Mnemonic Devices

Micaela Benedicto, Structures of Unremembering at the Blanc

The past is another country. Simultaneously foreign and familiar, the past is irreversible yet permanently irretrievable in its entirety. Despite the multiple technologies that allow us to document our experiences, what gets captured is a mere selection. If “without our memories we are nothing,” as suggested by Luis Bunuel, then what testament to the self can be given by an instagram feed or a facebook timeline? Memory, these platforms seem to suggest, is not only a curated space but a flattened one; unless our memories are given any coherence through creative acts, memory remains a place of loss.

Between sculpture and image, Micaela Benedicto’s current series of work draws from documents of a recent past, producing structures that are simultaneously traces, reflections, and impermeable layers anchored to pristine surfaces. Like any object placed behind glass and exhibited in the white cube, these structures critique the practice of how easy it is to accept objects on display as fact, even if they too are products of reconstruction.

Occupying a single room at the Blanc on Katipunan Ave., Structures of Unremembering does not deviate from the minimalist aesthetic of Benedicto’s past works – both as an artist and an architect. There’s little color and aside from the photogrammed images transferred to mirrored steel, she makes very little use of curves; yet it is in the layers impressed upon the work that a story unfolds making Structures of Unremembering more of a literary gesture than an architectural one. This recourse to narrative, or to fiction, not only reflects the malleability of the past but the ease with which our memories can betray us.

The only source of softness to the work are the photogrammed images which form a hazy, almost gauzy layer over the hard edges of the steel. In her attempt at structuring that space between remembering and forgetting, the definitive product is a series of angles signifying the tensions between irreversibility and an openness to perception. These structures not only give shape to prior form, but give it height or a level of monumentality. Acknowledging the futility of recollection, we thus find potential in reconstruction, shaping the present and pushing forward into a future.

“Why not invent the past?” This may seem like a stupid question, but it has raised ethical concerns about the well-meaning initiatives that have since grown into the complex of institutionalized myth and meaning making that is the museum. Benedicto’s work, with its reconstructed objects referring to the production of memories, does not resolve this ethical issue; however it does point out these acts of invention and reconstruction as both necessary betrayals and instruments of negotiating our inherently multi-faceted histories. In this case, the question is not whether reconstructing or inventing a past is ethical, but whether it even makes any difference once it becomes of use.

Structures of Unremembering runs at the Blanc Gallery, 145 Katipunan Ave., until Nov. 18, 2014. Here’s the event page.
Structures of Unremembering Micaela Benedicto invite_hi-res


Still listening to The Voyager by Jenny Lewis

I have no idea what you look like but I think you’re tall, because I’m kind of tall and I thought I was built like a wall until I joined a roller derby league and realized how easily I could get knocked down. Well meaning relatives and people I just met ask if you exist and I say no. They correct me and say, “Not yet.”

Yesterday over drinks with friends, another friend with the same “problem” told us about a high school reunion, where a former classmate told her “not to worry”, and that she would find “happiness” someday. Maybe you’re a happiness beyond this and I missed it because this feels like more than enough – this being the work, the people I meet, the books, the things I get to look at. Another friend spoke of advice from his dad, who (to paraphrase) told him to find a girl who doesn’t expect you to give her the world.

I don’t know. The world’s pretty great and I’d take that, any day, over whatever “happiness” I’m expected to find.

Book Club #1: Everybody has cancer

A.M. Homes, “Do Not Disturb”; David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death; Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

Hello and welcome to my book club, I hope you’re a person who likes books. So…are you a person who likes books? Can you prove it with your book ends shaped like letters or cardboard shelf sitters that endlessly remind you of your love of the written word (pro-tip, they sell them in styrofoam at your favorite chain bookstore, but that shit ain’t sustainable so make sure to bring a reusable tote to make up for it [whoops, babbling])? Then please sit wherever you like, unless you are already sitting as you read this. In that case, good for you! Sitting down is the best. I’m not even going to qualify that. It’s the best.

