The Philippines are struggling to stay afloat after Typhoon Haiyan pummeled the coastline last month. Amid the chaos of mourning families and devastated homes, communities are just starting to reassemble their lives from the watery ruins. And on the other end of the diaspora, one small theater company is reaching out by piecing together creative voices in a collective work of political art. Catherine Hernandez, founder of the Sulong Theatre Company in Ontario, has been trying to raise funds for survivor communities through “Operation Lifeboat,” which launched last year following another disaster, Typhoon Sendong. The project’s lynchpin is a film in which Hernandez lies in a lifeboat filled with filthy water for 24 hours straight—an act of solidarity with the storm-drenched Filipino communities. More than a thousand people around the world watched the online video, which was accompanied with appeals for donations as well as information about the environmental and social issues driving the disaster.
Hernandez, a veteran playwright and theater producer, also invited dozens of other artists and activists to participate in her “journey.” Gathered around her immersed body, they marked each hour of the scene by playing music and by simply being present, alongside viewers who were watching the performance from afar.
This year, Hernandez is expanding the project’s network of participating artists and activists by broadcasting a series of video testimonials that riff on a single, spoken refrain: “Operation Lifeboat Begins with Me.” Each speaker explains the meaning of the disaster in their own lives—particularly the connection between people in rich nations and the corporate exploitation of natural resources in impoverished regions, along with the human and environmental devastation that accompanies that relationship. Each video features a piece of a story of an environmental justice struggle in the Philippines.
In one video, queer Filipina feminist Charm Torres tells the story of the murder of an indigenous community leader who led a protest movement against multinational mining companies—one of many crimes linked to reactionary paramilitary groups. Another piece features trans-disciplinary performance artist Katie Sly as she explains that, “In the Philippines, those who question and oppose exploitation and the sale of the nation’s natural resources must fear for their lives.”
The project aims beyond the usual charity appeals that spring up after every environmental calamity by appealing directly to individuals to not only support grassroots aid campaigns in the affected communities, but also learn about and discuss the root causes of these tragedies.
Hernandez’s performance project prompts a virtual dialogue between the global north and south—linking the stories of disaster-stricken communities in the Philippines and communities in North America who are both empathetic to their struggles as well as complicit in the social and environmental destruction driving these calamities. Like a video message in a bottle, “Operation Lifeboat” is a snippet of a conversation across borders and within the minds of artists who occupy multiple realms of art and culture. Each piece in the series explores the ripple effects of a disaster from the inside out.
MC: How did Operation Lifeboat begin? How does it relate to the current relief and organizing efforts in response to Typhoon Haiyan?
CH: “Operation Lifeboat” began in 2012 after Typhoon Sendong hit. The Filipino arts community would regularly come together as a way of showing solidarity with the people back home—especially the ones that are a part of the diaspora. We wanted to send money back through some kind of arts event. So we got together to perform a concert and it was a very emotional thing. I was just overwhelmed with tears because I knew that everyone in the audience was part of the Filipino community, or people outside the community, who were very aware of the issues surrounding the actual human-made elements behind these supposed natural disasters. I always wondered if we were actually making a difference, or just feeling a sense of solidarity among ourselves. Were we actually educating anybody around these bigger issues?
What inspired you to lie in a water-logged lifeboat and then film it?
When Typhoon Sendong happened, Ontario-based artist and photographer Alex Felipe contacted a bunch of people and asked, “What can we do, what can we do?” I knew that I wanted to do something drastic inspired by a photo that I saw… a photo of a boy [immersed in the debris-filled floodwaters of Tropical Storm Saola in 2012]… and I remember thinking that I wanted to be in solidarity with that boy. If I could just make a difference in one boy’s life, that would be amazing. And so I thought, I’m going to do something really drastic that’s going to send a message to people outside of the community: I’m going to be in an lifeboat filled with filthy water without any access to food for 24 hours. The idea was to not just to raise funds but also to raise awareness for the human-made elements behind the supposedly natural-made disasters.
At the beginning, I said right away, “There is a lot that I don’t know. I’m going to be learning alongside you, so come with me on this journey.” And that seemed to be the right tone to hit with everybody because it wasn’t about me preaching. It was more like me taking your hand and saying, “Let’s go, let’s be brave, let’s go beyond the idea of us being saviors and, instead of just opening up our wallets, let’s actually open up our minds. Let’s reconsider our privilege and think about how we are internationally responsible for what we’re seeing on our news feeds.”
We are releasing ten videos, responses from other artists, over the next couple of weeks. We have already released two, and the response has been very good. We are very pleased with this work because it’s two sided. Because relief is definitely needed. We want people to participate in that way, and to definitely dig deep. And when we say, “dig deep,” we mean this metaphorically, too: “Dig deep into your hearts, dig deep into your wallets, because you’re responsible, and this is how.”
It’s interesting that you’re choosing video as a participatory art form—with artists directly engaging the viewer on camera, with intimate storytelling as well as a kind of political witness-bearing. There’s a range of voices, presented in a single format, collectively forming a mediated dialogue with viewers, But then this folds into a broader political outreach and action project. So if I were watching this video, what would be an example of a way I would engage in this learning process and take that back to my community?
We want you, as a viewer and participant, to go on this “journey” with us. These artists knew that there were issues behind [the disaster] but never knew that there were solid facts [behind them]. We’re asking you to do the same thing by exploring these issues. People in every office in North America are going to their water stations and cafeterias, not really reflecting on their privilege or how they’re responsible. We’re trying to avoid the same old conversation when natural disasters pop up. We all know what this sounds like, right? Anytime a natural disaster happens you’re like, ”Did you see, isn’t that awful? Well it’s just too bad. You know what? I’m gonna give $20 right now.” You know that conversation?’
Do you think that the message is starting to permeate? Are people starting to ask themselves, “Is the way I live my life right now directly responsible for all this suffering in other parts of the world?”
Yeah, I do. The way our governments are able to continue their injustice is by feeding on our ignorance. I think it will permeate if we start with people in offices, and people walking in parks talking about things. The tone of the new videos is so different from those we featured last year: it’s their rage we’re hearing, even mine. We want to make sure people know that the people governing us are making disgusting decisions—not only in our own lands but at the expense of indigenous people elsewhere, including the Philippines.
Can you describe how art can be an effective medium for political engagement?
For me, art is always political because in order to make it, I have to exist. As a queer, brown woman, single mom, as a person of color in this world, my existence is an act of resistance and my art is a manifestation of that. When I make art, I make it in a way that my ancestors also did: grounded in oral traditions and trusting in multidisciplinary practice. Because the long lines that are drawn between singing, dancing, acting, et cetera, were not drawn by my people, but by my colonizers. Every time I bow at the end of any performance—be it burlesque or theater or a literary reading or a dance piece—I always raise my hand up in an “L,” in the form of Laban [the hand sign used in the People Power Revolution and other uprisings], because I want to remind myself that I am from a people of resistance, that me standing here on this earth and surviving is always an act of resistance. So, my work is extremely grounded in making change. I start with changing myself first because I have to remember that I can’t talk at people, and that the process has to begin with me. That’s part of the mandate of the Sulong Theatre company: that we are resistant from the page to the stage. I work hard to ensure that unlearning starts with me. Most of my work revolves around that idea.