Artist Interview: Michael Manalo, Creator of Hidden Realities

Interview by Sarah Han

Photo by Haena Cho

Photo by Haena Cho

If you’re an active collector on NeonMob these days, you’re most certainly familiar with “Hidden Realities,” NeonMob’s most recent limited edition collection featuring 22 dreamy, surreal scenes that look like photographs of real places, but with a twist. The collection was created by artist Michael Vincent Manalo, a graphic designer, photographer, photo manipulator, and musician who is originally from Manila in the Philippines, but who currently resides in Taiwan.

"Sunset" from Hidden Realities

"Sunset" from Hidden Realities

Manalo’s striking landscapes in “Hidden Realities” – created using manipulated photographs – show a dichotomy between reality and fantasy, natural and supernatural, melancholia and hope. There’s something a little eerie and dark about each these beautiful scenes, but they still draw you in and make you want to step into them somehow.

Who is the man behind “Hidden Realities” and what was he thinking when he made this collection? I got in touch with Michael Manalo and asked him a few questions to find out more.

I read in an interview that you got your first DSLR camera when you were 21 years old. The camera was a gift from your brother, and it really inspired you to learn more about photography and also got you into Photoshop and other digital photography tools. What type of art were you doing before you got that camera?

I was doing more music before I got that camera. I had a punk rock band then, and I occasionally would create line art. When I got into photography, I somehow saw the magic in this medium and eventually my interest widened and branched out to photo-manipulation.

Why did you decide to move from straight photography to manipulated photography? What inspired you to decide to try this new method that created your style?

I wanted to express myself more. I do photo-manipulation to express how I feel about the photographs I use; or what is happening in the environment that I am thriving in. I also do photo-manipulation to express an imagined memory or even how I feel from a [real] memory. However, in photography, I mainly capture raw and often overlooked tales in our society, or individuals and their stories.

The Atrocities of the Silent

The Atrocities of the Silent

What programs do you use to create your pieces? Did you teach yourself how to use them?

I use Photoshop and yes I taught myself how to use it. I learned through experimentation and sometimes viewing some tutorials on the internet.

Stock photos make up a lot of the pieces that go into your work – some photos you’ve taken yourself and some from places like Shutterstock and deviantart. Have photographers who took the original images ever recognized their works in your art. If so, what are their reactions?

Most of the ones I use are paid, but sometimes the [original photographers] who see them are shocked and really like the way [the images] are blended with the other work.

With more people taking photos on their phones and using Instagram and other photo apps, how do you think photography will change in the next few years?

Aha! I was contemplating this the other day as well, and from my experience, I tend not to bring my camera anymore as compared to before, when I would always bring my DSLR wherever I went! Of course DSLR is better, but just for simple documentation of memories, [camera phones are] good enough! I think in the near future, the demand for DSLRs will be from photographers who would like to take serious top- of-the-line-photos, because nowadays most phones and even some apps or phone add-ons like fish-eye cameras etc. can almost go head-to-head with DSLR cameras.

You’ve shown your work across the world. Do you usually get to travel to the shows? If so, where is your favorite place in the world? Do your trips inspire your artwork?

I do get to travel to some of the shows, but I wish I could go to all! Hmm, it’s a hard question, but I’ll just answer what came into my mind first – and those are Krakow, Poland; Melbourne, Australia; and Tamsui District in Taipei, Taiwan. Yes, a lot of the environments, living conditions, and interactions with people in these places affect my work. I think for the time being, I will stop being a nomad though; I need to settle somewhere. For the past year, that has been Taiwan.

Where in Taiwan do you live, and why did you decide to settle there for now?

I currently live in Kaohsiung. It’s in the southern part of Taiwan. I really didn’t expect to stay here for such a long time. I think I was lucky to get some more project here.

Do you think you’ll ever return to the Philippines?

I enjoy the Philippine beaches so much and some of my family is still there, so I will go back from time to time.

Who are your favorite artists and inspirations? Are there any artists that you’d like, collaborate with?

I really like the work of Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Hieronymus Bosch, Francesca Woodman, photo-manipulator Michal Karcz, photographer Benoit Paille, photographer Laura Makabrescu, photo-manipulator Erik Johansson, the group Random International who made Rain Room, and installation artist/photographer Berndnaut Smilde.

I would really like to collaborate with Random International or Berndnaut Smilde someday to create an installation work, because for the past two years I’ve been focusing a lot on installation work too.

Aside from visual art, you also have a musical project called Oort Cloud District. Can you describe your music? How does it relate to or add to your digital artwork?

I started Oort Cloud District back in November when I was living in Tbilisi, Georgia for seven months. Quite some melancholic times indeed, and what better way to express that than to produce music in my tiny apartment which had no heater? I think the music I made then talks about a reflection of the society I was living in, and the overall experience when I was in Tbilisi. I hear most people say that it relates to my artworks, like it’s an extension of it or even a reflection of it.

A lot of your artworks have doors, windows, screens, and other portals in natural landscapes that aren’t there in real life. Are these escapes from reality?

Haha, yes they are escapes from reality! I always daydream! When I’m with people – even if they are family, a lover, or friend – I somehow just get lost in some other random thoughts.

"The Portal" from Hidden Realities

"The Portal" from Hidden Realities

What do you imagine is on the other side of these portals?

What I imagine on the other side of the portals? Hmm, sometimes just nothingness, or blank space, but sometimes I see like a parallel universe. I like to imagine a memory or like an alternate way of how things could happen in my life or someone else’s. (I hope that doesn’t sound so mental, haha!)

Tell us about the title of your collection for NeonMob. What does “Hidden Realities” mean?

[Hidden Realities are] like alternate realities which I imagine exist without us noticing. Like a parallel universe, same earth, but a very different way of living. Even like a twisted version of our society but which we can still call familiar.