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The People's Island

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Today is my last day in the Philippines. A few hours ago I landed in Manila, after waiting for over an hour while the Presidential airplane was landing at the Bacolod airport. I was already installed in my airplane seat, all buckled-up, and through the tiny window I could see government officials being received with all the appropriate gallantry. I was feeling quite lucky to have such a great viewpoint just a few meters away from the action, even though I had four other passengers trying to somehow place their phones right under my nose, which apparently was the best spot for taking pictures…

After all the anticipation, President Benigno Noynoy Aquino III was descending from his airplane and everyone around -even inside my airplane- suddenly stood up while a small marching band played quietly the national anthem in the background. This moment was perhaps the best closure for my time in Bacolod, also the moment when I finally understood something essential about Filipino culture: This is a place bound together by very strong community values. A strong sense of togetherness, a shared identity, and most importantly, an admirable resilience to an adverse history (colonialism, natural disasters, inequality) rule this country. I couldn’t be luckier for the opportunity to work in such an energizing context like Bacolod City, where art and community engagement come hand-in-hand.

Still Image from upcoming short film: The People's Island

 

Shortly after I landed in Manila, I had a three-hour taxi ride through the city’s heavy traffic, even though I was traveling only 7 miles. I was heading to Green Papaya Projects, a well established independent art space that has been active for over a decade and run by amazing people (Pewee and Merv). They had invited me to give an informal presentation about my recent work in Bacolod and “The People’s Island” project. You can imagine, I was both excited to share the experience and very fresh documentation but also quite nervous since it was only five days after the public launching of the project and I was still processing the intense experience...

So, after a public lecture at the Negros Museum addressing the role of Public Art in fostering community participation and healthy environments; a five-day workshop exploring collaboration; sustainable urban planning and socially engaged art, I invited participants to creatively explore their city as an extension of the endangered natural world. This is how The People’s Island became a thinking tool, a collective dream and an immersive artistic experience that engaged around 150 people through a public event and exhibition.

Framed as a large participatory art project, The People’s Island really took place in the public sphere of Bacolod: in urban spaces, natural sites and even in our collective consciousness. The project evolved slowly during three weeks of intense work, conversations and exchanges with local artists, makers, students, advocates and environmentalists from Bacolod City. These encounters resulted in four community-driven art projects supported by small grants from AAI, all of which were featured during the launching of The People’s Island. This collection of creative voices made it possible for us to create a program that lasted nearly four hours and used three different locations.

Thus, on April 25th at 4:00pm performers and volunteers from Negros Museum and Balayan (one of the organizations that received an AAI small grant) gathered at the city’s plaza and mobilized the public to the nearby waterfront (Bay Walk). Using colorful flags, these volunteers gave form to a spontaneous parade celebrating stories of community resilience to natural disasters in the region. This parade was presented as a portable performance, which gathered the attention from passers-by and magnetized an even large number of attendees. 

Photo: Felipe Castelblaco and Em Añalucas.

 

Once the public arrived to Bay Walk, members from The Institute for Negros Development (another AAI small grant recipient) challenged attendees to design healthy meals using only paper cutouts of food and drawing materials, all while thinking on participatory methods to collect community-driven design ideas. This became an engaging activity that made us all contribute proposals for alternative meals made with local ingredients, which could address increasing levels of malnutrition in rural areas of the Philippines.

Photo: Em Añalucas

 

Around 5:30pm the sun started to descend and the entire area was suddenly covered by the orange light of a beautiful tropical sunset. This was the moment when The People’s Island started to take form as attendees gathered closer and closer around the shore. Several fishermen joined the celebration by anchoring their boats only a few meters away from the waterfront. Along with them, a 15 ft x 15ft floating raft made out of bamboo appeared in front of the audience, transporting in it a performer. This is how The Eco-Resource Floating Library (third project funded by the AAI program) made its first public appearance, delivering a performative lecture on the history of the archipelago and marine conservation. The minutes were passing and a dramatic sunset suddenly took over the sky, offering the perfect background for the closing act of this special evening.

Photos: Elvert Bañares

 

Around 6:00pm, a few members from Binhi Art Collective (the fourth AAI small grant recipient) took their places on the raft. Meanwhile, other members of the group standing on the shore set up their guitars and other musical instruments. This final performance was an epic rendition of the song Hangin (English translation: Air), originally composed by Dina, a former member of the group who passed away from cancer last year. Having the instruments and voices physically separated but also coming together in the open air and open sea, gave us all the taste of a unique and sublime moment. After we all had worked so hard to enable a new encounter with our surrounding environment, this time was so powerful to renew the bond between local residents and this vast and beautiful planet.

Photo: Felipe Castelblanco / Binhi Art Collective

 

Around 6:45pm we reached the point where The People’s Island finally was completed and ready to start its own journey*. When the sun was disappearing behind the horizon line, people and boats gathered around this common place and the music and lyrics of Hangin filled the air. The bamboo rafts started to glow as they were slowly dragged further and further into the open sea... After the public launching, The People’s Island became a real place emerging within and around us. Although at times purely metaphorical, we all can agree that a new place was made real throughout this exchange and collaboration. After all, reality is none other than the things we do together. 

