Exploring The Tropics With Tropical Futures Institute

February 09, 2021

Exploring The Tropics With Tropical Futures Institute

In lieu of Tropical Futures Institute arriving at Commonwealth, we get in touch with Chris Fussner of Tropical Futures Institute, amulti disciplinary think-tank studio based primarily in Cebu, Philippines. We talk about the tropics at large, TFI’s dynamic body of work, and future projects. 

Hi Chris! How are you?

I'm doing alright; work has been more of an ebb and flow as of late, and trying to keep my hopes down for the time being. 

Could you tell us briefly about who you are and your work at Tropical Futures Institute?

I'd describe myself as a multi-disciplinary creative with a foundation in design strategy and research. I started out being a photo nerd in high school, then got into sustainable development in university, then took a right turn and did a gap year, which turned into four, and started a menswear line called Sifr of Singapore. I went back to school to formally study design and then did operations and project management work for the last few years. It was during that time that I would work on Tropical futures Institute part-time. It's only been at the start of last year that I've gone full time into my own personal practice, that being Tropical Futures Institute. 

As a name, Tropical Futures Institute started as a mash-up of buzzwords to diffuse new perspectives on how we might think and imagine the tropics. At the time, I was still doing quite a lot of personal work in the space of speculative and critical design. While doing the basic conceptual research for a project related to the future of the tropics, I didn't really find too many projects, media objects at the time. A few years later, I would find more philosophical writings from the Caribbean, but still, there wasn't enough representation or search results around what I was looking for about the tropics. You have generic whitewashed Hollywood Futures, Afro-Futurism (& Nollywood Futures), and Sino Futurism, among others I am missing here but very little or not enough representing the Tropics. I take inspiration from much of the world-building going on in the fields of study above alongside Tropicalia. Still, I think, and I know many other people are also thinking that there can be more creativity towards Tropicality in general. 

TL;DR:  I've started to introduce TFI as a multi-disciplinary studio and think tank, and my work with TFI relates to diffusing, connecting, and exploring the tropics through my own personal perspective and with collaborators through a variety of mediums from what you see in the merchandise to artwork and objects we sell at art fairs as well as events, and writing. Keeping the interest and output open and flat. This last year we grew the team by one person, bringing on board AG a designer, and just this past month, Sayoka, a gallerist, both based out of Cebu.

What about the tropics in general interests you? 

One of the most important ideas about the tropics from a personal perspective is climatic identity; I am a Tropical. With that said, anyone can claim they are a tropical person, which is beautiful because the identifier has relation to climate and earth than the idea of nation-states or ethnicity. I embraced this because I struggle with my own identity, being part of the Philippine diaspora from interracial marriage, and growing up in a country where you and your family are immigrants, things can get confusing. So in recent years, the identifier of tropical has helped me skirt around some of these identity politics. The first two t-shirt designs helped me understand that better, one was about Singapore, and the other was about the Philippines. Trying my best to manifest the ephemeral in a solid-state, but in the end, it was just about letting it all go and adopting myself as multiples.

The Future is Tropical; many indicators are pointing towards this statement, but looking at the demographic and economic factors, a lot of population compositions of tropical countries will be millennials and gen-z and cross our fingers we are experiencing some sort of massive growth, it isn't even, but there is still growth pointing towards some kind of future. Dystopic futures of water scarcity or utopic futures of community-based water management strategies? 

I'm excited about the geographical metaphors attached with the tropics (these metaphors also exist outside the tropical zone) using the idea of the island and the archipelago to think about design, art, economics, resources, and so on. These metaphors alongside the tropical label also help connect us towards a more ecological mindset in terms of thinking beyond the human at the center and more towards an ecology or systems thinking approach. 

There is also the cultural level where for many tropical countries, this is the largest creative class in hundreds of years or maybe ever, so there are many exciting things happening in cities all around the tropics with new subcultures and scenes thriving.

As a brand focused on the tropics, how did TFI arrive at its current design aesthetic, especially through the garments you produce? 

