Baguio Nostalgia

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From Verso’s Facebook post

This year has witnessed the demise of a few of Baguio’s oldest homegrown establishments. Star Cafe, known for its good food and as a cultural hub, decided to end its 74-year service last June. This December, Mandarin Restaurant, another old Chinese restaurant, once a home to the city’s country and folk musicians and a frequent meeting place among students, professionals and locals, will stopping operating by next year.

Having been in Baguio for the past six years, one of the things an ‘immigrant’ like me has noticed among those who were born, raised or have lived in the city for a considerable part of their lives is their tendency towards nostalgia. Facebook groups as such Baguio Nasa Puso Kita have became important popular places for sharing pictures and stories about ‘old Baguio.’ In the usual vein of the ‘good old days’ nostalgia trip, most of the users lament the degredation of the city from the renowned City on the Hill to to its current status as an urbanized, crime-laden and generally dirtier tourist destination. Baguio may be miles away from the armpit of a place which is Metro Manila, but most of the posts lament that it is definitely going there.

Yet as disappointment waxes to nostalgia and nostalgia fades to forgetting, it is also easy to lose perspective.  Baguio’s transformation from a forested hill into a vacation-ville for Americans has also claimed a few important cultural and political spaces among the natives. The vacation-ville eventually became a tourist spot, attracting pilgrims and immigrants from the provinces, and slowly inched its way into urbanity.

Photo not mine

Session Road. Photo not mine

But it would be myopic to see this path towards urbanity as a development from agricultural town center to city to metropolis. As with Metro Manila and other cities throughout the country, this urbanization has no industrial basis. Like Makati being founded commercial establishments and call centers, Baguio’s economy is based on its current status as a ‘university city.’

Today, Baguio’s sprawling houses covering the hills, the pollution turning fog into smog, the population boom pushing its boundaries to the limit and even the deterioration of its tourist spots are indicators of this drastic change in urban orientation. More and more students are climbing up as Baguio grows and more and more spaces, just like Mandarin and the others, are cleared up for dormitories and other establishments for students. The 182 trees which SM cut were for more parking spaces. Minimum wage is not even attained by many workers who labor through contractual basis. Crime rate rises as standard of living plummets. Meanwhile, indigenous-themed coffee shops emerge here and there as call centers become more and more knowledgeable in the art of exploiting contractual cheap labor. This trajectory of ‘development’ is far from sustainable. Development? For whom?

It is necessary to locate Baguio City’s ills as something which is not specific to the place or its experience. It is part of the wider conditions of the country where privatization is justified and oriented towards satisfying the whims of the market. Rosy nostalgia or apocalyptic meanderings about the future will not change anything. What we need is a sober re-orientation, analysis, and mobilization against the root causes of these changes.

Reading protest poetry in public

Last month, we established the Metro-Baguio chapter of Kabataang Artista Para sa Tunay na Kalayaan or KARATULA. With the aim of organizing and mobilizing the young artists of Metro Baguio, the group organized a few activities such as public poetry readings, mural making, etc, as well as participated in local art events. So far, the group has reached a positive momentum, and we are currently grinding our gears for a production for the 50th anniversary of the Kabataang Makabayan.

Prior to the establishment of KARATULA, a few friends of mine and I have staged quite of handful of artsy-fartsy events just for the bourgeois fun of it. The poetry group Pedantic Pedestrians initiated projects such as public poetry translation projects (details here) and street readings. I have also organized a few street jams with musician friends that aims to open musical production to the common people, together with sporadic jams with street performers (who are technically beggars) and a few flyer distribution here and there.

This has been going on for roughly two years now, and it is only recently that we have started to problematize the actual achievements and limitations of these kinds of activities. With KARATULA’s explicitly national-democratic political orientation, the urge to break away from the strictures of bourgeois art to the integration with the common people has opened up a lot of discussion. I wish to share some of these insights, and questions, to the blogosphere. It would be good to hear more thoughts on these problems.

Street performances

Last October 31, KARATULA staged poetry performances in various public places around the city (bus stations, intersections, parks) under the tagline “Paano Pumatay ng Multo?,” an attempt to keep up with the All Soul’s Day vibe while reminding the listeners of the ‘true’ horrors of Philippine society, where, in the words of one of the poets, “araw-araw Undas” (it is All Soul’s Day everyday). The concept was really simple. We tried to get feedback by assigning people to ‘listen’ and observe the audiences’ reactions, as well as talking to them regarding the happening. (Some videos here, here and here.)

