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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