Then where are its wheels?

There’s still too much to unpack from the past year – the year of being 29. My last birthday was spent at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards (my mom won that year for a short story she had written), otherwise known as the Palancas. I may have gotten the longer title wrong, but does that really matter when the point is I paid too much money for a whiskey sour in the lobby before going in and drinking too many White Russians, mostly because they were free and pageantry makes me uncomfortable.

This is who I am now, or rather, the me I am living with now.

On September 1, 2014, I was seeing someone and my only request was that he bring cheese and beer (or was it wine?). I had just gotten back from a 3-month long trip that had taken me from San Francisco to New York, then across Portugal to Barcelona, then back to New York, then Dallas for a couple of months, before winding down in Long Beach with my best friend from high school. For that birthday, I can safely say that I was still in love with myself and the rest of the world after spending all that time in it. The boy still comes with recollections of happiness, a relationship without any of the usual titles or commitments, but with an effort to be kind to each other that I cannot deny was genuine. We were right for each other–at least for the moment we were.

This is one of those “I realized…as I turned 30.” posts (so you can stop reading if that’s not your thing), and what I realized was this: the people who stuck it out and spent time with me gave their best. It’s too cynical to assume that anyone makes a conscious effort to be an asshole when you’re speaking of a relationship as it unfolds between two people. We’re all trying: it should be that simple. Sometimes we try for something longer term, sometimes we don’t promise anything, but any amount of time spent making each other happy is an act of generosity in itself. It should also be as simple as sometimes we fail.

Which brings me to today: I spent the first hour of my 30th birthday waiting in front of a luggage carousel for a heavy duffel containing a tent, a sleeping bag, and a week’s worth of clothes. Over one shoulder was a tote of books that had been given away by their editor, whose lectures I had been fortunate enough to attend. I had just flown in from Antwerp*, where I had worked in a communal situation with about 25 other artists and writers. A campsite had been prepared for us right outside the Middelheim Museum, where we slept in tents, sat down to three meals a day together, and occasionally went drinking and dancing.

The theme of the convention (if you could call it that) was Mobile Autonomy, and we spent a lot of time talking about wheels – an image, medium, and material I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time writing about without actually imagining it going anywhere (no pun intended[?]). Had I been asked about this a year earlier, drunk on White Russians while watching my mom accept another award, desperately attempting to finish my own writing, I never would have imagined Antwerp, rain, and camping. Heck, the camping part didn’t even come in ’til at least a month before I was all set to leave.

But there are other things I would not have foreseen, things that did not even involve any long-ish/medium term plans, like going birthday to birthday/year to year. See, 29 was supposed to be the year I got a serious job. I spoke to friends about it, about how institutions are here to stay (at least when it comes to Philippine art and culture), so might as well learn to work within that system. Then there are the alternatives, like camping in Western Europe. Cooking for each other while the joggers in the park poke their heads in and make some comments you don’t fully understand, but you’re sure you heard the word “Communiste” mentioned once or twice.

2013 was the year I first set foot in Europe as a participant in the 4th Former West Research Congress at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. My travel was fully funded by the Goethe Institut and German government** and for the most part, I was not entirely sure what I was getting myself into or who I was working with. I didn’t know much about BAK (Basis voor Actuele Kunst) or what it meant to work with Post-1989 histories. And now, here we are.

I don’t fully know how any of this stuck, but I should be on my way back to the HKW in October (funded again by the German government*), this time for research group/workshop/mentorship. Even more explicit than the Former West Congress, this one’s about Engels. That Engels.

I know there are stereotypes about girls who graduated with degrees in Fashion. There are similar notions about people who study contemporary art.

What hurts me is that the amount of travel I’ll be doing this quarter (Belgium, Germany, Spain) all relate to my own research and writing on contemporary art, but the fact of travel or the need for it only signals how there may be no place for it [in the discussions being held] here. The link just hasn’t been drawn yet. What hurts even more is that my job has me immersed in the business of making and showing art at least 9 hours a day, but it has next to nothing to do with what I feel art is for or where it belongs. What hurts me most is that this is confirmed by the fact that I actually lost (or let go of, either way it’s an unpleasant situation) my job in the local art scene, so happy birthday to me.

I’ve been told this could be more of a blessing than a curse, opportunity rather than crisis. As obvious as it should seem (I mean who wouldn’t choose Berlin and Barcelona over full-time, underpaid labor?), it still feels disappointing. I still believe (because I’m silly that way) that curators should be attending to the multiple conflicts we encounter regarding these questions of place and space. Art could be a conduit, but that also depends on what one is willing to regard as “art”. This is also where curators come in. Ultimately it’s about finding a place and a space for things, and I hate to give up on that, but I just don’t have the energy to do anything but write–and all my writing sounds like complaining!


Earlier today, I had to deliver a piece to its collector. Here’s how this usually goes: in the middle of the day, the people who are there to receive the work are employees or household “staff”. Apparently, the person receiving the piece did not entirely know what it was. She had only been told to be very careful with it because it was valuable and fragile.

Lately, my mind’s been clouded by these questions of value: of something being fragile, being precious, being important. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant in practice–let along in policy–until I had to deal with art. And I mean really deal with art, not just in theory, not just as a series of cases encountered through whatever medium, including the exhibition space.

So what happened next: she opens the box, and I tell her to wait a second because I need to get my camera. I need to take her picture so we can have it on record that the piece was in good condition when I left it with her. With that, everyone in the room stepped out of the frame. “It was entrusted to you,” they told her, as the thing officially passed hands. The shutter (or whatever digital iteration of it) went click, and that was that. She had no choice but to sign whatever I handed her.

“Here’s the insurance,” I said, passing her a thin sheaf of stapled leaves. It was paper but it was also a guarantee. Then she started laughing because, “This thing has insurance? Even I don’t have insurance!” she exclaimed. I wanted to say neither did I, just to commiserate, but even that wasn’t true.

“Why does it have insurance, is it a car?” she asked, laughing.

“Sort of,” I answered in the vernacular.

“Then where are its wheels?”

To which it was my turn to laugh. I also had to go but I wish I could have answered, or at least stayed to hear more from her about the absurdity of the situation. Absurdity’s not really the word though: what I’ve been having trouble coming to terms with is the strange kind of brutality about making someone responsible for [the security of] something they can’t, or just haven’t had the opportunity to, understand. Apart from where art belongs, who actually has to work with it? Who does the heavy lifting? Or rather, for whom does the responsibility for it weigh heaviest?


*For this, I need to recognize the travel funding granted by the Prince Claus Fund;

**Acknowledging help where acknowledgement is due: this one was funded by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Goethe Institut

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Author: alicesarmiento

San Juan, Metro Manila

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