writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Third World biennial? (part 3/ conclusion)

So finally, here is the conclusion of my article on the third Bagasbas Beach International Eco-Art Festival (BBIEAF). All in all, the word count of all three parts is roughly 5,500. It is quite long but there were a lot of issues to be teased out about this event.

Now that all three parts are out, it would be best - if you haven't read the other parts yet - to read it one after the other as one whole piece.

Third World biennial?

(Conclusion)

The first and second part of this article outlined the curatorial structure, contradictions, disorganization and poor conditions of the third Bagasbas Beach International Eco-Art Festival (BBIEAF) held from May 31 to June 6 in Daet, Camarines Norte. This final part looks at the potential of the festival for its future editions. For despite the lapses of the third BBIEAF, this festival or biennial should continue as long as modifications are put into place and a proper evaluation is made.

CURATORIAL POSSIBILITIES

As the previous parts of this ar-ticle discussed, the BBIEAF should keep its focus on the installations and not pursue the video and public art divisions they added this year. For the BBIEAF’s possibilities in this regard, it is constructive to turn to Cora Alvina, the curator of this BBIEAF’s installation division and the former director of the National Museum. Alvina has actually referred to her role in this BBIEAF as an exhibition designer more than a curator because the festival only brought her in belatedly after nearly all of the artists had already been selected. With little leeway to move in the selection and structure of the festival, Alvina was unable to realize prospective ideas she had for the BBIEAF.

These, however, reveal interesting curatorial possibilities. The most significant of these ideas, revealing Alvina’s strength and background in anthropology, is for the curator to run a workshop with the communities in preparation for the actual festival and for working with the artists on their bamboo installations. The workshop would attempt to unlock or put into gear the creative thinking the BBIEAF seeks as a tool for human and community development. A question that Alvina would ask the communities, for example, is “What can bamboo do?”, putting into play imaginative thinking with practical skills. The workshop would also then look for those who are particularly skillful and help them to develop this talent.

To encourage skill development, Alvina points out that it is intrinsic that the community members participating in the festival through constructing the installations should be paid. “To ensure the survivability of the craft form, show they can make a livelihood out of this,” she said. “Younger ones are not doing this because they think they can’t earn a lot from it.” The consistent realization of the festival every two years with its proper payment to those participating would also give the communities something to look forward to every time the event comes around, knowing they would be able to reap financial benefits.

Alvina also suggests the curator give the communities a say in the selection of the artists, letting them see the artists’ studies and considering which the communities find interesting. This way, the construction of the installations would have more relevance to the communities. In addition, Alvina thinks the immersion time for the artists should be extended from one evening to two nights and three days at the minimum to deepen the artists’ experience and bond.

In the same way that the communities prepare to work with the artists, I should also say that the artists should also be prepared for the immersion, for working with the communities on the installation and for other matters of the festival. A briefing was surprisingly not given to the artists upon their arrival when it is standard practice to do this for immersions, as students in high school and college who are required to do this well know. A brief lets the artists know what to expect and will allow them to arrange themselves accordingly for the week ahead (including deficiencies in transportation or accommodations, which should be mentioned then rather than discovering by surprise). It is also an essential time for the artists to ask questions and have them answered for everyone’s knowledge and benefit.

For indeed, the artists are meant to benefit from the festival as well. Alvina indicates these benefits to the artists as learning from a foreign culture and familiarization with a new material through Filipinos’ skills in craft making. The artist Stuart Ian Frost (Norway/UK) reiterated this, “For me the idea of being immersed in a community and to experience their culture and to learn about the way in which they live was the focal point. Not to mention the possibilities of discovering/sourcing new natural materials.”

Mia Corsag (Croatia) points to her developing a strong bond with her community as a highlight of her experience, “the week we had was not only about making a piece of art, but even more important, about building relations and friendships.”

Emmanuel Herbulot (France) had noted with delight on how his community contacted him post-festival, thanking him for giving them new ideas. These are positive factors from the festival that will be all the more enhanced with proper curatorial vision and professional management.

PROFESSIONAL CHANGES

The curatorial and organizational roles also need to be clearly delineated. Granted that these may change with each new curator brought into the festival depending on his or her curatorial vision, the BBIEAF organizational committee needs to discuss with the curator where whose responsibilities begin and end. Having said that, credit must go both to Alvina and Nonie Cartegena, Alvina’s curatorial assistant, in helping to keep this festival together and assist the artists.

The organization of the BBIEAF had fallen onto Daet locals without much experience in organizing art events. One can understand though the reasoning of BBIEAF founder Dr. Joaquin Palencia for employing locals rather than professionalized cultural workers from Manila: Providing training to locals and employing locals lets them learn, shows they do not always have to go to Manila to earn and allows the money to benefit those who need it more. Yet, proper training is difficult by being entirely thrown into experience — mistakes will be considerable and inevitable. Plausibly, BBIEAF could consider hiring the more experienced from Manila to head the organizing with the locals under their wings for at least two editions until the locals are trained enough to take over.

Alvina has also said that the planning for the next edition should begin at least fifteen months in advance. Indeed, with biennials, planning is constant for an event of this magnitude. To do this, however, the BBIEAF needs to find a constant source of funding to continue its operations to plan ahead. For these kinds of events, the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) should consider allowing organizations to apply two years in advance for their funding. The NCCA release of their annual successful grant applications for projects of the next year give big projects too short a time to organize themselves properly for the event, particularly when counterpart funding in cash is difficult to come by.

DECENTERING AND TOURISM

Having been e-mailing with Chak Chung Ho (Hong Kong SARS China) about the festival, he noted, “Without BBIEAF, Daet will remain a tiny fishing and rice-paddy town forever. Activities thus changes can bring hope and attention to a poor rural district.”

Certainly, this is the power that a festival or biennial brings to each location that it is staged in. Rachel Weiss, writing about the sixth Havana Biennial in 1997 in ArtNexus, discussed this potential, “Ideally, a biennial is an opportunity to redraw the global map with the center newly located. As new areas log on to the global contemporary circuit, a biennial can magnetize a location, drawing in attention, ideas and works from faraway places and aligning them with the local reality. A biennial can also serve the parallel function of directing local attention (of both artists and public) outward toward those places, trends and individuals with strongest relevance to the interests of the biennial epicenter.”

In this, the BBIEAF has managed to successfully draw attention to Daet with press coverage and with international artists even flying at their own expense to participate in this event. This attention has strong potential to be channeled to BBIEAF’s aims, particularly through cultural tourism. While Dr. Palencia has asserted that the Daet locals are the main audience of the BBIEAF, tourists — specifically curators, artists, academics, patrons and art enthusiasts who are willing to visit such events of interest — will help to concretely contribute to the local economy while expanding appreciation and discussions on the festival. The BBIEAF should include programs to entice such tourists, such as a parallel conference on themes the BBIEAF touches upon, and work with the local Daet tourism office in improving the tourist infrastructure. Even with a small budget, simply having better websites and better writing would be a huge assistance in encouraging people to come (and thus, to spend their money in Daet). Indeed, Bagasbas Beach, quietly and happily enjoyed by the locals, has the makings of a tourist destination with its long stretch, fine sand and surfing-conducive waves that those there for the BBIEAF can surely enjoy as well.

The BBIEAF may well be the Philippines’ Third World biennial with its aim to improve the Third World situation of its locality. This “Third World biennial” includes as well its unfortunate disorganization and blunders that are well typical of a Third World organization. There are though undoubtedly exciting possibilities in its premise. The BBIEAF’s future editions will reveal how far or how short it will come into harnessing this potential and if they have genuinely learned from the staging of its past.

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