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Life by Design


Open Source Artistry

Posted by Carren |

I'm excited to finally be able to post this article. The article has taken a while to be published, but it turned out great. Stephanie is now part of a group exhibition at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. The exhibition, 1969, will be on view until April 5, 2010.

Fil-Am artist Stephanie Syjuco takes back the personal in the realm of the public
Text by: Carren Jao
Photographs courtesy of the artist
Additional photograph: Carren Jao
Published in an altered form at MEGA December 2009

Fil-Am Stephanie Syjuco is an artist of her time. Unafraid to swim in technology, she refers to Google Images as “kind of my best friend,” downloading content off the internet and incorporating it into pieces. Similarly, her work flows with the concept of open source – development through public collaboration. Far from linear development – at the mercy of a centralized governing body, closed to new ideas - open source (as the term suggests) opens itself to users, allowing them to mold a project to suit their purposes. In a world of monotonous mass production, her work asserts the personal and customized.

Internationally acclaimed visual artist Stephanie Syjuco’s body of work reflects a logic of personalization in a world increasingly reliant on efficient streams of production. Using the internet as a starting point for many of her sculptures and installations, Stephanie recreates something - intentionally misappropriating and mistranslating icons to reveal friction. She refers to this process as making a “cover, taking the original form and adding to it,” as opposed to outright copying. Her work is an ongoing dialog, attempting to present the complex intersections of life today –– globalization versus local production, reality versus high ideals, public versus private.

Personalizing production
Stephanie does not hesitate to acknowledge her own work’s political bent and attributes this to an early experience. “My mom moved [to the U.S.] as a 19-year old single mother. We were on welfare. That probably informed some of my outlook… Around high school or college, I got an awareness [of] being an immigrant in the U.S…. class differences, who has money, race issues, social issues. That started my being political,” she shares inside a quiet library café on Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) grounds. As an erstwhile Kraus Visiting Assistant Professor, she is light years away from her days living on a $10 budget and dumpster diving behind the bakery while taking the New York Studio Program in 1994.

Receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts from The San Francisco Art Institute and her Master’s Degree from Stanford University, she has gradually found the logic in her work, moving from personal themes to more global themes. She gravitates to ordinary material, eschewing traditional media. “I am more interested in the everyday kind of low-end [material], nothing too special – something that’s easy to get a hold of and doesn’t carry a lot of baggage.” Materials like an architect’s foam core or simple contact paper, often used on household projects, are prevalent in her studio.

Her most celebrated work to-date has been the Counterfeit Crochet Project (Critique of a Political Economy), which has been shown around the globe - from the United States to Istanbul to the Philippines. Soliciting the help of crocheters around the world through the internet to hand-counterfeit designer bags, Stephanie delved into the process by which people “make the world for themselves,” inserting their work in the world’s stream of commerce. After producing some sample works herself, she then organized the whole affair, even borrowing a few finished products for shows around the world.

“At first, I did not want to call it an art project,” says Stephanie, preferring to keep the air of excitement typical of the pseudo-backdoor economic setting she was creating. Labeling it an art project would have legitimized it and tempered its effect on the makers themselves. Though the end products succeeded in achieving brand recognition, they could never duplicate the same lustful effect of the real designer bags, something Stephanie can happily live with. “It was production in a society that prides itself on being correct… In the end, it does become new, even if it was a copy…[There is] skill that goes into the attempt and that’s what is the source of its beauty.”

Another running inquiry attached to Stephanie’s art practice is her Anti-Factory fashion label, essentially a one-woman business selling one-of-a-kind, handmade, environment-friendly garments online. In a term she coined “upcycling,” versus recycling, Stephanie breathes new life to garments by reworking them to suit contemporary fashion tastes. “I wanted to see if it was possible to make a kind of artisan business amidst manufacturing models today,” explains Stephanie. True to an artisan business model, Stephanie is involved in all parts of the process- from web design, production, shipping and handling. “Anti-Factory gives me a chance to handmake something and have a direct exchange with someone,” says Stephanie, striving to appropriate the production cycle to allow personal contact.

Tackling identity
Perhaps it is Stephanie’s own experience being Filipina in a foreign environment that makes her sensitive to global phenomena. She is constantly straddling two worlds, yet confesses to having made peace with this discord. “I used to feel marginalized. I don’t know how to speak Tagalog, so I’m not Filipino enough and my mother assimilated [the American life]. But there are so many other people who are in the same situation, we make a kind of community.” Rather than ignoring her Filipino background, she lets it inform her practice. In her latest solo show at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, three of the five installations delve into cultural identity.

Towards a New Theory of Color Reading began from Stephanie’s own frustration at her limited understanding of English language Filipino newspapers. “It was a whole other language almost,” she explains, referring to the myriad of cultural references and acronyms that pepper the ethnic paper. Combining this frustration with the Bauhaus Color Theory, a movement in the 1930s that attempted to create a universal understanding of art through color, Stephanie replaced key portions of newspaper with a pre-assigned block of colored paper: yellow for text, black for newspaper information, cyan for photos, and red/magenta for advertisements, creating a different kind of informational journal. “It is a way to appreciate the content in a different way,” she says with a smile.

In Body Double (Platoon/Apocalypse Now/Hamburger Hill), Stephanie attempts to reconnect to her homeland. Downloading famous Hollywood Vietnam War movies shot in the Philippines and cropping out all war-related dialog, viewers are left with idyllic landscapes full of skies, rivers and mountains. Bereft of cinematic gore and drama, the work reveals a much more personal drama, a vision of Stephanie's homeland unfolding.

In The Village (Small Encampments), Stephanie investigates her two homes – her apartment and her homeland – by downloading tourist photos of the Philippines, cutting them down to Lilliputian height, and placing them strategically around her apartment. Thus, she presents both her private abode and her fictionalized idea of homeland. “I wondered how much is complete fiction of the identity that we construct for ourselves.”

Bridging the gaps between her real and ideal personality, she herself has formulated her own theory of her identity. Stephanie shares, “I read somewhere that ten percent of the entire Filipino population is living outside of the Philippines. Then perhaps being Filipino has nothing to do with cultural ties. [This phenomena has] made the Philippines a larger place – a reverse colonization, if you will.”

Glocal citizen
To describe her body of work, Stephanie again coins the term “glocal”. “I [wanted] to talk about global issues on a local level.” As one surveys her enormous output in the last decade, one cannot help but assent to her success. Political in nature, yet friendly in presentation, Stephanie’s work makes itself accessible to the public, opening the lines of communication with countless viewers.

Adhering to the tenets of minimalism, Stephanie’s work is outwardly pleasing and, over time, thought provoking. By bringing large, global issues to the personal level, propagating “little hiccups to the regular flow of things,” she invites her viewers to situate themselves in the world’s big picture.
Keep up with Stephanie through her online website, and view her Anti-Factory pieces at


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