However, it is easy to detect a certain populist vibe in the performance’s intentions. The aim was to inspire political agitation among the listeners, to ‘disrupt the hypnotic flow of Capital’, as one of the more theoretically-inclined among us put it, through the vocal recitation of stylized words we call poetry. Yet was is the fundamental difference of vocal recitation of politically-charged verses to straight-forward slogans we hear in rallies, aside from the obvious differences in poetic/aesthetic formulation? What is the political motivation for using ‘poetic’ devices that makes it ‘superior’ to slogans? A few insights has been raised:

1. Slogans are simpler, easier to understand, and take only about a few second to say. On the other hand, a poem usually takes about a minute ot two to recite in its entirety, and poetic devices make the political messages more difficult to digest, especially for someone who is not accustomed to listening to poetry.

2. Public areas are sites of constant movement. People who walk right into the performances usually leave right after checking out what is happening, perhaps because they have urgent businesses to attend to or because they wanted to go their homes (or their jobs) as quickly as possible.These workers (tourists?) hear approximately five seconds worth of words because the words are drowned in the din of the city’s sounds. Therefore, the words they hear were mostly heard out of context (the entirety of the poem).

3. Those who actually stop and listen to the performances are usually tourists who take pictures of this ‘spectacle.’ It is difficult to determine whether the tourists actually care about the content of the performance, given their positions are tourists and consumers of exotic spectacles.

4. There is a distinct possibility that the act of displacing a poetic performance, regardless of content, and bringing these performances into heart of urban mobility, emasculates the poem as an organic capsule of political subjectivity into a shallow simulacra of its image (following Baudrillard), therefore following the same logic of capitalistic image-consumption that is attempts to disrupt.

5. If we accept the insight above (number 4), then it is inevitable to accept the implication that a political poem contributes to the consumeristic spectacle of the city. Baguio, being a tourist city as it touts itself to be, can only benefit from these public performances through its contribution to the spectacle-making project. Therefore, instead of acting as a violent disruption of Capital, it may even act as a palliative, a source of entertainment, to ease the pains of labor, instead of highlighting these pains and inspiring political agitation on the listeners’ part.

The observations above may sound too cynical as they were presented to be such, and it begs the questions of how does political art maneuver itself in a setting where every form of resistance is simultaneously assimilated to the logic its resists in the first place.

The imperative to integrate with the masses, through grassroots organizing, with the aim of creating a form that will address the alienation of bourgeois art from the conditions and experiences of the common people, has been as the most obvious solution to these dilemmas. Only through integrating with them can we actually see the entirety of the conditions. Some other options are:

1. Conduct criticism-self-criticism among the members along with an assessment.

2. Assign people to observe the event, the reactions of the people, the general vibe of the event.

3. Create a ‘scene’ that may help people feel compelled to stay longer and listen to the entirety of the poem.

4. Workshop the poems to be read to accommodate the assessments.

The worsening conditions of the country’s economic and political conditions only push the cultural workers to further problematize the effectiveness of their programs. This should be done in the level of theory and practice. I hope these opinions may help in furthering the discourse.

 

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Jazz and Politics

Historically, jazz has established itself as the American music. Even today, much of American music pays its dues to this musical tradition.

Much of jazz music is primarily instrumental, yet despite the lack of words, jazz in the past has been marked for its political dimension. According to Louis Proyekt in his interesting essay on jazz and politics, jazz boomed in the US right at the cusp of the anti-war movement in the first half of the 20th century and the rise of the organized Left. Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meerpol, a communist high-school teacher and member of the Communist Party, in New York during the 1930s as a denunciation of the lynchings of black slaves in South America.


Jazz transcended its status as ‘entertainment’ with the rise of bebop, the evolution of jazz which was defined for its fast improvisations and esoteric chord changes, as a way of asserting the blacks’ intellectual and artistic identities. It was meant to be difficult to play and even to listen to, but this self-imposed isolation was the black musicians’ way of breaking away from the mainstream of American entertainment which have long seen black people as mere entertainers, an offshoot of their long history of slavery. Bebop symbolized the passion and explosive energy of the black people who were immobilized not only be physical chains but also the racial stereotypes and the conditions of living which deprive poor and black people from having equal status to whites.

