writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Friday, July 23, 2010

Third World biennial? (continued/ Part 2 of 3)

The continuation of my article 'Third World biennial?' came out last Monday, 19 July.

You can go to the direct link here in Star or read it below.

Third World biennial?


The first part of this article mapped out the curatorial structure of the third Bagasbas Beach International Eco-Art Festival (BBIEAF) held last 31 May to 6 June 2010 and examined some of its contradictions in its aims and present format. It posited the BBIEAF as a Third World biennial—a title that had been given to the Havana Biennial for its exhibition of artists from Third World countries—in its emphasis on artists cultivating a relationship with Third World poor communities in Daet. Continuing the analysis, this article considers other aspects of the biennial, such as misjudgments in accommodations and organization, which also highlighted Third World-ness though in its more unfortunate aspects.

Accommodations Third World

While missteps are sometimes expected in any art event — and particularly an art event that occurs away from the center where the professionalized naturally gather — the incidents which occurred during the BBIEAF surpassed normal gaffes. While mild lapses can usually be overlooked, exceptional cases of disorganization deserve mention as these incidents do color the perceptions of those present in the event. Regardless of the desires of the Manila art scene, the art scene of the Philippines is in some capacity getting represented internationally by such a biennial in faraway Daet, particularly when the foreign artists are sent home without a tour of the museums and galleries in Manila.

To begin with, it may perhaps seem superficial to disparage about the accommodations of the artists as the living conditions provided do not normally occupy media space in discussions of biennials. The reason for this is that it is assumed, quite naturally, that the accommodations are decent—a basic and unremarkable necessity which allows everyone involved to focus on the art at hand. The BBIEAF artists certainly were not expecting a lot during the overnight immersions in their poor communities and were even touched and overwhelmed by the community’s hospitality, a trait that few would argue shows the best of Filipinos. The artists did, however, presume that the spartan accommodations for the rest of the festival period provided by the organizers would be clean and presentable (as indicated in details sent to them) even if modest. As the BBIEAF founder Dr. Joaquin Palencia noted and as also the artists well understood, it would be antithetical for them to stay in plush accommodations when they were supposed to continue developing their ties to the communities while making the installations with them.

What the artists were provided with, however, stretched the idea of “simplicity” as well as their patience. Staying at the grossly neglected Bagasbas Beach Tourist Inn directly by the beach and having just met one another, these tired strangers from wide-ranging cultures were shown to their rooms and were preposterously expected to share beds with each other (two to a bed), an arrangement that certainly should only be reserved for couples and familial relations at the most. Eventually, individual and proper beddings for everyone were arranged after a few nights of this overly intimate set-up.

Appropriate personal space was not the only thing unavailable, however, but running water as well. With running water accessible only from the very late evening to early morning hours, these artists were expected to shower at these irrational hours despite a full day of working under the pressing heat and humidity as the seasons swung from summer towards the rainy. The water setback was then solved by the sensible idea to store water in containers. Yet, the first attempt at this was rather comedic. Having gone to bed content at having some suitable water supply, some of the artists rose the next day to find the bucket empty. Questions were then exchanged as to who had taken a shower and used all the water — only to find out later that the container given to them by the organizers had a crack and the water had seeped out during the evening.

A premonition of these matters was perhaps signaled during the ride of the artists from Manila to Daet, the bus overheating and its air-conditioning periodically malfunctioning — resulting in a hellish 12-hour ride that marked the foreign artists’ introduction to Third World Philippines all too well. While it may be argued that these conditions would allow the artists to more ably relate to the conditions of their communities, these were not deliberate intentions of the organizers. Such a line of reasoning for these mishaps acts as a desperate excuse to take away from the all too apparent disorganization of this biennial — disorganization which directly affected the BBIEAF’s outcomes. Having experienced being in an organizational capacity myself, I am often quite sympathetic to organizers as I know handling these things is not easy. The slip-ups here, though, were simply all too pervasive.


Asides from the lack of time for preparation, the failure in proper organization may be partly accounted to the other divisions of the biennial that were added this year which spread the organizers much too thinly, particularly the video art section. While the brochure boasted Japanese experimental filmmaker and video artist Takahiko Iimura as the video art curator, he in actuality did not select any of the videos which were a part of the festival open call. He brought his own work and the works of some Japanese video artists, which seemed to be a standard package to show of Japanese video art abroad, that were presented in a single projection for one evening with a replay the next day. While it was a good opportunity to see these video artworks from Japan, it was lost in a biennial which places its core in art as a tool for development and development for the Daet communities in particular.

