Third World biennial?
by Clarissa Chikiamco
This article is not about the Havana Biennial but about a curious event which occurred in Daet, Camarines Norte last May 31 to June 6. The third edition of the Bagasbas Beach International Eco-Art Festival (BBIEAF) transpired unbeknownst to many in the Manila art scene as it represented the Philippines as a biennale themed with art, environment and sustainability. While the Havana Biennial became known as the Third World biennial in its focus on exhibiting artists from the Third World, this designation may be more appropriate for the BBIEAF as this particular edition makes apparent.
In the arts, a biennial or biennale refers to mega-exhibitions held every two years that are showcases for current trends in contemporary art. It originated in Venice, which had its first biennale in 1895, and gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century as biennales and triennales (held every three years) established itself around the globe, done in the shadow as well of another formidable and expansive exhibition of contemporary art, Documenta (established in 1955 and held every five years in Kassel, Germany). The curatorial models for biennales vary widely as, in the early decades of the phenomenon at the very least, each attempted to make itself distinctive in order to jockey for visibility and position in the international art scene. As with any biennale, an evaluation of the BBIEAF needs to begin then by examining its aims, themes and curatorial model, which define the criterions of perspective to view it by.
Founded by artist Dr. Joaquin Palencia, the BBIEAF places its core in the belief that art is a tool for human and community development, themed as previously mentioned with art, environment and sustainability. It has lofty but perhaps foolhardy ambitions — “to share a new vision with the rest of the world, to foster hope, to make life better, to integrate Life and Art, Technology, and the fervent hopes of a Community, a People, a Nation, a World.” This incontrovertibly gives cause to too elevating expectations, particularly for the poverty-stricken people of Daet who are the target beneficiaries of the BBIEAF and the reason for its founding. As such, the festival is modeled on artists working with the Daet communities on the installation art component of the festival which forms its centerpiece.
In this installation aspect, artists propose a large-scale work beforehand that is to be composed using bamboo and materials that are to be sourced from the community. Once approved, the selected artists come to Daet, each being assigned a community and immersing themselves there for two days, including an overnight stay. Subsequent to that, the main site of the festival occurs at the shore of Daet’s Bagasbas beach — a quiet, clean and public beach frequented mostly by the locals — where the installations are built with the help of members of the communities for five days prior to the formal opening. Previous editions of the festival stressed a more local flavor of artists while the current one was more international with six foreign artists and one Filipino in this division. These artists were Chak Chung Ho (Hong Kong SAR China), Stuart Frost (Norway/UK), Emmanuel Herbulot (France), Irma Lacorte (Philippines), Mia Orsag (Croatia), Tanya Preminger (Israel) and Matthew Slaats (USA).
Fettered by little time to prepare for this festival as news of the approved P500,000 grant from the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) came only early this year, the BBIEAF organization committee rushed to put this up in only a few months’ time. They approved all the foreign artists that answered an open call for proposals which fit the following selection criteria: (1) the artist has to be from a faraway culture so the impact of the immersion is maximized; (2) there should be no duplication of countries of which the artists are from; (3) the work proposed should require a level of interaction from the community in its building and be realizable.
It was only after the foreign selections were done that former National Museum director Cora Alvina was brought in as the installation art curator and chose Lacorte to participate as well. The third BBIEAF also added two segments which were not present in the first two editions: video art, curated by Japanese experimental filmmaker and video artist Takahiko Iimura, and public art, curated by Benjamin Edward Hughes II. The addition of these segments testifies to the BBIEAF’s aspirations of a biennale-like status in its expansion. As will be discussed in the second part of the article next week, however, these added components, were completely superfluous, deviated from the festival’s vision and strained the organization committee’s efforts and resources.Contradictions
With such proclamations of attempting to make life better particularly for the poor communities, the central question that is to be asked of BBIEAF is how? Indeed, in a country that has an overabundance of the impoverished, carrying out a possible solution through art is impressive and intriguing, particularly since art has to still gain significant traction here in its recognition as an important asset of the country’s milieu and a potential source in fueling economic engines.
