Advocacy merch and the ‘latag’ economy

Advocacy merch and the ‘latag’ economy
Agroecology Fair at QC Circle —PHOTO BY LYRA GARCELLANO

With the unfolding and evolving drama on Twitter comes the predictable worry that dialogue—whether mindless or profound and operating in so-called real time in a space that one has gotten used to—has been interrupted. For frequent Twitter users, the basic question boils down to this: How can they now make known their thoughts and opinions, as well as sell or market ideas?

The knee-jerk reaction is that opportunities for connections, in situations where this social media conduit is utilized to address issues of public importance, are now lost. 

Migrating to similar (but less established, and less troubled) vehicles is the common advice offered to individuals and groups who feel “eased out,” or even preyed on and surveilled not just on Twitter but also on other social media giants. Still, searching for places to interact is a persistent struggle to our existence. With tectonic shifts (the pandemic, for one) ushering changes to our routines, the need to find other or new or renewed safe models of engagement is something we have to contemplate.

For some, moving out of the web is a possible direction as there should (or could) be the promise of non-internet platforms and spaces—some yet undiscovered—to reach an audience, whether popular or niche. But to find or relocate to such venues that involve participatory and also cooperative media culture requires looking at a landscape without the computers, modems and wi-fi passwords that rule our everyday, as well as going out, surveying the terrain, re-constructing one’s presence if one has been cocooned for too long, and engaging in face-to-face interaction. 

Economies of exchange

With the urge to consume heightened by the holidays, and government lockdowns lifted, one growing call for social engagement is for the revival of the flea-market type of dealing. And in the past few months, we’ve seen pop-up events involving the latag, or the use of a mat or table (or some similar prop) on which to lay out goods for vending or trading.  Although the concept didn’t entirely disappear—given that such modalities are essential in struggling economies—some more thematic pop-up activities were not possible under the policies of the last two years.

Before the weight of 2020 descended, the latag happenings that appeared on my radar were the off-the-grid book or music album launches, all of which encourage an economy that involves the temporary and the makeshift rather than the brick-and-mortar kind.

Two events I found relevant and which I frequented were BLTX (Better Living Through Xerography), which concentrates on the exchange of zines, books, and assorted self-published materials, and GGSSG  (Gandang Ganda Sa Sariling Gawa), which brings together women-led or -made items.

Not all mat- or table-vending and trading are the same; there are nuances and layers to these affairs. If they are to be identified as an informal business model, then the traditional function only points to the selling or bartering of goods. But there are other components to certain specially organized ones, much like the ones I go to.

Recently, the IsipKwago latag called AFK (away from keyboard) campaigned on spending a day or two away from one’s gadgets and focusing instead on reading and sharing (physical) books and things while conversing with other people on matters that currently plague the nation. In such occasions, the culture of the latag system is seen as a celebration of a community effort that brings social awareness to issues that need our attention.

Salu-Salo Agroecology Fair at UP Theater grounds —PHOTO BY LYRA GARCELLANO

Post-2020, the ones I managed to visit were agroecology fairs by agricultural support organizations. These one-day fairs provided not only a chance for consumers like myself to buy vegetables straight from farmers (minus middlemen) but also an opportunity to learn from the invited speakers and experts regarding issues such as land and national food (in)security. The conversations that covered talking points such as the rising prices of goods, etc., went hand-in-hand with the presence of cultural workers selling merchandise ranging from artist-made books and crafted jewelry pieces to stickers, tote bags, zines, purses, T-shirts and other wearable items. Often, most of the merch came with messages that made of the time spent in these fairs an exchange of not only money but philosophies as well.

The coin purse the author bought in Agroecology Fair. —PHOTO BY LYRA GARCELLANO

Grassroots broadcasts

The merch is a subset of today’s visual and communication culture. How the merch is designed in a succinct way relates to fast-tracked short-form writing, which banks on the concept of multiples and repetitions. The frequency with which such merch is circulated is what helps spread the ideas and information. And these expressive commodities are part of social justice’s portable and grassroots broadcasts of today.

While the merch is perceived by some as mere décor, baubles or fashion-related statements made by or for generational counter- and sub-cultures, others recognize them as a form of mobile communication. It’s a messaging system that carries the potential to invoke a form of behavioral change—perhaps, from being apathetic to being affected.

Decades ago (long before we were all connected to the grid), what was considered a persuasive method to deliver quick messages (in less than 150 characters, like the Twitter template) was the car bumper sticker. The often loud-colored rectangle-sized sticker was akin to an information bulletin regardless of whether the car was moving or parked. It was an instrument to make a statement on something, however progressive or even archaic. 

Roma Estrada, a writer and teacher who was invited to speak at the latest AFK, believes that merchandise such as stickers, tote bags and T-shirts advocating causes are an integral part of our visual ecosystem. Although usually small in size and quantity, in comparison to the colossal dimensions and abundance of business advertisements, the merch provides weighty cultural contrasts when positioned against commercial juggernauts.

