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Artist Derek Tumala Sounds the Alarm on Climate Crisis

For #ArtFairPH 2022, he explores typhoons as part of Philippine culture.

by Christa I. De La Cruz
Mar 7, 2022

(SPOT.ph) As one of the countries located along the typhoon belt in the Pacific, the Philippines expects the arrival of 20 typhoons per year, at least five of which are destructive. It doesn't help that our topography, which includes low-lying areas, towns along the coast, and neighborhoods near the mountains, make us all the more susceptible to life-threatening storm surges, landslides, and flashfloods. While most of us have gotten used to putting sandbags in front of our gates or transferring our furniture to the second floor of the house during the wet season, what others ignore is the fact that the ongoing climate crisis is making typhoons worse than ever.

In fact, the most destructive typhoons of our lifetime happened in the last decade, with Yolanda (2013) topping the charts. Odette (2021) and Pablo (2012) trailing behind; while Ulysses and Rolly, which both happened in 2020 (in the middle of a pandemic, no less), complete the top 10 stats. According to a 2021 report from the International Panel on Climate Change, "The rate of intensification and number of strong tropical cyclones have increased, and tropical cyclone tracks likely migrated poleward." In other words, typhoons are stronger, the number of high-category tropical cyclones have at least doubled, and patterns of weather disturbances are changing.

In an effort to drive this message through different means, Derek Tumala utilizes new media art as part of Art Fair Philippines' artist residency program at the Manila Observatory within the campus of the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City. He is one of the five artists given the chance to travel to different parts of the country, spend a few weeks in the locale, and come up with a project that best describes this experience.

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manila observatory facade
The Manila Observatory at Ateneo de Manila University
PHOTO BY Majoy Siason
manila observatory facade
PHOTO BY Majoy Siason

"I came up with this project, fragments of what I actually learned and what I was interested in doing during this residency. It's called Chasing the Center, which actually came from the idea of chasing the eye of the storm or the center of the cyclone. The residency is about how I can actually create art and promote climate change. I thought that typhoons are very important. It's actually part of our culture, living in the Philippines. It's something that happens all the time. It's part of our lives. I think what most people don't actually get is [that] typhoons will be there, they will be stronger, and it's going to happen all the time. I think for me, it's really important to focus on that and try to make sense on how I can actually present the science part of it and the art part of it and try to connect those together," he tells SPOT.ph in an interview.

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Chasing the Center on display at Ayala Tower One Fountain Area
PHOTO BY Christa I. De La Cruz

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Derek Tumala on Combining Art, Science, Religion

There have been numerous debates on science being far more important than the arts, or the other way around. Religion, it seems, is also often separated from the logic and reasoning of the sciences. But Tumala hopes to combine these, especially after spending weeks poring through photo albums, spectrograms, cloud photographs, and old reports stashed away in the shelves of the Manila Observatory.

Di ba? Parang weird na naka-sutana 'yong scientist, which only happens here," Tumala quips while showing off sepia-toned photos of Jesuits looking through a spectrograph at the original site of the Manila Observatory in Ermita, Manila.

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Derek Tumala pores through old photographs at Manila Observatory's archives. PHOTO: Majoy Siason

The Manila Observatory, which was established in 1865, is a private Jesuit-run research institution engaged in the systemic observation of Philippine weather. They started giving typhoon warnings in 1879, earthquake reports in 1880, and, finally, a royal decree by the Spanish government in 1884 formally recognized them as the official Philippine bureau for weather forecasting. Their seismology section was established in 1887, then they started on astronomical studies in 1899. By the American colonial period, they were officially called the Philippine Weather Bureau.

manila observatory inside
Manila Observatory's spectroheliograph and spectrograph were built in 1965. Both were used to generate images of the sun.
PHOTO BY Majoy Siason
derek tumala film
Film negatives from the spectrograph. 
PHOTO BY Majoy Siason
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Following the war, they were only able to resume operations in 1951 after opening a station in Baguio, where they focused on seismology and the study of the ionosphere. In 1963, the Manila Observatory transferred to the Ateneo campus. While most of the observatory's machines have been decommissioned given the availability of data through international research centers, they have continued their studies in seismic, geomagnetic, and radiophysics. They have also expanded into solar physics, according to the Manila Observatory website.

