Friday, October 26, 2012

Rhizoming: Producing an independent curatorial project in Southeast Asia

[prepared for Southeast Asia Art Exchange, July 28, 2012, New Zero Art, Yangon, Myanmar]

            Let me first illustrate the context where I am coming from.  In my country, the Philippines, a teacher will tell you “Go home and plant camote (sweet yam)!”; by which she means, because you are no good in school you better consider being “just” a farmer.  In a country where art profession is an unpopular career, this seems appropriate.  I thought it is interesting to combine this local expression burdened by its local connotation with the palatable complexity of Gilles Delueze’ Rhizome philosophy[1] and somehow emphasize that art is a walking irony.
            Throughout the presentation, I used the metaphor of planting camote in relating my experience in producing curatorial project in Southeast Asian cities. 

Location Where I plant camote?
            Southeast Asia being a political boundary exists with all types of politics.  The borders are cartographically clear but culturally fluid.  For the purpose of my own research, I veered away from the border and focused on the center, particularly the Central Business District, its immediate outskirts which are usually entrepreneurial and residential districts, the emerging city which has the same quality of the outskirt city and the CBD combined, and the transient cities which is a melting pot of all sorts of trade—this is what I call the city.  A city is a place where people are not permanently engaged to land or water.  An indigent person can eventually or suddenly becomes the boss with the proper combination of hard work and patience, but sometimes pure luck is sufficient.  Something which is almost impossible, as history professes, in the serfdoms of the rural haciendas, where the fathers and forefathers of forefathers give birth to more generation of more farmers.  Whereas, in the city a hardware  owner, partners with a small contractor, the small contractor gets a huge building project, both the hardware and the contractor now builds half of an emerging city—true story. 
The decision to focus on cities is obviously influenced by my other interest that is commerce, trade, the exchanges of material and soft goods.   It has been my hypothesis, since research in younger days, that spaces of mercantilism optimizes the capability of man to reassign being.  Reassigning being is not simply changing suit; it is the ability to adapt to change; it is the willingness to at least reflect (and eventually) adapt the new; and to be mindful (at most times) to what was old or what have been.  The potential of fluidity of men in cities is a condition that enables opportunities.