Estrada reflects on the concept of frequencies when she surveys such latag events as possible sites to build personal relationships. In these environments, the consumption of such merch doesn’t end in the act of purchasing. There’s the possibility that buyers will deepen their awareness when they listen to talks or even read more data on issues that they just heard about or were not necessarily into.

While there are creators or makers who not only perform their roles as merchants but also function as audience or consumers, media practitioner and artist Apol Sta. Maria thinks it’s a way to gauge who among them are aligned with each other’s views.

The objectives of advocacy-related merch concern stirring an idea, sparking an interest, and activating curiosity. When it comes to championing causes, the information printed on goods, in their basic form, helps initiate and expand discussions on even the most difficult topics.

My earliest recollection on witnessing a T-shirt design sparking a vexed reaction from a stranger involved one that read: HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN. It was the 1980s, and the economy was in deep crisis. And when my father gifted me a T-shirt with the words EVERYTHING IS GOING UP EXCEPT MY ALLOWANCE printed on it, wearing it in public was my first initiation to voicing an urgent economic opinion. 

Production and consumption

Writer-artist Vianca De la Cruz considers the creation and sociology of the merch as just like any other products within the realm of cultural production (meaning, they all undergo construction, distribution and consumption). The making of the merch entails collaboration among various people who all connect to helping a bigger cause. Ideas are brainstormed and translated, and at times, these items are produced to help generate some form of income that will be used to fund other activities needing more resources (for instance, feeding a community displaced by force majeure).

Latag table of Mako Micro-Press —PHOTO COURTESY OF ARTISTS

The artists behind Mako Micro-Press think the portability, handiness and mobility of their stickers help share what they wish to say in the fastest and most optimum way. They consider their words welcoming “spaces” that provide entry points for meaningful conversations to take place. That there’s the need to constantly review how we all dialogue with and commit to one another conveys the reality that there will always be external forces to undermine any form of legitimate conversation and concern.

De la Cruz believes that communication and growing the message are significant to any cause. Although it’s difficult to measure whether the attractiveness or consumption of merch are the only things that will compel others to open their eyes, they are, however, there to assist in drawing people to see what needs to be seen. 

The merch helps provide intellectual stimulus, as Estrada also pointed out. The impact may not be instantaneous, the earnings from the sales may not even be much, but the steady and long-drawn-out germination of insight and even pakialam, or care, as Sta. Maria expressed, is the underlying proposition.

A meditative process

When Alice Sarmiento, a curator and writer, participated in the GGSSG-organized latag on the grounds of the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani, she showcased her placards that are constructed of carefully embroidered materials. By sewing the pieces together, her intention is twofold: to bring attention to the artistic, physical, and gendered labor of the craft and to demonstrate how sewn creations are usually made by outsourced technical laborers who are also made invisible in an industry where they are often underpaid.

Producing such work is a tedious and time-consuming process; it’s slow, meditative. The embroidery workshops of which Sarmiento has been part, and which, at times, she has facilitated with members of the female agricultural sector, meant long hours marked by the spirit of sharing, learning and “the willingness to spend time together.”

To come together is the clear signal being sent, because to know the other, or another, also means going beyond transactional relationships.

Sta. Maria points out that given the communal nature of the latag culture, the conversations are still ongoing even after the event is finished.

Carving spaces

Advocacy-related merch by Mako Micro-Press —PHOTO COURTESY OF ARTISTS

It generally seems a formidable and even overwhelming task when the outcome we seek is that of a peace-loving and equitable society. How one is able to envision such a safe haven indicates one’s capacity to access imagination—a trait that, Sta. Maria says, Filipinos are still lacking.  And yet, what is impressed upon me is that being hope-less is not even part of the equation for those who organize and participate in these events.  For the artists of Mako Micro-Press, a more hope-based articulation in their merch is also what they consider necessary.

With these types of messaging arriving or delivered in various forms—cute, pop, sweet, dainty, flashy, morose—the receiver of the signals is bound to eventually become reflexive. To grow into the messages is to realize that many of the texts we see in the merch are stuff we need reminding of, or even finding about. With more thematic latag events happening again, there’s the faith in the communitarian goal that enables us to recover our curiosities. To consume is also to understand; to be curious is to probe deeper into things.

Even with some platforms falling apart and factors becoming more indeterminate, plus some days feeling darker and heavier than usual, maybe what must remain constant is our sense of purpose, our resolve to cultivate spaces that can safely hold things that need protecting.

On Dec. 10, BLTX will have its comeback expo after a “two-year pandemic-induced hiatus” at Sikat, Tomas Morato Ave., Quezon City.  This get-together will be hosted by Gantala Press, Paper Trail Projects, Studio Soup, Magpies and Mako Micro-Press.  Talks start at 1 p.m., and the zine, book, and merch trading and selling at 4 p.m. —Ed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.