Tuesday, September 27, 2016

2016 Venice Architectural Biennale


This is a post about the work I contributed to "Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City", the exhibition (curated by Andy Locsin, Sudarshan Khadka and Juan Paolo de la Cruz of LVLP ) that was the Philippine Pavilion in the 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale. The work is a tripartite video sculpture I titled "Gillage", a meditation of socio-architectural issues examplified by the informal structures built on and around the Pandacan bridge. The exhibition consisted of 3 rooms of objects representing conjectures and meditations on the history, current state, and possible fate of various iconic pieces of Manila's architecture, which rapid development has been flattening like pancakes. 

“Gillage” is a portmanteau word composed of “gilid” (which means “border” or “edge” in Tagalog) and “village”. The word “village” in this case refers to the exclusive, gated communities that dot Manila. Gillages are the informal settlements that inevitably surround the gated communities. The architect and historian Paolo Alcazaren points out that gillages arise in the peripheries of gated villages, because the villages require an army of laborers that need to be housed. Since low-cost housing and efficient public transportation is unavailable, all workers who are not live-in domestics have to make their home in informal settlements near -- sometimes literally just outside the walls of – these gated communities. This state of affairs means that the gated villages effectively sustain, and possibly even generate the informal settlements that are conceived as their opposites. It is a particularly ironic detail of this arrangement that many of the security guards that these villages rely on to maintain their borders make their homes in precisely those settlements that their employers regard as the dwelling-places of criminals and undesirables.

It was a small step to realize that iconic buildings, which house businesses with their own labor requirements, participated in the same paradox. It was clear to me then that an exhibit that focused on iconic architecture ought to have its own gillage somewhere.

This realization merged with a long-simmering curiosity about the so-called “trolleys” that ply the tracks of the Philippine National Railway, which I had often seen crossing the Pasig river in the Pandacan area. “Trolleys” here refer to the makeshift, foot-propelled vehicles that, like jeepneys, have arisen in response to the shortage of  public transportation. The trolleys are  made of wood and bamboo, light enough to be carried by a single man, and strategically padded to facilitate this operation. They are equipped with umbrellas and a braking system, and they ferry passengers on the rails for a fee. Students of the nearby Polytechnic University of the Philippines avail of them to cross the Pasig for the princely sum of ten pesos (U$ 0.21) . Some of the students are children of the trolleymen, and help out with the family business when their schedules allow.

As an act of architectural hacking, the trolley is in the same class as the informal house. However, unlike houses, the stringent weight requirements of the trolley trade eliminates all extraneous details except those that directly address the needs of the enterprise. As every gram of the trolley’s weight is a gram that must be pushed and carried by the operator, the trolley has evolved into a distillate of successful, low-cost engineering choices in a strong, light, and stable frame. While ingenuity and improvisation are also called upon to make any sort of house from scratch, the trolley’s minimalist construction make these powers easily visible. Representing informal dwellings with structures made of trolley parts seemed a way to make visible the ingenuity and resilience that informal dwellers call on every day to make headway under the difficult circumstances of life outside the edges of property law and government interest. Finally, I want to say I find the trolleys beautiful in and of themselves. Their spindly, skeletal appearance reminds me of the way planes looked in the early days of powered flight, and the image of trolleys flying above the river is a moment of air and light in existences generally conducted in cramped spaces and dark interiors.

In Pandacan, a man called Tongkie builds all the trolleys for the area. My team and I tracked him down and commissioned him to build three of them for us. After we agreed on the terms, we asked if he might find three friends who might be willing to trade their old, patinated trolleys for our new ones. This Alladinesque proposal (“New lamps for old!”)  was initially met with some puzzlement, but three takers were eventually found.

For my contribution to Muhon, my team consequently took three well-used trolleys to the garage of a friend’s house and proceeded to break them down into their component parts. The parts were combined to make the stands for three video sculptures whose silhouettes fit into the dimensions dictated by the curatorial brief, and which allude to the shapes of office buildings and skyscrapers.

