Friday, May 4, 2007

Vernacularization of the curator:Informal and independent contemporary curatorial practice in the Philippines

(This essay was originally written for the MultiFaceted Curator workshop that took place in March 2006 in Jakarta and Bandung Indonesia. It is report on informal curating practices in the Philippines.)

Curatorial practice allied to the projects of exhibiting and disseminating contemporary art has been in the past decades generally informal in nature in the Philippines. This is specifically true in the case of art produced and shown in the Greater Manila Area where the number of galleries and new alternative art spaces are most concentrated, although the same condition exists in the spaces that are established by the art communities in the Visayas and Mindanao. Curators of art projects tend also to be independent in as much as they are not part of formal cultural institutions like museums. This brief paper aims to survey the general practice of informal and independent Filipino curators in the last ten years with a special focus on emerging issues in art and the development of artist-run spaces and artist initiatives.

The freelance curator

In Philippine museums, the practice of curatorship assumes a more formal and more established role of a caretaker of collections. Although even this status is radically changing as museum curators, through a partnership of Manila-based museums, have recently launched a number exhibition projects that probe and intervene into the production of art by Filipino artists and its discourses. These projects have had their effect on contemporary art practice, especially in the impact on the critical evaluation of the works of a younger generation of Filipino artists.

The informal curatorial practice in the Philippines can be assumed to have emerged as a result of the establishment of the first art galleries in Manila after World War II. In the 60’s, writer and art collector Lyd Arguilla established the first Philippine Art Gallery and pioneered the introduction of abstraction and aesthetics of western modernism in lieu of (and sometimes against) the popular romantic-figurative painting genre of Fernando Amorsolo and the neoclassical/monumental sculptural aesthetics of Guillermo Tolentino. Arguilla’s initiative brought Filipino artists in discussions and familiarization with Modernist movements and American contemporary art. Later, in the dailies, writer Leonides Benesa began writing art criticism, and in this heady atmosphere more artists started to include discourse in their art production, and attention was given to the manner by which art projects, such as exhibitions were designed, managed and staged.

Comprehensive exhibition designs and programs emerged in the 70’s specifically in the Museum of Philippine Art and in the Luz Gallery. Arturo Luz, owner of the Luz Gallery, had three objectives when he opened his gallery: (1) to properly show paintings that deserved to be shown; (2) to seek genuine talent and give it the needed approval and recognition that it needs; and (3) to mold taste and exercise a certain degree of critical judgment. Proving true to these aims, the Luz Gallery exhibition design and art programs have been quite influential and many artists and curators would later refer to them in the design and staging of exhibitions. Luz was also the erstwhile director of the Museum of Philippine Art. (Both the MOPA and the Luz Gallery are now defunct.) Luz, also a full-time artist, prefigured the profile of early curatorial practice - and many artists have since taken his lead and included curatorial work in their activities. Some writers, especially critics also took up the informal role of a curator, organizing and setting up exhibitions under their direction.

"Independent" curators soon emerged in the local art scene as a result of this informal practice, and owes to its "unattached" status to the largely freelance nature of work of such visual artists and writers. But it should be emphasized that the assumption of the role of curator in this case was at most a matter of contingency, or even a result of serious exploration and experimentation of the artist or writer’s scope of work. In fact the appellation and title of curator poses contentious issues. The verb to curate is always used in the vernacular as a contingent term for the act of mounting an exhibition, regardless of museum or gallery affiliation. The colloquial Tagalog phrase "pagku-curate" in fact refers to the installation process, in most cases of paintings. But in the Visayas and Mindanao, independent curatorial practice is a very new phenomenon, introduced mainly by independent curator Bobi Valenzuela in the late 1990’s to the present.

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) acknowledges these informal and independent curatorial practices and even takes as speakers and resource persons such curators in their cultural training programs in the grassroots level. The NCCA even takes advantage of the project management skills of independent curators in organizing art projects in the regions and for exhibition needs within the various cultural agencies that are aligned with the Commission.

Independent curators

To cite two examples we make special mention here of two influential Filipino curators: Roberto Chabet and Roberto Valenzuela.

One independent curator is the conceptual artist and teacher Roberto Chabet. The artist became curator of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in the 70’s and organized exhibitions, mostly of his students’ and peers’ works. Even after leaving CCP, Chabet extended his activities as curator and all the more continued organizing projects and shows for his students at the University of the Philippines for various galleries in Manila. His initiative was also taken up by his students, all of whom have practiced informal curatorship: Nilo Ilarde, Ronald Achacoso, Ringo Bunoan, Katya Guerrero, Wire Tuazon, Lena Cobangbang. Bunoan, Guerrero, Tuazon and Cobangbang went a bit further to establish their own artist-run spaces. Bunoan established her own art space in partnership with Katya Guerrero, named Big Sky Mind. Besides presenting discursive exhibitions, Bunoan and Guerrero opened up their space for artist exchange and residencies for conceptual, performance and installation artists. Tuazon founded Surrounded by Water, first as an artists’ collective and then as an alternative space for "under-represented young visual artists" whose products are not "mainstream art market friendly." Ilarde continues with independent curatorial practice but focuses more in exhibition designs, ditto with another Chabet student Jet Melencio, who worked for Ayala Museum in the late 90’s.