*Its next destination will be Suyac Island in the Northern part of the Negros region, where the structure will re-emerge as the Floating Eco-Resource Center and Library

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A week ago, I was just landing in Manila and getting ready to start the American Arts Incubator (AAI) program. Our first stop and "home-base" was Makati City, nowadays considered the Financial District of Manila and also an area that makes evident the booming market and financial growth of the country. There, I saw perhaps one of the biggest urban malls on the continent! Or, at least, one with enough room to exhibit a one of-a-kind, custom designed "Jeepney" for Pope Francis, or in colloquial terms here, “the Papamobil.” Anywhere else outside the perimeter of Makati City, one can see contrasting images of Filipino life, clearly demonstrating both the amazing opportunities and also the struggles present in this context. Our short stay in Manila also included a visit to Green-Papaya (a long standing artist-run space) and a quick look of Paul Pfeiffer’s new exhibition at MCAD.

Papamobil, Makati City, Manila.

Being my first time in the Philippines, I started to feel more confident navigating the local context on many levels: from public transportation to the lively social customs, and most importantly, the look and feel of the city. In this short time I have experienced an immediate connection with the country, perhaps because I spent many years living in South America, which, like the Philippines had a very strong influence from Spain (for at least 350 years) during Colonial times.

Three days later, Kate Spacek, ZERO1's program manager for AAI, and I were boarding an airplane to Bacolod in order to meet with Tanya Lopez and the staff from the Negros Museum, our host and local partner in the program. Our first two days with the museum were so carefully planned, which gave us the chance to meet local community leaders, journalists and representatives of the local government, literally one after the other. This system made me feel like sitting in a very professionally crafted “speed-dating” sort of situation. I’m not sure how common ‘speed-dating’ is in Filipino culture (ha ha) but given the precision and successful matching (of course, of professional interests), I think Tanya and her team found the perfect combination for initiating “first-sight” collaborations.

It has been only one week for us in the Philippines, but perhaps the most exciting part about this journey is to experience the energetic attitudes towards everyday life from the people of Bacolod. Their huge levels of inventiveness populate the city and create an environment where nothing seems impossible. From ingenious artifacts, like former military vehicles from WWII turned into (very) colorful public buses (or 'Jeepneys" in the local dialect); or bicycles and motorcycles attached to metal structures that are used to run food stands, transport merchandise or even replace taxis! Other unique occurrences that I have encountered by walking through the streets are as simple as an improvised hammock made only with two ropes, to entire homes made out of bamboo including the walls, flooring and even furniture.

Getting around Bacolod City.

Overall, the excitement and diligent work being done by our amazing team of museum staff and volunteers, plus the openness of the people from Bacolod make this place already feel like my home-away-from-home. Meeting after meeting, I feel ever more confident about the connections, understanding and support that we can gain in the next few weeks. Now that we’re moving into the thick of the project and workshops, it’s fascinating to see how the conversation naturally shifts. Instead of making more statements about what Art is, we’re all trying to figure out what Art can do for our local contexts… 

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A tropical cyclone (Typhoon Kalmaegi) hit the north of the Philippines today, September 15th, 2014, causing floods and landslides, and killing several people. The list of catastrophic typhoons in the Philippines is huge, but still, perhaps one of the most destructive was the Haiyan (Yolanda) typhoon, which took place on November 3, 2013 and destroyed the city of Tacloban.

I’m lately absorbed by this intense history of meteorological disasters, all related to the unpredictable behavior of temperatures and atmospheric pressure in the Pacific Ocean. As time goes by, I’m more and more interested in understanding how Filipino culture develops in such a tense relationship with the natural environment.

In a way, it seems like the local community is being hunted by the surrounding ocean. A simple search on the Internet of the word Tacloban (epicenter of Typhoon Yolanda) still brings to the top of the list images of the tragedy. The destruction and violence of the typhoon are still spreading in the form of images, as if the storm were still propagating and the waters were high and muddy. However, it’s surprising how little information there is about other aspects of Tacloban’s life. The references I find on Tacloban only suggest loss and decay, but leave out any possible hint about the culture, social structure, or even energy of the city.

As I start this research, I’m finding inspiring references that soon will lead to an answer. Among the most fascinating examples are the Badjau, an indigenous ethnic group from South East Asia that is present in different areas of the Philippines. The Badjau live a seaborne lifestyle, using small hand-made boats to transport not only their people but also entire villages and supplies. This tribe was referred to as Sea-Gypsies for to their nomadic way of living. Their cosmology and rituals (from giving birth to celebrating funerals) encompass the oceanic world that sustains their society. However, due to constant attacks from modern pirates, territorial disputes, and religious confrontations with autonomous Muslim sects, some Badjau have been forced to temporarily settle in the most economically depressed areas of coastal cities, like Tacloban or Bacolod (Philippines), and therefore struggles with of a sort of reversed migration into stationary lives.

Meanwhile, unemployment and poverty in the Philippines are forcing other people to adapt to a similar kind of ‘unsettled’ way of living, which exists in a constant journey over defined trajectories, instead of set destinations. That is the case of the Pa-aling divers, fishermen who practice an extremely dangerous fishing style. Only connected to rubber tube that pumps oxygen into the lungs, multiple fishermen breath through a precarious diesel air compressor as they dive several feet into the ocean. They fish in international waters now, as the seas around the Philippines are already overfished. And because this all takes place on the 'high seas' (no man's land), there isn’t any person, government, or organization that can control this deadly practice.

I’m wondering: How could art practice and somewhat precarious survival ways of living coexist? Perhaps, one adapts to the other one, while creativity (or possibility) emerges within.

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