Common Ground or “How do we live in a ruin?”

Project Bakawan creates a vision of a hopeful dystopia

Unedited excerpt, to be published in Art+, March 2015

Piratebox Workshop at the Vargas Museum, photo by Pat Nabong

Towards the end of January, a privately owned and operated landfill in Norzagaray, Bulacan changed the name of one its cells. From being just another dump at WACUMAN, Inc., the landfill was legally named “Ako” for a total of 11 days, after an anonymous bidder had purchased the naming rights for 11,111.00 Pesos. Heard as “echo” and translating to “I” (and heard then as “eye”), the new name was commentary on trash not as treasure, but as a reflective surface, signalling collective accountability for a publicly constituted land mass.

This was just one of the culminating events of Tokyo-based artist Yoshinori Niwa’s “Selling the Right to Name a Pile of Garbage”. In residence at the Vargas Museum for the exhibition, Forces at Work, Niwa’s project ran from November 2014 to January 2015, combining fieldwork, business and press conferences, public meetings, and a silent auction. The documentation of Niwa’s project will be screened at the UP Film Institute as part of the Luntiang Tabing Film Festival – curated by Rolando Tolentino (Dean of the UP College of Mass Communication) for Project Bakawan Arts Festival.

Bakawan, the name of the festival and the University of the Philippines-based collective running the show, alludes to the group’s goal not to solve the environmental crisis, but to engage artists in re-imagining life after and alongside it. Alee Garibay, one of Bakawan’s core members, cites the mangrove as an ecological metaphor – a sanctuary, a network, and a source of strength. As an art project led by Friday Abbas, Antares Bartolome , Ian Carlo Jaucian, and Emmanuel Garibay as their convenor, Bakawan cannot escape its identification with endeavours committed to the good, the true, and the beautiful; but unlike so much of what fills the commercial galleries and cultural institutions, the collective maintains an unwavering commitment to what is true – even if this means compromising the good and the beautiful.

“This,” the organizers and participants seem to point out, “is what is true about the world we live in.” And with that, the UP Film Institute, the Vargas Museum, the abandoned stud farm along C.P. Garcia Avenue, and other seemingly random patches and plots across campus were allocated to represent these persisting issues of precariousness and privatization resulting not only from the many iterations of our environmental crisis. While shedding light on the already overrepresented environmental concerns and advocacies, Bakawan uses art not only to make life beautiful; art in this case becomes instrumental in changing how we live. More importantly, art practice becomes a way to highlight what we typically overlook when defining the term (or terms of) our environment.

And this is where Niwa’s project makes a fitting introduction: by recognizing a landfill as a land mass and naming it for oneself (“Ako”), “Selling the Rights…” and its outcome drive home the point that we are what we have laid to waste and that this earth is more than just majestic mountains and pristine waterways, but the marks of human existence left by our oil spills and dump sites. This puts Bakawan in step with current developments in Art Education, specifically the evolving discourse on the Anthropocene, a curriculum that explores the transformation of the lithosphere due to human activity by merging aesthetics and economics with the terms of geology. Central to the Anthropocene is the question (to quote McKenzie Wark) of “How do we live in a ruin?”….

“I think artists are not only stepping up, but people are realizing how relevant we are,” says the younger Garibay. At that moment, we were both meandering through Junyee’s installation at the Vargas’s West Wing Gallery, part of Ethos, Bathos, Pathos – Planting Rice’s contribution to the festival which takes its title from an essay by Marian Pastor-Roces. Dodging crayons hanging by colourful skeins of yarn from the ceiling, we spoke of the activities being prepared for in the next room (the ground floor lobby), where Radyo Itim (a component of Jong Pairez’s CIV:Lab) were setting up a booth from which to invade the airwaves.

Like a mangrove system, Project Bakawan has extended into both the expected and unexpected sites of the University. With participation from professional curators (such as Planting Rice and Eileen Legaspi and Claro Ramirez of Back to Square 1), academics (Rolando Tolentino and Dayang Yraola), pirate radio broadcasters (WSK. FM and Radyo Itim), and other convenors and collectives (Wire Tuazon and Boyet de Mesa, Sipat Lawin), the festival directed by Antares Bartolome takes diverse methods and a variety of channels to “cultivate a consciousness of sustainability and sharing, crystallize it in expression, and harness it for action.” This is done through a month-long series of exhibits, public art installations, film screenings, workshops, and performances….

So how do we live in a ruin? “Ruin” is after all what comes to mind while trudging through what was once the University Stud Farm, now a Materials Recovery Facility, where BS1 (an independent art platform curated by Eileen and Claro Ramirez) mounted Off Site/Out of Sight. As “an attempt at staging productive interactions between people, spaces, and the contexts bound up with these encounters”, materials recovery not only becomes a space to which the exhibition’s visitors should direct themselves, but a method of art production and exhibition.

