This heaven gives me migraines

Teaching Fashion History at a Public University, Jeane Napoles, and Derivatives

For two years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching the courses in Western and Asian costume development, as part of the University of the Philippines’ Clothing Technology program (which has been my sole source of stable employment for the past four years). I call it a privilege because it has been fun (for me) and, among all of the classes I’ve taught, has provided the most potential for future projects. In these courses, it has always been important to maintain a candid and comfortable atmosphere, particularly because of the difficulty that comes with separating one’s personal beliefs from the many layers that cloak the subject of fashion. If it’s true that what you wear on your body, what sits next to your skin, reflects your politics, then this permeates the lessons I’m tasked with passing on to a room full of bodies dressed to express whatever is cycling around in their brains (edit: my friend just confirmed that I dress like a color blind toddler, so fuck it). There has to be room to argue.

I was only three years older than my eldest student (in one case, I was five years younger, and there are still cases where we’re the same age. It’s just a little awkward. A little, sometimes) when I started; but four years in, I’ve already been set apart, in age, by a decade from our current crop of freshmen. This is probably more than enough to guarantee a degree of loss in transgenerational discourse, but it’s still not enough to set you apart in terms of technology. Even if I’m finally old enough to be taken seriously as an authority figure, the electronic extensions to our limbs are pretty much the same. We all have fingers made for keystrokes and eyeballs that extend to screens…They just have nicer phones.

When it comes to history however, we’re practically on separate planets, and this is a common gripe among teachers when it comes to trying to get through to this subset of digital natives. When your consciousness is an extension of your social networks, the information you process extends solely from specific algorithms, negating the possibility of a cybernetic common ground–ask Aziz Ansari, or something. The paradox of living in the information age is that even with the positive and emancipatory potential that comes with unlimited access to information, it is also too easy for issues that were once deemed front page fodder to be relegated to the bottom of the stream. If everyone has their own front page (aside from personal issues of course), then how is this reconfiguring the terms of what is and isn’t newsworthy? Would you even trust someone who constantly googles herself to be her own reliable filter?

And…This is why, even with everything that’s happening in meatspace, I still have to keep up with dumb shit on twitter. Or rather, this is why I have to care about people like Jeane Napoles – a person so fashion that fashion went and ate its own spleen the minute her name became associated with it. Unfortunately fashion no longer had a spleen, because Jinkee Pacquiao.

When it comes to fashion, and here I’m limiting the concept to clothing and its performance (socially, not materially), the boundaries between the social, the cultural, and the personal are so heavily blurred, making it difficult to discuss without steering into a blind alley of subjectivity. How do you even begin to explain a serviced apartment at the Ritz (it’s called the fucking Ritz!) alongside international students fees and tuition at FIDM–and everything else on top of that?

From there, how do you go backwards into the industry’s history of casual yet subtle violence, underpinning the movement of an object, from its material and social functions, to the legacy it leaves as an idea, in order to make sense of its contemporary “eventuality” as a case study like Jeane Napoles?

I know, what an asshole, right? Suck a bag of dicks, Jeane Napoles!
I know, what an asshole, right?

When I taught my first history class, I didn’t have the ideas fully articulated so I just let movies do the talking. Through marathon viewings of The Tudors and Velvet Goldmine, I would sit at the back, trying to figure out what it was about fashion that we weren’t really saying. That was three years ago, and now that I’m teaching a similar subject, it’s only now that I’m beginning to grasp fashion’s role in ripping at the seams of an already fragile social fabric without flinging shit at people who covet designer dresses and handbags that cost more than my annual income. Not only might some of those people be my students, but it does little to acknowledge the shared responsibility that comes with building this institution, and the accompanying imbalances. And because it cycles through this very same plane as desire, it perpetuates itself as light rather than shadow, represented as aspiration rather than alienation. Instead of remaining in the shadow of (late) capitalism with the sweat shops and scammers (which arguably inhabit separate realms of the fashion industry), fashion stubbornly hogs the limelight, with all the Jeane Napoles-types fighting for their own time to shine.

