Getting Back to Work

Upon returning to my old job at the University of the Philippines, this time as a lecturer, our department secretary passed me a simple document, stating that I had not been employed for all of 2016. She explained that this would explain the lack of information on any of my tax returns, that basically there had been no employer to formally and institutionally deduct taxes from my income. What it did however was confirm something I already knew, in the back of my mind, but had felt too shy, too sheepish, or too ashamed to admit – that I, who had always considered myself financially responsible, had basically hemorrhaged money for most of last year.

I cannot say this without a heaping dose of shame, not only because from the cradle to the grave, we are expected to be on an upwards trajectory of financial success and individual milestones; but that there is so much privilege in being able to quote-unquote-fall from or forego that narrative, and still be able to put a roof over one’s head and indulge in the little extras. In my case, the money I’ve been socialized into seeing as mere crumbs has provided for me, my cats, and for the past few months, my boyfriend.

There is a steady stream of help: My parents never let me down, friends made use of what I had to offer as a technical designer and writer, I got a grant and a fellowship that allowed me to keep busy, and then finally, I got another job. These were accompanied by the many small gestures that made life easier: new and old friends picking up the tab for meals, veterinarians waiving certain fees or giving discounts, just, you know, stuff. That stuff though has added up to an indispensable guarantee of not only survival, but gratitude.

Right before I left for Kuala Lumpur (to help install ESCAPE from the SEA), I spent days crying my eyes out. My kitten, Graba, was seriously suffering from whatever disease it was that her subsitute cat-mom, Little Dot (aka Dorothy), had succumbed to. Like Dorothy, Graba had seen a number of vets, none of whom were able to diagnose her properly. Unlike Dorothy, by then I already knew that the best option would be the most painful for me. Her doctor suspected she had been having multiple seizures, although none as severe as Dot’s, and as her second night confined at the vet approached, I decided to have her put to sleep. I held her paw as she breathed her last and told her I would always be there for her. And less than 12 hours later, I boarded my flight to KL – the excitement at mounting a big project in a foreign country mixing uneasily with the lead weight in my chest.

I have come to terms with having done my best, despite not being able to save her, but I still haven’t sorted out my feelings over losing her the way I did. The day before our opening, I remembered that I would be returning to an apartment that did not have her in it. That my demanding, occasionally depressed, but sweet kitten was already gone. And while I didn’t even have time to think about it, I still wept uncontrollably. But we had work to install, captions to write, and a catalog to edit. As had so often been the case, there was no time for grief.

In its place is gratitude, not only for having loved the way I did because a life as small as Graba’s, but finding and actually having other places, people, endeavors into which I can channel that love. My chest would tighten and I was never entirely sure which emotion was welling up – whether the shortness of breath was from pure joy or utter sadness. Sometimes I hate having to travel–and with Graba in critical condition, I thought the last thing I wanted to do was go on this trip. But this trip also affirmed something else: that despite not always feeling like I have a place in the art world, I still believe in art, still believe in artists, and the ones I’ve had the good fortune to meet during this trip are some of the sanest, most generous people I’ve ever encountered. And for that: gratitude.

I have been incredibly lucky to have spent a substantial chunk of my adult life around art – writing about it, seeing it created – but this is the first time I’m doing more than just puttering around behind the scenes and following orders. This is also the first time I’m being credited as part of a curatorial team, and I could not have picked a better team to work with.

Monday, I fly back home. Tuesday, it’s back to work after two weeks of missing meetings with my kids. Wednesday, we move out of our apartment, and Thursday, the Manila component of this exhibition series opens. Friday, I meet another team for the next project, and after that is the rest of my life and whatever and ever follows, amen. But forever I am grateful. I need to remember that the gratitude should outweigh the grief.

2016

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Our little love club: Little Dot (renamed Dorothy), Graba, and Lt. Dan. Only Graba made it to the end of 2016.

I typically end the year by answering the same year-end survey, but this year I’m too lazy to dig it up. I also forgot to pay my rent and overlooked a few other things; like today, I missed a meeting, but that wasn’t entirely my fault since the person who set it sent me the wrong date. So I guess 2016 really did a massive number on us. Remember when we were all bitching about 2009? I got really fat in 2009, but that’s beside the point (which I also have yet to make).

What I’m after here is maybe changing the questions we ask ourselves, year after year, especially when it comes to what we want, what we are becoming, and how we are to live.

This year, I realized having too many cats derails you from living your own life. However, this isn’t even a question of quantity, but of one cat feeling like too many cats. 2016 was, no doubt, the year of Little Dot – I spent most of this year feeling like I could and should save her, and taking the emotional and financial hits for it. We–her vets, her reiki healer, my partner, and I–somehow extended her life by another 5 months. She passed away in October, in the care of my boyfriend and the good people at The Pet Project in San Juan, while I was in Texas, visiting my sister.

