How the hell did we get here?

Jakarta, Translation, and the Heterotopics of a Traffic Jam

Sometimes translation becomes a matter of calling something what you want, rather than what it is. Lacking a coherence or a way to make the unfamiliar familiar, rather than define things as they are, the tendency is to come up with things as they could or may be. In the absence of direct translation, what becomes of the role of language in getting a message across.

If you grew up with Sky Cable in the 90’s, you’d probably remember when MTV was (deliberately or otherwise) a platform for regional sound. There was a time when the VJs, being from different parts of Southeast Asia and converging onscreen, peppered their introductions with the vernacular of the different points they were calling from. Without fully understanding what they were saying, it was still easy to spot how and where languages intersect. Kind of like how it would be for an American to listen to Taglish (*mlamlamlamla–Denny’s—plupluplu–okay, good* and so on); certain words in Bahasa Indonesia call out at you, like “mahal” or “kanan”, showing how even bastards carry similar traits. Isn’t that what Southeast Asia is though, a nation of Asia’s bastards? Moreover, MTV wasn’t just a means of finding common ground. The words we heard through music were not a confirmation that Jakarta is closer than it actually is, but that it is as close as it actually is.

While the tendency of transnational media outlets is to assert that borders are only as porous as they are made out to be, there is still the undeniable fact that even transnational media is a politicized entity. Media can dislocate or relocate the consumer, it can deterritorialize the message, but travel can still confirm its subjectivity, showing how the collective imagination of a space can never outweigh the actual experience of it. Looking at where the Philippines and Indonesia fall within this system gives you an idea of how deeply divided or how wide the cultural and ideological rifts between the two actually are–despite the geographical proximity of the two.

Coming together at gigs or through emailed mp3s and tape trading (which they still do here) shows how music is another language altogether, and it’s the common ground of “hating” on Jakarta that allows me to escape from having to explain the cheesy, precious truth that “I’m just here to check out your local music scene, people.”

In Jakarta, it’s actually easier to communicate with people about how much you hate this place. You can get so much more across with a headshake and an eyeroll or a disapproving look. Enthusiastic nodding, followed by an incoherent ramble about what brought you here in the first place, seems to confuse the locals. Just as it’s not easy to love a place like Manila, it’s not easy to love a place like Jakarta. And like Manila, given a choice, I would never live here. Also like the Philippines, Indonesia offers little in terms of opting out.

The enormity of a city like Jakarta makes it easy to dismiss as an empty and anonymous landscape. A city that cannot be experienced on the ground by those who live to record that experience is as good as dead. Dead in its failure to provide not only avenues for transport, but avenues where all classes can intersect. There is a reason why so much has been written about places like New York, thus making New York a production not only of the built environment but of the mind.

One of the things that fascinates me so much about Jakarta is a phenomenon that is replicated in Manila, albeit on a different scale with its own set of subjectivities, and these are the romance of spectacle and isolation in urban development (I’d insert something something my thesis here, but that would make me want to brick myself). I met a guy from ADB just now who was asking what living in Metro Manila is like, because he would have to be based here/there at some point. This is actually a more difficult question to answer than we give it credit for. First of all, is there any sense of consistency to living in Metro Manila?

It’s interesting how a hallmark of modernity comes with measuring distance in time. When you tell people where something is, you don’t say how long it takes to get there, but this is a habit when the logistics are unclear and the journey cannot be described and executed in concrete and consistent terms. I have never lived anywhere outside of Metro Manila and I consider myself lucky to have lived in Quezon City all my life. Quezon City is not only fairly central, but it is, as a friend and neighbor once raved, a place where “everything is 20 mins. away.”

But to say that something is X minutes away is also to push aside the city as space or as a built environment, in favor of the city as a temporal entity, which requires a different way of thinking about infrastructure. when traveling is a matter of time and not of the things that occupy the distance between here and there, space becomes invisible; the actual experience of occupying the built environment turns into an option rather than a given. If you had to describe what Metro Manila is like, as a middle-class dweller, you’d might as well describe the inside of your car.