The video works to the open call and according to the BBIEAF theme were actually simplistically selected by the organizers. Yet, whatever appreciation that could be garnered from these pieces proved elusive anyhow by their absence on the evening they were supposed to be shown. The organizers had aimed to show the video works in multiple locations around the town of Daet—an idea that is as bold as it is foolish. Those with experience in mounting video art shows well know to expect a host of technological problems in mounting these works even in a single room with multiple players, projectors and monitors. Indeed, to spread it out throughout various locations with a limited team with little or no experience in mounting video works would only exacerbate the difficulties. In a tricycle which was supposed to show one work through a portable DVD player, for example, the battery of the player had run out by the time that I and my friend Rica Estrada had climbed in. Only two works in the five locations we were taken to in town were mounted and playing while a sixth by the beach showed only the projector’s brand name.

The apex of this disorganization was what happened to the video work of Diokno Pasilan. Unlike the open call with mailed in videos which did not necessitate the artists’ presence, Pasilan came to immerse himself as well with a poor community and create a video work in response. Choosing to focus on senior citizens as repositories of knowledge and to call attention to their value in the community, Pasilan photographed many of them individually and compiled these portraits to make a video that was essentially an homage to members of the community that seemed to be neglected and nearly forgotten. A few days before its showing, Pasilan had related how excited the senior citizens were to be photographed, some even primping themselves for the simple point-and-shoot affair. There was some confusion as to when it would be shown but when finally it was said to be up and running as arranged by the organizers, the group, which included the artist who had not been asked to install his piece, boarded the bus with a little curiosity and a lot of anticipation.

Upon disembarking the bus, however, an air of silence sank in — as did shock — at the sight of the projection. The video was shown against a municipal building whereupon no flat sheet was provided to make a proper backdrop for the projection on an edifice that had multiple windows, columns and a ledge bannered by a strip of red, white and blue. In effect, the video portraits were distorted, indistinct and moreover the video was not even shown in full screen (the menu and side bars of the computer display were visible). Making matters worse, the video shown was the incorrect version according to the artist, who had given a second and final DVD. This occurrence marked the transition from patience-testing blundering to already appallingly disrespecting an artist’s work.

The next evening, the work was projected on a wall of a building on the Our Lady of Lourdes College campus and displays were set up as well for the other video artworks. With the exception of Pasilan’s work, however, the video works just all seemed completely misplaced in a festival that places primary importance on community. Tanya Preminger, one of the artists in the installation division, commented that it was “almost as (if) there were two separate festivals.” Even the new public art division of BBIEAF, with two artists Jerusalino Araos and Tets Ohnari, seemed forced, lost and its curator, Benjamin Hughes II, was absent. The BBIEAF organi-zation’s efforts in these components would have been better served concentrating on the installation collaboration that is its center.

The installation artists could have benefited, for instance, from the organizing committee properly asking about and preparing for their needs in building their planned installations. This not having been done, there was, while minor, some unnecessary strain between artists over the selection of bamboo pieces and the lack of tools for building which needed to be shared between them. These things seemed to make the BBIEAF an artist edition of reality television shows—a kind of Survivor meets Big Brother, complete with intrigues.

On the latter — disorganization and poor conditions of an event that receives public funding in a Third World country create a rife environment for doubts to propagate on the proper use of funds. In such grim accommodations, who would blame the artists—who flew all the way from various countries at their own expense and received very token honorariums — or others if they wondered? Yet, the BBIEAF, which received P500,000 from the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA), is not the first or even an exceptional case of an event that has become subject to such rumors. Many of these incidents are difficult to say as having a basis or not as some expenses can be difficult to perceive unless one is in the organizing committee itself, in charge of providing things that cost money but others may take for granted. Yet, since this issue crops up so recurrently, the NCCA should probably address these matters for future events which receive funding by them by making budget and expense statements publicly available online as well as the events’ required terminal reports. In this way, transparency provides assurances for everyone involved as well as the added benefit of allowing others to learn from past projects and to plan their own events properly.

It would seem though, with all these conditions combined, that a perception of the BBIEAF looks all too dismal. While it perhaps may seem disheartening, these matters bear mentioning in order to make a holistic assessment for the festival’s future editions. Indeed, there are definite possibilities for the BBIEAF should it continue. This will be discussed next week.

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The author may be emailed at letterstolisa@gmail.com. Her art writings are at http://writelisawrite.blogspot.com.

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