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2015.05.05 Tue, by Translated by: 顾灵
Dynamic Autonomy

Manila’s contemporary art scene is often described as “dynamic,” but one wonders at the implications of the word’s overuse—and whether, in this case, it can be fairly applied to all levels of art practice in the Philippine capital. After all, even regulars from the local community describe the logistical nightmare of traversing the city to reach art events as just bewildering—in fact, the locals are just as confounded as the visiting practitioners who come to the Philippines to seek out this “dynamism.”

Shuttling between the Singapore and Manila programming for the two locations of The Drawing Room, I noticed many comparisons. While both cities are riding the surge of the growing Asian market with an increase in production, the art ecologies remain distinct from each other. Singapore continues to build an infrastructure based on institutional support, but Manila lacks overarching distribution at the national level. There, force is derived from the private sector, from benefactors, private corporations, not-for-profit initiatives and the unsung majority of the peer network. Imagine a packed weekend—festivals and fairs, exhibitions and parties—accessible only by criss-crossing back and forth through the woeful Manila metro area. The artist opening his new project in a high-end commercial gallery is also the bassist for the gig playing later in the evening. If one is visiting, all it takes is to know one person in order to meet the rest. Cut to the Singapore scene, where good attendance is based on limited-capacity meet-and-greet. Exclusivity is key. But is this hyper-extension the reason Manila is called “dynamic”?

Skewed levels of support and infrastructure in Manila (much like its economic-political hierarchy) generate little in terms of public programs supported by the government. In response, the scene relies on its private and independent sectors. The commercial galleries, still considered the major players, remain as independent entities running their respective systems of artist representation and circulating projects and artworks. The last two years have seen their apparent growth—be it as alternative art schools or artist-run spaces transforming into commercial enterprises (such as Artinformal and Light and Space) or specialized spaces for photography and works on paper like Silverlens and The Drawing Room expanding their market reach by embracing artistic formats and opening spaces in Gillman Barracks. In the same breath, homegrown artist-based commercial spaces such as Finale Art File and Tin-Aw have upped their game with recent participation in international fairs like Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Taipei and Artissima. The secondary market, too, has increased its presence as part of this self-regulating community; Salcedo Auctions have opened shop, for instance—a testimony to the trend of unloading art to investment-focused buyers—this, alongside the almost cloak-and-dagger transactions that happen around the main producers who persist in their ambivalence towards more overt sales practices. Manila has also been taking part in the recent spurt of new art fairs worldwide. In its third year, Art Fair Philippines has won attention with the challenging move of placing the exhibition site in a parking lot. As an alternative to Manila Art, an annual art fair that took off in the mid-2000s, Art Fair Philippines hosted disgruntled local exhibitors from the former, and now even features overseas galleries.

Introducing the autonomous/anarchist groups participating in the exhibition

Introducing the autonomous/anarchist groups participating in the exhibition “Ethos Bathos Pathos”, 12 February 2015 in the University of the Philippines Jorge Vargas Museum
介绍展览“Ethos Bathos Pathos”的参展自治/建筑小组,2015年2月12日展出于菲律宾大学Jorge Vargas美术馆

Katti Sta. Ana,

Katti Sta. Ana, “Tangay-Tangan”, Installation, 2015
Katti Sta. Ana, “Tangay-Tangan”, 装置, 2015

With the opportunity arising for market-focused production, art practice in Manila is running at such a velocity that it is not rare to see an artist open exhibitions in different galleries on a monthly basis. The playing field of younger artists has broadened in recent years, providing them with chances—even as undergraduates—to produce commercially targeted work. With the onslaught of a market that has raised its demands on supply, the alternative scene has been reconfigured relative to its original purpose of presenting projects that have “no place” in commercial galleries.

The number of such spaces has dwindled since the mid-2000s insomuch as they are seen to be project sites. Rather, curatorial framing and collaborations around ideas for alternative cultural alignments have been tempered. Artist collectives such as 98B have discovered the potential of Escolta, an old colonial strip abandoned due to its off-the-grid location. Working with the local communities in tandem with their residency exchanges, 98B programs interventions on art deco facades and almost non-existent shop displays. Primarily linked with Koganecho Bazaar in Japan, the collective has also accommodated independent practitioners looking to collaborate in Manila. In the spirit of encouraging crossover and sustainable dialogue, Green Papaya—the longest running alternative art space—has continued to keep its doors open for visiting researchers. Now functioning as more of a platform/office, it hosts presentations on the many forms of practices ungoverned by mainstream commercial systems. Initiatives on new media occupy transient sites such as Terminal Garden, the private residence of an independent curator whose brainchild is Fete dela WSK—a sonic/performance art festival—while artists’ film practices have been proliferating in places such as the Ishmael Bernal Gallery in the University of the Philippine’s Film Institute, the Austrian-owned 1335Mabini, and other pop-up spots in the metropolitan area. Informal artist groups such as Artletics have grown into bigger festivals such as the Project Bakawan, further articulating notions of what social practice is in confrontation with milieus such as the campus ecology of the University of the Philippines.

Amid the excessive amount of art of production, criticality has proceeded more slowly. Given the gap between the prolific publishing activities in the ’80s, including other mainstream channels focused on arts and culture in the ’90s, the 2000s have seen a significant diminishing in the accessibility of public dialogue. The advent of social media (the Philippines is one of the top adopters of social media in the region) has come to replace traditional channels. Issues surrounding criticality and conversation have pressed upon the informal networks; addressing this after 2010 are web-based critical writing platforms like Discussion Lab and The Manila Review. In terms of providing information and access to other resources from inert archives, Planting Rice, the independent platform I have co-founded, attempts to provide a certain connection through its presence online and also through offsite programs which involve exhibiting archives and through the creation of resource hubs. As these initiatives provide the prompts for generating self-education, validating avenues such as the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Award for Art Criticism was recalled last year after being inactive in the previous three decades. This allowed an opportunity for the winning writer to publish reviews regularly in a major newspaper in the Philippines.

Alongside the increasing production of work and support of artistic practice, the Manila art community continues to question the idea of mobility. It has managed to build momentum mostly thanks to DIY principles, which in turn are born of the uneven distribution of minimal funds from the government. But as the scene begins to make steps towards more fixed commercial structures, many are asking the question: where do its projections lie?

“Cafe of Letters”, a reading laboratory of texts on Philippine Art, for the exhibition “Articles of Disagreements” 19 September – 20 December 2014 in Lopez Museum and Library
“Cafe of Letters”, 菲律宾艺博会上的一个文本阅读实验室, 这是展览“Articles of Disagreements”(争议条款)的系列活动之一,2014年9月19日-9月20日在Lopez博物馆与图书馆展出

Pirate Box Workshop as part of the Common Space/ Swarm Bibiliotheque in the exhibition

Pirate Box Workshop as part of the Common Space/ Swarm Bibiliotheque in the exhibition “Ethos Bathos Pathos”, 17 February 2015 in the University of the Philippines Jorge Vargas Museum
“Ethos Bathos Pathos”展览中 Pirate Box Workshop 是 Common Space/ Swarm Bibiliotheque 的一部分,2015年2月17日在展出于菲律宾大学的 Jorge Vargas 美术馆