Distraction, Depression, and Getting Diagnosed

There are mornings when I get really, really excited about having breakfast at McDonald’s. I get an egg McMuffin, no bacon, a hashbrown, and coffee.

All this is deliberate because distraction has always been the most effective way to get past boredom. There was a time in high school when the same kind of boredom led to hopelessness, then depression, and before serious desperation could hit, I’d already absented myself from school for an entire week (could have been more). There was lots of vomiting from the dread at going back because it meant keeping regular hours.

My problem was that the only times I actually felt any peace was in the early mornings, when everyone was still asleep and I felt I had the house to myself. For this, I stayed up all night, listened to the radio, read magazines then cut them up, wrote things on a now defunct chickclick blog, and watched movies. I just did things I liked, but I also wondered all the while why there wasn’t any place for these things in the school I attended. One night, my mom came out to find me sticking things on the ceiling, and asked me, “Are you on drugs?”

Come to think of it, all signs pointed to (the stereotype [every parent’s nightmare] of) someone on drugs: I had green hair, a pierced face, I didn’t sleep, and I was cutting things up and getting serious with power tools at 4 in the morning. Eventually, I landed in front of a psychiatrist. I can’t even remember her name, just that I kind of hated her. I was led one morning into what appeared to be an opthalmologist’s office, made to sit in a vinyl chair with a steel frame, next to a sculpture of a giant eyeball (of course I remember the eyeball), and made to tell a stranger “What’s wrong?”

And from there I just kept crying and did not stop for an hour. I can’t even remember what I told her, but when I was through, she asked how I would feel about medication, and I said (or in my head, I screamed), “What the fuck?”

After that, my mom was called in and she spoke to us both about my showing signs of bipolar disorder or borderline something. Later, she told my mom I needed to go on anti-psychotics, which my mom (thankfully) declined, telling her we’d seek out a second opinion before resorting to something so drastic. It was then that I saw how boredom can be a dangerous thing and promised that no matter what the cost , I will never let myself get bored; I will always give myself something to look forward to, whether it’s as costly as a trip abroad, or as simple as a hashbrown in the morning.

The next day I went back to school and pretty much went insane: I joined a band, lobbied hard for an editorial post at the school’s newsletter, and fought with everyone in my way, sometimes for very stupid reasons, even when I was wrong (mostly because we no longer had a debate club and I really liked yelling at things and people). I didn’t care if I sucked at what I was doing or was putting my life in danger, I just wanted to do things.

I had energy to burn so I did things like argue with teachers who wouldn’t let us change the title of the opinion section from “Raging Youth” to “Raging Hormones” then “Tara, Kwentutan Tayo” (which roughly translates to “Gossip-fucking”). I spent one day locked up in the Chem lab for dress code violations, which I spent lying under the table ’til my Math teacher felt bad or embarrassed enough to let me out. Instead of getting picked up from school, I walked home because I just wasn’t tired yet. I was like a 6-year-old off Ritalin and lost in a 15-year-old’s body. And I hadn’t even discovered drugs or drinking.

I also never saw another shrink after that.

It’s a weird mix of luck, sublimation, and discipline that I get to channel whatever illness I was originally diagnosed with this way; because somehow I still get a lot of work tossed in my direction, and by work I mean getting my head to meetings, where my body just kind of vibrates in place, kicking legs and bags under the table and folding every scrap of paper atop it into a crane or a frog or a…thing (I used to doodle, but one of my bosses didn’t like that). Right now, I have several research and writing projects, one of which triangulates between the Fil-Am war, the St. Louis World’s Fair, and Bagobo textiles, which seems like a natural course of action for a fashion major who kept a lot of notes on the holocaust as a kid. I bet if that shrink from high school had found my notes, she would have had me locked up.

I’m writing about this in the wake of two suicides, each one a degree removed; which prompted my sister to write to me and my mother about how denial and distracting herself with the facts of physically surviving have been her best bet, in finding a way out from under whatever cloud of debilitating D’s were hanging over her. For some of us, work is a fact of life, and something we do out of commitment to people who trust us to deliver something good, but also a means to survive. And for that, we are already lucky.

I’ve found I don’t know what to say to people who don’t have anything to work on; who can’t benefit from the pleasures of distracting themselves by doing something they not only love, but are good at. I’ve had students drop out of class and cry over assignments, and come to me for advice and I just don’t know what to say. I do what I do because, 1) I’m on contract, 2) I need to pay the rent and feed myself, and 3) I worked hard to get good enough for it to be enjoyable. That’s where most of my energy has gone.

I try to be careful about getting myself checked, but I know that I’m also wired differently now: as a teacher and a student, I need to perform, literally. I need to be in front of people who can already see or hear if anything is wrong, and even if no one tells me, I can usually see it in their faces.

It’s funny how energy works and how you get what you give. The other day, I interviewed someone for the CCP Encyclopedia, and when he shook my hand to say goodbye, he made this noise like he was being electrocuted. It was the ADD buzzing through. Or some other disorder that didn’t get tempered by whatever drugs I would have been put on as a child (an actual child, not the kind of child I am now).

There are still days though when I feel sad, and even McDonald’s breakfast can’t get me out of bed. My closest friends are familiar with these episodes. These are times when I just don’t talk and don’t even make eye contact because something’s already snapped and I know somewhere in my heart that what my nameless shrink told my mom in that office, thirteen years ago, was probably true.

The hardest part there is telling someone what’s really going on, really saying it out loud for others as well as yourself to hear; but nothing comes easy, and for our own sake we need to speak up.