Yet, while she may just be some womanchild living off her parents’ ill-gotten (although this has “yet to be proven” [haha, right]) wealth, that doesn’t explain why there are still too many like her; and too many who will balk at seeing how she carries on, despite not-so-secretly coveting the life she’s living. To jump to mass hypocrisy as a conclusion is too simple, and that’s where the conflicts lie. Incarnated as craftsmanship or performance, beauty is too loose a term to comprehend the massive rift between the price and the actual cost of an object, especially when we talk about fashion. Even as we are repelled by the speculative, financialized arm of the fashion market–where we trade derivatives rather than clothes–there are still so many aspects of the industry which captivate and remind us that human hands are capable of bringing a thing of beauty to life.

While beauty (and the monopoly of the term by certain industries and certain geocultural regions) may be another issue altogether, the extent of our complicity in defining it has yet to be discussed–without resorting to the usual barrage of cattiness, or racist comments about how some person who bought her way into being relevant is too brown to be wearing Vuitton, or myopia accompanying interclass warfare. If the fashion industry is too easily dismissed as a frivolous and fanciful pursuit, then how come the story keeps ending the same way? How come we’ve never done anything about it? And why are all the key players dressed the same?

Also, what the fuck is this?

Dirty Dream no. 2

I had a dream the other night in which it turned out that my apartment had a second floor all this time, which I discovered while talking to a friend about how I’d peeked into my neighbor’s unit (when they happened to leave the door open while they were cleaning) and I noticed a staircase leading to one of the turrets that’s visible from outside the building. The friend I was talking to then pointed to a staircase that had magically appeared right beside me and asked, “Don’t you have a second floor?” And holy crap. I did. And after seven months of living here, I was more than ready to put that shit to use.

But when I went upstairs, I found not only a massive bedroom with an equally massive bathroom; it also turned out that both had already been lived in and were pretty musty, but I might have shrugged these relevant facts off in my embarrassment at not even knowing I had a second floor. They were also connected to other rooms, rooms that just kept extending into more rooms that looked like reconstructions of places I’d slept or lived in from both a distant and not-so-distant past.

It all felt weirdly familiar until I made my way back to what was supposed to be “my room”, in which I had to climb over a mountain of empty Red Horse bottles just to get the the moldy mattress. In spite of all that, it didn’t even hit me that, “Holy shit, the last person who lived here must have drank himself to death like Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas,” instead, I thought, “I don’t even like Red Horse,” and “Hey, free mattress!” Because I don’t know, even if this may be some grim warning of future battles with substance abuse or loneliness or the unstable definitions of home, the only thing that seems clear is that my subconscious doesn’t take dreaming too seriously, so why should my meatspace self care.

Today was good. Both Pancake and Piglet were readmitted at the shelter, then went to see Patricia Eustaquio talk at the Vargas Museum, then ordered a battery for my laptop. I’d show you what I wore, but I’m still wearing it, so I guess that defeats some weird purpose of trying to prove that there’s actually any difference between what I wear to bed and what I wear everywhere else (there’s usually a difference, but not today).

Potato (8)

And then there was one – Potato, pictured here: the tiniest sweetheart, my little love, will go and join her brothers, Pancake and Piglet, at the shelter next week, after the hair on her belly (shaved to make way for spaying) grows back and she gets a little fatter.

For adoption inquiries, you may contact Cha or Loren at the Philippine Animal Rehabilitation Center, at (+632)475-1668. Potato was part of the PAWS fostering program, where volunteers open their homes to animals in need of hand-rearing or sheltering before they’re old enough to be neutered and integrated into the shelter population.

