This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
By Angelo Suarez C-Arts Magazine June-July 2011
Notorious noontime variety-show host & millionaire-endorser w/ a mouth of gold Willie Revillame asks an impoverished boy in tears to gyrate, like an exotic macho dancer, on national TV before he gives him his cash reward—an event that has given the MTRCB (the magisterial Movie & Television Review & Classification Board, an institutional board of censors) the chance to wet its pants thoroughly to articulate the middle-class pathos at the heart of the collective heartfelt cries of “Exploitation! Exploitation!” made by TV audiences who can stand a bikini-clad 5-year-old actress portraying a mermaid (or a cripple, depending on whether she‟s on land or in water w/c is how the story goes) on a soap opera or, worse, stand the children of Filipina celebrities being paid millions of pesos by powdered milk manufacturers to endorse their products in integrated advertising campaigns whose costs contribute to the burgeoning prices of milk among numerous other commodities, but oddly cannot stand the abject scene of a poor little boy dancing for money on TV upon Revillame‟s prodding spurred by the showmanship required of his subject position as the host of a noontime variety show such as “Willing Willie.” The public outrage calls to mind similar, tho less public, charges of exploitation raised, for example, by artist Alwin Reamillo against the work titled “Criticism is Hard Work”—a performance by myself as a practicing poet-critic & Costantino Zicarelli as a visual artist exploring other media—in 2007 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines as part of a small but notable festival featuring so-called performance &/or action art initiated by the performance collective known as Tupada. “Criticism is Hard Work,” framed by the artists as an experiment in literary production & motivated primarily by the urge to make a robust but affectionate critique of canonical writer Alfred Yuson‟s dismissal of Bienvenido Lumbera‟s radical corpus of critical writing as „mere post-facto criticism‟ at the time when Lumbera was being conferred the presidential honor of becoming a National Artist for Literature, employs the dubious involvement of more than 10 street-children wrestling in a makeshift ring, the activity proceeding as per the conventions of Royal Rumble matches in classic American showbiz wrestling spectacles on TV over a decade prior. As the children wrestle before the crowd—a mix of tourists, artists, cultural workers, & curious passersby—the 2 artists function as necktied commentators who, by the sheer act of zealous annotation as poetry, indirectly but nonetheless effectively pressure the children to continue wrestling in the energetic manner they have been doing so & abandon all hesitation & discomfort brought about by the displacement of their activity from the streets of Manila where they have been wrestling carefree w/o the scrutiny of an audience to the halls of a cultural institution these same children normally do not have access to in w/c their activity is considered art, but considered art only if they subject the violence of their play to the scrutinizing gaze of such an alien audience, some of whom bask in the passive perverse pleasure of selfrighteousness.
Incidentally, Reamillo, “known for his collaborative, sociallyinvolved works” as a newspaper review describes him a year after “Criticism is Hard Work,” has also worked w/ children— none of whom have ongoing art careers for w/c they can mention in their respective CVs their participation, ambiguously referred to by some as collaboration despite the children‟s namelessness—in projects such as “Tutubing Bakal” (“Steel Dragonfly”) where a helicopter affixed at the site of Museo Pambata, a museum geared at children in Manila, is designed by a team of artists working w/ Reamillo assisted by these children affiliated w/ ChildHope Asia-Philippines, an organization that, according to its official website profile, “works toward the liberation of the child from the suffering caused by working and living on the street,” as if participating in somebody else‟s art project weren‟t another mode of labor—institutionally sanctioned for that matter, given the legal paperwork—for the accumulation of social capital that allows these children to enjoy the philanthropic benefits bestowed on them by a such a wellmeaning but nevertheless ideologically mediated organization. The point of juxtaposing in counterpoint Reamillo‟s use of street-children in “Tutubing Bakal” against my & Zicarelli‟s use of street-children in “Criticism is Hard Work” is beyond a childish
sterilization of Reamillo‟s important & valid charge of exploitation by the cheap tactic of presenting his argument as hypocritical. Instead, what such a juxtaposition seeks to establish is that the social turn in the visual arts does not privilege issues of ethics over issues of aesthetics—as Claire Bishop seems to fear in her groundbreaking essay “The Social Turn: Collaboration and it Discontents”—when one engages w/ & in „interpassive‟ work (work whose participatory components give it an air of interactivity but w/c allows participation only to the extent that it is allowed or has been pre-set by the artist, rendering any hint of collaboration in it between artist & participants mythical if not mere wishful-thinking), but that ethical considerations are also inevitably aesthetic considerations where the ethical dimensions of a work are integrally part of the work‟s form. Not only are the ethics of a work as important as the aesthetics of a work, but that its ethics partly constitute—if not wholly, depending on the work or, more accurately, depending on what the co-authors of the work designate as the limits of the work—its aesthetics. Hence, when one encounters a work whose mode of production is ethically questionable—i.e., the work employs the labor of street-children, whether they be affiliated w/ a charitable institution or not—one is made to wonder: For what aesthetic or formal end has such an ethically questionable route been pursued? How do these ethical decisions figure into the hermeneutic horizon of this work?