Condition Plant camote...can!
I have wanted to do something within the Region since after I completed my research during college days.  My research then was focused on the Philippines. The natural progression, I thought was to go to the Region.  So I have been patiently working on ways to get-in the Southeast Asia art scene for quite some time.  I did apply to do internship, fellowship or research grants from institutions in Singapore and HongKong (English speaking SEA countries) but nothing came out of it. I did get something from North America, but since they were not my real interest, the research was just completed and never pursued further. So after 2 years of trying and not getting anything from SEA, I spent the next eight years working for La Sallian Brothers, teaching arts management courses and serving as consultant for social responsibility division of corporations. In retrospect, this “waiting phase” was a blessing because it allowed me to earn courage and some money in preparation for the endeavour I am currently undertaking.  It does require so much of both.    
Until my cue to actualize my wish finally arrived 2010.  Singapore International Foundation gave me a 100-days arts associate residency at The National Art Gallery Singapore in February 2010.  Through this grant, I was able to get acquainted with so many artists, not just from Singapore but also Thailand and eventually HongKong. Art has its own timing. My past passion to hold research in SEA was instantly ignited.
This gave birth to my Project Glocal—which is a contraction of local and global. Project Glocal is a cross cultural multi locale art project.  The agenda is to get to know cities and its dwellers, to find boundaries and intersections, to converse about it not to make grand narratives but to reflect on how it affects or even define our choices, preferences, our habits and consequently our lives.  I chose to work with cities where I know people—Bangkok there is Vichaya Mukdamanee, a co-alumni of SIF grant; HongKong there is Jaffa Lam, co-grantee of Asian Cultural Council; Manila is of course my home; and Singapore, well it is my other home for so many reasons even before my stint at SIF happened.  And of course these still are active trading cities.  I chose to work with artists simply because art is my agenda. 
Project Glocal formally started in July 2011 when I shared my research to artists I hope to work with. As of date, I am already working with 29 artists; we already had two exhibits in Manila; two small talks or conversation with art public; with two more big exhibits, one at the University of the Philippines in October and another at Singapore Art Museum 8Q in November; and two symposia.  Plans for 2013 are still on-hold awaiting funding or more courage, whichever comes first.
More than these numbers, my research or more so, my involvement in SEA arts affairs through Project Glocal now breath the air of congeniality and camaraderie amongst the artist participants and our respective institutions. We, myself and my artists collaborators, recognize our adversaries of course, but at least I am proud to say that our small talks do not dwell on what this city has and what the others don’t; nor what the others can and what the others cannot; we often hear a popular Mekong expression “same same but different;” which reveals that we reflect on our crossings as much as our being multi and diverse.
What we agreed-on so far is that our city is what we experience or how we chose to experience where we are.  And that we are city-zens by virtue of how we act on what we chose to act on.  City is not a matter of physical boundary but a cerebral kinaesthesia. As we now claim that artists maybe technically subjected to zip codes and taxes, being a city-zen is not. And it is in this condition that we see further opportunities for collaboration.  Like rhizomes, we found “that city” is somewhere we can plant our camotes. 
Anti-climactic however, art remains a subject of local and global gazes.  This is a talking point of our Project Glocal that requires more conversations.  We have the other half of this year to do so.
Challenge Time to bear fruit
            Project Glocal is not your typical research; where you formulate a hypothesis, gather data and write about it.  This is not even an applied research where a product or formula is produced in the process of research. Project Glocal, by lack of proper label, is a social experiment; where the subject of study is the doer of the experiment.  Activity involves finding each other, building relationship, and bearing fruit. So, ok it is more like speed dating that requires a child at the end of the roulette.  But in keeping with my chosen metaphor for this presentation, I’d like to say that we are planting camote.  We have to make our tops grow roots, hug the earth and ultimately bear fruit.
            Finding each other. All 30 of us found each other through the various art networks.  Some attended the same residency, some were from the same university, and some did projects in the past. So our networks are school, art/culture institution and work.
            Building relationship. Internet, especially Facebook, is our biggest asset in getting to know each other. We have been exchanging emails long before we met.  But at one point we have to meet in person.  I have met them all. I went to each city as often as time and finances allow me.  Not just to talk about our collective art agenda or to look at portfolios.  A time spent with them chatting about dreams, frustrations, family, love life, even favourites and fetishes, proved to be useful in enriching our understanding of each other, which enabled a more natural relationship, if not actually friendship.
            Bearing fruit. The first satellite show (titled Conversation of Cities) is a product of my initial personal meeting with the artists. I should say that the roots have sprouted from the plant but it has yet to hug the earth.  I am not too contended with the outcome.  It looks undone; incomplete.  Good thing though, the small talk that went with the exhibit catered to opening of a gamut possible talking points for Project Glocal.  Frankly, it was when I realized that I am running a huge project fuelled by my skimpy personal funds and a good bunch of enthusiasm. The following satellite show (HabitForming) is more solid.  It was a product of another round of emails and another round of visit to the cities.  While visually the show is solid, and somewhat the collaborating artists were more involved, our art public said very little during the talk because the conversation was routed to a more academic tone. It could be accidental or intentional (definitely accidental on my part and most of my artists).  But the change of flow of talk from informal chat to a more structured or deeper analytic talk surprised a lot of us.  Again, I realized that people have a great fascination for revising order; even if the order is to not have one. The next two exhibits and conversation with art public are in large scale.  Not biennale large, but at least it is larger than the first two.  I don’t want to predict what will happen.  I am hoping however that the fruits of our labor will be enticing enough to bear new fruits.

            In summary, I would like to say that in doing curatorial project for Southeast Asia, one should consider well were she would want to set her plant.  Because in this industry it is not enough to grow roots, it is necessary that your roots will hug the earth, and to bear fruits that are birthed directly from the roots, deep with the same earth that nourishes. This is what I did and doing now, because one day I hope to harvest my camote and eat it too. -END-

[1] Referring to “A thousand plateaus”; a theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit.