A Premature Evaluation of The Year That Was

Berlin, 2015
Berlin, 2015

I remember a really long question being asked in Spanish that had to do with the intersections between patriarchy and capitalism and Marcuse, which was then translated into a really long question in English which, even then, I only partially understood. This was yesterday, as the conference on Critical Cartography in Barcelona was wrapping up. Mapping is obviously an urgent topic: We want to know where we are.

As for where I am, or where I am taking this, I still hesitate when the question comes up. I know and I don’t know, or I don’t want to know. Here, you get a certificate that does not only say you attended or participated or presented, you get a number of hours credited as “teaching load”.

“Well, I guess I did teach people something,” said the geographer sitting beside me. The certificates weren’t handed to us in some grand display with photographers present. They were what they were: an acknowledgement of work accomplished in a world where everyone does some kind of work. As for me, I have the privilege of choice when it comes to what I do: I was born middle class and could afford to work for “experience” and “exposure”, because I knew that no matter how much or how little I was paid, I was not going to starve to death. I can afford to enter the academe or the art world precisely because my family always had the means to value culture alongside everything else.

I remember waking up to a strip of blue interrupting the grey skies of West Berlin and hoping for good weather. I remember not being disappointed as we filed into the bus (I was about to say “piled”, but Germans do not “pile”) and rode through a city steeped in history and dressed in the warm colors of autumn. I was in Berlin to listen in on discussions about how people are housed against the architecture of dispossession, the proposition here being that housing makes the violence and inequality fostered by neoliberal capitalism not only visible, but inhabitable. Of course I cannot discount the fact of being in Berlin (and now Barcelona) because the German government could afford to pay for everything I needed.

IMG_20151020_144605 (1)

As always, at these things, I was often silent, insecure about my contributions, unsteady atop the awkward foundations my own education had laid. I felt like the go-to person for shooting the shit about everything besides the subject at hand. Having to digest the question of unequal means amid universal needs over and over again was difficult to take in and even before we broke into smaller groups for the workshops, I was already exhausted. I wanted to talk about my pets and go dancing. I wanted drinks after hours and a lot of hugs.

More than any other year, 2015 highlights all these moments where my conflicted feelings and thoughts about work, a public, and a dignified way of life come to a head. 2015 has been too many short-term engagements, none of which lead to anything certain: I started as an invigilator then made exhibitions then moved on to these conferences and summer schools and fieldtrips, and I can’t ignore how unbelievably fortunate I am to have the opportunity to experience this kind of continuous movement.

But it’s also exhausting and I know I will have to stop somewhere. Barcelona is a flat city with mild weather. Even as winter approaches, coats and gloves are still optional. The long walks from Christian and Rosa’s apartment to anywhere in the city have allowed me to clear my head with every step, making room for this undeniable fact:

I can’t hear anything.

Barcelona and Antwerp, and Berlin to an extent, have all confronted me with a wall of language. Despite discussions of living in a post-racial world (haha, whatever) already being on the table, there is still this one, massive obstacle to belonging, in that I literally cannot hear what people are saying and in many cases cannot make myself heard. “It’s easy, learn the language.” But why should I do that, when I don’t have to speak it when I get home?

That’s where the real anxieties come in though: maybe it’s not a question of language or learning, but of home and what that actually means when you can’t find any satisfying work in the place where you live. I cannot ignore how deeply unsatisfied I have been with the opportunities Manila presents and the obstacles that have come with the seemingly simple task of talking to people.

I have no interest in being a hero or being seen as one. I don’t even need the money. But I am looking for a simpler way to live, while doing what I find meaning in without having to be part of the bizarre machinery constructed by and within Philippine art and academia.

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Author: alicesarmiento

San Juan, Metro Manila

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