Shared Resources and Media Art Production in Manila
L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery
In a country where institutional support is rudimentary and scarce and where media art is still unfamiliar and very new, the production of media art faces more difficulties than marketable artifacts such as paintings and objects.
For the purposes of this essay we will define ‘media art’ as works involving film, sound, video, and machines and/or made with cameras; sound and video recorders; and computers. There is no deliberate ideological rationale behind this definition, only the brute fact that my own artistic interests and practices revolve around these things, which have in turn determined the circles I move in and the artists I meet, know and talk to. However, it should be noted that the same difficulties surround many minority art genres, particularly any with a large performance element.
In the Philippines, media art is still a relatively minor and unfamiliar tradition, whose products currently face microscopic or nonexistent markets and an absence of friendly exhibition spaces. However, its practice often requires specialized and sometimes expensive equipment and specialized knowledge. Such impediments appear to have engendered three major consequences:
1) a media art scene that is primarily centered around performances and screenings in ad hoc or popup events
2) the sharing of knowledge and resources by its practitioners
3) the creation of informal, ad hoc arrangements that facilitate production
Interviews and discussions with fellow media artists clarified three characteristics of the solutions/adaptations that have emerged in response to the factors of outlined above. The first is:
· Almost all “shared resources”, whether in the form of space, material, service, or equipment, are owned by a single person who shares the resource out to a selected number of people.
As a result, all those who make use of the resource always have the status of either friend, guest, or some nested variation such as friend of a guest of a friend and so on. There currently are no arrangements of the type that underly the so-called ‘hacker spaces’ popular in more prosperous countries, which are owned and maintained communally by a group of peers. In the case of nearly every resource, it is always owned or administered by a patron -- very often an artist himself--- who possesses and administers the resource by virtue of a) being richer/more successful, b) belonging to a prosperous family or c) being attached to a richer person. Thus sculptor and sound artist Lirio Salvador was the sole signatory of the lease of the gallery and event space known as Espasyo Siningdikato, and did not collect contributions towards its expenses. In the same vein, Terminal Garden, a space which hosted residencies, concerts, performances, and workshops, was the family residence of its director Tengal Drilon. The gallery/event space/studio known as Green Papaya is owned and financed solely by the visual artist Norberto “Peewee” Roldan. The furniture fabrication company Bespoke occasionally manufactures objects for artists, but only and solely at the discretion of its director Jeremy Guiab.
It is worth relating that Tsinelas Labs attempted to transplant the communally-run hackerspace structure to Manila. It closed in less than six months as a result of a lack of subscribers. On the other hand, the Philrobotics Philippine Electronics and Robotics Enthusiasts Club was founded in 2010 and is still going strong as a consequence of being able to use a room rent-free in the offices of E-gizmo, an electronics parts store specializing in sensors, microcontrollers, and industrial automation components, whose owner is a founding member of the club.
The second characteristic is:
· Physical spaces are constantly in flux.
Spaces are constantly being started, ended, opened, closed, initiated and abandoned. As of this writing, the aforementioned Terminal Garden closed in December of 2015, when the house was turned over to new owners. By the same token, the painters/sound artists Pow Martinez and Manny Megrino built/are building home-recording studios in their residences that they plan to open to friends and collaborators. The art collective WALA (Windang Aesthetics Labor Army, whose acronym means “Nothing” and whose practice centers on public interventions with a heavy media art/performance aspect) effectively spent a four-month residency in 2015 at an abandoned horse stable that the UP Diliman made available for their use. This residency that ended when the stables’ electrical supply was cut off. Because the art made at these spaces currently generates next to no income, these spaces are always dependent on the existence of a disposable surplus. As these surpluses are always in danger of drying up or being channeled to more profitable ends, (the more so if they are formally owned collectively, as for instance by the patron’s family) artists’ access to these spaces is often short-lived.
· Cooperation and sharing is based less on physical locations, formal membership and communal ownership than on networks of personal relationships that facilitate arrangements -- ad hoc, temporary, informal, and improvised -- that determine how surpluses are deployed, exceptions made, and fees reduced or even eliminated.
Some detail regarding WALA’s practices may go some way in illuminating this particular notion. It is a difficulty specific to improvised arrangements that they can appear as trivial or inessential, even to those who make and depend on these arrangements. Certainly my own practice, and that of my band/noise collective The Children of Cathode Ray --riddled as they are with such jerry-rigged transactions, did not prevent me from initially characterizing the current landscape as “experiencing a drought in shared spaces” until the curator Merv Espina suggested to me that in the Philippine context, physical spaces might be a secondary consideration –one among many resources generated by social relationships. I understand that shifting the focus from physical spaces to social arrangements complicates the conversation. However, if art relies primarily on these arrangements in order to exist and function, then these arrangements, however archipelagic, multifarious, changeable, tangled and hard-to-talk-aboutable, -- these arrangements have to be acknowledged as the primary and essential infrastructure. The discourse must adapt to reality.
WALA is a loose collective of some eight core members, who wish not to be named as they consider the collective to be the primary artistic entity. As has been noted, they focus primarily on public actions/interventions, though this focus generates a variety of media and objects, including videos, zines, musical/noise instruments and sound recordings. In terms of where they operate, they work and meet primarily at 3 locations:
1) In Green Papaya in Quezon City, where two of the members –a couple-- live as formally employed assistants of the visual artist Norberto Roldan. The two members live in the upper floor, which also serves as their studio.
2) In a house in Mandaluyong that functions as the offices and storage rooms of Avante Garde Greeting Cards, where another of WALA’s core group —a friend of the company’s owner—lives. The offices are equipped with a rather gorgeous copier/scanner/color printer, which WALA is suffered to use.
3) In an abandoned horse stable -- still open to the elements – on the grounds of the University of the Philippines in Quezon City. The stable was given over to the use of artists as part of the Project Bakawan Art Festival in February of 2015. WALA used the space as meeting room and gallery and staged sound/media performances there until electrical power became unavailable in late May of the same year. It is interesting to note that they effectively shared the space with JKS -- a fraternity/gang based in a nearby village that had co-opted the abandoned stables before UP management invited WALA to use the stables during an art festival -- whose members still maintained a proprietary view of the premises.
These details illustrate that the group’s practice relies heavily on resources that they have access to by virtue of personal relationships. This access often becomes another resource that they in turn share out to their friends, such as to the Cavite-based sound artist Erick Calilan, who stores sound equipment in the living quarters of the Green Papaya contingent of WALA.
These details suggest that in Manila (and possibly in the Philippines) it might be more appropriate to frame the notion of ‘production space’ in terms of a space of production opportunities, rather than in terms of physical real estate. In spite of the word “real” of “real estate” pre-loading the notion of physical space with primary significance, I would argue that a serious investigation of how art is actually produced cannot presuppose that it knows what it is looking for, lest it run the danger of discounting something essential just because it does not accord with one’s prejudices. Sometimes the essential is invisible to the eye; and I believe that the more abstract and dynamic notion of socially-generated “opportunity space” must be considered as the primary and enabling space in which equipment and resources are shared by Manila’s media artists.
Note: A SLIGHTLY shorter version of this article was previously published in a.m. post, issue 115