Living Spaces

Hyperreal Estate and the Architecture of Dispossession

17 August – 2 September 2017 at VETRO

Quezon City, Metro Manila

Featuring the work of Indy Paredes, Miti Ruangkritya, Grid Magazine (Fruhlein Econar, Edric Chen, Kenji Onglao), Make Believe Productions.

Miti Ruangkritya, Dream Property, 2015. Vinyl decal on glass. Photo by Sandra Dans.

Unlike property booms elsewhere, ours is neither fickle nor financialized: instead of global capital, it is underpinned by our globalized labor, and as I outline above, is sustained by sentiments of hope and home. It is possibly the most foolproof scheme for making money from an urbanizing, globalized country without an industrial base. This is a complex development that deserves more scrutiny. But one simple way that we can make sense of the property boom is to take as axiomatic the idea of property as theft.

This theft involves many interests, and takes many forms:

It takes the form of rent-theft, seen in the immense wealth accumulated by the biggest Philippine companies, underpinned by a return to rentierism, and away from value-creation; Of extortion, seen in the way landowners big and small keep their plots idle as speculative assets, withholding them from the common good until they can get a higher price—which, in turn, is invariably too high for a dignified life for most Manilenses; Of dispossession, of those forced from “prime land” for a new business district, from farmland for a new subdivision, and from the coast for a new resort; Of disenfranchisement: of a city built in a way where our civic role is not that of the citizen, but that of the consumer;

Seen in this light, a property boom is simply a looting spree: a heist coursed through millions of square meters of new-build real estate.

Kenneth Cardenas, “Measuring the Manila Square Meter,” from the catalog for Living Spaces: Hyperreal Estate and the Architecture of Dispossession, 2017.

It took over two years to find a space I was willing call home – not only because I didn’t see anything I liked, but because much of Manila and the spaces close to the university where I worked had all become prohibitively expensive. This was despite an ongoing real estate boom that was clearly going to result in an excess of residential spaces.

I became interested in how these condominium units—some measuring no more than 10 square meters—were advertised to young women, like myself, as well as the actual dynamics of making a home within them. From there, I drew up a rough sketch of the exhibition that would become Living Spaces while I was in Berlin, participating at a week-long conference called The Wohnungsfrage Academy. Named for a pamphlet written by Friedrich Engels in 1872, Zur Wohnungsfrage was one of the earliest documents to frame housing as a site of crisis, especially within the social conditions that were created as Western Europe underwent large-scale industrialization. Over a century later, facing new sets of problems created by global industry and mass-migration—although the two go hand in hand—The Wohnungsfrage Academy became a site where artists, theorists, and academics could reframe the housing question posed by Engels at the turn of the century.

At the time, I had also been studying curatorship at the University of the Philippines, where I was writing a thesis about women and emotional labor, and it was through strands on domestic work and the production of space that I made connections to Engels’ housing question. It is also through these connections that Living Spaces was first conceived using a feminist lens, attempting a discourse on the biopolitical subject, where dwelling is defined by mobility, resulting in citizenship (or citizenship as mobility) and what is being constructed in its place through architecture. Only by entertaining further questions about how this show concerned me did it also become a critique of curatorial practice, where the contemporary obsession with being seen can easily transform domestic spaces into display cases.

Using social media, we begin to decorate our homes to be worthy of instagram, and to garner likes not only for our taste or to stand-in for what we have achieved, but as potential streams of income through app-based services, like Airbnb. It is through these seemingly harmless and already mundane platforms that the housing crisis hits closer to home (no pun intended). By showing our dwelling places and living spaces as objects of desire, these images also succeed in flattening something that should not only be cast in concrete, but should be recognized as both public good and human right, effectively recasting it as abstraction.

And this is where the dangers of tackling a subject as sensitive as housing comes in: I was not only negotiating a site of perpetual crisis, I also had to remain wary of curation as a practice that traffics in imagery.

With the exception of a few institutions and practitioners, contemporary art, and by extension exhibitions, still maintains a steadfast allegiance to the tyranny of the visual, making it difficult to work with the subject using contemporary art alone. Because of this, it became important to include work from artists working outside of the exhibition complex. By working with a graphic designer, a musical theatre company, and the editors of a lifestyle magazine, this exhibition was an opportunity to acknowledge their complicity in the structures being critiqued, and to take a critical stance towards the larger repercussions of their practice. Yet, while we would also be working with sensitivities and considerations not typically entertained by contemporary artists, it was also by showing everyone’s work side-by-side that we could recognize the similarities between contemporary art and commercial work—especially in the context of a globalizing economy. Hopefully this was evident in the juxtaposition of the works shown by Indy Paredes and Miti Ruangkritya, with the designs, photo essays, and recordings of Marla Darwin, Grid Magazine, and Make Believe Productions. While Paredes and Ruangkritya created deeply emotional pieces, the two had very different approaches to threshing out that core: with Paredes coursing his sculpture through a fictional inhabitant and Ruangkritya adopting the voice and the eye of a salesman to sell us a homogenized dream.

The final layer of the exhibition was performed rather than displayed. In the attempt to articulate the very real problems of being precariously housed or homeless in the Philippines, I opened the floor to several speakers who, like the artists, also came from very different disciplines, all of which dealt with housing at some level. Because language was such a crucial component of constructing the global city and its cosmopolitan dwellers, I invited Anina Abola, a copywriter, to talk about selling a city that only exists in our imagination. Tess Quevedo is a colleague from the College of Home Economics, where I teach Clothing Technology.

Detail from Indy Paredes’s Still Aliens, 2017. Found objects, clingwrap, wood, cement. Photo by Sandra Dans.