This is Auntie

Auntie (1)

I’m looking for someone who’s in the market for a giant cat.
Market may not be the correct term, because it’s not as if I’m selling her. Auntie needs a new home, and you or someone you know may know someone else who’s looking for a cat, kind of like this:

As you can see from the results of this scientific experiment, in which Tara and I stuck post-its to Auntie’s side, Auntie is a very easygoing cat. That is also her favorite spot, right next to her bottomless food dish.

Auntie (13)
And here is what Auntie looks like from behind. These things matter.

Auntie, whose most recent pictures you just saw, is fully grown, spayed, vaccinated, and as you can see she is beautiful. I mean look at her!

Look at her!

She’s like a very naked and very overweight mime. Who also happens to be covered with fur.

She also weighs about 8 lbs., maybe more, maybe less; the point is she weighs about as much as a baby. So if babies are your thing, but you’d rather not change diapers, then this is the baby for you.

Why does Auntie need a new home?

Auntie came to live with me because she had just given birth in one of the flower boxes of the apartment complex where I currently live. Because I live right above a Kowloon House, which is incidentally where Tall Tara and I first spotted Auntie, I figured that this part of the world was not going to be very kind to Auntie and her kittens. So upstairs they went!

Here’s Auntie, solo;

Auntie (19)

…and here is Auntie scolding Pancake for bombing the shot.

Auntie and Pancake (2)
It’s been four months, and now the kittens are fully grown. Because I registered them as fosters with the Philippine Animal Rehabilitation Center (aka PARC, aka the shelter for the Philippine Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS), they got their spaying and vaccination for free, and they are now ready to go back to the shelter where another kind soul will adopt them FOREVER!

As for Auntie, she is too old to go to an animal shelter, but not too old for love. However, I have my hands full at this point with Sandwich and Florentine.

Sandwich and Florentine
Sandwich and Florentine

And I’m always getting teased about having too many cats. I have two. And while two is not too many, it is enough. Especially if you live in a 30 square meter apartment.

You however probably have zero cats, and you also happen to be looking for one that is loving, more or less sedentary (i.e. will stay out of your way and off your keyboard), comes when she’s called, and is adorably overweight.

This is your cat.

I mean look at her!

Auntie: aka, the Best Cat.

Notes on maintaining an artificial peace

Or, how is individual subjectivity managed and negotiated with the rise (and fall) of global institutions?

Li Ran, “Beyond Geography” (2012)

“I’m searching for words to describe the period of history we’re living through. To say it’s unprecedented means little, because all periods were unprecedented since history was first discovered…I’m looking for nothing more than a figurative image to serve as a landmark…

The landmark I’ve found is that of a prison. Nothing less. Across the planet, we are living in a prison.”

I begin with this quote from John Berger as an introduction to my experience of the 4th Former West research congress, which was held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in what was once, or what was the former, West Berlin, making this iteration of the congress particularly unique. Past editions were held in Utrecht and Istanbul, organized by the Dutch organization, BAK, (basis voor actuele kunst, which I know I’m not going to be able to pronounce properly) under Maria Hlavajova.

Now that I’ve mentioned Hlavajova, it would be a good time to discuss the general theme and the slippery definitions surrounding this concept of the “Former” West, which was conceived by Hlavajova in 2008, and how it relates to the Berger quote with which I opened my talk. To parse that title would leave us with a question of obsolescence or expiration, in which we can speak of the subjective interiority of the West and all its associations with capitalism, with colonialism, and with civil society as things of the past. To place the congress and the period in history marking its conception would leave us in a period not only of rethinking “post-1989” histories, but the period following economic collapse, preceding Occupy, and occurring alongside the Arab Spring. Not to contradict Berger, however it is difficult to deny the unprecedented levels we are living through at this point in history.

As for Hlavajova, to speak of the West as former has yet to be fully realized. Referring to Berlin, while there may be a former east, why was there no former west? And here she quotes the artist Hito Steyerl, wherein the former west remains “a good idea”.

