ve been using Facebook as the main platform to disseminate information since the beginning. It’s free and easy to share to our networks. We also use Instagram to update activities and projects.

J-LS: How important is the kitchen in your activities?

MS: We started 98B because we love to cook, eat, and drink with friends. The kitchen is like a laboratory and you can see the process of making a meal from start to finish and sharing it with everyone. From the beginning, we have had weekly dinners , and it is also the perfect occasion to talk about art, ideas, projects, and everything under the sun. It’s a very casual and organic way to build exchanges and discussions through food and drinks.

J-LS: Who lives in the building? How do you deal with neighbors?

MS: The building where we are now located is mostly occupied by offices with employees and workers. No one really lives there; we don’t live there either. In short, most of us in the building are transients or temporal dwellers. But having space is important because we can build a meeting point with different individuals in the building at the same time in the neighborhood of Escolta to start discussions with that brief temporal encounters. There are a lot of negotiations dealing with different groups or individuals that we meet in the area and we see this as an ongoing process that we value. From there we can build different relationships, not only with the people we met and worked with, but also with the place itself.

J-LS: Did you collaborate with the state institutions? I read that corruption and bureaucracy are very present in cultural state institutions. Can you give me examples?

MS: I think state cultural institutions in the Philippines are not that aware of the many diverse practices and expressions of artists and cultural workers in the Philippines. These institutions only look for what will be the impact of the project on the society and its contribution to the Filipino identity. And we know that artists work in many different ways; their concerns and subject matters vary in contexts and forms. But I guess as an artist we have to do our own part to show them what we are doing, and we can be the bridge so that the institutions can be more aware of what is happening on the ground in terms of art making and culture production outside their immediate radar. In our five years of existence, these institutions are slowly recognizing our projects and we have to learn and negotiate with the language of bureaucracy.

J-LS: How you would label the mainstream art scene in the Philippines?

MS: Mainstream means it’s all about generating money and the cycle of that system. There’s nothing wrong if you sell your works and if someone values your work, but nowadays the purpose to make art is generally to sell it as an object.

J-LS: Are you in contact with other independent organizations? Did you build a network?

MS: Yes. We collaborate with different artist groups and organizations both in the Philippines and abroad. This is our main core – to form a network of artist-led organizations and collectives to share ideas, inputs, resources, and strategies to build meaningful projects and eventually create lasting relationships through our constant exchanges. I think this is very important, because we operate through the social aspect of art and culture. What we wanted to achieve is to coexist to work with any possible collaborators, be it in art or in other disciplines.

J-LS: Are there art squats in the Philippines’ cities? What about artist-run spaces? What are the ups and downs of being an (independent) artist in the Philippines?

MS: In the past years, artist-run initiatives and spaces were on and off. Some stayed for a few years and some stayed for almost 20 years, like Green Papaya. There were also spaces outside Manila, which I think is good, decentralizing art production and presentation in the country. The main reason for these spaces to close will always be the funding and we have to create programs that will sustain our space and for each member to cover their costs. In 98B, we all work as volunteers. We are also in constant discussion about the status of 98B: is it still considered independent? We’re a small organization but part of a bigger picture, not only in the art and culture sector, but as part of society as well. So we see interdependence as a better framework to run our programs rather than just being independent. Most of our projects involve individuals, groups, and organizations that we think are important, exciting, and fun to collaborate with.

J-LS: How important is socializing at your meetings? Is it art a pretext for socializing?

MS: As much as possible, we do our meetings with food and drinks. It is important for us to have an open, casual discussion but at the same time be serious on the matters we have to deliberate. Aside from the agenda of the meeting, there will always be a conversation about art, life, and everything in between – politics, current events, philosophy, and gossip, which makes our exchanges more engaging, critical, and fun at the same time.

J-LS: How does the curatorial process work? Are you interested in the work in progress?

MS: Our process revolves around the DWO spirit or Do it With Others energy, since we collaborate a lot with different individuals and organizations. Curating becomes a group effort, working hand in hand with artists and at the same time we are also learning along the way. Yes, we’re interested in the work in progress because the energy flows at that particular moment and that aspect of working, the value is not on the end results or artwork presented but the experiences we encountered in the process which is the core of building relationships.

