The Philippines is an archipelago made up of 7,107 islands, a seemingly idyllic paradise, romanticized because of its geographical privileges, as well as its colonial inheritance and the baggage that came with it. While the climate in its capital city, Manila, is just as hot as ever, the art ecosystem is often urging for more porous circulation. In speaking with cultural producers Lian Ladia, co-founder of Planting Rice with Sidd Perez, Merv Espina of Green Papaya and independent curator and writer, Alice Sarmiento, the contemporary art scene is engineered with intention rather than institutionalisation.
In terms of ‘island-ness,’ Sarmiento relates this to a sense of being “confined: confined to a third world economy, to feudal politics and poor leadership, and all the red tape and inefficiency that accompanies these structures.” This, she says, translates to the art scene as well, where “you have to resort to the unbearable tedium of begging for scraps from your own government.” But, it takes much more than just money, from historicizing Filipino contemporary artists (c. 1960s to now) including Charlie Co, Nunelicio Alvarado, Poklong Anading, Lyra Garcellano, Kiri Dalena, Victor Balanon, Paul Pfeiffer, Lesley Cao and Eisa Jocson David Medalla, Lesle de Chavez, Cian Dayrit, Gaston Damag, Issay Rodriguez, Henrielle Pagkaliwanan, Martha Atienza, Maria Taniguchi, Brenda Fajardo, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Yasmin Ching, Rodel Tapaya, Kawayan De Guia, Maria Cruz, Lani Maestro, Junyee, Jose Maceda, Manuel Ocampo, to distancing Filipino arts from the Western-centric canon and globalized art world. Acutely aware of local needs, Espina texts over Whatsapp, “what and who might be influential for you might not be so influential for us.”
Of course, the alternative art scene in Manila is the same as in most places — lacking infrastructure, support, and funding — but it compensates by utilising its unique social landscape, implementing a rigorous academic standard, and using digital networks to their fullest potential. By Espina’s count, we are now arguably in the third wave of artist-run spaces. Manila’s ‘alt’-scene kicked off in the 1960s and 70s with shop6, Sanctuary, and Gallery 9. The second wave of ‘great’’ artist-run spaces emerged in the late 1990s to early 2000s, with Big Sky Mind, Surrounded by Water, Future Prospects, Pinaglabanan Galleries, Junk Shop, Mag:net. Like most of these galleries, Green papaya was a gallery, atelier and multifunctional space, and, according to Espina, the most unique organisation of that period, Yason Banal’s Third Space, which was more performative and performance-based, ending after only three years of existence. There were also a lot of projects like Green Papaya, which were devoted to ‘peripheral’ art practices, alternative education, and community-making began to embrace being networked, denounce uber-professionalization and specialization of practice, and host indie film screenings and gigs, as well as merely places to drink and hang out.
In letting Espina continue the history lesson verbatim: “So early ‘00s, back then indie meant a different thing. Market and age caught up. By 2005, indie bands got signed (see Sarmiento’s playlist on Filipino indie bands), more galleries started in Makati, indie film festivals began to be supported by major film festivals, who in turn were supported by major film/ TV studios. Suddenly there was a bit of money. Values and attitudes changed. People hung out less because there was more work. Industries began to form. Communities fractured. People became more specialized. Some practices still remained in the periphery, contemporary dance and conceptual choreography, for example. For supposedly “contemporary art,” the watershed year was 2011. This was the year that art reached new publics because of two main events that made people think that art can be both financially lucrative and scandalous:
- Artist Ronald Ventura became the highest grossing Southeast Asian auction star (hammer price at Sotheby’s was 1.1 million USD); and
- Artist Mideo Cruz and his work Politeismo was branded “blasphemous,” flogged by the public, and egged on by religious and political conservatives, resulting in a senate probe that provoked debates about the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, etc…”
That brings us to the contemporary day. Green Papaya is slowly being killed. Espina himself has been given the job as Grim Reaper, not because it isn’t still full of life (when asked if it was instead being “euthanized,” Espina emphasized it was not actually sick), but because there can be no life without death. Espina’s job description entails piecing together Green Papaya’s scattered history, inventory-ing its collaborators, and sorting its affairs for a responsible and painless death. There will be no abrupt goodbye, and instead, the community will have a chance to say its proper goodbyes. Because culture is not stagnant, its cultural spaces cannot afford to be either. Where there is permutation of culture, there is permutation of space. And certainly, Green Papaya has redefined itself to address the various climates and landscapes of the Manila scene. By May 5 2021, Green Papaya’s obituary will be written. What might be included in the eulogy is Espina’s sentiment that, “Green Papaya could have died years ago, but if we let it die then it would have just fizzled out quite nonchalantly, uneventfully, with lots of loose ends. But since it started on its own terms, it should end on its own terms.”
