The architectural residue of abandoned Pizza Huts, a tote bag full of receipts for Gatorade, Cheetos, NASCAR memorabilia, the giant rotating bucket outside of KFC— these are uncanny images which to some extent are synonymous with American iconography. Though the imagery of the American Dream has shifted into absurdity, there remains an underlying urge to participate in the fantasies of American commercial culture and to produce images of American identity. In the conversation that follows, artist/curator/arts facilitator Philip Leonard Ocampo discusses the paradoxical ways the ideals associated with the American Dream have impacted his family and artistic practice in a Canadian diasporic context. Born to Filipino parents, the Toronto-based Ocampo recently completed his studies at Ontario College of Art and Design and alongside his own studio work, he has since engaged in a number of curatorial projects including The Bald Eagle’s Claw, at Xpace Cultural Centre in the summer of 2019. At the core of that project, Ocampo considered the changing iconography of the American Dream and through our discussion below he elaborates more on it as well as topics like familial lineage, the moon landing, and culturally hybrid foods. We shared this discussion over a home-cooked meal; I made hamburgers the way my dad taught me, and Ocampo made rice the way it’s regularly made in his family household (white, jasmine, rice cooker).
"Both Canada and The United States exist on stolen Indigenous land, meaning that my family and I are still settlers despite leaving the Philippines in search of better lives elsewhere. At whose expense do we achieve prosperity? What does prosperity look like, and to whom? I ask myself these questions often as I traverse through life on this land."
Tell me about hamburgers and rice.
I ate this dish so much growing up. I thought it was the only way of eating hamburgers. I found out from watching sitcoms and other Western media that hamburgers are usually eaten with a bun. My parents made the patties themselves, but the meat was marinated using ingredients which gave it more of a Filipino flavor profile. It's a funny hybrid to fry up some good ol’ burger patties and serve it with jasmine rice.
Who cooked in your house growing up?
My dad cooked more traditional Filipino dishes, like Adobo which consists of chicken or pork stewed in vinegar, garlic, soy sauce, bay leaves, and peppercorns. My mom cooked more Western-inspired food, like spaghetti with hotdogs, hamburgers, and fried rice with garlic, butter, eggs, and spam. Technically fried rice is thought of as an Eastern dish, but the use of processed meat and scrambled eggs Westernizes it in my mind.
In earlier conversations, you mentioned it’s your Dad who’s more interested in Americana and American culture.
I could endlessly speculate about the implications of his interest in American culture. I know that my grandfather passed away early in my father’s life, meaning that he had to help support his mother and siblings as the breadwinner of the family in my grandfather’s absence. This must have been a really formative experience for him. Coming to North America, I speculate that my parents were really influenced by the idea of “nuclear family” in popular culture--the father, the mother, and their children as the “Idealized Family Unit.” I believe that the hierarchy of the idealized household had a lasting influence on my father, who must have seen himself as the head of our family through his own experiences and the fabricated idea of family in the American Dream.
What are the similarities then between Canadian multiculturalism as a national identity and the image of the American Dream?
My parents have a very complicated relationship with America. Whenever I ask my dad why he and my mother decided to come to Canada, he says that it was easier to move here than to the United States, because Canada as a country is “not racist.” My grandmother (on my mother’s side) also immigrated to Canada sometime earlier, so she must have thought the same. At the time I thought it was true. I was raised in conservative environments and was taught to believe that Canada was a “cultural melting pot.” But I later realized that the idiom implied assimilation rather than diversity.
I think of the American Dream as both a motivator and an obstacle. The idea of coming to the United States inspired my parents to work and raise a family, they aspired to reach beyond the limitations of living life in a developing nation. But in doing so, my parents had to willfully adapt in order to reap the benefits that this ideological mindset promised them, without realizing that a dream like this is only really obtainable to those with white skin. My parents are constantly having to prove themselves despite these obstacles, including preconceptions about who they are, and what they are capable of doing. But they still wanted to be here in spite of this.
How do these aspirations of ‘success’ in your family continue to impact your career in the arts and as an artist?
The weight of my parents’ expectations bears heavily on me, especially being the only child of five to go into the arts. My parents wanted us to have jobs that were profitable and could help us provide for them in the future. My parents say they worked hard to give us everything they didn't have, which comes with their desire for us to do everything they couldn't do--and the unspoken expectation that we will, for lack of better words, “return the favor.” I work hard and make use of the resources they gave me, like a University education, but it's also an education and labour in the arts, which they don’t see as valuable.