Roberto Anselmo Jose "Bobi" Valenzuela began as a consultant to the Hiraya Gallery in Manila in the late 80’s. But eventually in the early 90’s, he took the role as gallery curator and created exhibition projects that highlighted the works of young and emerging Filipino artists, and later foregrounding also the works of artists in the Visayas and Mindanao. Valenzuela had a more discursive objective in his curatorship, always prodding young artists to define "Philippine Art" in the context of indigenous experience. He supported and helped to develop the careers of socio-politically-conscious artists such as Mark Justiniani, Elmer Borlongan and Emmanuel Garibay. In 1996, he launched his Young Artists Discovery Exhibition series where he identified promising young artists. In the same year, he organized "Ang De-latang Pinoy: Yes the Filipino Can!" exhibition in time for the centennial celebration of the Philippine Revolution of 1896. In this exhibition, he gathered almost 100 artists to transform ordinary cans into personal statements on the issues of nationhood, Filipino contemporary society and its history. He became gallery curator of Boston Gallery in Quezon City and Kulay Diwa Art Galleries in ParaƱaque City before going into freelance work. In 2000, he co-founded the Green Papaya Art Projects with artist Norberto Roldan with the view of creating a genuine non-commercial art space that foregrounds discourse and exchange. His pioneering work of introducing informal curatorial practices in the Visayas and Mindanao has since then developed, with artists’ collectives forming their own spaces in Cebu (Luna Art Space) and other places. Valenzuela’s work in the South primarily addressed the problem of art production and exchange in the Philippines that has been always in favor of Manila-based artists. He sees his current work as independent curator along these lines, with the vision of helping artists in the regions establish their own spaces and art scenes independent of Manila.

Curatorial practice in artist-run spaces

Many of the standard practices of curatorship in the museums, especially in the areas of exhibit design and planning are adopted by the independent curator. But these are modified according to the nature of the exhibition project, along with considerations of the context (art public), needs and circumstances of art communities. Thus it is even safe to generalize that the category of the curator is not exclusively a specific profession - the informality of its nature turns it into a specialized range of tasks that can also be performed on a per-project basis by an artist, or a critic. In Philippine contemporary art, demarcations between the curator, artist and critic are sometimes curiously ambiguous, with their roles even interchangeable. There are several instances when one person practices both along with teaching, or with business. Not all art galleries in the Philippines have in-house curators and it is even normal for an artist to "self-curate" his or her own exhibition, a role even the gallery owner does occasionally. The NCCA for instance launched its project Sungdu-an 3 last 2003 and assigned artists to be curators for each geographic region in the Philippines. The result was indeed surprising, and the artistic community further acknowledged the task of curatorship - that is, the conceptualization, design and mounting - of exhibitions as an artistic endeavor as well, an extension of the artist’s range of activities.

This notion of curator-as-artist is in practice in recently established artist-run spaces all over the country. Most of these spaces were organized by artists dissatisfied with the local art market system, which tends to highlight more the commercial value of a work rather than its merits as a cultural or aesthetic object. The term "alternative" has always been given to these spaces, which are, unlike commercial galleries and museums, even consciously ephemeral in their existence. Some of these early art spaces are defunct, but their current inexistence is not taken against them, by artists as a proof of their failure, but rather as a badge of their courage. Big Sky Mind, Surrounded by Water, Third Space are such spaces. In the case of Third Space, owned by performance artist Yason Banal, its three-year existence was indeed deliberately set. Curatorial practices in such spaces tend to encompass even more tasks - including proprietorship.

Some artist-run spaces tend to be subsidized by art projects that are not limited to selling artworks. Bars-cum-galleries in Manila and in other places adopt this strategy. Art spaces such as Green Papaya Art Projects and Future Prospects integrate design and other art-related services to append their operations. In some instances the nature of these spaces also assigns the task of marketing to the curator, although this is still rare. Other artist-run spaces are supported primarily by an artist collective, where curatorial work is sometimes assigned to all members in a given or random order, or as per lead in a project.

Art projects: challenges to the contemporary Filipino curator

The arena, therefore, of the Filipino curator is no longer limited to the gallery space exhibition. He or she must now work in terms of art projects. His or her field no longer demands just creativity or critical judgment, it also needs strategic thinking. Also, he or she must be aware of the changing face of patronage and the art market: thus, the curator should also be familiar with the ins and outs of the art business, or else be on the lookout for alternative sources of funding other than the art market.

What is constant however in all these continuing changes and expansion of Philippine curatorial practice is the primary task of conceptualizing art projects and exhibitions. The Filipino informal curator thus is a think tank of critical ideas, art ideas, creative ideas that are in context in the current realities and conditions of Philippine socio-cultural realities. It is ironic (but also promising) that degrees in this field were only recently offered in a few humanities courses in Manila universities.

The Filipino curator, finally, has to be aware of the larger context of art making and presentation beyond the borders of the Philippine audience. This is of course first an offshoot of globalization, but also a result of the increasing Filipino presence as a wage laborer in other countries. He or she must be aware of the significance and strategic position of networking with other art communities as venues for the exchange of art and cultural ideas. The curator should be aware that the emergent venue of artistic exchange occurs within Southeast Asia.
Finally, the curator must learn to adapt his/her skills to new media, to interdisciplinary exchanges, to the awareness of several fields of inquiry. In fact curatorial work is no longer limited to the visual arts, but poses several potential opportunities in the larger field of culture. The curator is a cultural worker. And he or she must be able to only to perceive the interlinking of disciplines and crafts, but moreover, be able to take action in the language of contemporary time. Whereas the museum curator is expected to conserve objects, mementoes of memory past in service to Philippine society, the independent curator is expected to primarily create, to intervene, and to propose new worlds, new life paths.

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