In contrast, Planting Rice has been more of a curatorial “gesture” — note the play on/ with food = nourishment (and eating/ cooking as social acts, and kitchens as space for community making). That instead of constantly organizing exhibitions, there are other things to take care of – building/breaking relationships, digging up erased histories, being creative in finding systems of support for artists, and art projects. Also over Whastapp, Ladia texts, “We started Planting Rice to respond to the lack of infrastructure in the arts in Manila and consolidate the diasporic nature of the Philippines. We ‘repotentialized’ (a term she adopted from Carlos Villa’s ‘rehistoricizing’) existing spaces, we experiment on the spatial format of our shows, and we will develop our website (into an online archive) with social media that compiles opportunities from our contacts of Filipino artists across the globe of international connections interested in Southeast Asia. Really we are just trying to circulate information that doesn’t filter through cultural institutions of the typical formats of artistic presentations.” With the Philippines as her center, and everywhere else as her periphery, Ladia moved across the Atlantic to Annandale-on-Hudson and is now based in California, keeping in mind the necessity for austronesian connection and inspection. She reinforces that “other art,” i.e. non-Western, does not always come from a point of combat and antagonism, and implements decolonial practices in her current work and future hustle. This polarized way of thinking has its limits, and reinforces an exotic eye. The hustle is everywhere, and whether it is winning in the language game, by overcoming an international epistemology of cultural practice, or championing a postcolonial practice, by seriously teaching (and integrating other thought in legitimized curriculums), or merely performing slight gestures, they’re (we’re) always on their grind. Ladia and Planting Rice is part of the diasporic nature of Philippine artists, living elsewhere, from different backgrounds who continue to find ways to reconcile the potential of artistic projects deeply rooted in the Philippines.
Sarmiento, who is completely submerged in the independent scene, has noticed how these spaces (especially those two mentioned above), operate similarly in fashion to the institution. Their programming is planned far in advance, there is a fairly clear hierarchy and organizational structure…however lean it may be. In her opinion, what may sound like a criticism, seems to work towards everyone’s advantage, filling up the social calendar with weekly arts events, in turn helping to promote the longevity of these spaces by fostering a long-term scheme for applying to grants, making them akin to the systems of neoliberalization. Sarmiento is particularly excited by the buzz generated around millennial culture and groups making use of online space and platforms, like Temperamental Brats, who are “more like a coalition that ‘formed’ (although still in its primordial goopy stage) after the current government noted how most of the protests were organized by “millennials,” to which the press secretary dismissed their presence, and ultimately called them temperamental brats. From there, they began to organize in response with events like placard and banner making parties, energizing other forms of creative protest. Counterflow, in Sarmiento words, is “a buncha metalheads who set up fundraisers for the local LGBT communities,” and Grrrl Gang Manila, aims to create a safe, non-judgemental space for women in the Philippines, which *full disclosure,* she’s a member. By encouraging participation and adding to the discourse on protest art, these initiatives are making use of art and creativity as tools of resistance, not only fighting against the current administration, but also wiring new connections for better connectivity.
However, the political scene in Manila obviously lends to more complications, in having a controversial president (known for his extreme human rights violations), and a tenuous political climate that can’t be forgotten. The art scene has been criticized for being elitist, serving just 3% of a social landscape with historical feudal ties. These types of complications are then resolved by artists, educators and activists themselves with the following examples to boot: Resbak (Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings), an alliance of artists that advocate social awareness with regards to the killings brought forth by the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs;” Active Vista, a collective of artists and filmmakers who bring attention to stories of human rights struggles to enable the public to help dismantle barricades that hinder the pursuit of human rights; and UGATLahi, known for their critical presentations and effigies using political sculptural puppets, created for the yearly State of the Nation Address.
Curious how these different initiatives step-up to deal with the precarious conditions of an elitist agenda as well as the demands of the market, and yet, are self-reflexive enough to address issues of cultural production and political climate (pointing to sheer number of artist-run, artist-led collectives/ platforms). Even if the artists are risking that their thoughts and words may be appropriated by the market, perhaps even aiding the capitalization of anything trendsetting towards “independent,” they still come together in powerfully collaborative ways. Although this may seem insular — the question is — do they even need to reach out towards an internationalist agenda? …Or are they productive and proactive in their own ways/ means, only to relish the opportunity to stay isolated as aggrandized “castaways” in a romanticized paradise?**
And for good measure, other artist-run spaces and projects that come highly recommended include:
98B Collaboratory founded by artist Mark Salvatus. Project20 is another artist-run space in Quezon City, which recently celebrated their 3rd anniversary with a group exhibition entitled WE DON’T NEED NO ART EDUCATION (all in all you’re just another painting on the wall). Project Space Pilipinas is an artist-led project space in Lucban, where its ethos is to provide and deepen artistic accessibility in the region via artist residencies, exhibitions, and collaborations. These three spaces are woven together amidst three different locales. These venues somehow provide the lack of infrastructure missing from the Manila art scene, working towards a more dynamic and progressive system that supports artists and cultural workers in Las Islas.
Other honorable mentions include, District Gallery, in conjunction with Arts Above; and some initiatives that introduce forms not typically associated with contemporary art, but encourage a similar form of collectivity and collaboration, like Philippine Wrestling Revolution, Better Living Through Xeroxography (founded by Adam David with this manifesto), and Studio Soup Zine Library (more of a permanent space for DIY publishing and other materials typically cast aside as ephemera housed under a thrift store/ space for assorted bricolage called UVLA in Cubao Expo).
With special thanks to all the interviewees, and (even more special thanks to) Lian Ladia – for her tireless wrangling, critical eye and highly considerate conclusions; and John Kenneth Paranada – for his (always) fruitful introductions.
Cover photo: Celebrated artist, sculptor and performance artist Roberto Villanueva (1947-1995)