For my first edition of Alice’s fucking Book Club (assuming there is anyone else here besides me) we’re going to dive face first into the world of things that cause crippling depression with a special “Nope, there’s no cure for that” cancer edition by reading…

  1. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, followed by
  2. Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and to round out (or rather SPIRAL INTO THE DEEP END OF) this list, we end it all with
  3. David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death

I know everyone’s fucking excited for the review of related dark shit we’re about to undertake (and since this is my book club and I have serious deficits in the attention department, we usually read three at a time without really finishing and glazing over the parts that we have to admit are just filler [like that fucking Real World monologue from Heartbreaking Work–what the fuck was that?), but first I guess I owe an explanation for why I selected these books.

See, I’m a firm believer in embracing your darkness. If I was a follower of organized or institutional religion, I could chalk it up to seeing the light in how the lord made you. But I’m not religious in that sense and I can’t even maintain any form of ritual now that I’m unemployed and have enough time to consider why it is that I’m drawn to literature about suffering–especially with these three, which deal with the suffering of white, educated citizens of first world countries. In which case, the three I’ve chosen are veritable institutions in contemporary American Lit: Eggers is behind McSweeney’s and 826, Didion is…well, I can’t really explain who Joan Didion is because I never had to, given the average amount of shelf space I see dedicated to her. I guess the least popular among the three would be David Reiff, but Swimming in a Sea of Death is not so much a biography of Susan Sontag, as it is a narration of her diagnosis and eventual death as told by her son.

This is not just about terminal illness though, but about working through it as a member of an exalted class. There’s the fact that you can’t talk medically about cancer without having it diagnosed, but there’s a privilege to actually be in a place that affords you the diagnosis, that element of choice rather than the acceptance that accompanies fatalism. It’s called a disease of the rich for good reason, and it’s precisely this tension between privilege and suffering that is tackled so well in these three books–and one story…because now I want to throw in A.M. Homes’s “Do Not Disturb,” which was anthologized in three different editions of The Best of McSweeney’s (available at your favorite chain bookstore [this post is not sponsored]).

What these three books and one story have in common is that they’re not told from the perspective of the dying or infirm, but from the one tasked with caring for them. And rather than give a rosy eulogistic account out of reverence to the dying (spoiler, everyone dies), they thresh out the humanity of being forced to love or to care despite the eventuality and clarity of the end in sight and its attendant despair- a deadline in the truest sense. In the cases of Rieff and Eggers, we read of sons and their mothers, for Didion, it’s the loss of a husband, and for Homes, it’s a fictional account of a husband losing his wife – who also happens to be a doctor, and a very unlikable one at that.

“But I’m supposed to like doctors! And strong female characters! And strong female characters who are doctors WITH CANCER!” you protest. But nope, haha! The world doesn’t work that way! The world is full of condescending book club leaders and remember, everyone in these books has some kind of terminal illness.

All the same, this is not a meditation on how the world does or does not work, nor is a book club a platform to tell you how literature works; rather it’s a site where we use words to negotiate the otherwise non-negotiable. Like our relationships with our families. Or deadly diseases. Or, you know, death.

Anyway, this was fun, guys! Join me/us again next week when I give away a bunch of books I forgot I had and force you to read about Balkan genocide.

Edited to correct the title of Didion’s work and David Rieff’s name.

Songs from a Room

A couple of months ago, I pitched an idea to an editor: I wanted to write about the economics of the music scene. “No frills, no nuance, just numbers,” was the way I regrettably described it and the way I steered myself right into a wall.

After the introduction and the questions surrounding work, we (I mean me, or I) eventually came to the issue of space – or what constitutes the space in which music is consumed. This was after already considering how tricky production is, which was why I tackled work first: at which point is a song actually produced? What actually constitutes the labor of the immaterial, or rather, how is effort even quantified?

If I were to go with my pitch of a “no frills” analysis, this should be easy: production is a matter of recording and releasing. For the majority of locally produced music however, this is not necessarily the case, specifically because of the complications of the live circuit. Specifically, if you play a song live, does that count as a release?

What if you’ve been playing that song live for close to a decade? What if, given the prohibitive costs and lack of an infrastructure for recording, the only way that your song is even produced and consumed is as a live performance?

The website lists 46 bars in its section devoted to venues where one can hear OPM played live. 46 venues all over the Philippines – that number however does not consider the question, “What doesn’t count as a music venue?”–especially as we enter the age of the “DJ set”. It does not include basketball courts, multi-purpose halls, hotel ballrooms, churches, “churches”, sidewalks, municipal courtyards, or the backyards of rich people. That number is limited to places where music can be consumed in varying states of intoxication, because we really have to be drunk to enjoy this stuff.