Success means different things to us. I feel indebted to my parents, and a responsibility to be successful in the ways that they envisioned for me. They deserve so much! But because my queerness and personal narratives play a huge role in my work as an artist and curator, I can't actually tell my parents a lot about what I do. So I continue to appear as aimless and meandering when I’m actually exploring things I know they wouldn’t want to hear about or would encourage me not to talk about.
That’s what came up in the exhibition you curated at Xpace last summer, The Bald Eagle’s Claw; the tension between your loyalty to your parents and entertaining the possibility of success within their understanding of it. But you’re also looking critically at how the American Dream has held falsehood and affected your family in complicated ways.
Yes. And also the fact that we’re not in America. How does the American Dream bleed beyond its borders? How is it a mindset instead of a geographical parameter?
"I was raised in conservative environments and was taught to believe that Canada was a “cultural melting pot.” But I later realized that the idiom implied assimilation rather than diversity. "
Some of your writing about The Bald Eagle’s Claw was grounded in the imagery of the American moon landing. Can you speak to how that image informs a vision of American culture and Americana?
Space is totally mind-blowing. It's so vast. I think about the star as a symbol that connects to the idea of the “American Dream”— when you become a celebrity you become a “star”. It’s a symbol for the highest point of success. Despite its associations with prosperity and fame, being a person, in comparison to the sheer scale of the universe, is equivalent to being a single spec! It can be pretty discouraging and incapacitating if you think too much about it. Does success even matter in the larger context of the universe? Would anything matter?
But the Moon landing— 1969— was human kind’s first interaction with a celestial entity. People who witnessed this cultural event felt that America was unstoppable. It was an influential event that demonstrated a human capability that nobody prior could have fathomed— maybe the universe was within reach after all. These sentiments were claimed as part of an American identity after a decade-long space race between the USA and the USSR. It relates back to the star as something aspirational, something to work towards. “Shoot for the stars, even if you miss you’ll… Be a star.”
There's a parallel for you in the personal aspirations of the American Dream, and the way the American Dream is perpetuated through images of technology, foreign bodies and geographies, and fantasies of exoticism.
Ya— and for a lot of immigrant families, it's this fantasy of dreaming beyond current conditions. To see a developed nation like the USA reach into the universe and land there must have been wondrous to witness. The success of the moon landing was an inspiring moment that probably validated escapist fantasies that members of my family may have had about America.
However, the US wanted to claim the moon as its fifty-first state. This unchecked ambition and idea of excellence in the United States is a colonialist mindset that has always been present in the history of colonization in North America. Both Canada and The United States exist on stolen Indigenous land, meaning that my family and I are still settlers despite leaving the Philippines in search of better lives elsewhere. At whose expense do we achieve prosperity? What does prosperity look like, and to whom? I ask myself these questions often as I traverse through life on this land.
Images sourced from Eerie Americana
What kinds of contemporary images continue to depict the American Dream or influence American cultural identity?
Beyond world events and imagery sourced from the news, there's this page on Are.na (a research-based social media platform) called Eerie Americana that I was looking at a lot when I was researching to program the performances in The Bald Eagle’s Claw. The images demonstrate the absurdity of American iconography. It’s a collection of “cursed images” that includes bastardizations of banal, everyday moments. They point out a shittiness in American culture that's humorous but also a little unsettling.
When I look at them I wonder if the American Dream is real. Who is capturing these images? Who are the people partaking in these instances of American culture without irony? They’re images that show moments that had to have existed in real life. Looking at them in this context is absurd and hilarious because there’s a through-line. But individually, as moments of life in America, they’re more eerie and off-putting. It's frightening to look at these images and think— wow, is this what my parents aspired to be?
But any imagery your parents saw is totally different from the images we have now. Well, actually, let’s talk about NASCAR. You’re wearing your dad’s NASCAR sweater right now. How does that speak to the aestheticization of Americana, for both you and your dad?
My dad took me to auto shows growing up and would make me sit in the cars so he could take pictures. That's the only time we could sit in cars that nice. It's a very blue-collar and working-class thing to love. I’ve got a lot of fond memories tied to NASCAR but I am critical of the aesthetic.
There's a capitalist competition and celebration of excess connected to Americana culture, which encompasses the visual aesthetics of Spaghetti Westerns, military wear and NASCAR to name a few. Sure, the visual imagery of these styles are aesthetically pleasing, but they are also undeniably steeped in a nationalist context. Their resurgence in popular culture— in fashion specifically, only adds fuel to the flame. The aestheticization of these styles is marketed and offered as something to buy into, and this cultural appeal can overshadow its important political associations and history.