"There are a lot of materials like this, The Contribution of Society of Jesus to the Development of the Philippines. They actually try to defend why religious people are into science. They say that they can do both because both are about God," Tumala adds about the Jesuits’ works at the Observatory.

Old film negatives show sunspots, solar flares, and cloud formations. PHOTO: Majoy Siason

Filling in Gaps of the Past

During his residency—on-going, as of writing—Tumala has continuously been in awe of the archiving done by the Manila Observatory. He shows drawers containing piles upon piles of day-to-day photographs of clouds, which can tell a lot about weather patterns. There are also film negatives of solar flares and sunspots as seen through spectrograms, rare photos of volcanic eruptions like that of the historic Mt. Hibok-Hibok in the 1870s, and written observations.

“That’s what they do. They just observe everything on a daily basis,” the artist says.

manila observatory archives
Photographs of clouds
PHOTO BY Majoy Siason
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manila observatory archives
PHOTO BY Majoy Siason
manila observatory archives
PHOTO BY Majoy Siason

But some of these photos and films have no dates, no descriptions, and it’s up to Tumala to make sense of them all through his art.

“When you work with archives, it's like documentation of history that existed. But if you just look at it, fragments siya e, hindi siya buo," he says.

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He also found critiques about Manila Observatory, which is apparently a common practice in the pre-Marcos years. During those days, newspaper columnists would comment on institutions (i.e. what they can improve on) as a check-and-balance, especially for government agencies.

Out of these materials, he tries to put the pieces together by creating what may or may not be a story that happened in the past. He also used some of the critiques as a jump-off point to describe the significance of the Manila Observatory in our history. His works are coming out as videos and sets of archival photos on a website that he is producing specifically from this residency.

Tumala has created a short video clip from compiled film negatives of sunspots. PHOTO: Majoy Siason

Bridging the Gaps in our Future

Tumala’s three-part work (i.e. past, present, and future) also zooms in on the current focus of the Manila Observatory: Climate change, variability, and extremes.

“One of the researches that they do here is ‘climate extremes.’ They don’t call it climate crisis anymore, parang wala kasi siyang impact e,” Tumala explains while showing a report that the Manila Observatory publishes every two years. Studies like these, however, can sometimes be too scientific and technical for a regular reader; and he thinks art can bridge that communication gap.

The artist cites international publications that are more interactive and more interesting, which people can easily digest. It’s also important for policy-makers to understand these data since they are in charge of creating legislation directly related to how the country can respond to the climate crisis.

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“I’m actually converting some of their infographics into interactive data,” Tumala explains. He’s also showing a video of a typhoon simulation for Art Fair Philippines.

According to scientists, the world in 2050 will be very different if nations don't do anything about reducing our carbon emissions ASAP. We're already seeing traces of it: huge glaciers in Iceland and Tibet are melting rapidly, corals in the Great Barrier Reef are dying, and we're losing big parts of the Amazon to forest fires. While all these things seem far off into the future and far away from the Philippines, we must not forget that everything on our planet is interconnected. And if we can’t bridge these gaps in our past and present, what we may see in the future is a large gaping hole of what was once the beautiful Earth. (We’re exaggerating, of course, but are we really?)

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Art Fair Philippines 2022 runs from March 23 to April 1 at Ayala Triangle Gardens, Paseo De Roxas Street corner Makati Avenue corner Ayala Avenue, Makati City. For more information, visit Art Fair Philippines' website.

To know more about Derek Tumala and ArtFairPH/Residencies, watch this video:

UPDATED (March 22): This article has been edited to include Derek Tumala's work on display at Ayala Triangle Gardens for Art Fair Philippines.

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