On the controlled chaos of Tof Zapanta’s portfolio

Excerpt from “The Poetics of Disparity”, published in Contemporary Art Philippines / Arts+ Philippines, March 2014

I Practice Detachment, installation view at the mezzanine of Picasso Boutique Residences, c/o Altro Mondo gallery. Photo grabbed from Tof Zapanta's instagram.
I Practice Detachment, installation view at the mezzanine of Picasso Boutique Residences, c/o Altro Mondo gallery. Photo grabbed from Tof Zapanta’s instagram.

[…]After a hard-won degree in Multimedia Arts from the College of Saint Benilde, Tof Zapanta now works as a Senior Designer and Art Director for TBWA Manila. Aside from his day job, Zapanta also participates in the commercial sector of art production through freelance illustration work, as well as exhibitions.

For I Practice Detachment, a two-man show of works on paper with Mano Gonzales, at Altro Mondo in Salcedo Village, Zapanta goes back to the drawing board—literally. After an extended period of “doing everything digitally,” he retraced the very fundamental techniques that attracted him to the craft in the first place by doing everything in pencil on paper. Exploring shared qualities and a common disposition, what resulted was not a blatantly collaborative effort between Zapanta and Gonzales, but a dialogue of notes on being alone despite being surrounded by people.

“We were going for something contemplative and melancholic, but some of my friends think these are creepy,” says Zapanta of the reactions to the pieces he created for Detachment. “I think they’re kind of soft though.”

The use of negative space and rendering of detail indeed invokes contemplation. While Gonzales is more measured and mathematical in framing his subjects, Zapanta tends to be more spontaneous in his composition, working with the contrasts between fragments of characters and sequences from his imagination. Both artists also demonstrate a technical virtuosity and familiarity with their medium that allows them to render depth and draw the viewer inward, despite the minimal (for Gonzales: nonexistent) use of color and ground. What materializes are traces of introspection, products of detachment cut short by the obligations to socialize and be part of a larger milieu—or in the case of the art world, a veritable institution.

Zapanta is no stranger to the operations of the art market and exhibition circuit. As a co-founder of the Bloom Arts Festival, it is becoming evident that Zapanta plays a role in the growth of an independent and informal art economy, removed from the hype and white heat of the auction houses and large scale art fairs. Bloom was conceived in 2012 with Samantha Samonte of Today X Future as a means to draw a crowd to the Marikina Shoe Expo (aka Cubao X), where the first edition of the festival was held.

“We had to use every connection,” shares Zapanta, of the painstaking logistics resulting from the verbal agreements and lack of a budget from which the first Bloom Arts Festival stemmed. Rather than enlist large galleries, Bloom was a means for artists all over the Philippines to represent themselves by answering an invitation to participate through email, sharing portfolios via Tumblr and Behance, and in the process setting a different kind of stage where independent practice and the fostering of a community are simultaneously encouraged.

It was through Bloom’s 2013 edition that Tokwa Penaflorida (a fellow illustrator and colleague of Zapanta) suggested him as a participant for Bloom, where Zapanta became familiar with Gonzales’s work and would later on pair up with him for a two-man show at Altro Mondo. Aside from similarities in style, Zapanta and Gonzales also shared a fondness for flowery language. This is evident not only in the phrase I Practice Detachment, a title chosen by Zapanta in order to explore the internal narrative of working with strangers (as was the case with Gonzales), but in the way Zapanta titles all his works.

While he refrains from calling himself a “literary type”, Zapanta’s process is heavily influenced by his reading list, in which the early works of Nick Bantock, Haruki Murakami’s mix of hard-boiled fiction and unrequited romance, and the correspondence from Dangerous Liaisons have all been conferred as canon. This may explain recent titles such as “It never feels right but sometimes it feels good” or “The companionability of nonexistence ”, but it also shines a light on how Zapanta composes his images.

“I tend to cram,” he admits, in describing the process in which themes or short phrases culled from his fascination with literary devices, need to come together as a fully fleshed-out image before he can get anything on the page, in the mix of both digital and analog media that have become his signature. It also appears that Zapanta’s advertising practice has permeated his non-commercial work, containing decades’ worth of images that were both consumed and produced for the sole purpose of peddling objects and ideas.

This gives his pieces the look and appeal of collage, even when they are rendered by hand. “I don’t really trust my talent,” he says; self-deprecation aside, these habits also testify to Zapanta’s capacity for capturing the big picture and retaining its more striking details, placing his work on the border between the impressionistic and the surreal. This evasion of categories and use of random subject matter is even more evident in his paintings, where seemingly disparate elements band together. Geometric shapes turn up beside softly toned swaths of color, wild animals and mythical beings peek out behind scenes from a fictive post-industrial wasteland.

Luminous, creepy, soft, contemplative: these disparities in description account not for simple matters of Zapanta’s technique or skill, but of an aesthetic that is necessarily disjointed and asynchronic. Much has already been written about the cut-and-paste culture of sampling and remixes, and Zapanta’s portfolio clearly exemplifies this contemporary form of collage, making him more similar to artists such as Martha Rosler and the Danish artist Asger Jorn, despite the traditional methods and materials he adopts for I Practice Detachment. This involves neither deriving nor simple appropriation, but a fully-formed concept of what should be in the frame—apparent in what Zapanta refers to as his tendency to “cram”.

“[L]et no one claim I have nothing new to say: the arrangement of materials is new,” wrote Guy Debord in Memoires, a manifesto on the culture of repurposing images and ideas created in collaboration with Jorn. Despite having been produced in 1959, Debord’s words and Jorn’s supplementary images could just as easily be applied to Zapanta’s own composition techniques, in which one can use the thick weft of nostalgia running through his work to pull at the running commentary hinted at by titles such as I Practice Detachment. If “detachment” might refer to the freedom of committing an unfinished thought to paper, then it’s the “practice” part in which, as Debord would state, we find something new in the form of Zapanta’s skill at composing pictures into poetry.