1)   The sculpture my team and I referred to as “History” was a structure of robustly joined trolley parts above which were raised two 32” video screens in portrait orientation that displayed video of a) Sketchup images of the Pandacan Bridge rendered in a style that alluded to paper blueprints and b) footage of trolleys and informal structures built on and around the bridge. The sculpture was intended to contrast the quasi-Platonic architectural vision of the structure with the messy augmentations produced by its collision with the sociopolitical realities of Manila.

2)   The sculpture we called “Modernity” is much bigger, alluding to the progressive expansion and accumulation of architectural hacks on formal structures. Four video screens feature looping videos of details of informal houses and trolley construction and use. Close inspection is rewarded with a view of jerry-rigged media players based on the Raspberry Pi microcomputer, encased in a way intended to reflect the improvised and recycled nature of informal settlements.

3)   The sculpture we nicknamed “Futurity” recapitulates the form of “History”, except that the video screens are suspended above a loose and amorphous pile of trolley fragments. This sculpture hosts video of a) An animated Sketchup perspective for an informal dwelling and b) video footage of the demolition of an informal dwelling by its inhabitants, who as a rule accede to demolition orders so as to maintain possession of their building materials. This final sculpture focuses on the cycle that informal settlements are embedded in, and the fate they meet when market forces raise the value of the land they occupy to the point that the profits that ensue from demolition outweigh the political benefits of inaction.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Uwang (Formerly called "Eye of The Storm")

 "Uwang" is an interactive media installation. It is a new work created for Art Fair Philippines 2015. Formerly called "Eye of the Storm", "Uwang," which means "Coconut Weevil" in the dialect of Luisiana Laguna, consists of two parts. One part is made of real matter,  while the other part is a computer program.

The 'real matter' part is a log harvested from a kaong tree, . Uwang lay their eggs in the ubod, or pith, of toppled kaong trees. The eggs become larvae, which are called "kuok". The log on display is filled with live kuok, who feed on the pith, and occasionally exit into the basin on the left. The headsets above the log play a recording made of kuok harvested from the log. Funnels filled with water hydrate the log in order to keep the kuok alive.

The computer program part is an interactive audiovisual instrument. The viewer interacts by putting headphgones and scribbling lines on a graphics tablet with an electronic pencil. The lines form virtual kuok, which crawl across the screen, creating sounds as they repeat the viewer's scribbled line. A maximum of 4 virtual kuok can be drawn, creating evolving sounds and graphics that translate and reflect the life and situation of the real kuok inside the log.

The piece was created with the idea of enabling the viewer to jam with the kuok with a digital instrument I coded. The code builds on the work of Golan Levin, a pioneer in the field of software art. In the town of Luisiana in Laguna province, both ubod and the kuok that feast on it, are considered delicacies. Humans plant and harvest kaong. Uwang lay eggs in the kaong, which become new uwang, and another food for the humans. The tree, the insect, its larvae, and humans are tangled in a cyclic web of eating and reproduction. "Uwang" reflects and celebrated this tangle with both real and digital materials.

On February 8, at the close of the Art Fair, Uwang will be dismantled by harvesting and cooking the kuok in The Link. Viewers are invited to come. The harvest takes place at 4 PM, at the roof deck. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Bell is an interactive installation named after Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the audio speaker. It imagines an alternative future where speakers are not transparent conduits of sonic information, but architectural artifacts that generate specific experiences.

In its first iteration as Bell 1.0, the "clapper"  --an electromagnet pressed to the cylinder by a metal armature-- vibrates the cylinder at the frequency if household current. This frequency is 60 Hertz in the Philippines and 50 Hz in countries like Singapore, whose electrical protocols were formed under English rule. This causes the cylinder to hum. However, because the cylinder is an imperfect physical artifact, other frequencies arise in it, filling the hum with other sounds and frequencies.

In addition, the cylinder sways and wobbles when touched. This motion affects the sound experienced inside the cylinder, which wobbles in response to such motions.

