Friday, August 24, 2007

The Two Faces of Video Art in the Philippines

Below is an essay I wrote in 2005 for Digital Paradise, a new media exhibit and held at the Daejeon Museum of Art and associated galleries in Korea. It was subsequently edited and republished by Lisa Chikiamco for the first End Frame Video Art exhibition held in Rockwell in 2006. I figured I'd park it here for ready access. It should be noted however, that recent exhibitions of videoart have tended to exclude the maximalist works in favor of the minimalist/conceptualist works, a narrowing of curatorial focus which Lisa Chikiamco herself has played some part in bringing about. Perhaps this is the way transitions take place in the Philippines. New stuff is made by friends of the old guard, which the old guard happily and uncritically show alongside of their stuff, unmindful of the visual disjunction. As the new stuff proliferates, so do its supporters. Finally, the old scene "buds" another scene, which focuses primarily on the new stuff.

The Two Faces of Video Art in the Philippines

As of the present, video art in the Philippines has roots in two traditions. One is the tradition of experimental film, which mainly radiate from the Mowelfund Film Institute (MFI), and the tradition of conceptual art which radiate from the teachings of the conceptualist Roberto Chabet. This essay attempts to sketch and describe the work and motifs of the two camps. For this purpose, I will delineate the motifs of the MFI/experimental film camp through a discussion of certain works by filmmakers Lyle Sacris, Elvert Banares and Ryan Vergara and the motifs of the conceptual camp by discussing works of Ronald Anading and Gary Pastrana.

The Face from MFI/Experimental Film

MFI director Nick DeOcampo (himself a filmmaker and film historian), asserts that filmmakers with a (non-Conceptual-Art) Fine Arts background simply saw the camera as something else to paint with. He further asserts that the sheer technical and economic difficulties of making a synchronized sound narrative on film or video in a third world country in the 80's (before the advent and proliferation of desktop editing) forced young filmmakers to create alternatives to a structure that made such impossible demands. However, it is also impossible to discount the influence of the Goethe Institut, which not only screened whole programs of experimental film, but also sponsored hands-on experimental film workshops at the MFI by filmmakers like Helmut Berger and Christoph Janetzko in the 80’s. Janetzko in particular, is famous as a teacher and advocate of experimental film all over Asia. It is primarily through Janetzko, and the Goethe Institut’s sponsorship of Janetzko’s workshops, that the memes of experimental film have spread throughout this continent.

Naturally, the death of film (especially the Super-8 and 16-mm gauges—the traditional, low-budget film gauges of alternative cinema) has made it inevitable that experimental filmmakers would turn to video. This transition/connection between film and video is the most obvious characteristic of Elvert Bañares' work "Gemini," in which he digitally reprocessed footage he originally created with the Mowelfund J&K optical printer. The film footage lovingly reprises familiar motifs from experimental film: found footage, the physical assault on the celluloid, (scratched emulsions, celluloid soaked in various chemicals, burnt, buried in the ground, and so on) and so on, producing a strange nostalgia in the viewer. Inside the computer, the work becomes further manipulated by digital processes. Bañares composites pieces of the original footage, multiplies it, changes the color and so on. That he has transformed his single channel work into a 2 channel installation is also indicative of the way experimental film in the Philippines slides between film and installation.

The filmic pedigree of Banares, Sacris and Vergara, is also immediately visible in the conventions they use to frame the “content” of their works. They include a title card, a list of credits, and, in the case of Banares, even a dedication. They show the filmmakers’ faith that all material on the screen outside the opening and closing shot can be experienced by the viewer as something apart from the actual content of the work. They are perhaps also more used to thinking of the work as pure information, and consequently also as something very likely to spawn copies with illegible, damaged, or nonexistent labels. In contrast, those artists from the Fine Arts/Conceptualist camp often avoid shooting credits, preferring that no text interrupt the video. They tend to see the physical monitor as the frame, and trust that a suitable label will accompany the work wherever it is exhibited.

The works from the experimental film tradition are often somewhat “maximalist,” with a kind of Rauschenbergian inclusivity. They are marked by a kind of hyperkineticism, filled with movement, noise, and jarring transitions. The artists generally view their art in the light of ideas elucidated by the Romantics in the 19th century: that works of art are highly personal expressions of the artist, the unruly manifestations of unruly spirits that are impatient with rules and tradition. This strain is particularly evident in Videotron. Vergara, a flamboyant and androgynous figure, shows himself using spray paint, focusing cameras and editing on a computer, amid a welter of images from the city and from television. The video presents a quixotic figure, dizzied by the modern city, cataloging it, manipulating images of it, turning it, by the magic of digital manipulation, into something part of him. The camera is the means by which he comes to grips with the city.

