Interview

30 mins. with Leeroy New & Julia Nebrija

Everyone wants to live in a better city, but what can we do to make it happen? Artist Leeroy New and urban planner Julia Nebrija talk about their newest collaboration, the ongoing fight for public spaces, and the growing importance of public art.

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Art can mean different things to different people: it can entertain, influence, humor, comfort, or disturb. Contemporary artist Leeroy New and urban planner Julia Nebrija have embraced the idea that, at its best, works of art can play a major role in inspiring change in society.
 
A visual artist and designer originally trained in sculpture, New’s practice spans many different modes of creative production. Shifting his focus to immersive public art projects, New sought to work with like-minded artists and creative practitioners, eventually collaborating with Nebrija, an urban design graduate strongly advocating for people-friendly cities. 
 
As friends and longtime collaborators, New and Nebrija have worked together on numerous large-scale public art installations that aim to start conversations on issues of urban development. Their latest collaborative project, Alienated Spaces, offers an exploration of the forgotten spaces in Metro Manila, and how they can be reclaimed for the people. 
GRID: Can you tell us a bit about how you started working with each other? 
 
Leeroy New: I actually worked with Julia . . . the first time, in 2008 or 2009. A film production got me as a production designer; I was a fresh grad and had done a few PD jobs for my film major friends. They got her as the location manager, since she was working for an NGO in the area. That was that, then we bumped into each other again a few years later when she contacted me for a project that she wanted to do about public street maps. [Since then], we’ve collaborated on different urban development-related projects. We’ve been working together for a while now. 
And what’s the story behind this new collaboration, Alienated Spaces? 
 
LN: It’s an extension of what we’re currently doing—my series and Julia’s work in urban development. We try to highlight invisible spaces, or spaces we need that aren’t really given the proper attention. For this series, we focused on the idea of parks: Julia showed me public parks that she would encounter during her bike rides, and we chose four near the Paco area to [photograph with] characters from my Aliens of Manila series—also about displaced bodies against the urban backdrop. Because of the costumes they wear, they’re trying to live their daily lives as part of the environment, but obviously [they are] not of it, as well. 

Characters from New’s Aliens of Manila series are photographed inhabiting different public spaces near Paco, Manila. Photoset by JL Javier.

Julia Nebrija: This is just the start of a project where we want to map a lot more spaces and do a lot more of these alien explorations. The alien [character] adds an element of discovery and other-worldliness, [where] it’s almost like these aliens are exploring a dystopian universe coming across these spaces. That’s how it feels sometimes because [public spaces] are so neglected and so overlooked; it’s almost like you’re discovering this other world when you do find a park or space in the city because there are so few [of them]. 
 
LN: We chose to use the public spaces here as the exhibit space, as well. We have these fences—they were built to keep people from throwing trash into the river—but we thought it would be a nice platform for creative production. In this case, we’re trying it out with the images [of the installation] we shot of these forgotten spaces, over another forgotten area of Manila [which are] the tributaries of the Pasig River. It’s an interesting display since the [fence] is see-through, and you have these images of one [forgotten] space over another. 
You mentioned how the installation wants to bring to light the issue of disappearing public spaces. For you in particular, what is the importance of having public spaces in cities like Manila?
 
JN: On a very basic level, public space should be the most inclusive part of a city. It’s where anyone can feel free to gather, enjoy, celebrate, or participate. Even if you don’t have money and you can’t go to the mall, you can always go to a park. You can bring a picnic so you don’t have to spend just to enjoy being together. 
 
LN: There’s so much to say about the connection between a happy, healthy community with public spaces, you know? The more you have parks and places where people can gather, it [cultivates] a very different society and a very different, open way of interacting with different people. [With] areas that actually encourage interactivity and engagement, [we can] produce works that engage more people from different backgrounds, economic groups, and cultures. It’s just—versus privatizing all these spaces—a very different way of living. 

A gallery view of Alienated Spaces is exhibited on a fence along Escolta street.

JN: On an environmental level, there’s so much benefit that greenery provides. It adds to the beauty of the place, and the biodiversity is also part of the [city’s] heritage—the trees that we have here are going to look different than the ones in France. It adds to the identity and the character of a place. 
 
On a wider level, [it] also relates to our safety. When you think about earthquakes or flooding, open space plays a big role in helping us to be resilient in the future. So honestly, there’s no benefit that isn’t [there]; everything is covered under public spaces in terms of what you’d want from your city.
The fight for public spaces is not an issue I would say is particularly ingrained in the public consciousness. Would you say that it’s important to use art to help people become more aware of this? 
 
LN: [When] I was starting out as an art student, we were contemplating the position of artistic practice, and we realized that we aren’t a culture of museum-goers. [Traditionally,] our art practices were integrated into our daily lives and routines. It’s a different way of thinking [about art], and that was the impetus for me and my friends at the time to do more street art, public art. 
 
We have the capacity to […] cultivate a different market and means of presenting work, [and] the city is rife with opportunities for that. We see an empty wall or an empty lot, and we get excited [about] the stuff we can do with it.
 
These [public art] projects help out. It won’t cause major transformation [immediately], but it’s a start. We’re reclaiming these public spaces and showing people that these spaces are for us to use. These aren’t walls that keep us from experiencing [public areas]; they can be used as… outdoor gallery walls, for example. 

At this year’s Escolta Block Festival, Recolor Yuchengo collaborated with New and local artists Jan "Tox" Fresco and Ralph Eya to paint murals along Carvajal street. Photoset by Mika Echon.

On a practical level, how do you think individuals can be more involved in the reclamation of these forgotten spaces?
 
JN: I think part of it is just being present in the spaces that do exist. Use them. Show that there is a demand, because a lot of them—the number [of visitors] are actually counted. So [we need to] let our cities know that we actually demand this space, you know? [It’s] a big thing, to create demand. 
 
When I ask young people, What’s the one thing you want in your city?,” most of them say parks! I think we have to build better avenues for [more] people to get involved, but I would say [the first step is] to find the spaces that exist and use them, and then invite other people. That’s what we do with the [Escolta] Block Festival: it’s a way to invite new people to come in and be excited about Escolta, right? You can use the same kind of approach to get people excited about the parks that we have in Metro Manila. 
Ultimately, what message would you like the public to gather from this installation?
 
JN: I don’t know, I think . . . with art, it’s different, right? I think we just want to pose the question in a different way. If I [were to] write about public space, it’s going to be long and complicated, and maybe five people will read it. So I think it’s interesting to figure out new entry points into the conversation. We don’t really have a specific outcome that it has to achieve; it’s just another way to look at [the issue of public spaces], and another way to try and explore and contextualize it. 
 
As you said, it’s very much at the beginning of the conversation right now, so we need to find different ways to talk about it, and eventually try to understand how people want to use [these public spaces]. So all of these are just explorations, experiments with no fixed agenda other than to get people interested and start talking about it. 
 
LN: It’s [also] a proposal to reclaim existing structures. Our often-misguided gatekeepers think we need [new structures]. We don’t need another wall, we don’t need another fence to keep people from throwing garbage into a river—it’s a band-aid solution. But with [the spaces that] we have, we can reclaim and transform them into something that can provide alternative solutions. [And we’re doing so] by example. 
 
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. 
 
Alienated Spaces is part of the lineup of this year’s Escolta Block Festival. Click here for more information. 
 
New, Nebrija, and project photographer JL Javier (seated).
 

Photos by James Lontoc were taken with a Sony A6000, used with a Sony E 35mm prime lens f1.8. This feature is made possible by Henry’s Professional.