Every year, millions of overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs, send balikbayan boxes to their home country. They extend the tradition of pasalubong—bringing home gifts for loved ones—for a global labor system in which migrant workers spend decades abroad, returning only for occasional visits. These specially marked flat-rate boxes allow OFWs to send cheap, tax-free shipments to their families three times a year. The packages function as a kind of material remittance of time spent abroad and have become such a symbol of the Filipino diaspora that OFWs are themselves referred to as balikbayans. OFWs overwhelmingly work in the city-states of the Arabian Gulf and the South China Sea, and in the US and Canada. The two films that comprised Stephanie Comilang’s exhibition “Float,” curated by Murtaza Vali, are set in Hong Kong and at sea, but could so easily be Abu Dhabi—or so it seemed in this context, an art center occupying a former warehouse by the port. The themes of alienation and homesickness in these works are familiar in a country where close to 90 percent of the population consists of noncitizens from many elsewheres.
Cargo ships move an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the world’s international trade, and Filipinos make up a quarter of their mariners; think of all the balikbayan boxes in the hold. The Tagalog word balikbayan means something like repatriation, carrying within it the assurance that those who leave must one day return. But it is the impossibility of return that animates Diaspora Ad Astra, 2020. Seafarers are quarantined at sea, trapped in interstitial limbo as they wait for permission to come ashore and to return home. The film contains more than a whiff of Afrofuturist themes of intragalactic displacement, but rather than grand interstellar narratives we get a small personal story. It concerns a man who used to sell pineapples and water as he dreamed of being a crooner on TV. Instead, like many of his seafaring compatriots, he spends eight to ten months a year aboard ship. Flashback footage illustrating his reminisced narrative is spliced into scenes of pelagic calm. Comilang shot the sea using a drone, whose jerky left-right movements suggest strafing in a video game. With no internet onboard, a sailor reads a piece in the 2013 anthology of Filipino science fiction that gives the piece its title. The story concerns a returning spaceship that is made to orbit its home planet forever, because it could be carrying hostile aliens.
Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise), 2016, also features a drone, but this one is sentient, gently voiced by the artist’s mother. It serves as a data repository and telepathic connector for Filipinas whose invisible labor keeps Hong Kong running. The film follows three domestic workers on their day off as they relax, sing along to Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” upload their weeks to the drone Paraiso, and write poems about the “boys we’ve left like punchlines.” One of them explains, “It’s hard being a domestic helper: You take care of everything . . . except yourself.” The three-channel video was projected in a small room lined with cardboard boxes. At one point, we see these women use similar boxes to create temporary gathering places to offer cheap manicures, dance, and generally gather to shoot the breeze. These acts of self-care and collective camaraderie work to recharge the women.
Comilang’s world building is robust and intriguing. One might be tempted to read Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso as a social comment on the immiseration of domestic workers, and it includes woman-on-the-street interviews that probe for mistreatment—but these women don’t lack for agency. One woman, having just quit her demanding employer, declares that she will “try something else.” Across the two films, the stories seem to fall vertiginously into each other. One imagines each speaker sending out a plaintive transmission: “Are you there, homeland? It’s me, Balikbayan.”