Of the three, Sacris has the slickest images, not surprising for a man who used to direct music videos for a living. Sacris, has previously asserted that although his images are representations of personal sentiments, these sentiments themselves are not for public consumption, and that the viewer is absolutely free to make what he will of the images. As a result, his previous work has suffered from a kind of hermetic quality. In contrast, Reincarnation’s dual structure of video and poem provides the viewer with a more limited space for interpretation, which turns out to allow the viewer to find more, not less meaning in the work. The mind, shuttling between the two structures, weaves a deepening tapestry of meditation, circling the issues of life and limits that have been staked out as the work’s subject-matter. His eight-channel work is designed to work with the structure of a ceiling and a floor, thus weaving the architecture of the exhibit space into the digital content of the work. Dancers run upward, flowing across the eight monitors, only to be turned back by the ceiling. The monitors flicker with extreme closeups that quote the lighting of the eerie animated shorts of the Quay brothers, the London-based directors of the live-action feature Institute Benjamenta, famed for eerie, atmospheric shorts like Street of Crocodiles, and The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer. Sacris paints the world as a jumble of abandoned relics. Humanity seems to wade through a junkyard of mementos, striving upwards, constantly turned back by an impenetrable ceiling.

The Face from Conceptual Art

Opposed to the maximalist-romantic orientation of the artists who come from an experimental film background is the minimalist-self-effacing aesthetic of the artists with a Fine Arts background associated with the circle surrounding the grand old man of Philippine conceptual art, Roberto Chabet. These artists see themselves primarily as visual artists who sometimes also use video. Ronald Anading and Gary Pastrana, both paint and build objects aside from creating video installations. Ronald Anading (Or “Poklong” as he is called by his friends) is also responsible for curating Interruption at the Big Sky Mind Gallery in 2001, the first all-video art show in the Philippines.

The works of this tradition are governed by a kind of “anti-prettiness,” inherited from the Dadaists by way of Fluxus. They reduce rather than accumulate. They substitute repetition for variety. They avoid micromanaged cinematography in favor of video shot in available spaces with available light. Their whole aesthetic is drenched in a kind of visual monasticism, a Calvinist preference for plain, unadorned appearances. This overt plainness overlies a covert aspect that is the true “content” of the work. Quite a number of artworks use video to illuminate an object as an indexical sign. The philosopher Charles Pierce defined the indexical sign, or index, as the sign which is causally related to its referent, like a footprint is an indexical sign of human presence. Typically, an ordinary object is juxtaposed with video that reveals something covert about the object. This covert aspect need not be something large or grandiose. It is often simply some fact about the how object was created: the point is the relationship between the video and the object. Gary Pastrana’s work Gravity Builds A Poem is especially elegant in the way each half of the work is so ordinary apart from the other half. In this work, a shelf at eye-level is messily piled with toy alphabet blocks. On the floor below the shelf, a video monitor displays the image of the artist lying on the floor throwing blocks upward, out of frame . The video, in short, simply documents the process by which the blocks arrived on the shelf. The work rejects the expressionist idea of the role that the artist’s personal labor and emotion play in the making of something recognized as a “work of art”. The arrangement of the blocks are arbitrary, but at the same time absolutely sacred: it is impossible to move anything on the shelf without destroying the nature of its relationship with the video. And while it is also impossible to prove that this relationship has not been disturbed, one also senses that the site has somehow been imprinted, or sanctified, by this idiosyncratic, arbitrary process.

Anading’s Found Object is strangely hypnotic in spite of the high speed of the images (produced by time lapse, a visual device usually associated with the maximalists) and the crashing noise of a concrete drainage pipe being demolished with sledge hammers. Again, the overt aspect is one of pure ordinariness. Lighting is utilitarian and camera movement nonexistent. However, the sped-up humans lose their separate identities even as we watch, and become part of a clanging, flickering, slowly changing landscape. In this case, the covert and overt elements are presented sequentially, unlike in Pastrana’s work, wherein they are presented simultaneously. The covert element, the noisy and destructive party organized by Anading is presented onscreen. But because Anading has reversed the video in addition to speeding it up, the destruction becomes an act of slow creation, wresting a kind of industrial poetry from the drainage pipe. At the end of the work, the overt object (the drainage pipe) stands whole like a witness to all we have seen before: a mute, impenetrable, yet deeply pregnant icon, reminiscent of the monolith from Kubrick’s film 2001.

Really Two Faces?