When bebop finally lost its momentum both as an artistic and as a political movement, free jazz emerged with the names of Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor and a multitude of others. Free jazz rose from a dissatisfaction from the rigid structures and harmonies of bebop, and it aimed to break away from it by discarding all the established norms of proper music through doing away with harmony and rhythm. Moreover, it emphasized the collective nature of music, which breaks the individualist ‘aura’ earlier solo-based jazz. Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation was met with ridicule for its abandonment of musical norms, but upon closer inspection, Free Jazz is far from chaotic. It captures a brief moment where individuals, freed from the direction of the composer, collectively create a musical consensus, through listening, responding and carrying out these little musical ‘agreements’ for the collective’s interests.

Free jazz was a very diverse movement composed of different artistic sensibilities, but they were all framed within the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and the various anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements around the world. For instance, Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist philosophy has driven his life’s work, attempting to create an identity of almost mythic proportions through his songs promising a planet were all of the struggles in this world are all but tiny variations in a universal ‘song.’

Jazz’s political dimension stems from its improvisational musical aspect, since improvisation breaks away from the capitalist fetish for product. Improvisation highlights the process, the raw material of music where sound and music is seen as a single unit, where genres and structures are seen as mere symbols and planes from which ideas are launched, resisting the current of capitalist production by the assertion of the utterance as an utterance, not as a sound that can be multiplied and sold as reproductions of the same.

Groys and The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond

The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond by Boris Groys was first published in 1988 at the height of the glasnost and perestroika policies in Soviet Russia. Received with mixed responses from Western critics, Groys piece remains relevant decades later after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall as it provided a clever and sober take on Soviet art history as a continuous and organic development. The book is a critical history of the Russian avant garde, Stalinist socialist realism, and the dozens of art movements that came after Russian’s descent into reformism. What is fascinating with Groys’ work is that it refuses to accept the dominant neoliberal rhetoric of

Malevich, Kazimir. Teapot, 1923. An example of early Soviet art's interest in moving away from "art" into "everyday life."

Malevich, Kazimir. Teapot, 1923. An example of early Soviet art’s interest in moving away from “art” into “everyday life.”

Stalinist socialist realism as a primitivistic retrogression from what was perceived as the Russian avant-garde’s futuristic project of dissolving art into everyday life. Rather than celebrating the avant-grade and condemning Stalin’s totalitarian political and artistic aesthetic (which the American avant-gardists and cultural institutions seems to have a penchant for, from the 60s until today), Groys lucidly traces Stalin’s socialist realism as a logical and organic synthesis of the bourgeios contradictions of the avant-garde. For Groys, socialist realism is the triumph of the modernist project which the avant-garde set out but failed to accomplish.

Kazimir_Malevich,_1915,_Black_Suprematic_Square,_oil_on_linen_canvas,_79.5_x_79.5_cm,_Tretyakov_Gallery,_Moscow

Malevich’s Black Suprematic Square (1915, oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm) or The Black Square, typifies the Russian avant-garde’s aim to dissolve art as a material and sensual object ( or as a “spectacle,” to loosely borrow Debord’s term) in order to bring out the essence which all artistic innovations attempt (but fail) to reach. Malevich’s early works serves as a prelude to the consistent theme in Soviet art to end all connections with the past.

Numerous avant-gardist movements emerged and tried to gain hegemony in Russia upon the Bolshevik’s victory in the Russian revolution. Influenced by Fillipo Marinetti’s futurism, the avant garde is essentially a totalitarian movement in the sense that it aimed to incorporate art to the everyday life of new society that the Bolsheviks’ are setting out to create. However, Groys pointed out that the divisiveness and the carreerism of the avant-gardists prevented this feat from happening. Artists attempted to penetrate the political structure so they can gain hegemony over other artists. This is despite the fact that it is their common aim to bring down art from its privileged pedestal into “cogs and wheels” of the revolutionary movement, as Lenin has stated. Lenin, admitting that he does not have enough knowledge to problematize things such as art, left the cultural aspect of the revolution at the hands of the avant-garde in a relatively liberal fashion. Being essentially bourgeios, artist commitment to actualizing the socialist project vary from group to group and artist to artist, and this pluralism put the new Soviet artists at the center of the Western (bourgeois) art world’s attention, thereby undermining the essence of the avant garde itself. Stalin’s entry into political power, however, changed the landscape entirely, both literally and

El Lissitzky's "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" is as literal and symbolic as a propaganda gets.

El Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” is as literal and symbolic as a propaganda gets.

figuratively. With Stalin’s radical industrialization attempts and aggressive political and economic policies, his power also aimed to consolidate the artistic community under a single unit that serves the interests of the revolution. This aesthetic came out to be Socialist Realism, and not all avant gardists embraced it fully. Yet the baffling contradiction, as Groys points out, is that this is precisely what the avant-garde wanted: a total and violent restructuring of society towards a new world. Stalin did what the middle-class sensibilities of the avant-garde prevents them from doing so.   Stalin’s Total Art Stalin’s total hegemony on all aspects of everyday life is precisely what the avant-garde wanted to attain.

Karp Demyanovich Trokhimenko: "Stalin as an Organizer of the October Revolution". Oil on canvas, 85 x 117 cm

Karp Demyanovich Trokhimenko: “Stalin as an Organizer of the October Revolution”. Oil on canvas, 85 x 117 cm

Socialist realism, therefore, is the consummation of the modernist project. In the West, postmodernism is often defined as what emerged after modernism ‘failed,’ yet the sheer power and the revolutionary actualization of what was perceived to be a utopian dream of Stalin’s Russia typified the new world that the avant gardists aimed to create. With the collective power of a whole nation and a strong will for discipline, the whole Soviet Russia became a totally new “work of art” in itself. Perhaps what Groys is attempting to elucidate is how the avant-garde pursuit for the dissolving the ‘ego,’ ‘the Author,’ ‘the Artist’ and the glorification of the process and not of the product imply a huge quantum leap into real and symbolic violence. With contemporary arts’ fascination in displacing the authority of the producer, what Groys tries to imply is that all artistic innovations aim towards self-annihilation, and this requires a total, passionate and self-sacrificing commitment for the collective revolutionary project of transforming the world.

Form is Political, Too

For art and literature students, the title seems a well-established truism. Trendier names such as Raymond Williams and Jacques Rancière have repeatedly asserted the political dimension of form, yet even the most popular of red-heads such as Lenin and Mao have already stressed the importance of having a grasp on artistic form with regards to the aesthetic formulation of radical political content.

Yet today, the classical dichotomy of form vs content remains to be touted everywhere from art journals to drunk-talks as if the two are separate categories that remain independent of each other. As for art products and propaganda materials, the running dialogue remains to be the supremacy of the political message in the agitative and critical function of political art.

While I do not want to dwell on these issues as they warrant a separate, lengthier and more pretentious-sounding write-up, I just want to give an update on some of the more interesting contemporary art in Baguio and the North that I had seen so far, and its relation to the importance of form.

Kervin Calabias’ and Kaisa Aquino’s Purge seems like your typical terse aphorism rant zine, but it is not. Working under the simple concept of scanning objects in an office scanner (perhaps our archetypal present-day “machine”) and superimposing words on these images, Purge functions as its name implies: a purging of thoughts repressed by the dehumanizing rituals of work. Purge is interesting not only because of its formal novelty but more so because it presents a critique which refers back to its own conditions of production. Works of art that accept their limitations is something of a rarity in today’s perfectionist, product-obsessed cultural market. And hey, you can read it for free!

Pedanic Pedestrians’ Oncept Series is a series of formalist experiments which attempt to explore the possibilities of poetic articulation beyond traditional lyrical poetry. This series of pseudo-poetic is almost devoid of political content, except “Trees” which juxtaposes Joyce Kilmer’s classic poem with Baguio Congressman Nick Aliping’s cutting of 300+ trees to give way to his property. This attempt to focus on the formal aspect of digital and non-digital poetry is driven by the need to create a new artistic grammar that breaks away from established forms which carry their own political implications.

Ka Arman, the nome de guere of Arman Albarillo, is a guerilla fighter for the New People’s Army. He was also a human rights activist. He was killed in combat by units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. An exhibit was held in his memory in the University of the Philippines, sponsored by the Dap-ayan ti Kultura iti Kordilyera (DKK) and his family and friends.

What is interesting about Ka Arman is not only his passionate dedication to the armed struggle but also his works. Most of his works can be traced by far into the 80s and 90s. Like most revolutionary artists, his works depict the harsh realities of living in a semi-feudal and semi-colonial hukbo2society such as the Philippines. However, as one navigates his work chronologically, his style transitioned from the bold and realistic strokes typical of socialist realism into a less detailed and almost impressionistic painting style.