Being able to describe the space you live in as a time-bound entity does not always account for traffic, and this is where it gets a little tricky to describe what living in Metro Manila is like. To describe distance using time is a consistency we take for granted until we lose it, and we lose it due to so many arbitrary roadblocks that pepper the metropolis. It’s only when there’s something in your way that space becomes an interference, whether this thing is a car, a person, or in the case of Metro Manila, a border. Going from city to city means re-estimating the value of time: distance that would take 20 minutes or less to cover in Quezon City could take over an hour in Manila, thus the whole notion of space complicates commonly held ideas of distance and what it means to traverse it.

While spending time on the road, sitting in the city’s ridiculous traffic jams may be a way to immerse oneself in the reality of living in this city, but it is also an escape from the realities of being on the ground. This is true whether we’re talking about Jakarta or Manila. It’s too easy to complain about traffic, but traffic does something more than inconvenience the traveler. The thing is, we are all traveling. The romance that is collectively inscribed upon the activity is immediately debunked by the actual logistics of executing it, especially when this means allowing the things that characterize a space to become invisible.

Dem Horny Beaches and The Decline and Fall of Work

Or, How not to give a graduation speech

Raoul Vaneigem, The Decline and Fall of Work, also here

We’re not going to talk about anything remotely horny or even beach-like. First of all, I do not have abs and will not go near anything that requires me to bare anything below my collarbone. And I’m sorry, now you will have to unsee any mental images that were formed alongside the reading of that sentence. We really have to be more stringent about who gets to enjoy what, like how beaches should be for people who have abs and making babies should be for people who can read good.

Instead, we will talk about graduation. In my career as a teacher, I’ve been to three graduation ceremonies – marshaled at two, stage managed one (kind of). None among these three ceremonies was my own. Maybe one of these days, I’ll demand that my name be chucked into some hastily prepared powerpoint presentation, just so I can have the privilege of climbing onto a stage and shaking hands with my college’s dean and my professors, to show my parents that I’m capable of accomplishing important things – like college. The truth is I was barely there for my college life – which is a bleak admission to make, especially for someone who teaches at the very same college.

This isn’t one of those smug laments about feeling I was above going to school or working hard or whatever, call it what you will. I really wanted to go to UP, and when it came to the course I finished, I really did not have any other options – at least none that I could afford and would allow me to stay in Manila. I wanted to go to fashion school not because I liked fashion, but I wanted to understand how a concept like fashion could even thrive in the Philippines. It also helped that my grandmother taught me to sew when I was 8, and by the time I was 18, I’d become *pretty good* at it. At least good enough to not have to try too hard.

I don’t know about trying too hard. I don’t even know about trying. I felt let down and spent most of the time just showing up (or not at all) without really committing to the task at hand, which is something I have trouble reconciling with my feelings about my own students sometimes not showing up for the classes I’m now teaching.

The rest of the time, I worked; not at school, but at other things. I figured if school was going to be a place where I just dicked around, I’d might as well keep up with this illusion of being very, very challenged by the years I would spend in its hallowed halls. I made myself very, very tired by taking classes I didn’t need and saying yes to jobs because I wanted the money. I knew what I would do with it, so the only thing left to do was figure out how to make it.

I took a lot of shitty jobs, but they were jobs. I learned to get along with people I would have otherwise not wanted anything to do with, until it became clear a year after graduation that I didn’t have to do this. I split my earnings and spent half on plane ticket using my mom’s employee discount, then put up an ad on Global Freeloaders for a place to stay. I wanted to travel. (I also wanted to go back to school and really learn something; but until I figured out this problem of not knowing what to do with my life after giving up on work and finishing school, I just had to get as far away from it as possible.)

Years later, a boy would put an arm around my waist and I would jump and punch him in the face. “You’d sleep at a stranger’s house, but you wouldn’t let me touch you?” was his reply, and I didn’t say anything because this was the same guy who said he had “priorities,” meaning a daughter who was in preschool and a car that needed repairs. Touch, in that sense, was a linear arc leading up to the very same priorities. Of course he deserved to get punched in the face.

Graduation is about those priorities, about the opportunity to confront the pressing matters surrounding what the hell you’re going to do with your life after college–given that you even got to go to college, in which case, lucky you. You had access to the best libraries in the country and chances to sit in on the lectures of very smart human beings, but unless you knew then what all that meant, it’s just an entry in your resume. This assumes is we know what college is for, and every graduation speech paints it as if it’s a step towards changing the world. What we don’t talk about is how any college, no matter where you are in the world, is bound to produce maybe 1 success story among 100 different stories of failure. Or mediocrity. Same deal, I guess. The statistics are not so far off.