Such a question is anchored in what Walter Benjamin has formulated as that w/c should be asked when confronted w/ a work of art: “Rather than ask, „What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?‟ I should like to ask, „What is its position in them?‟” By way of this question one is reminded that, before a work can make commentaries on existing social & material conditions as if it were a transparent vehicle for conveying a message, it is 1st of all shaped by these same social & material conditions that give it a considerable measure of opacity (one can argue that it is precisely this self-reflexive opacity that differentiates art as a cultural practice from another cultural practice such as advertising). Such that before one sees Mark Salvatus‟ “Secret Garden” as—as „art blogger‟ Trickie Lopa uncritically refers to it in her notes to the Ateneo Art Awards (prestigiously conferred to young artists of note by the Ateneo de Manila University w/c appears to be implicitly saying, by resorting to Lopa‟s critical acumen in lieu of a rigorous thinker‟s, that there is a dearth of worthwhile art critics in the Philippines) where Salvatus‟ work has garnered praise & prizes—“an interactive installation that delivers an experience as memorable as the narrative from whence it came,” one must 1st examine the relations of “Secret Garden” to this originary narrative Lopa mentions, relations that aren‟t immune to charges of exploitation. “Secret Garden” physically consists of a painting on the wall that replicates in large format the black tiger insignia or coat of arms of a criminal gang haloed by the motto “Do or Die,” a slit in the wall thru w/c one may peek into a flimsy little garden crafted out of the remains of green plastic bottles w/in this cramped space, &, most importantly, a 6-paragraph story printed on a standard sheet of paper that is framed & headlined “Quezon Provincial Jail Prisoners‟ Secret Garden.” The story is not unlike any inspirational anecdote lifted from a volume of “Chicken Soup for the Ex-Convict‟s Soul,” altho this particular narrative is notable for the novelty of its being local & the immediacy of its being true. The sheet carries a tale featuring prisoners, some of whom have been illegally detained by authorities, at the Quezon Provincial Jail who have managed to grow a miniature but nevertheless real garden using seeds saved from their meals & planted w/ plastic spoons as their sole planting implements. Provided no freedom that grants them the right to maintain such a garden, the prisoners keep it a secret from authorities till a lawyer whose professional sympathies lie w/ the inmates reveals the heartwarming & heroic details to a local newspaper w/c seems more than happy to spread the word.
Salvatus continues the lawyer‟s task of disseminating this story, but simultaneously problematizes the nature of such a dissemination thru retelling—why else bother situating his retelling w/in an art context if not for this problematization?— where any transmission consists of the displacement of a narrative from one site to another. “Transmission,” says Johanna Drucker, “like all material practice, is constitutive not vehicular, whether visual, verbal, or part of a dynamic dialogue between these two modes of embodiment.” One notices that Salvatus does more than just merely retell the story by crafting an aptly sized living garden w/in the exhibition space; he renders the garden w/ the use of plastic that prisoners themselves have fashioned into the appearance of plantlife, making palpable the objectification of the story of the prisoners for the artist‟s own use in touring what little national art circuit the country has as well as the international art circuit that tends to favor participatory work, all this traveling in stark contrast to the immobility of the bodies of prisoners kept docile in their cells. By doing so, what is exhibited is the artificiality of the artist‟s own rendition rather than the authenticity of experience these prisoners go thru in their daily lives as inmates who themselves have objectified hope in a fetish for fragile greenery—hope that blooms only under such constrained circumstances.