NASCAR as a sport is interesting because it's seen as a ‘low-culture’ activity, but it's also totally a capitalist spectacle that people buy into as part of their leisure time. How do you see it fitting into the American Dream?
NASCAR iconography has contributed to imagery that we associate with success: the checkered finish line, the gold trophy, the confetti, the winner’s podium. I think for many people, specifically those who are interested in the American Dream the way my father is, it's easy to indulge that imagery as a second-hand experience of success. My dad has a massive selection of NASCAR and race car themed clothes that I’ve been wearing since high school. I feel closer to him when I wear his clothes. But to see that aesthetic emerge as something popular in fashion is really funny to me.
The Bald Eagle's Claw, 2019. Installation views
How have the imagery of Americana and your familial narrative come up in your curatorial and artistic practice?
I think of myself as an artist first and foremost. For me, curation is a medium in which ideas can be executed more relationally and collaboratively. I think the exchange of ideas that was involved with The Bald Eagle’s Claw allowed the project to develop with a sense of collective ownership. There are so many embodied and urgent experiences of the American Dream, so I acknowledge that there's pressure for artists involved in the project to only explore what relates to their intersections, which I didn't want. Marginalized artists don’t have to indulge the pain that comes with being marginalized, so it was important for me to ensure that they had that agency to explore those experiences or not.
My own personal narrative frames the exhibition in a lot of ways. I wrote about when the space shuttle Columbia crashed, and a memory of being with my dad when it happened. The shuttle holds the same ideas as the moon landing, but space is vast— it can shoot down those ideas of exceptionalism that my dad held onto until that point. Although the shuttle crash was a demonstration of the falseness of the American Dream, from earth, it still looked like a shooting star.
In the curatorial process for The Bald Eagle’s Claw, was there anything the artists discussed that surprised you? Were there new ways of thinking about the American Dream?
Yes definitely. The scope of the project expanded through the various ideas each artist explored, which allowed the exhibition to grow beyond the personal narratives that informed the exhibition, and into a diverse range of experiences of the American Dream. I was surprised by how organic, collective and holistic the curatorial process of this exhibition felt, and was surprised by the new perspectives each collaborator brought to it.
There was a performance evening midway through the exhibition on July 11th. It included performances by Madelyne Beckles, Dorica Manuel and Marissa Sean Cruz. The remnants of the performances remained in the space as the final works of The Bald Eagle’s Claw. I think performance as a medium— and the role of performance within an exhibition context— was captivating and informative in the expression of the artist’s ideas around the “American Dream.” I mentioned Eerie Americana before, but to see the performances embody this same absurdity really put these images into practice.
Marissa Sean Cruz, for example, was really inspired by ideas of clean eating and healthy active living, and how those images of productivity are cyclical and driven by anxiety. In her performance “SO Flesh, SO Clean,” Cruz continuously misused a combination of cleaning equipment and workout gear, gradually becoming more unruly with these objects as Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty played in the background. She’d leave after the song concluded, only to return to misuse the objects more frantically as the song doubled, then tripled in speed.
Performance by Marissa Sean Cruz, "So Fresh So Clean" part of The Bald Eagles Claw, July 2019 at Xpace
Marissa made a video work a few years ago about perceptions of cultural authenticity in food. In the video she tries to make Halo Halo, but in the diasporic context she inhabits, can’t find all of the Filipino ingredients at the grocery store. The Halo Halo ends up being this chunky bean milk instead of dessert. I was thinking about that when you were talking about your mom and dad cooking Filipino food in Canada.
The idea of the diasporic Halo Halo is really indicative of cultural experiences that Marissa and I share as Southeast Asian people living outside of Filipino contexts. Adapting a dish in the absence of its actual ingredients because of geographical limitations is pretty telling of the ways in which diasporic artists negotiate aspects of life that are as everyday as food.
I love that cuisine is so inextricably linked to culture. It’s a celebration and expression of both ethnicity and nationality. My family has been living in Canada for over thirty years now. While we celebrate Filipino culture at home through cooking traditional Filipino dishes, I actually find these hybrid foods— the hamburgers and rice, spaghetti with hot dogs— to be among the meals I enjoy eating most. Which makes sense, as these diasporic dishes in many ways represent me!
The above is a conversation conducted by Toronto emerging writer/artist Greta Hamilton. Editorial support by Winnipeg editor Akum Maduka.