There was no real plan in regards to the aesthetics, it just happened and will continue to morph as we go along. There are aesthetics that are literal representations of the tropics but then there are also aesthetics that break those visual frameworks and question visual representation related to the tropics. We let the project or idea inform the visuals and do our best not to be strict with those outcomes.

With stockists from New York to Manila, what does it mean for TFI to have product as part of its practice?

The products we are releasing serve two specific functions, to generate revenue that helps sustain TFI and a physical manifestation of wrapper/conduit to some of the things we are thinking about or doing. 

Tropical Futures Institute is known for its clothing, but the breadth and scope of its work as an independent studio seems to be more complex — art exhibits, workshops, residencies, and more. What direction is TFI going towards with these projects, and how does it all tie together?

When we started posting on IG, it was infrequent and primarily focused on the product rather than documentation of things we were doing at the time. A combination of resistance to documentation and product posts were the bare minimum of social interaction for us at the time. In recent months, we are slowly switching and communicating more clearly the other activities we participate beyond the clothing as TFI is active as a full-time practice/studio/brand. 

The projects beyond the clothing were in relation to programming we did with 856G Gallery in Cebu, Philippines that started around 2015 when I started spending a lot more time in the Philippines and eventually moved to Cebu in 2018. 856G is a gallery established by Mother over a decade ago. Working with another curator, @workers_and_artisans, we would program a wide array of shows, parties, workshops, and residencies, as you've mentioned. The focus was to always keep it flat and multi-disciplinary. 

The flatness of it all keeps things fresh and exciting for us when we embark on new projects. It also gives us this elasticity to think between space to generate a novel approach. In most of these endeavors, we are working with more experienced practitioners, which also creates a nice learning curve, it' s in the learning where we can hybridize the outcome. The fringes between spaces is our ideal state.

What are some interesting dynamics introduced in the past year that's caught your attention? What are the things you're currently interested in?

The acceleration and deceleration of my own perception of time in 2020 made more apparent the existence of individual instances of futures happening worldwide. The shift in perception of time recognizes the differences in the diffusion of trends across geographical spaces and into the metaverse. These time perception shifts helped me dismantle the idea of homogenized futures that stem from a globalist narrative. Increasing fragmentation and multi polarity will start to swirl into the more apparent chaos of the world as our own perceptions of reality continue to build around our own data feeds. 2020 and into 2021 plays out exactly like the movie 'Contagion' however in someways worse depending on how many other narratives you want to include on top of the COVID one. A subspecies shaping the entire world in a matter of months. The world exists in bio-security zones that discriminate on our biomes and pre-existing conditions of identity for better or for worse. Dys/utopia is everywhere fleeing conflicts due to shifting aridity lines or sipping a bordeaux in an utopic island city-state. Many of us return to our tribes (squads) while shifting away from the clearnet (surface web) and into the dark forest networks beneath. We hope for a return to the dance floor, but it won't be the same energy for better or for worse. Some of us will thizz out on euphoria as we try to escape to pre-2020 through whatever means necessary.  

What's in the pipeline this year?

This first month was intense as we participated in SEAFocus an artfair out of Singapore as well as curatorial project with the National Gallery of Singapore then we head immediately into Art Dubai 2021. After Dubai we have a little breathing room to focus on wrapping up a small capsule release for the summer and work on some internal projects such as a new website and some grant applications for projects later in the year and 2022. We wrap up the year with Taipei Artweek and ArtSG in November. In between all this we will see if we can sprinkle in some surprises. When I type this out it looks like a lot, hahaha! I hope we can keep things chill, the team has grown to three of us now but what I am focusing on is being mindful of projects that we take on and not over committing. We ran into that last year when quarantine ended and summer started; globally it felt like everyone went into overdrive with work and we ended up taking a little too much and burnt out pretty hard towards the end of December. 2021 for us is to keep building and making plans at pace, self care, stick to the process and be open to the results. 

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