This probably isn’t going in the final essay, but the other question is: When it comes to discussions of space, is it even possible to separate the economic from the political? After all, the demand for a cover charge covers more than a free drink and a few hours of entertainment.

What complicates this is the weird mix of exclusivity and proximity: no one gets carded in the Philippines, but these are still bars. There’s also the issue of size, meaning not everyone can get in, yet once you’re in, audiences and performers sit literally face-to-crotch. From where you’re sitting, you can soak up a band’s sweat, see what they’re drinking, and if you’re a real creeper, follow them back to their cars.

The live circuit in which the seeds of OPM have been produced and consumed have created a unique culture that grants fans every opportunity to take their idols off their pedestals, which makes it even funnier that this same culture still produces rock stars. When it comes to star power however, the lack of mid-sized venues (i.e. not a bar) gives mid-career musicians very few places to go.

Seriously, as a musician, where do you play when there’s practically nothing between the cafe and the stadium? And what if you never even want to fill a stadium? What happens to musicians who don’t want to be rock stars?

Considering the Difference

Installation view of Gary-Ross Pastrana’s 99% at Silverlens, Gillman Barracks (Sg)

Gary Ross Pastrana’s 99% consists of two complementary components: a video documenting the process of selling a broken car for scrap, then using the earnings from roughly 99% of the parts to buy gold, which was then fashioned into an object, seen in the other component of the exhibition. Atop a pedestal at mo___, the golden object, no larger than the tip of my finger, is seen dangling from the 1% that is left of the car seen in the video. What Pastrana presents however is not commentary, but a narrative: a parable about the value assigned to objects which have lost their function, its subtlety eliminated in being re-imagined or reinterpreted within the space of the gallery.

Put simply, 99% forces the viewer to consider the difference between two different lumps of metal. Given the air of reverence, the quiet room, the shared pedestal – apparently, not much.

In another frequently cited parable, Marcel Duchamp took a porcelain urinal and called it Fountain (1917). A more conventional contribution can be found in a painting by Rene Magritte, telling us “This is a pipe.” Like most of Pastrana’s past work, 99% is a conceptual gesture – one that falls into neither the Dadaist or Surrealist categories, yet maintains their legacy by considering not only the distinction between objects and things of value, but through probing the difference between poetry and a practical joke.

The joke though is that there is no logic. Like most of the stuff we see in galleries and museums, Pastrana’s work appeals to aesthetic arguments. The work of a conceptual artist is no simple task, especially upon surveying how much is cynically passed off as “art” (or created for the sake of taking a jab at Art).

In the case of the aesthetic argument, consider the difficulty of using a visual medium to point out the immaterial. In attempts at reason, this is not a matter of validity, but of privilege or of coming to define reason as a product of logic – and not just any logic, it has to be scientific logic. Consider the difference again – the difference between art and science being less than we think.

Considering…I didn’t even really want to talk about 99%. I wanted to talk about shoes. No really, let’s just talk about shoes. Let’s talk about high heels! If we were to appeal to reason–to science!–high heels make absolutely no sense. There is no logical argument for wearing high heels. Looking at that statement however, I’m not saying wearing high heels is stupid, just that arguments for their necessity are stupid, precisely because–unless you live in 15th century Venice–they’re unnecessary.

The problem when it comes to aesthetic arguments though is that they have become so esoteric. Unnecessarily so, especially with the amount of unnecessary objects in our midst. When I say “I don’t like wearing high heels but I like the way they make my calves look. My high heels not only set me above the average height by about 8 inches, they have physically deformed my legs, and your average fashion magazine says it’s for the better.” this is not considered a valid argument, precisely because it appeals to aesthetics rather than logic–even if it is not without reason. While that is not the best example, it only serves to point out that the two require a different way of thinking. Unfortunately, even the act of “thinking” is automatically linked to logic.

This is not to consider the difference between aesthetics and scientific logic though, or gold and car parts, or high heels and flats and other things that give science a bad name. This is to point out the privilege granted to one and not the other that voids the immaterial of value, as if there is only one path to reason.

In which case, to hell with logic and the privilege it is automatically granted.