And while I will always love and miss her, the capacity to care that came out of that loss also revealed so much about my relationships, as well as the possibility of relating to people through animals. I have a boyfriend now (not entirely because of the cats), and because he is a wonderful human being, in that time of need he showed how much he is able to give, in loving what I love. In all those months of caring for Little Dot, I never once heard Javier say that she’s “just a cat” or make any suggestions about letting nature take its course.

In September, we began nesting, cohabitation…basically he moved in. His verbal crutch is adding “basically” to everything, even if it’s not basic or basicalized in the process. I had some basic ideas of the number that cohabitation does on any relationship, and basically you show everything. Especially if you live in a studio.

So even if we’ve only been dating for a year (as of this month) and living together since September…_BASICALLY_, what I’m trying to say is that it’s nice to be known this well by anyone.

And as I should know by now, I’m still not that comfortable talking about what intimate, romantic relationships mean to me. At least not online. Maybe in some kind of support group with people who share this discomfort? Maybe I (no, definitely, I) have some unresolved issues given the past relationships I dragged myself and other people into? What I am sure of though is that I’m with someone with whom I can unpack all that baggage; I am, after all, with someone who’s willing to live with me. Also, it’s really convenient, since he hails from the deep south. (Re, the south: I still hate the south. Yuck. Gross. Burn that shit down. Set fire to every toll gate. Save us all from this blight on urban planning.)

Once you make these kinds of changes–like, living with your boyfriend of less than a year–the resolutions become an inevitability. I resolve to make space for another adult human being in my life. This adult human being does not need to tolerate me, since he is in no way bound to me by blood, nor does he possess any responsibility for my existence. If we run out of toilet paper, I either have to run out and buy toilet paper instead of scrounging around through the bottom of my purse for Krispy Kreme napkins, or politely ask him to pick up some toilet paper. If we are to grow up into fully-realized human beings, we need to do this together, respectfully, honestly, with love and occasional heartache.

And these things are a lot to take on for 2017.

I also resolved to adopt fewer cats and spend more time at the shelter, mostly with the cats at the Sick Bay. I now know them all by name and they recognize my scent (which is basically the scent of other cats, but whatever).

2017 will be okay.

Dedication


For Norma Crisologo Liongoren

To say Norma Crisologo Liongoren was dedicated is an understatement. On top of the curatorial work she had been doing since 1981 at the Liongoren Gallery in Cubao, Quezon City, Liongoren practiced social research, and community organizing and development, while nurturing and supporting the careers of countless visual and performance artists.

Born on September 22, 1946 in Lingayen, Pangasinan, Norma Crisologo, or Nong as she was called by those closest to her, studied nursing at the University of the Philippines in Manila, where she first encountered Alfredo Liongoren, who was then the Art Director of the Philippine Collegian. After marrying the artist, Nong’s nursing degree took her to Davao, where she practiced an art of caring that became vital to her curatorial endeavors.

To call her dedication an understatement however feels cliche, especially in a field known for thankless jobs and inflated egos, where one is expected to work for love and getting paid in exposure. Nong knew all of this, yet she labored quietly but relentlessly, joining both mainstream events known for spectacle (and speculation)–such as Art Fair Philippines–while opening her own often community-based efforts in the confines of the gallery where she also made her home.

Cultural work, especially in the highly-specialized, highly-competitive field of fine art, often utilizes a small, skilled staff, and Nong was no stranger to this fact that many museums employed fewer than a dozen to hang, market, guard, explain, and ultimately conserve works of art – making space not only for beauty, in all its subjectivity, but the often contrasting ideas that accompany this very subjectivity. Nong knew all of this, and made sure to treat those around her not simply as workers, but as friends and family. These ideas fueled a relentless drive to make something or somewhere more than a gallery, with so much to be said for what she actually made space for in the house on New York St.

“She adopted a whole family,” shared her daughter, Hannah, of the people running the Liongoren Gallery’s day-to-day affairs. On top of that, studio space in the compound also served as temporary shelter for those displaced by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, when as many as twelve families took refuge within those walls.

“Ma never had a problem in her mind about opening her doors to people,” continued Hannah, “Up to the very end, my mom stubbornly worked and fleshed out her beliefs. Her lifetime couldn’t catch up.”

And from the beginning, ahead of her time, she clearly understood that a gallery was meant to make space for the better world imagined through art. Art, Liongoren understood, expressed in form and concept the potential to spark revolutions; more importantly, and beyond Art with a capital A, she understood the limits of the gallery space. For cultural work to mean anything, Liongoren knew that culture was about people, and the most meaningful events took place when relationships were formed.