The manner in which the festival tries to realize this though ranges from the vague to the concrete but glaringly lacking measures. Discussion with the founder reveals that the festival intends for the communities to develop by unfastening the creative and innovative thinking of its members through the interaction with the artists and the problem-solving entailed in manifesting the artworks’ constructions. This thinking and the craft-making capacity involved are ideally to be applied by the community members to their own lives and livelihood — but only it seems through their own initiative. Nothing is provided to validate and carry this over in tangible fruition after the festival is over. While the sentiment that art swings open doors to creative thinking and is beneficial to anyone open to its possibilities is certainly agreeable, the indeterminate character of its real-world application was disappointing after much anticipation created by the festival.
These advantages also become negated by what is, it seems, the principal flaw of the BBIEAF — not paying the members of the community who help construct the artists’ works and expecting them to participate simply by volunteerism. The artist Lacorte shared that not even gasoline allowance was provided for her community team members to get to and from the working site and their residences and she related her troubled feelings as she witnessed one of her members fill up a precious 20 pesos of gas. While the participating community members were provided with meals like everyone else, taking them away from their homes without providing them with wages certainly would affect also their families who need their support, as Lacorte pointed out, in what is a hand-to-mouth existence. It does not seem like such a long leap to agree with her that the festival feels insensitive to the people they claim to be doing this for.
In terms of concrete returns, the Our Lady of Lourdes College Foundation, the host of the festival and the school owned by Dr. Palencia’s family, promised each participating community one scholarship for one of its members — the recipient, as indicated by Dr. Palencia in an interview, to be decided between the community. While the gift of education is certainly welcome, its benefiting one member of the community (and in effect, this person’s family) does not seem fair to the others’ time and effort in the project. Having the community also decide the recipient themselves also conjectures strong possibilities of creating rifts between them as people expectedly will jostle for the prize for their own family’s benefit.
The other way in which the BBIEAF attempted to deliver more definite returns to the communities was by providing them with free parallel seminars on livelihood, resource identification, product design and micro-financing. However, how far can these lessons go without more practical provisions for the beneficiaries to enable them?
Gratefully, there may be possible future financial benefit to some of the community participants though it is through artist, rather than festival, undertakings. Frost, who, like the other artists, has already returned home, is looking into sourcing raw materials from the community as well as commissioning work for his exhibitions overseas. He says, “For me I intend to stay in touch with the people from the community and work closely with (Imoy) the master carpenter. This collaboration I hope will not only benefit him and his family but also the community that he lives in.” He adds as well though that it “is obviously up to the individual artist in which way they want to approach such an opportunity.”
Reflecting on the festival, Slaats revealed a certain vulnerability the artists faced. “While the ideas of community development and support were there on paper, I am very curious as to the reality of long term sustainability or interaction coming out of the exhibition. The question of how does this dialogue continue was foremost on my mind the last few days of the exhibition and still is. How can I continue to support the community I worked with? While I’d love to continue the interaction, being on the other side of the world makes it difficult. I will just say that I’ve been inspired by these people and will forever be grateful for their hospitality and kindness.”
He made sure to point out though that these thoughts form a larger question raised by socially-based art practices. While true, the weight of these matters would probably not be so forceful if the artists knew that there was some mechanism managed or initiated by the festival to deliver concrete long-term benefits to the community from this specific interaction. After having done some creative training with the artists in the building of the works, it would have been rewarding if, for example, the community participants were to put this to practice in a practical arena for them, such as being hired in the making of furniture or handicrafts and really bridge this creativity thinking into sources of income. A tangible thing in place would sustain the benefits of the interaction long after the interaction is over.
Instead, though, the community development of the festival is afflicted by a pervasive uncertainty which causes an evident amount of pressure and anxiety on the artists who have developed strong emotional bonds with their communities. As the artists now reside back in their homes which indubitably have better and far more comfortable conditions, the concerns produced by the Third World-ness of this biennial must surely haunt them still.
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