Responses to the Manila Road Movie

We were never here

So a couple people have been kind enough to write responses to the experience in the Philippines. Let’s start with writer and artist Emily Valentine Stewart who published “Manila Pt 2” on her blog:

Manila pt. 2

by emily stewart

The truck moves slowly down the backstreets, the noises of the city drifting in muffled and distorted. There’s ten of us inside, huddled tight: our legs bent into awkward Vs. We blink and look around, but there’s nothing to see, nothing but black. Sweat drips from my knees.

Tianyi, the musician among us, starts a slow melody on her violin and it’s a relief. I focus on the music and try not to think about the thick, oppressive heat and the Quezon City traffic honking with sudden force behind me.

The first flashes that appear are like the afterimage of the sun on eyelids. They are like seeing ghosts. Soft whorls of light ribbon and fade. One by one each person exhales a small, low note of surprise.

As the minutes pass, the light shifts and builds into discrete shapes. Tree, one person says. Car. Sign.  We’re witnessing a camera obscura, the world beyond us tilted upside down, our bodies suddenly, impossibly, awash with light.

This truck project, the latest iteration in a series by artist Sarah Kaur, is an exercise in lived abstraction where personal subjectivity knocks about with observation and the circumstantial. In other words, the artwork is an event lived through rather than an object seen.

It’s impossible not to read the experience politically: a group of people rounded up and ushered into the back of a truck. Fugitives and the damned. But with the growing light does this enactment become utopian? Couched as I am in a life of radical empiricism, as my retinas adjust I’m graced a moment of transcendence.

The experience from start to end totals forty minutes. When the door opens up we stretch out and slowly leave the truck, dispersing into the blanket white of daylight. Blinded by it.

Other just casual responses over FB have included:

David Finnigan, theatre maker

“For me, the main thing was that I have never seen anything like it – not even a little bit like it – and it was extraordinary and it began so slowly and built up to this point.

The heat and sweat and containment and all that was a pretty intense part of the experience – not a bad thing at all, but definitely added to the effect.

But such a vivid experience – I can still picture it now, so strongly. Am just so grateful you made it happen and I got to be part of it!”

Jessica Bellamy, playwright

“i think the music plays a huge role in it too – tianyi playing Schindler’s List immediately made me think of my family’s history and of Jews more generally, so I think that interaction there is really interesting.

i also think there’s something very fascinating about seeing your performer’s sweat through an attempt to give you the performance. you struggling to keep the cardboard in place, tianyi having sweat roll down her face- that was as much of the performance as the rest of it.”

and from Nick McCorristen, Musician

“don’t forget that I still have the audio!”… So I shall chase that up!

________ Just published on Nov 11th, a response from amazing photographer of theatre and people, Sarah Walker:


There’s a sort of responsibility involved with being an artist, to know the history of your form. Painters, poets, dancers – they all study the past in order to build the future. For many art forms, there is the possibility of very direct contact with the ancients – a ballerina can dance the choreography from the first production of Swan Lake. An actor can speak Shakespeare’s words. An architect can run a hand and an eye along the pyramids and touch the scars that birthed them.

Photography, however, is a deeply technical craft, which can make the attempt to make historical contact quite isolating. It is, for example, still possible to take a daguerreotype in 2013, but it requires sourcing or building an unwieldy camera, mixing chemicals that are at best, fiddly and at worst, flat-out dangerous – in short, it requires money and time on a scale not readily accessible to the enthusiast. Almost every early incarnation of the modern camera is pricey, rare and difficult to find film for. The result is that the modern photographer is often left to passively observe the products of the past in the form of endlessly repeated images, usually on a computer screen. For many photographers, the connection to the past is a largely intellectual one.

The very basis of photography, its fundament, is the camera obscura. It may be observed as a natural phenomenon in caves and other dark areas into which fingers of daylight penetrate. Aristotle wrote about the effect. In the 1400s, Da Vinci sketched out plans for constructed camera obscuras, which today can be readily recreated with a sparse set of instructions: pierce a tiny hole in a dark space, shine a strong light through it, and you will create a strange inverted projection of the outside world. The concept sounds like magical realism – in today’s digitally saturated world, the simplicity of it seems almost suspicious. I’d heard about the idea over and over, seen the childlike wonder of it described in a Malthouse Helium show called ‘Pale Blue Dot’, but I’d never done it. Online tutorials usually begin with ‘black out a window with heavy plastic’, and I always decided that I didn’t have the time. (Right now, I don’t even have the window.) But I’d always wanted to see the effect, see what it was that made men begin dreaming of lenses and plates and bellows and all the others things that started a revolution in image making.

So when in August, on a sweaty Manila morning, Sarah Kaur announced that she was converting a truck into a mobile camera obscura and asked for volunteers, I was at the front of the queue. Eight or so of us packed into the truck along with Sarah and Tianyi Zhang (violin in tow), and sat crouched along the walls as Sarah taped off the entrance. There was something deeply foreboding about it – as far as history goes, whenever people are packed into a windowless truck, the outcome is rarely positive. I sat quietly and wondered whether my sporadically occurring claustrophobia would make an appearance and I’d embarrass everyone by having a panic attack. The final piece of tape went over the door. All we could see was the odd stripe of stray light, the darkness amplifying our own silence and the rattle-roar of traffic outside. Then the truck lurched into movement and Tianyi began to play.


Minutes passed. I wondered whether I wasn’t concentrating hard enough, whether my eyes weren’t adjusting fast enough. I stared so hard at the opposite wall of the truck that stars swam in my eyes. Every now and then, a shadow would flicker on the metal, but then sputter out. I could feel Sarah getting tense, as she muttered about not being able to block out enough of the light from the doors. Sweat meandered down my back. Tianyi fiddled the soundtrack to ‘Amelie.’ My attention drifted from anticipation through tolerance into a dazed sort of contentment. And then the truck rounded a corner and, so suddenly it seemed almost matter of fact, I could see the street outside. Not perfectly, but impressionistically, as though drawn with ink on dirty paper. Trees, street signs, trucks skittered across the walls and onto the ceiling, spilling shadows and life into our little dark refuge.

The moment was full of childlike, unexpected magic. I had my mouth open, grinning, making half-formed noises every time something new came into sight. Sarah breathed a sigh of relief, and we sat, bathed in borrowed violin music as a strange old picture theatre of Manila raced overhead. And I sat there, feeling the same thread of wonder that tugged the first person who sat in a cave at the right time, the same awe that built cameras and film and started the conveyer belt of ideas that brought me a fancy digital camera in 2008. In that hot, stuffy truck half a world away, I touched the past.

S x

A little ironically, the only image that exists from the experience is this one of me, shot by Jessica Bellamy on her iPhone as Sarah finished taping up the door.


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