That the plastic garden has been making the rounds—most recently it has just come from La Trobe University Visual Arts Center in Australia, & not too long ago it was installed inside a mall as part of the Ateneo Art Awards‟ exhibition of finalists & winners—is no mere detail to be glossed over, & it moving from one site of exhibition to another is also its conceptually logical outcome, given that “Secret Garden” has initially been put together as part of “Sungdu-An,” a project of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts that emphasizes confluence (“sungdu-an” literally means “confluence”) where various „nationwide‟ engagements w/ art production from & in regions both near & far the center come in contact thru travel. “Secret Garden” hence is more than (if at all) an artistic re-presentation of the harsh social reality found w/in the gruesome conditions dealt w/ on a daily basis by prisoners in the province—a reading that is likely to be resorted to by critics whose lack of imagination simultaneously thirsts for facile social relevance & underestimates the sophistication of Salvatus‟ praxis. What “Secret Garden” is is the wrestling of the artist himself w/ the very idea of re-presentation, where to re-present is tantamount to the suppression of the discourse of the Other (the prisoners, in this instance) for the end of furthering one‟s art career, where representation means imprisoning that w/c is represented in the jail-cell of both objectification & artistic object-making. Of course, one cannot help but notice how thick the irony is in his praxis, bringing to mind Santiago Sierra‟s provocative performance-situations where the artist himself benefits from his own critique of the modes of production carried out in the art world. While certainly bleak, Salvatus‟ depiction of the complicity of the artist w/ the multiculturalist neoliberalism of the art market—& the system of international grants that pander to the art production of 3rd world countries & the system of national grants that pander to the art production of the regions as opposed to that of the capital/center are hardly divorced from the art market, not to mention the biennials & triennials whose empty symbolic functions foster not only diplomacy among nations in the context of late capitalism but also tourism as a source of national income—is worlds more productive (or more interesting, at the very least) than the psychodrama of rebellion still unreflexively enacted by a myriad insipid exhibitions that range from painted/tattooed statues of Christ as rockstar supposedly as an examination of capitalist idolatry to sculptural depictions of politicians as masked goons surrounding a cluster of bananas in tiring reference to the Philippines as a kind of banana republic running on the fuel of corruption. Hopefully, other artists who have been employing the labor of other craftsmen & workers follow Salvatus‟ example of bringing to fore the dubious relations between artists & the people on whom they rely for the production of their work. This also brings to mind a growing almost-feudal phenomenon where painters who employ, instead of members of more recognizably marginal sectors of society like poverty-stricken boys or inmates of provincial jails, their peers—peers whose art praxes are sometimes more sophisticated but, due to this sophistication that renders their work less accessible, make less money in the art market—so their peers can earn extra money by working on paintings their painter-employers adorn w/ a profitable signature (an extension of the Warholian project of turning the studio into a factory) choose to not call out the fact that they employ peers for the production of their artworks, even if this simple call-out formally spells the aesthetico-ethical difference between interesting & dull, between productive & malicious. Salvatus is no stranger to work whose (meta)politics consists precisely of the ambivalence of reifying artworks as possessing the capacity to make genuine social transgressions as activistic gestures, given that the art market itself fetishizes art as a transgressive, emancipatory act. Similar issues, for example, have been dealt w/ by Pilipinas Street Plan, a collective of Filipino artists working in the ambiguous field of street art of w/c Salvatus is a prominent member, in works that tackle the sterility of graffiti: receiving either grants from official institutions to make sanctioned acts of supposed vandalism or permission from shop proprietors to „deface‟ (w/c has become the hip euphemism for „decorate‟) a wall they will or can provide—even tho the ontology of graffiti inheres primarily in its illegality—reducing graffiti to a parody of itself as mere defanged visual ornamentation in urban contexts or, in oxymoronic terms, mere outdoor interior design. Small wonder that “Wrapped”—another of Salvatus‟ more significant participatory projects that has been making the rounds, where audience members, either inside a gallery or in an outdoor situation, pick objects that matter to them & trace the objects‟ outline on a wall that serves as Salvatus‟ site-specific canvas—also plays on the powerplay that occurs between artist & participant. After each object has been outlined, Salvatus draws almost-photorealistic weaving bandages onto them to make the objects appear wrapped, kept, even mummified for sake of preservation, granting each object the sentimental status of keepsake. Here, Salvatus toys w/ the illusion of agency every participant possesses while in the heat of his/her participation, only for the artist to claim the traces of each participant‟s beloved object as his, each object rendered as faceless as the nameless participants at the end of their tracing tasks. It is only conceptually logical that Salvatus, like any forward-looking producer (in the culture-industry sense of the term that applies not only to the production of art but also to
the production of advertising materials & television shows), puts together a spin-off show at Drawing Room titled “Attached” where what is presented is, in addition to the „wraps‟ the artist has drawn on the outlines of objects, a slew of what seem to be masks: outlines of the faces of participants on w/c Salvatus has also drawn his wraps. Curiously, photos of the participants are also displayed, their backs & the backs of their heads facing the camera, eloquently making the point that participants in their facelessness enjoy no genuine agency in works of participatory art even more pointed.
But going back to that little boy gyrating onstage for his cash reward at Willie Revillame‟s noontime variety show—has this dancing body really been stripped of agency, or is this dancing body merely carrying out his mastery of the subject position he, not w/o self-awareness, inhabits? Could it be that participants in participatory art projects find agency precisely in playing along w/ the parameters that have been pre-set for them by the undeclared fascism of artists? Could there be joy—no matter how perverse—in submitting oneself to a scenario where one is rendered passive, where passivity is required for the participant to find a measure of joy in being told what to do? A child may know that a child dancing onstage while crying makes entertaining TV—“I dance for you in tears because even I would want to watch a boy dance for you in tears”—just as a participant may know that his/her willingness to forego any potential transgression of the artist‟s instructions can make good art—“I follow your instructions because even I would want to see a participant follow your instructions.” W/ Mark Salvatus‟ work gaining more & more public exposure as it tours different parts of the country & the world, perhaps more & more audiences will be able to find agency in the very act of remaining to inhabit their subject position as audience, & from this act of recognition may they truly become what Ranciere would call emancipated spectators.
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