Published in the Nov-Dec 2016 issue of Art+ magazine, in loving memory of Norma Crisologo Liongoren.

Beyond Autobiography

Alee Garibay’s As It Is…

In the years since I began writing about the painting practice of Alee Garibay, her work has drastically shifted from the abstract to the unmistakably concrete and personal, with this show as no exception; yet, the same cannot be said for the horizon of her concerns, which continue to grasp for the universal. The layer of text that has become characteristic of her paintings is noticeably absent from this series – perhaps rendered superfluous by the scale and intricacy with which she attempts to recover the coherence of a life that could so easily be dismissed as random or accidental.

With As It Is…, Garibay reframes the everyday, reclaiming the banality that allows it to be swept aside or cast off. The work documents a brief period of perpetual motion, living between home and studio or hosted by old friends. Ironically, this “semi-nomadic” lifestyle also allowed her to more closely observe the personal as well as the general conditions of domestic space–or a lack thereof. Movement is crucial to the work, in that the series narrates a period in Garibay’s life wherein home was not necessarily a place, but a verb.

This is often joked about as a symptom of “trying to find oneself” – a state bearing the same damning diagnosis of narcissism that this generation has become accustomed to; but what we can choose to see instead upon peering into these works is a recovery of the poetics of noticing – or The Everyday (2). The very phrase As It Is… references this political and artistic movement originating from the 1960’s avant-garde, one that involved “the embrace of the ordinary” and “a lyrical appreciation of the small, simple, and ephemeral things in life…” The aimlessness and “deliberate strategy of boredom” evident in the aesthetics of The Everyday, however, are contradicted by Garibay when asked about how she portrays the subject.

“There’s an impetus for clarity and form, for ‘refining’ the concept of self,” she explains. Indeed, the spaces that turn up in this series are intimate, recalled photographically yet hazy with nostalgia. There is a voyeuristic quality in the (re-)composition and recollection of the rooms and unmade beds that have thus far prevented Garibay from drifting off into full-blown aimlessness. Her titles as well testify to an acknowledgement that these states are fleeting but necessary, as in Overnight or Abang (tr. “to wait”); and despite the time spent or lost, they may be for the better, as in Sanktwaryo (sanctuary) or Pahinga (tr. “to rest”)(1). The figures in Bantay and Paanyaya elevate the series to a spiritual level, implying how every act of exploration or self-care is also a matter of acting upon faith.

In “Clearing the Ground” (1961), Henri Lefebvre wrote that “it is in everyday life and starting from everyday life that genuine creations are achieved, those creations which produce the human and which men produce as part of the process of becoming human: works of creativity (3).” Through painting, As It Is… moves beyond autobiography, offering a deliberate and meditative observation of what has otherwise been rendered invisible by ubiquity. By re-stating and reclaiming a slice of life “As it is,” we are thus invited to look harder.

______
(1) Note: This is not Garibay’s first time to intimately render domestic space; the subject was integral to her contribution to Kapitbahay – a two-man show with Renz Baluyot, also shown at Art Verite.

(2) Sally Banes (1993). “Equality Celebrates the Ordinary,” in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Everyday, edited by Stephen Johnstone. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. p. 114.

(3) Henri Lefebvre (1961). “Clearing the Ground” in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Everyday, edited by Stephen Johnstone. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. p. 31.

This is just the way people talk

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Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa (2015)
Nestor Abrogena
1 hr. 30 or something

This post has spoilers because I need to talk about that clusterfuck of an ending.

Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa opens with Sam walking towards a train station. He takes a phone call and explains he is late. We find out he is a filmmaker, among other important details meant to fill us in on the life of an accomplished young man who is on his way to Berlin for some filmy thing we’re never really filled in on. Further in, he meets up with Isa as he is transferring from one train to the next. She explains that she is also late, she has an exam. Oddly enough, there seems to be no rush, and for the next ten minutes we watch them dawdle, dragging their feet, towards the next train.

Using transport as a backdrop for a relationship that’s going nowhere makes for a promising metaphor, and references to movies that have done the same (Two for the Road, Richard Linklater’s Before… series, Sa North Diversion Road, That Thing Called Tadhana) are peppered throughout Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa. There is a very clear debt to Before Sunrise, specifically: there it is onscreen in one of Sam’s classes.