J-LS: Does the audience pay admission? How do you fund your activities?

MS: It depends. We don’t charge for our main activities and projects, like exhibitions, screenings, talks, and artist presentations. If you want to build and create an audience, it should be free and unintimidating. For the past five years, we try different approaches to sustain our activities as well as our physical space. So far we have three main sources to cover the utilities and allowances of each member. We organize paid workshops we call HQ, the weekly market is called Future Market wherein we invite creatives to sell their stuff through an open call with space rental fee for a day, and there’s a residency program wherein we host artists and they pay administrative and accommodation fees.

J-LS: What 98B events are you really proud of?

MS: I am glad we created the ESC Projects, which started as a one-day exhibition as a form of incubation and experimentation by young artists. It started as an added component of the Future Market – creating new works on the spot for one day in a site-specific presentation and dismantled after the market closes at 6pm. It’s a nice project but we see it will be more exciting if it will be longer in duration, so we changed it to a one-day-to-one-month period, depending on the artist’s context. So artists come up with bigger and more engaging works that are outside the confines of a white cube. Many artists who had presented in ESC said that it is a challenging space to install works, but at the same time they’re surprised to see the result that they can only do it on that particular site.

J-LS: What didn’t work about 98B, that you expected to work?

MS: We had a project called PAN. It was an empty storefront space a few minutes’ walk from our building. We created an exhibition program for about three years. But managing two spaces is a lot of work. We’re happy to do this project and we always think that it’s an experiment for the artists we invited, too. I guess it worked out as a new platform in exhibiting works but we think three years is enough to do that program as an experiment.

J-LS: What does it mean to be independent in the Philippines? What is the independent scene like in the Philippines?

MS: Being independent is good. It creates a lot of freedom and you can reach your full potential as an artist. On the other hand, it’s also good to work with others on an equal horizon and we call it interdependence. Working independently also has limitations, but through inter-dependence working and collaborating with different disciplines and sectors of the society can build new forms of engagements. In the Philippine context, artists, collectives, and organizations build layers of connections with different institutions to realize projects. Through these projects, one can start having dialogues, negotiations, inspirations … and also frustrations.

J-LS: How many people are involved?

MS: Right now we are seven on the team – me, Mayumi Hirano, Marika Constantino, Gabriel Villegas, Miggy Inumerable, Katherine Nunez, and Issay Rodriguez.

J-LS: Is the underground art scene in the Philippines political?

MS: I am not sure how to define the underground art scene in the Philippines. In general, the art scene is very political from production to presentation and distribution. The fabric of the society is always intertwined with politics and religion and artists respond to this urgency that has to be addressed where art can be a tool or bridge. It may not be the solution for change but artists have different perspectives and visions that maybe the general public can open their eyes clearly by using these tools.

J-LS: Can you describe one night at 98B (in your original place)?

MS: Food, drinks and a lot of talking and drinks. Did I say drinks? Sometimes I cook or we just decide to bring something to share. An intimate setting talking about random stuff from art, life and everything in between.

J-LS: What is the main achievement regarding 98B after so many years?

MS: We started five years ago with a question »What if?« and we’re still asking that question for our future projects and collaborations. I think we’re humbled to have worked with many people with diverse backgrounds through our programs. We are still building this relationship and continuously making connections using art and creativity as the meeting point. And this meeting point is the space itself, opening to different questions and wonders, we may not have the answers but 98B as physical space and 98B as an abstract space is our main achievement and we hope to sustain it in the coming years.

J-LS: What has changed since you started?

MS: Since each of us also has individual practices, time and commitment is an essential component of a 98B member. As I said, we are all volunteers and we rely on each other to realize a project, we may have different roles but we have to make sure that we are working together as a team together with our collaborators. We’re busier than before, and because of this, the team also changes … with people coming in and also leaving because of different circumstances. I guess this is normal for any group or community and I always open a space for discussion and communication.

J-LS: How does the future look like for 98B?

MS: Aside from continuing our programs presenting art in different forms and expressions, we want to archive our projects in the form of a publication. I want to see 98B as a resource or research center, not only presenting and discussing art, but also archiving the projects we have done in the past five years and the years to come.