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.

State of Nature/State of Exception

or Maintaining an Artificial Peace, pt. 2: notes for Sa Ngalan ng Batas (In the Name of the Law)

A series of oil on canvas works by Emmanuel Garibay, produced by the Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development and hosted by The Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center

Manny Garibay, Enforcer (2014)
Manny Garibay, Enforcer (2014)

Like magic, the term “sa ngalan ng batas (in the name of the law)” opens doors, ends arguments, strikes fear, and instills discipline. Once uttered, the name of law invokes the power of the institution: these proverbial walls that keep societies in line, distinguishing the citizen from the outsider. Ultimately, it separates the individual being from the participant in social life.

“No man is an island” –when the poet John Donne wrote these words, it was highly unlikely he was using them to refer to the tasks of administering peace and order that came with the formation of modern society, and yet peace and order are integral to coexistence, at a time wherein coexistence is non-negotiable.

Building on the realization that what is legal is not necessarily ethical, Garibay continues to pull at a thread that has consistently woven itself into his body of work, looking at icons, representation, and the stubborn role they play, for better or worse, in the fabric of society. In this series of oil on canvas works, Manny Garibay explores the limits of justice as both concept and system with a colourful cast of characters devoted to the bureaucracy of everyday life. Departing from the theory and jargon that have been used in discussing the law—from Aristotle to Agamben—only simple language is used in Sa Ngalan ng Batas.

With a catalogue of titles like “Enforcer”, “Kampante (Comfortable)”, “Lumang Larawan (Old Picture)”, and “Madasalin (Religious)”, he hints at the laymen’s terms that describe the small, seemingly harmless details which nonetheless complicate our realities as members of a just and democratic society. In the faces of these everyday people, we see how corruption can unfold in even the most banal tasks.

It is in “Abugasya”, the picture of the average law student buried in the language of the legal system, that we find primary clues to the complications which Garibay has so often portrayed in his work as a social realist and activist, drawing from his education in both theology and sociology. In “Abugasya”, Garibay not only paints a picture of a man enslaved by doctrine, but portrays that very moment where words fail us, in a reminder that just and democratic are not descriptive characteristics of a republic, but remain normative in their failure to find an anchor in the common good. Through an almost mundane representation of the scholar working late into the night, we are confronted with the difficulties of enforcing a text without a unifying ideology linking what is good and what is just; where the view from one person’s window remains another’s life on the ground—and the seeming impossibility of reconciling the two.

Garibay’s law student hints at a tendency to let the books blind us to realities that are often right outside our doors. It is precisely this phrase, “in the name of the law”, that turns individuals and entire communities into subjects of a system that puts the citizen—as conscript or clerk—before the human being. In his ruminations on the force of law, Jacques Derrida (whose weapon of choice was also language) writes of the law as a text. Here we find both its greatest weakness and greatest potential: if text rests on a foundation of language, then it has been constructed. And what has been constructed can just as well be deconstructed.

Manny Garibay, Abugasya (2014)
Manny Garibay, Abugasya (2014)

“[T]he fact that the law is deconstructible is not bad news. We may even see in this a stroke of luck for politics, for all historical progress,” Derrida continues, in a statement that wields infinite potential for those able to manipulate language. This is good news for writers, preachers, and of course, lawyers, but Garibay uses another medium to frame and construct his arguments. Sa Ngalan ng Batas is not an exhibition that uses language as a weapon, but as its subject, showing how common people have turned to and made instruments of the word, the text, or the book, thus evoking the poet Paul Valéry’s description of language as “the god gone astray in the flesh.”

This confusion between the sacred and secular compromises the role of ideology, allowing words to lose their weight and language to become a mere instrument for drawing societies inward through promises of justice or salvation. Here, Garibay draws parallels between the legal system and religious congregations, not only in their use of doctrine, but in their contemporary conflicts when it comes to how sacred institutions coexist with modernity.

The other conflict Garibay hints at in this series is one of authorization, where the term “enforcement” is itself rooted in force, and the problems we encounter when we come face-to face with those tasked with not only interpreting, but enforcing these texts that govern the actions of all. This is most evident in his triptych of mug shots, distinguishing between common and high profile criminals, and how the punishment for their sins is reflected in their faces. These faces show that the differences between having committed a crime and a sin are not found in the act itself, but from the people who commit them.

The very definition of “force” may be contradicted by the vacant and vapid everymen that populate his work, yet in the hollowness of their expressions we see another kind of violence, the kind that arises from decades of apathy and indifference. Here, Garibay depicts the nameless personas that have grown all too familiar – the law student burning the midnight oil, the traffic enforcer coasting along a chaotic cityscape, the newspaper reading everyman, precariously perched on an edge he himself cannot see. It is precisely by voiding his subjects of a specific identity that Garibay is able to construct an environment built not of spaces and places, but of faces.

Or rather, of icons: this may be the outcome of an inherently patriarchal belief systems used throughout history as instruments of colonization, Sa Ngalan ng Batas illustrates a symbolic order predicated on the persona, their only unifying thread being the compromise of individuality. This remains the most common invocation of ideology—or lack thereof—in the country’s political system: see it in the campaign posters, in the billboards, and in the stained glass windows that populate the routines and rituals of everyday life in the Philippines, proving that monolithic ideas are not only expressed by tyrants or large monuments.