In his introduction for the first day’s proceedings, Dr. Bernd M. Scherer, director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, HKW herein, laid the groundwork for this historical inquiry into the former-ness of the West, with the claim that “History can be told retrospectively and prospectively. In the case of architecture, it can be said that ‘first we build architecture and then architecture builds us.’” Scherer was referring in this case to the structure itself that would be our second home for the next seven days, where from 10 in the morning to midnight, we would be subjected to a series of lectures, workshops, performances, and hangings around the central themes of former West.

Of the HKW’s place in the discussion, Scherer described its genesis as “a symbol of space, openness, freedom, and unity, making it a political project from the start.” A gift from the United States, in 1957 (as the former Congress Hall) to the people of Germany, the HKW meant to signify how the West saw itself and wished to be seen, with the building’s largest auditorium housing up to 15 translators at a time, allowing proceedings to commence in no less than 16 languages.

Then in 1980, as Reagan and Thatcher began laying the groundwork for an inherently Euramerican neoliberal agenda, the roof of the HKW collapsed. Whether this was a metaphor or foreshadowing of an end to broadly accepted East-West dynamics, the collapse of the Berlin wall (nearly a decade later) would plant the seeds of Former West, when Hlavajova lamented that “if democracy had been achieved, what would be left for art to fight for?” The rather wistful inquiry had been posed without fully grasping what this democracy would entail: In this case, it meant equating (or confusing) freedom with the freedom of the market. Thus, the formerness of the west had not transpired, rather it had transmogrified into another institution entirely; much like the collapse of the HKW’s roof, there remained the foundation of exploitation, of oppression, and of censorship, upon which these “freedoms” were built.

…no political power in the world can prevent children being born. Only afterwards can power transform a precious little life into a miserable existence without a future.

Jasmina Tesanovic, “The Diary of a Political Idiot”, Granta 67: Women and Children First

Returning to Berger’s assertion that, “Across the planet, we are living in a prison,” the 4th Former West congress gave two strands of thought for tracing its contours. Insurgent Cosmopolitanism and Infrastructure would describe what Irit Rogoff called “the ways of the world” and means for human life to go on within this prison, whereas the insurgent in the cosmopolitan arises with the reality that individuals representing themselves, alone, can only come up against other individuals. Another two strands, Art Production and Dissident Knowledges, proposed ways out of it.

Rogoff’s discussion on infrastructure served as a conscience, a time to reflect on the measures taken to stamp the otherwise uncontrollable into submission. Echoing Adorno that, “Within a predetermined reality, freedom becomes a vacant claim”. Before moving forward, the strand on infrastructure was a means to take a good look around and understand how we even got here – which drew the ire of the heads of Goldsmiths where Rogoff had come from. The gist being that, “Your department is so negative. All you ever do is critique.”

Throughout the congress, Berlin locals complained incessantly about that having been the longest winter in recent memory. It wasn’t supposed to be snowing in March, and the possibility that this was the price that the Western world had to pay for its manipulation of the “natural environment,” in creating a coherence in which humanity can thrive. And yet the terms become debatable, because it is precisely these questions of “thriving” and “humanity” around which the formerness of the west–in light of the collapse of the economic dimension of neoliberalism—“oscillated” (Solomon 2013). To describe the groundwork laid by the built environment which made the infrastructure of the west possible, one would have to go back to modernity, to enlightenment, and in the process mire oneself in the ideological muck that made the west what it was, and the rest what we are now. We speak of change, we speak of progress, but all of this takes place relative to an existing construct, an established infrastructure.

Those who once left for the West
for stability
for a normal life for their children
to get away from this trash
this Soviet mindset—
are returning today to Russia,
where the local diumvirate has created a more or less
decent environment for the middle class
and reasonable conditions for business.
Not, of course, like in the good old days,
the 1990s,
but still better than now
in the barbaric socialist West
where the self-proclaimed people have gone into the streets,
the anarchists and the immigrants,
and hung huge banners
from the buildings:
“Capitalism is outlawed!”

