Saturday, September 19, 2009

New Work: Agimat ni Captain Latigo

Made Agimat ni Captain Latigo (ie the weirdo electronics in a suitcase and armature thing) for the 40th Anniversary of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). It's for We Said Our Piece, an exhibition curated by Don Salubayba and Claro Ramirez for DALOY, a bunch of events commemorating said 40th anniversary. 40 contemporary artists interact with 40 pieces from the CCP's permanent collection. The exhibit should run till around October 18 2009. The work is on the fourth floor.


Agimat interacts with Penitensiya, (the black metal humanoid figure in the back) a steel sculpture by Solomon Saprid. At the heart of it (actually at the tip of the armature) is an electromagnet running household AC (110 volts at 60 Hz ) , cooled by a small fan. The fluctuating magnetic field makes Saprid's statue sing, and you can hear it humming throughout the exhibition space. Basically I wanted my interaction to take place via a physical, scientific link.

Sonically, the electromagnet turns the metal sculpture into a speaker that hums 60Hz and related frequencies. Suspect that the natural resonances of the sculpture might add some inharmonic frequencies. Plus, the waves bounce off nearby walls causing standing waves and interference, so the sound changes as you walk around it...


Agimat translates to "talisman," an object/repository of power. However, as Reynaldo Ileto points out in his book Pasyon at Rebolusyon, the Southeast Asian agimat is not a tool. It's power is not something that anybody can just use, as its function is tied to the righteousness of the owner/recipient. In this sense, an agimat is more like an amplifier, than say, a battery. If the owner of the agimat is not careful to maintain the righteousness that makes him deserving of power, the agimat ceases to function. In this sense, Tolkien's rings of power are not agimat , but simply tools, objects that perform their functions independently of moral intent. Hammers, guns, microscopes are tools: anybody can buy and use one. (Actually, it occurs to me that Tolkien's rings might be described as anti-agimat, as they actively corrupt the spiritual health of the user.)

In Tagalog, penitensiya translates both as "penitent" and "penitence," but specifically denotes the act of physically scourging one's body in order to purify one's spirit. Penitensiya is a rite of purification, in which the mind is turned inward. Basically, I see my piece as adding an extra layer of narrative to the original sculpture. My title recasts Saprid's metal penintent as Captain Latigo, a superhero who presumably fights evil with his whips. I like the fact that the title gives the character of the whip-wielder a side which is oriented outwardly, someone who will use the whips to act upon/purify the world, and not only himself. The humming becomes the sound of Captain Latigo recharging his powers, plugging himself into his electric agimat and whipping himself, and maybe muttering a prayer in Latin ala Green Lantern's oath. Temporal powers intensifying in proportion to Righteousness and Spiritual Purity. Electric Sadomasochistic Superhero Power Charging and Purification...sort of thing.

Anyway, that's what was running through my head. In this case, I began with idea of the technique (vibrating a steel sculpture with an electromagnet) and then tried to think of narratives/symbolic components (purification, recharging, superhero, etc) to go with it. I then controlled the physical appearance of the machine in order to manifest/emphasize those narrative fragments.

This is a break for me as I generally try, when making art-machines, to deal with/expose physical phenomena without giving them social/political/mythical coloration. This would be analogous to the approach of the kinetic sculptors. Just as the kinetic sculptors showcased certain pieces of motion for their own sake and beauty, I try to showcase a certain function for its sake and beauty. So for instance in Quartet, I was dealing with the nature of virtual entities; in Shift Register, I was dealing with surveillance and the nature of the machine gaze. I've begun to think that perhaps it is proper to merge human concerns with the functions though. A sound can resonate in a room and resonate in human sensibility. It is elegant and proper for art to to deal with resonance in both senses. In the case of Agimat, the electromagnet causes the humanoid sculpture to vibrate (induced vibration = mechanical function). It is almost impossible for humans NOT to associate a body vibrating with certain intense psychological states, just as it is impossible for us to not see fire as a kind of living energy, even if fire actually consumes biological functions. Further, we correlate the sound emitted by the sculpture (= energy radiating into/agitating the air) with certain types of human intensity/concentration/charisma. We too are objects. I'm hoping there is a way to relate functions to human concerns without falling into sentimentality/anthopocentricity.

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