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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.

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