Earlier this year, Brisbane-based artist duo Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan exhibited In-Habit: Project Another Country at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) in Sydney. This work is part of Aquilizans’ continuous project Another Country, which investigates notions of place. For this project, the Aquilizans transformed the SCAF exhibition space into a stilted shantytown, made from hundreds of handmade cardboard houses. Embedded within is a three-channel video installation that gives a glimpse into the life of the inhabitants. The concept for the work derived from the story of the Badjao people, sea nomads who live on stilted makeshift houses in the southeast islands of the Philippines. Their lifestyle is one of adaptation, resilience and displacement, notions that the Aquilizans can relate to through their own personal experience of moving to another country. However, the Badjao experience these underlying themes of migration in the most extreme sense and their circumstances leave them constantly transient. In-Habit reflects on the Badjao’s way of living as an attempt to convey the artists’ experiences of diaspora through those of others.
This isn’t the first time that the Aquilizans have been represented in the space. When the founder of SCAF, Dr Gene Sherman, first encountered the Aquilizans’ In-Flight: (Project Another Country), at the Asia Pacific Triennial in 2009, she “knew [she] had found the beginnings for another SCAF installation." For an exhibition called Contemporary Art for Contemporary Kids, in conjunction with the Queensland Art Gallery’s Children’s Art Centre, five interactive artworks were chosen to be exhibited in the SCAF space, including In-Flight. The interactive work invited visitors of all ages to create aircraft out of small recycled and unwanted materials; its symbolism too was heavily based in the transactions and transitions of migration. In-habit follows on from the projects of In-Flight, focussing more towards the idea of an unattainable utopia, a place to call home.
Upon entering the space, one encounters a display of a cardboard shanty. Walking past this, viewers enter what the Aquilizans describe as a ‘total-installation’. The work utilises nearly half the volume of the gallery; its density immerses viewers as they pass through, yet its organic nature impedes any feelings of spatial imposition. At first glance, the fabricated community seems to originate inversely from above, but gradually one comes to understand that the residences have been built from the ground-up, stilted to avoid what lies below. To look closer at the details of the cluster is to find a hidden order within the whole; one item carefully leads viewers to another. Every house is uniquely built but all are blended to harmonise a very distinct aesthetic, which is achieved through the monochromatic brown of the cardboard and by the tight knit cohesion of the cluster.
The cardboard installation reflects on the inconstant lifestyle of the Badjao. Locally referred to as ‘gypsies’, and more descriptively ‘sea nomads’, they live above shallow seabeds in impermanent houses. These people are not legally citizens of the Philippines, nor of any another surrounding countries, and so their way of life is in a constant flux. The Badjao are consistently forced to relocate due to the threats of pirates, big fishing companies and of course, the authorities. Ideas of such ephemerality and transience are imbedded at the core of In-Habit, as the cardboard material was mainly sourced from packing boxes. Called “balik bayan” in the Philippines, the Aquilizans are well acquainted with this humble object having used them to migrate to Australia. Balik Bayan boxes are representative of the migratory experience; transitions and displacement, then soon after a culmination of familiar objects to create a new ‘home’ from a new ‘place’. While a ‘home’ in its physical sense seems nearly unattainable for the Badjao, they have adapted their way of life so much so that culturally their ‘home’ is set amid the sea.
While the physical component of the artwork directly references the Badjao’s stilted abodes, its video component reverts attention to the Badjao children. The film loop documents these children, who live well below the poverty line, as they busk on land to earn extra money as a means of survival. Caught in a constant tension of not legally belonging at sea and not culturally belonging on land they are deemed local outcasts, set apart by their distinct dialect and appearance. The Badjao children have adopted a contemporary rap style and merged it with local dialect, adding beats played on makeshift drums. Through headphones, viewers listen to the children rap with confidence and rhythm, standing in front of a pristine ocean landscape, their utopia. The music the children create is lively and entrancing, giving an added sensory dimension to the work.
To witness this phenomenon causes an overwhelming sense of empathy with the Badjao, their situation yet also with general themes of migration. The Aquilizans show that it is through social exchanges that the artwork’s broader aims can be referenced and understood. According to the artists, “engagement is the key element in the work; the inter-human relations that go into the artistic production." For this project, as with many of their previous ones, the Aquilizans invited the local community to participate directly in the production throughout the exhibition stages. The themes of collaboration and storytelling that run throughout In-Habit might recall the curatorial premise of this year’s Biennale of Sydney, which promised a “renewed attention to how things connect – how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit." The Aquilizan’s practice is one of co-creation and interactivity, and the works evolve continuously from the initial concept until the dismantlement.
In keeping with its migratory theme, In-Habit will tour regional galleries and will never be installed in the same way. As each new destination brings a new space and a new set of contributors, In-Habit will continuously evolve. The flux of migration is truly represented throughout this work. While at once it speaks of current issues of the Badjao in the Philippines it also directly reflects what is at the core of some of the world’s most recent artistic concerns.
 Dr Gene Sherman 2012, In-Habit [Exhibition Catalogue], Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.
 Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan 2012, In-Habit [Exhibition Catalogue], Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.
 Catherine de Zegher and Gerald Mc Master 2012, [Exhibition Catalogue], Biennale of Sydney.