Kirill Medvedev 2 April 2012

This brings us to the current crisis of a world in transition from an industrial to a financial to a cognitive economy, wherein we were asked not only to “imagine” the west as former, but to consider what kinds of global futures could come of it. Former West thus became a crash course in neoliberal imperatives that played integral roles in the Arab Spring, in Occupy, in Greece, and in the more recent movements in Taksim Square. To echo Marian Pastor Roces, it was not looking for solutions, but a means to calibrate a terminology: an episteme and ontology with which we could grapple with “the end of an epoch”, or at least a means to understand why this epoch of capitalism and free market valorization invites inquiry towards a third way; in which the necessity of objectifying the world can be re-thought and redefined.

Hlavajova’s proposition, or rather the prospects to what we now witness in this conflation of the market with the multitude, of the citizen with the conscript, and the cosmopolitan with the human, was a way to turn politics into “the method, rather than the subject,” of art, in order to realize of a way beyond both communism and capitalism. Rather than fetishize politics through art, politics would thus be absorbed into the practice of aesthetic exertion–without neglecting the need to clear aesthetics of the stale air of Euramerican ideology. Should art have a cause to fight for, art cannot be apolitical in that “it flawlessly mirrors the society in which it arose,” making it a vehicle for both capitalism and democracy to fold into one another.

The transition thus results in the paradox of objectifying the world through financial and cognitive capital – where dollars and the English language are designated as “universal” terms for exchange, currencies for both negotiating and creating the limits of an infrastructure that now went beyond geography as we once knew it, and for quantifying an otherwise subjective site: the individual. The rise of cognitive capital in the midst of increasing subjectivity is best exemplified by what Boris Buden referred to as the “sivisation” (CV-zation) of the self. Sivisation meant extending the citizen into the infrastructure, which in the context of a cosmopolitanized, global governmentality, displaced human life into algorithmic and logistical institutions. In the realm of art production, the CV becomes a narrative of human existence, highlighting the neat overlap of human life with artistic labor.

As discussed by both Ranjit Hoskote and Homi Bhabha, this imagined future of cosmopolitanism, wherein a person without a president is “unprecedented”, calls for a situation of common vulnerability that Bhabha spoke of as “a recognition of the humanity of others [that] calls out an equal share of responsibility in us.” Thus, we risk rendering the world not only into a playground of porous borders, but a massive game of every wo/man for her/himself. As an ongoing narrative of this cosmopolitan existence, the CV also casts a shadow by mobilizing the bare life of the “unprecedented” into a state of perpetual precarization.

For the perpetually precarious, this contemporary state of nature, how do we re-imagine the nation as mobilization and the human as mobility personified? Moreover, how can these ideas be transplanted to a place where economic collapse is the status quo, and class warfare is not an intellectual exercise, but a reality we have to face day in, day out? And what politics do we practice as artists and art educators when dysfunction and instability are themselves the foundations and not the features of the state?

Neoliberalism in the Philippines is not merely an agenda or a measure to fall back on at a time of austerity, but the only opening from which we are able to operate. Borders may one day be rendered fictional by an ethics of mobility, but this very porousness has already replicated or reflected a narrative of imprisonment. Thus, Neoliberalism is not an ideology to transplant along with the ghost of the former west, but a term in which we can recognize the sole guarantor of this artificial peace.

This is a transcript of the lecture I gave about the 4th Former West: Documents, Contellations, Prospects to members of the Department of Art Studies. Included are (what I can remember from) my answers during the open forum.
Benjamin dela Pena, “Embracing the Autocatalytic City”
Kirill Medvedev,
“America: A Prophecy”
Lawrence Vale and Annemarie Gray, “The Displacement Decathlon”
Mark Greif, “Apocalypse Deferred”
Natasha Ginwala and Vivian Ziherl, “Sensing Grounds: Mangroves, Unauthentic Belonging, Extra-territoriality”
English Disco Lovers