How on earth do you reconcile that with the idea of college as a beacon? Or as anything less than a golden ticket? If the truth is college is just resume filler until you figure out what comes after, then what the hell are you even doing at the finish line? At every job I applied for, I asked if there would be travel. I should have asked if there would be writing, because that was all I was doing on top of what I had to do for school. Now I’m writing about something that’s just veered so far off from what I’m teaching, that I’d might as well be two separate people. And I’m tired. Not tired of it, I love my job. Just tired, period.

I wouldn’t have it any other way, though.

I’m proud of having gone to UP. It’s a community I’m still happy to be a part of, but this is something I’ve had to reconcile with the fact that I skipped my last semester without anyone really noticing after I answered a call to work as a trade analyst, filling out data for textile shipments to Indonesia (where I’m going right now, coincidentally). This may have been a distraction from what had, by then, devolved into my futile pursuit of nothing: because of it, I only worked on my thesis at night (I chose to do a thesis on storefronts for this reason); met up with my adviser only when she’d realize I’d all but gone missing, and took advantage of the fact that for the only class I had to show up for, my professor would be abroad. I texted one of my profs about the details the morning before, and she asked if I already had the invitations and the program. Oops.

And I sincerely felt bad about it. But at the same time, had no idea what to do with myself through that kind of ceremony. I didn’t know what was next. I was getting drunk by spiking my coffee WHILE AT work. I didn’t even have a dress. The only graduation I saw any appeal in was my eventual resignation from that trade analyst route, because that job was fucking awful. I wanted another job, or another way out at least. So instead, I spent the day at the pier, with my dad. Instead of a dress, I bought a sewing machine.

So what is it, then. Do we stop telling graduates that the hope of the world is in their hands? It’s such a lovely and inspiring message, but there is the possibility of being misguided by inspiration. I should know. I went to design school.

Playing it by Ear

It’s past 10:30 and I’m still at my mom’s house “helping” her get travel insurance. She’s leaving for Poland in a month. By “helping”, I mean I’m sitting at a desk behind her while she calls out questions that I’m trying to answer without snapping. I have a very short fuse. I also play everything by ear (i.e. I google everything. If I had a smartphone, I’d probably just never talk to people. My ghetto phones are a means to preserve whatever’s left of my social skills), so when people try to ask me for advice, and then don’t understand why I’m just pointing them to Google, I usually respond with eye-rolling at best and full-blown tantrums at worst. I don’t know what’s up with this full-blown resistance to people asking simple questions, I mean, shouldn’t people with blogs looove being asked for advice about everything from travel insurance to weddings to the discovery of the wheel? Like, yo, blogger, how did you discover the wheel?

Should we make more blogs for our especially esoteric interests? Hello, you have reached the little space I have carved out on the internet for insect taxidermy. You are our 4th visitor. (Copyright 2005-2013, Alice Sarmiento).

Anyway, blogs: it has literally been months since I last attempted to update the music blog I run over here, and now that there’s finally an update in those pages, I guess it’s safe to say that I’m letting it go at the end of the week. Or whenever my last interviewee sends me his revisions. Either way, I’m done. I need to excuse myself from that project, make a nice little exit to attend to more pressing matters (although I would gladly let someone else take over that project, especially [actually, only] if that person is Francis Cabal). It’s been fun, but it’s failed to weave itself into all these other threads that make up my life, as of late. And right now, I can only think as far ahead as the end of the year – when my lease expires and the school year draws to a close, and we wait for the results of other things we (meaning I) try to apply ourselves in.

In terms of these “other things” though, these other things have been going very well. I’ve been puttering around a museum for internship credits. My students are graduating on Wednesday. Then on Thursday I get a root canal then hop on a plane bound for Jakarta, just in time for a friend’s wedding the next morning. And it’s only April, but it’s also already April, meaning a third of the year just whipped by. The ceiling fan in my apartment already fell from my ceiling (without tearing off the entire ceiling, as I had originally feared).