Film and Conceptual Art: From what I little I know, read, and been told, a similar duality exists in other countries’ art traditions, but that the stylistic/aesthetic divide between the two traditions corresponds to social and curatorial divisions: the two camps often do not mingle, and see the art of the other camp as a hostile tradition with which they have nothing in common. The young turks of the Videoart Center in Tokyo view the old guard of the Image Forum with suspicion and it seems that the attitude is reciprocated. No such divisions inform the Philippine scene. Makers of hyperkinetic experimental films exhibit their works alongside minimalist, conceptual video installations and toast the makers of these installations as fellow “filmmakers.” For their part, the loop-minimalists do not contest the label, and seem content with the curating of the shows. All seem united in the view that they till a common field.

It would be easy to claim that the Filipino artists don’t really get it, or that they’ve got it all wrong; to claim that their easy inclusivity indicates that Filipino video artists misunderstand that conceptual, loop-based video works are as much a rejection of assumptions and values of “traditional” experimental film as they are an exploration of areas this tradition does not explore. This would be the easy conclusion, and so we refuse to make it, and instead choose, at this time, to indicate that we are looking for another conclusion, and that we haven’t found one yet.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mothra song in Tagalog

Bit of Pinoy Trivia: This is an extract from Mothra versus Godzilla (1964). You can hear the tiny islander girls played by twin sisters Emi and Yumi Ito (the singing duo called The Peanuts) singing in Tagalog:

Naiintindihan mo ba?
Mayroon ba doon?
Pumunta ka lang dito.
Halika't maupo

(Do you understand? Is there something over there? Come over here. Sit down.)

The phrase "Halika't maupo" is kind of an old-fashioned, or literary way of speaking. Makes me wonder if this isn't a straight rip from some old kundiman. Would appreciate it if anyone could say for sure. The composer is Akira Ifukabe, who composed the eerie music of the Mothra movies.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Media Art Histories

I'm currently reading MediaArtHistories a brilliant compilation of essays that link current computer/sensor/VR etc art to various phenomena/movements etc in the past. Needless to say, I adore the book. Haven't read anything like it. It's something that ought to be bought (especially by libraries) and read (especially by teachers, critics and writers). Not just because it would make my life easier when I tell people that I make media art, but because the world is not about to become LESS technological, which means that media art is a coming juggernaut. But, as the writers point out, a lot of historical threads are present in media art's themes. (For instance, Peter Weibel traces Mediaart motifs like virtuality, programmability, haptic interactivity and algorithmic process to Kinetic and Op art!)

For an overview of the kind of writing that the book contains, you can check out this site:

It's the archive some of of the papers (in pdf) that were presented at the conference that eventually spawned the book.

About 40 u$ and not locally available as far as I know. (No whining please!) You wanna get it, go to Amazon here or MIT Press here.

Note: I've exchanged a few emails with the editor Oliver Grau, and yeah, he does have a vested interest in getting the word out, but I don't get anything for doing this. I'm just glad for some perspective on what otherwise seems like a forest of alienware (even if I make some of that alienware myself ;-)). I've also checked out Grau's own book Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion on Googlebooks (see here ). The bit where he says that Virtual Reality is an expression of the desire to "enter the picture" and then uncovers that drive expressing itself in a whole-room fresco in Pompeii painted in 60BC (!!!) is almost like criticism porn. Will have to get that one soon. Haven't been this excited about a book since I found a pirate pdf of Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media on the net. Mwahahah!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ka Elmo Death Anniversary

It's been one year since Ka Elmo, old gago, tireless stalwart of Pinoy independent films, packed it in. This photo was taken by Peter Marquez, the sound recordist and still photographer for my short film Local Unit. I designed his costume and built the eyepiece prop out of a magnifying glass, a cheap pair of headphones from CDR-King (the kind with a microphone and two minijacks) plus a couple of green LEDs. I ripped it off the Bladerunner-in-a-blender art direction of the comic Transmetropolitan that Lyle Sacris lent me as reference. The prop is a real migraine machine and KE really didn't like it the first time I wrapped it around his head. At first he'd take it off every chance he got, but then he wound up keeping it on for longer and longer periods as he sort of rode the costume to an idea of the character. He really had great instincts under all that craziness. The idea of using it for the post observing his death crossed my mind, but I'm glad for the little voices that shot it down. The wide lens isn't gonna win anybody a modeling contract, but this pic really makes the case for image distortion as a possible form of truthtelling.

Friday, August 03, 2007


Brilliant essay about John Cage and 4'33" here

Really like this bit:

During the 1940s, when Cage was writing percussion and prepared piano pieces, he became concerned with a new change. He noticed that although he had been taught that music was a matter of communication, when he wrote a sad piece people laughed, and when he wrote a funny one they started crying. From this he concluded that "music doesn't really communicate to people. Or if it does, it does it in very, very different ways from one person to the next." He said, " No one was understanding anybody else. It was clearly pointless to continue that way, so I determined to stop writing music until I found a better reason than 'self expression' for doing it."