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 society 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
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.