The past few months have been a great mix of brutal and fulfilling. Four out of seven of the theses I advised made it past the panel and the dean, so there will be high fives; Former West had to be one of the most formative experiences, thus far, in my life as a grad student/wankademic (more on that later, probably). Everything I’ve done this year, I would do again, and I’m just glad to be able to say that.

There will always be time to write about music as some kind of cure-all, or at least a medium to help us make sense of the world. I read something about architecture as a means to create coherence from the chaos of open space; to carve channels in which to move about an otherwise daunting environment (that was Pallasmaa. Then again, Latour said something about the concept of an “environment” being inextricably linked to control [great. Watch me wreck the poetry of that last bit with some fucking related literature]). I guess I always felt, and always will feel, that way about music; that even if I can’t fully grasp what goes in to a verse, or the connotations change, I somehow just know these words.

Anyway, a word count of The Peripheral Universe (Hear It Is, in particular) adds up to a veritable e-novel, so reading all fifteen interviews online would take up a pretty sizable chunk of time. You can also opt to print it out for a very fancy booster seat.

The Beauty Queens of Real Estate Advertising

This is the introduction to the paper I’ve been working on for the past year. The SMDC campaign has been a source of fascination since it launched over 4 years ago with Marian Rivera at the helm, and now with Anne Curtis as the not-so-new face of the campaign and the drastic shifts in the brand’s positioning, the work has only extended past discussions on the relation between personality cults and architecture. This is what I proposed when I applied for the grant to attend Former West, which served as a crash course in the biopolitical and neolib sections of this paper.

Oh yeah, and the Bb. Pilipinas pageant was just last night. Who won?

In the video, we follow a beautiful young woman as she welcomes us into her home. We begin with the “living room” – a grand lobby decked in marble and softly lit by crystal chandeliers. From there, it becomes clear that we are not just looking at a typical place of residence. As the woman moves from room to room, her outfits change, with her hair done-up to match varying degrees of formal dress. From afar, we see her lying on a chaise in the “plush lounge” where she “reviews all her scripts and contracts. Observing her from above, we watch her lithe figure sprawled out on a deck chair by a crystalline pool, her flowing commentary uninterrupted by the flurry of activity throughout this short tour. Finally, with her back to us, we find ourselves at the threshold of this woman’s innermost sanctum – the bedroom; but before entering, the woman turns to tell us that unlike everything we saw earlier, “Not everyone is allowed in here.” She then closes the door to leave the viewer wanting.

This video is part of the advertising campaign for the SM Development Company (SMDC), which has materials plastered to the backs and sides of buses, inside other public and commercial spaces, and online in the form of banners and videos, which are also broadcast over mainstream media channels. Because the business of advertising calls for this type of aggression, SMDC has been nothing but successful in making their presence felt by parading a monolithic aesthetic that can be read as postmodern in its iconoclasm – that of the beauty queen. These images possess an unprecedented capacity for using the grammar and vocabulary of the commercial and domestic sphere, as well as the entertainment sector, in compelling their viewers to “Live like a star”.

Despite the intention of this campaign to sell real estate, SMDC advertisements rarely offer viewers a clear picture of the actual space for sale. A typical SMDC ad shows ballgown-clad Anne Curtis (currently one of the country’s most popular celebrities), on her own, appearing to have the time of her life. Behind her we are given a rendition of the good life that the good guys of SMDC have to offer – the exterior of a structure that has yet to be realized, illustrating not only an imaginary environment, but an imaginary lifestyle, heavily infused with the collective dreams on which so much of advertising depends. That the image of the beautiful woman is being used for endorsements should come as no surprise, but this practice begs the question of just what is being sold by real estate ads. To sell a dwelling space is to sell a primary component of everyday life, a habitat once defined by its antithesis to fantasy, the tenets of which depend on temporary pleasures. This is where the images of everyday life being sold to us in the SMDC advertisements deserve to be questioned not only for the images they provide, but for the aesthetic they perpetuate and the grittier realities of everyday life that are stamped out in the process.
As Metro Manila races to catch up with the rest of Asia through rapid vertical development, SMDC has identified itself as a key player in gentrifying the cityscape to cultivate the vision of a globalized cosmopolitan future; moving from retail developments to the private housing market, and reshaping desire literally from the ground up.