What Ang Kwento… seems to neglect however is that these were films that coasted by on the strength and sheer delight of watching two very intelligent people talk, with love as the side effect. That’s not what this movie is. In Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa, we have the opposite in that it is fucking painful to watch its characters attempt conversation–which is really strange considering that Sam is a filmmaker and Isa is a writer. But it’s painful and awkward and you wonder how these two even bother, but whatever. We’re already here! Here being this mess where Isa has a boyfriend named Frank who is abroad  (maybe?), but the point is this dude she was cuddling on the train with is not Frank. He is Sam (the filmmaker who can’t talk good). And Sam all throughout is trying to sit Isa down to talk about “the plan”. Like so: “So what’s the plan, Isa”

“I don’t know, I have to a) meet my groupmates, b) record this song, c) rewrite my script because it’s cheesy.” Heck, I thought the plan was to rush to school because she had an exam. Or something. Whatever, she’s avoiding him, we get it. I thought this whole time was that Isa’s plan was to take her midterms, but I guess not.

This happens throughout the day and into the night. We follow them around while they try to talk but end up not reallly talking. There are cases in which actions speak louder than words, and this…could be one of them. Actually, there are so many other vehicles which could have been used to unravel the messy narrative of Nestor Abrogena’s directorial debut: comic book, music video, photo essay. It is, after all, very beautifully shot. Instead we have this full-length feature that requires dialogue and gets awkward chit-chat for trying to convey that man, relationships are hard! Cheating on boyfriends is hard! Commuting is hard! Life is hard!

You know what else is hard, this film seems to say, writing a script for people who can’t improv to save their lives. When the narrative isn’t overburdened with the infidelity-induced anguish of these kids, it takes a stab at lightness by bringing in Luke – some smug asshole whose only job is to call everyone else in this movie an asshole–and Karen, who Luke is trying to either date-rape or charm into having sex with him despite repeatedly being rejected. I know this is supposed to be funny, but it’s not. It’s gross. And “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was written more than half a century ago, so this “he’s only being a jerk because he likes you,” needs to stop being packaged as rom-com fodder.

BUT WAIT, we soon find out that Luke is not the biggest jerk in this movie! And neither is Isa! The thing is, it took me two tries to get through Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa: the first time, I could only take an hour of its insufferable babbling, but I also wanted to understand the links between conversation and reason and the constant claims about how “real people” talk, especially with the current administration.

Then I read a review in which a plot twist THAT WILL BLOW MY FUCKING MIND was mentioned, and here it is (spoiler):












Sam is actually Isa’s professor. Or, Sam is also Isa’s professor.

So here’s the thing: we have a movie, we have several hours to justify this even messier side of the quandary in that YOU DO NOT DATE SOMEONE YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO EVALUATE. It’s pretty fucking basic that allowing the personal and professional to intermingle that closely just adds up to some really fucked-up power play, and no amount of “love” or anguish that looks like love, or agony can fix that.

Unless, of course, you can talk your way through it (e.g. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”, “Apocalypse Child”, or “Sa North Diversion Road” again)?

The even bigger problem here is that despite there being other characters given screen time, specifically to lecture Sam on why this shit should stop, no one mentions that “Dude, maybe you should call it quits with this chick because SHE’S YOUR STUDENT.” First, ew. Second, we are instead led to believe that she’s the one with the problem. She’s the one who needs to make a plan, to clear shit up. This whole thing is packaged as “romance” because we’re supposed to find it ***AaaaaawwwwwW*** ˜ROMANTIC˜ when people (dudes, in particular) pull this against all odds bullshit rather than respecting someone’s space–especially if that someone is YOUR student (note: not A Student, Your Student, as in someone you will be giving a grade to). In that rather than see Isa as off-limits because she’s in this ethically compromised position, she is only off-limits because she “belongs” to someone else.

That, right there, is some serious Wattpadd-Twilight-50 Shades level toxicity packaged as noble infinite sadness wank, and despite having all the time to clarify or justify why these jerks keep being jerks, Abrogena fills the screen with establishing shots of Metro Manila (here is Makati CBD! Now here’s the Pasig River! Now Edsa! And now we are in…side Isa’s bedroom? What the fuck just happened, where the fuck are we?!). The rest of the film is Sam being sad: here he is being sad by the train tracks, now he’s sad while looking out over the balcony, now he’s sad while staring at himself in the bathroom…and before that, he’s really sad while looking at his laptop. What’s he even looking at? It’s a mystery…

From what I’ve read about this movie (from the little that is posted online) Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa began as a twenty-minute short, and to be fair, it works as a collection of scenes.

Strung together in an attempt at coherence however, the thread is lost, with cardboard cutouts fumbling through a story that unfolds over the course of one day and the following morning. This isn’t the kind of story that really needs to be told though, because it gets us nowhere, speaking only of messy people without revealing any of the inner complexity that makes them into actual human characters. These are pretty pictures though, but what a waste of film.