Echoes of this order are found in Garibay’s images where the faceless intersect with the familiar, their only unifying thread being the compromise of subjectivity, in the Foucauldian sense. What comes to light instead is the idea of the Homo Sacer, or “bare life”, an idea introduced by Giorgio Agamben, who writes “We have seen the sense in which law begins to coincide with life once it has become the pure form of law, law’s mere being in force without significance. But insofar as law is maintained as pure form in a state of virtual exception, it lets bare life…subsist before it.”

Manny Garibay, Triptych (2014)
Manny Garibay, Triptych (2014)

“How do the powerless use the instruments of the powerful?” asks Garibay. The question in turn is reflected in the characters who, in their familiarity, are easily reduced to caricature. The same sentiments can be found in Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, an exploration of the channelling of mass hypnosis and state control through the seemingly harmless facts of day-to-day living—the news, our entertainment, our dwellings, and the things we are conditioned to “need”—where he declares: “The man of survival is man ground up by the machinery of hierarchical power, caught in a mass of interferences, a tangle of oppressive techniques whose rationalization only awaits the patient programming of programmed minds.” While Garibay uses a conventional, almost conservative, medium to treat a shameful subject, perhaps what should be most disturbing is the fact of their familiarity, and the patient programming that has turned the subjects of these pictures into the status quo: a system of self-interest resulting in an unstable foundation.

Sa Ngalan ng Batas: Reflections on Philippine Law, Culture, and Society, a solo exhibition of oil on canvas paintings by Emmanuel Garibay, will run on the 3rd floor of the Vargas Museum from October 4 until November 4, 2014.

“Careless Whisper” was always our song

Eisa Jocson’s Philippine Macho Academy

Except for the bright blue cross that hangs above the stage, there was nothing light–or good, true, or beautiful–about Eisa Jocson’s performance at the opening of Philippine Macho Academy” her solo exhibition at the Vargas Museum – a product of extensive research on “macho dancing,” which crudely translates to male striptease. There was nothing light about it, although it was funny at times–mostly because it was so uncomfortable to watch.

There is, however, much to be said about discomfort in the times when it’s actually necessary. Jocson began her performance by jumping onstage, but that was the only time her feet would actually leave the ground. Through all four songs (something from Ride the Lightning and “Careless Whisper” are all I can remember), Jocson’s body articulated a vocabulary of weight, of heft, of remaining intimidating despite the perpetual observation and consequent objectification that dancing for an audience requires–all the while maintaining the objective of seducing her audience. In doing so, Jocson’s piece manifests how the act of looking shifts once a male body takes the spotlight and begins shedding its clothes.

First, Jocson makes it clear that these aren’t clothes, but armor; and taking us through the steps, she was careful to articulate that when a man disrobes before a crowd, there is nothing passive about it. Despite her classical training (or because of it), we were shown a dance that has no use for pointed feet or delicate caresses. To put the “macho” in “Macho dancing”, one is not entertained, one is assaulted; and every step is a means of taking aim, flexing a limb, or closing a fist, shifting the potential of subservience in the service industries, where even gimps get to wear leather.

What caught my interest though was the legitimating power of staging Philippine Macho Academy in a curated space, and the role of the museum in taking something that exists outside the terms of mainstream society, and putting it on a pedestal. Jocson assigns Macho dancing a vocabulary that translates into a manual, choreographs it, takes it on tour, and finally performs it using bodies that had nothing to do with its genesis. By providing instruction for something “upright” and “respectable”, something citizens should not see and should know nothing about (except as the butt of every joke) Jocson acknowledges the often violent process of taking the invisible framework (the dregs, the illegals) of neoliberal capitalism into the public realm.

Philippine Macho Academy runs at the ground floor and west wing galleries of the Vargas Museum until March 8, 2014.

Dave Lock, “Nameless”

I’m currently an intern at the Vargas Museum, and Dave Lock’s solo exhibit, entitled Nameless [in collaboration with 98B], was one of the shows I coordinated and did the notes for.

Dave Lock, Untitled 1 (2013)

In his own words, Dave Lock is a painter of the “nightmare-infested creatures,” seen in his obsessive line work that merges portraiture with organic forms. This technique extends into this series of untitled works, aptly called Nameless, as if to acknowledge the contradiction of attempting to name the amorphous.

In embracing the foremost quality of the abstract, he paints a series asking — instead of telling — the viewer what they see. What appears in these canvases are acts, rather than the objects, giving the viewer forms of encroaching, crawling, and clawing. This demonstrates how even that which is without a name can leave an indelible mark.

It is a mark that poetry responds to, crafted by a collective that may also remain nameless. Text and image gather to contrive the reality that can only be faced, flimsily and in creative confusion.

The exhibition opens on the 31st of May, 2013 at the 3rd floor galleries. It is recommended, but not required, that guests RSVP through facebook.

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