Like Junyee’s interpretation of Bathos, Quinto’s walls are visitor-generated, produced through a mix of chaos and control, using materials sourced from the surrounding areas. Viewing the installation at night, one has to tread carefully through a similar mix outside the stables, along a path unevenly lit by tiki torches. A far cry from the climate control and carefully managed collections one typically sees at a museum, Off Site/Out of Sight sums up the objectives of Bakawan, not only in relation to the environment, but of what it is to be human: that art practice is not about what is, but what can as well as what should be. And that is how we are to live in a ruin.

No Pictures (Didn’t Happen)

Really Short Notes on Things I Recently Saw

Paloma Polo, via Galeria Umberto di Marino

Paloma Polo, Hold Everything Dear (2014)

Ishmael Bernal Gallery, UP Diliman, Quezon City

Whenever I try to talk about the problem with buying artwork based on how it makes you “feel” (or the general problem of buying and selling art), I’m usually met with “But isn’t that how it should be?” Which has become something of a conversation-ender, because who said anything about the shoulds and should-nots. Anyway, here it is now, the job(s) I signed up for and the questions I’ll always be turning into unnecessary problems – such as the problem of all art being quite useless (Oscar Wilde). Then again, if I make it a problem, does that count as being of use? Haha?

There’s a small exhibit ongoing until the end of the month at the lobby of the UP Film Center, on the less popular side facing the lagoon. Here, Polo takes the materials of local knowledge, plant remedies (folk medicine?), photographs them, then renders them as highly stylized product shots of fossils. I start with this because I helped out a bit with finding a printer for these photos, and each time someone had an opinion about how the image was made, asking if they were wood carvings or engravings, or just really funky plants.

I guess it’s just apt to begin talking about what art does within communities, to audiences, to markets, by looking at Polo’s renditions of knowledge and remedy as it fossilizes and is, in the sense of modern industry, of scientism rather than science, rendered quite useless.

Poklong Anading, Road to Mountains (2015)

Art Fair Philippines, The Link, Makati

There is something sobering embedded in the playfulness of Poklong Anading’s installation at this year’s Art Fair, in which a mound of flattened tires were cut open and laid flat across a section of the 7th floor exhibition halls. The choice of material shows a clever engagement with the site, working within rather than in spite of the Art Fair being held at a parking garage. I happened to chance upon Road to Mountains being used as a trampoline, and like most work filed under the legacy of the ready-made, Anading’s work bears the aura of a practical joke.

Yet, there is that other dimension to the work, found in the accompanying video showing glimpses of what one sees while in transit, illustrating the lapses in our memory of getting from here to there, of the nuances between trying to remember and forcing oneself to forget. While recycled tires in this case find a new purpose as a plaything or an obstacle course, they also speak of endings, of grief, and of the conclusiveness of reducing the materials of mobility to a useless heap of industrial waste. Driving home that night with the windows down, I could hear my car’s tires on the road, the squeaking of treads gripping asphalt, and recalled the optimism of jumping on a pile of tires, of lifting off that which is meant to ground us.

Paul Pfeiffer, 24 Landscapes(2000-2008)

Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, Malate, Manila

The twenty-foot-high walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design are fully utilized in Pfeiffer’s first solo in the region. On its own, the image of a landscape barely warrants any notice, fully exhausted. Yes, we get it, our eyes need a break from this blighted urbanity–yet these are no ordinary landscapes. There’s something in the touch Pfeiffer lends to the subject that rekindles one’s belief in something larger than oneself, but there’s also the specter of his past work, which deals with iconography, erasure, and what he calls “camouflage” as a way of abstraction. To the uninitiated viewer though, taking in the views side by side is a humbling reminder of coexistence, whether you’re looking at a pebble or a cliff, a puddle or a shoreline.

Louie Cordero, Warslime (2015)

Blanc Gallery, Katipunan Ext., Quezon City

I’m guilty of being fully incapable of talking about Louie Cordero’s work without bringing up color, which was the primary reason it ever resonated with me – having grown up in Quezon City: SSS Vill Jeepneys, hand-painted billboards, vinyl stickers on everything, etc. I even see his comic, Nardong Tae, in color. Without the usual pinks and ochres, something is lost in the capital-E Expressionistic tendencies of the work – work that looks like candy but tastes like bile.

When I was starting out with this art writing/writing about art and artists thing, the first question I asked was “What’s your favorite color?” If interpretations of artwork commonly involve matters of self-expression, there is more to be said of the intricacy and fussiness of Cordero’s brushwork that creates a surface that is almost perfectly flat without compromising depth. It looks more like print than like painting. So what impression does Warslime leave? It looks like cigarette ash and smoke.