Talking Through Walls

Renz Baluyot and Alee Garibay, Kapitbahay at Art Verite, Taguig, Metro Manila

Along every major thoroughfare in this bustling Metropolis, billboards have been erected announcing the grand plans for residential developments. It should be no coincidence then that by using the term “development” to describe an atmosphere of aspiration, the very idea of living in Metro Manila has been transplanted from the earth to the air. And yet, these massive advertisements also signify a parallel with the changing lifestyles of Metro Manila’s millions of inhabitants, where simply living your life no longer carries the same appeal as watching yourself live. This is evident in the influx of media channels and networks that have become available to the general public, thus reconstituting the entire concept of public space.

The central paradox however lies in the combination of “residential” and “development” – given the rising cost of living in Metro Manila, these billboards serve as reminders of a shifting value system where the terms of dwelling have shifted from necessity to luxury. There should be no question about it: the walls we build speak volumes of the kind of society we wish to create. We are living in an unprecedented era where the proximity brought (or wrought) by equating urban living with vertical housing comes with increased privatization, creating a veritable communion of strangers.

In his series of found objects and oil paintings, Renz Baluyot explores the fragility of exterior surfaces, using rust as both material and subject. Through a series of four found objects and two paintings, Baluyot’s titles act as proposals not to find beauty in decay, but to acknowledge the nature of degradation, or rather, degradation as part of the natural order of things. […]

As a continuing inquiry into the nature of inhabited space, Garibay invokes Thomas Moore’s Re-enchantment of Everyday Life (1996), defining “inhabit” as a “means to give and to receive.” Her renderings of the spaces she moves through in her own life become an act of generosity, showing her own efforts to open herself to receive what both space and place has to offer (Moore 1996). […]

Through these pictures of interior and exterior spaces, Baluyot and Garibay explore similar themes which diverge in their attempts to represent the tensions between outsider status and membership in a community—a tension that relates directly to the environments of otherness being built throughout Metro Manila. In this context, the title kapitbahay becomes crucial to understanding the conflict inherent to this unprecedented period. Compounded from their Malay origins, “kapit” means to cling or attach while “bahay” means house, thus invoking the tensions in dwelling and belonging. Should it be separated instead, the term “kapit-bahay” prompts viewers to consider those who have been rendered strange both despite and because of their attachment; or the fact that our need to belong to a community (no man being an island) still requires us to put up walls .

This is an excerpt from the essay written for the two-man show, Kapitbahay, featuring the works of Rina Lee Garibay and Renz Baluyot. The show will run until April 10, 2015 at Art Verite, Taguig, MM.

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.

Humanity Beyond the Ruin

Notes for Alee Garibay’s De{relic}t which ran at Art Cube in Glorietta 4, from November 8-23, 2014

clockwise from left, Lutang, Salamin, and Window
clockwise from left, Lutang, Salamin, and Window, 2014, oil on canvas

To speak of the current period is to idealize the rapid growth of the media landscape, where information is confused with “empowerment” and the network proudly proclaims itself as a site of “participation”. For a generation so bombarded with words and pictures, information is paradoxically given little to no weight. Relieved of responsibility, its bearers scroll through feeds and move on, leaving a trail of hearts and “Likes”. It should be no wonder that the term “scroll” has shifted from object to action, and while the unraveling of information in the process of “scrolling” has not been lost, it has become easier to hide the contents.

It is from this immaterial reality that Alee Garibay draws the preliminary sketches for De(relic)t, her “attempt to look for purpose in the immaterial and the intuitive”. In this series, the concept of a “relic” expands into questions of presence and potential, from which the young painter creates images that she describes as “somewhat melancholy, even bleak”. This bleakness is most evident in Erasure and Silence, which illustrate the consequences of a false democracy, where presence and an audible voice are ironically compromised by the vastness of the infosphere.

At 25, Garibay is part of a generation of digital natives, inhabitants of a placeless space where identity is a digital record and existence needs to be confirmed with a status update. The ghostly figures of Salamin and Window point not only to the screens that allow one to peer into this infosphere, but the paradox of an age that puts a wealth of data at our fingertips even if we cannot actually touch information. What is left is a culture of instant gratification and digitized identities which have irreversibly changed how future generations will define value and the very nature of existence.

To “touch”, to “tap”, and to “trace”: these are everyday actions, done out of habit and intuition, that need to be qualified in the weightless world of “the cloud”. In this context of tapping and tracing, the element of text takes added meaning in Salamin, Panaginip, and Lutang. While these feathery brushstrokes and softly colored scribbles have figured in some of Garibay’s past paintings, this time they come across as words stripped of weight, signifying their subjects without committing to definitions.

While many of the works in De(relic)t are figurative, they straddle the qualities of abstraction by referring to an algorithmic reality. This is most evident in the juxtaposition between Lutang—a rendition of the studio Garibay shares with her father—and Path. While Lutang shows an actual place, the hazy quality and the text floating over it give the viewer a sensation of looking in through glass. This concept of a screened reality is taken to the level of abstraction with Path: a word used to track one’s escape from here to there that is redefined by digital technology as a tool for illustration and rendering.

Through Path, Garibay shows that this weightless world is also a place of potential and possibility by acknowledging its magical qualities. The works in De(relic)t cohere in their transparency, softness, and iridescence, setting an optimistic tone for an otherwise bleak reality of dereliction and devaluation. This is most evident in Fragile, which portrays a harmonious balance between sensitivity and wholeness. The kiss in this case is not only a metaphor for coexistence and cooperation, but for the traces that remain even in the most desperate conditions – the humanity that exceeds the ruin.

Rather than resort to melancholia, De(relic)t shows emptiness and immateriality as necessary components for constituting positive energy, working towards the hope of creating a space that lies beyond.