Of course, there is nothing new with Seuratian pointillism, which is obviously Ka Arman’s preferred style during his years as a guerilla fighter, but the conceptual shift from the poverty-focused, angst-tinged ‘realism’ into a more idealized, simpler, yet politically-charged style is a great insight for radical artists who wanted to break free from shock-and-awe aesthetics and poverty-porn madness which is fetishized in today’s art market.

Last July, militant groups in Baguio city staged a mobilization dubbed as “SONA ng Bayan” as a reaction to BS Aquino’s State of the Nation address. Kabataan Partylist Cordillera and the DKK, however, added elements of impromptu theater performances during the rally. Instructed with the the simple script of actors dressed as pigs (the corrupt government) heckling the people of the Cordillera, a whole organic performance was dramatized throughout the mobilization until the mobilization culminates in a unified program where an effigy of the Noynoy as the “Pork Barrel King” was burned. This organized yet spontaneous dramatization of the country’s political conditions disengages the actors from the privileged confines of the “stage,” the fourth wall” and the conditions of the dramatization’s fictionality.

Because the dramatization points back the performance into the reality from which it was born, the tight-lipped middle-class aura of

photo from here: https://www.facebook.com/315070553060/photos/a.10152268637648061.1073741832.315070553060/10152268642188061/?type=3&src=https%3A%2F%2Fscontent-b-sjc.xx.fbcdn.net%2Fhphotos-xpf1%2Ft1.0-9%2F10428040_10152268642188061_5367760149443585712_n.jpg&size=960%2C640&fbid=10152268642188061

photo from Kabataan Partylist Cordillera Facebook account

art is dissolved. The performance has no audience since it has programmed itself to include the “audience” as participants. Yet it transcends the typical anarchic spirit of  “performance art” because in the end it allows the viewers to enter a narrative, in which the Pork Barrel King is eventually burned, not by some artist group but by their own projected collective anger.

All of these brings me to my point regarding the essentially unchanging yet worsening political, cultural and economic conditions of the country and the need to create new forms that can articulate these conditions (content) in more creative ways. This is precisely because neoliberalism cannot change the “content” but it can produce distortions of the formal representations of the content, and can even assimilate resistant forms to render them impotent. In today’s society of profit-driven spectacle, innovative forms of resistance will certainly be of merit.

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# WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE /// The Spikes Are Not the Problem, Homelessness Is

John Levi Masuli:

had some thoughts on how capitalistic aggression can manifest under the pretense of “design” and “aesthetics,” especially since non-homeless people do not perceive the spikes as an offense against them but rather just a whimsical attempt to change urban scenery

Originally posted on The Funambulist:

There has been a recent outcry on the Internet after the wide spreading of a series of photographs showing metallic/concrete spikes on stone thresholds, planters and other surfaces that could potentially be used by homeless people in order to sleep. Judging the motivations of people who have been part of this outcry is not my place here; however one cannot help but to notice the hyper-punctuality of this kind of conversations on the Internet that, too often, restraint themselves to 140 characters of indignation with no subsequent political traction. The very fact that many people seem to have just discovered this anti-homeless material device for the first time in these coming weeks is telling of the triviality with which they consider the public space of the cities in which they live. The problem here is not as much the evanescence of this outcry — after all, it could have sensitized a few people — but…

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The impotence of art theory

We also have seen a proliferation of theories and practices that aim to account for these contradictions, or to confront them from within, or to escape them by proposing or creating alternatives. I myself have long argued that the critical and political potential of art lies in its very embeddedness in a deeply conflictual social field, which can only be confronted effectively in situ. From this perspective it would seem that the apparent contradictions between the critical and political claims of art and its economic conditions are not contradictions at all but rather attest to the vitality of the art world as a site of critique and contestation, as these practices develop in scope and complexity to confront the challenges of globalization, neoliberalism, post-Fordism, new regimes of spectacle, the debt crisis, right-wing populism, and now historic levels of inequality. And if some or even most of these practices prove ineffectual, or readily absorbed, with their truly radical elements marginalized or quickly outmoded, new theories and strategies immediately emerge in their place—in an ongoing process that now seems to serve as one of the art world’s primary motors of content production.

With each passing year, however, rather than diminishing the art world’s contradictions, these theories and practices only seem to expand along with them.

Andrea Fraser, “There’s No Place Like Home” from Texts, Scripts, and Transcripts, here