(This text/post/entry is part of an experiment in using QR codes to tag art objects with metadata) 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Notes on Translection

So: in my previous post, I coined the word "translection" to describe what I thought might be a computer-native form of musical variation, which I had previously been referring to as "tag-shifting". I like "translection" better because it contains a word fragment ("lect") that  comes from legere, the Latin verb for "reading", which is the crucial operation here. The tags are not changed (as the word "tag-shifting" seems to imply). In translection, the way the tags are read is changed.

I might as well try to make a short definition for translection here. Literally, it means to change the way a signifier is mapped to an operation. Put mathematically, this is equivalent to changing the transfer function. To changing the algorithm by which one set of symbols is mapped to another set of symbols (or, in the case of a computer, to a set of operations). It's a case of remapping that specifically refers to remapping the data of time-based media. Translection differs from Translation and Interpretation in that it involves using clear and defined algorithms to change the meaning. Translation and Interpretation invoke much fuzzier forms of remapping. They invoke an art reliant on using judgement, rules of thumb, code-shifting between various mapping systems. Translection refers a more literal, more transparent form of remapping.

So why take such care in defining the word? I'm thinking it is already a way of talking about a specific kind of variation, and could be specifically useful in talking about/thinking of glitches as a source of  musical (and possibly extramusical?) variation.

 It occurs to me that playing a traditional score in a different key is an instance of translection.

I also realize that my sequencer's translective variations were the consequence of  a feature of MIDI data structure, specifically of  its feature of defining the note's duration with velocity (a note-on command consists of the note-number accompanied with a nonzero note-velocity, whereas a note-off command consists of the note-number accompanied by zero note-velocity). While traditional Western musical notation treated note duration as an atomic unity, MIDI grammar split note duration into note-on and note-off,  i.e. two grammatical units. Doubling the number of signifiers that defined duration opened the possibility of performing operations on the two signifiers which not only were previously impossible but literally unthinkable in terms of traditional notation,.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Translection: a computer-native form of musical variation

My collaborator Malek Lopez and I were playing around with some MIDI sequencer code. Based on his desire to have a rhythm generator, I kludged a 16-step sequencer that would spit out a sequence of 16 commands. For the sake of simplicity, let's say the sequencer did this by randomly choosing a number between 0 and 2 sixteen times, and putting its choices into a list.

So for instance, it might spit out: 0112 1020 2201 2021

The number sequence was then read as a sequence of tags/commands according to the following system:

 0= start a note;  1 = end a note;  and 2 = do nothing.

Now, if we assume that the numbers determine the gating of a single sustained pitch, then the sequencer would output a sound that could be represented as:

 Where a stretch of blue squares indicated a sustained pitch, and a stretch of white squares indicated silence.
After listening to the sequencer do its thing for a few hours. I realized that changing the way the sequencer interpreted the commands would create musical phrases that would differ from one another, and yet be related by rules of translation.

The most obvious variation would be produced simply by inverting the interpretation of the start and stop tags, ie

0 = stop note;    1 = start note;     2 = do nothing.

 Well, I said it was the obvious variation. It produces a negative of the previous sound, where previous tones are replaced with silences of equal length, and previous silences are replaced with tone.

However, if we use a different system of tag interpretation, say

0 = do nothing;   1 = start note;   2 = end note;  

 then we get something like this:

Which is a sonic product with a different and less obvious relationship.

I'm currently referring this kind of variation as Translection, as it consists of changing/shifting the way the tags are read ("lector" = reader, from the Latin verb legere:  "to read"). I find the idea of translective variation interesting because this kind of variation is native to music made with computer code. As far as I know, it is not a named, known or acknowledged form of musical variation. Still not sure where it goes from here, but tag-shifting functions will definitely be coded into the coming sequencers we'll be making..

Friday, September 09, 2011

Art and Evidence

An object can become art in the same way it can become evidence. In both cases, the object is placed within a specific context/given a certain role.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Not-Very-Subliminal Advertisment

Should mention that his left hand's pointing downward, in case the photo's too blurred to be clear. Apologies. Hard to drive and shoot at the same time.