Awards and Abuses

Promised dinner at a nearby fast food restaurant, around a dozen male street children from the Vito Cruz area let themselves be whisked off to the Multi-Purpose Hall of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) by two young men one April afternoon.

The boys were going to play a game, and the instructions were simple: at the appointed time, the kids would enter a makeshift enclosure in pairs and the objective of each, in emulation of professional wrestlers, was to eject his opponent from the ring. As the children began fighting, the men acted as commentators, egging the combatants on.

Awards and Abuses (Contemporary Art Philippines Magazine Issue 24)

Although the wrestling appeared to be no more than rough-housing at the outset, it quickly escalated: the blows became more forceful; the contenders were suddenly all inside the arena; and one of the boys, twelve-year-old Marco Ramirez (a pseudonym) , found himself trapped in a corner, attacked by several assailants.

Rather than attempt to bring the situation to order, however, the men continued to yell their lungs out.

Alarmed, an audience member jumped into the fray, trying to distract the kids by offering his own body as a target for their aggression. Another hit the lights, plunging the hall into darkness. A third shouted at the commentators, denouncing the proceedings as exploitative.

As the frenzy subsided, someone cried out for a first-aid kit: while all the children were sore, if not bruised, from the experience, Ramirez had sustained a wound on his foot.

Precisely what had the boys gotten themselves into? They have said that it was never really explained to them, but they had participated in Criticism Is Hard Work, a performance piece staged by poet Angelo Suarez and visual artist Costantino Zicarelli for the opening day of Tupada Xing: Social Contract. Organized by the Tupada art collective, it was also known as the Tupada Action and Media Art Fourth International Action Art Event 2007 (TAMA ’07).

Five years later, artist Alwin Reamillo, the viewer who had loudly decried the piece as exploitation, is still outraged. “You don’t do that in a performance,” he said in an interview, believing that Criticism, which he compared to a cockfight or a dogfight, was a case of child abuse. Republic Act No. 7610, the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, defines “child abuse” as the maltreatment of a child, habitual or otherwise, including “any act by deeds or words which debases, degrades or demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of a child as a human being”.

[Read the rest of the article in Issue 24 of Contemporary Art Philippines magazine or here.]

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Journalism as barbarism

The furor that continues to rage around the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, and specifically Mideo Cruz’s installation Poleteismo, one of the works featured in said exhibition, has taken the form of a battle between blasphemy and censorship—an unfortunate development, in my view, as both positions seem predicated on a clear-cut, straightforward duality between how the public has responded to the work and how it ought to respond to the work. Whether the situation will shape-shift into something more capable of accommodating a greater, more complex range of possibilities remains to be seen, but that it has been reduced to such crude terms can be attributed in part to the manner that the mass media thoroughly maltreated the relevant issues.

It is highly likely that this ruckus would not have swelled to its current proportions—might never have happened in the first place—had Pinky Webb, host of the ABS-CBN current affairs show “XXX”, refrained from framing Poleteismo, diminished to its details, as a commentary on the contentious RH Bill. (The sense of the verb “frame” as pertaining to false incrimination is useful here.) As someone who has seen Poleteismo for himself, I find that interpretation completely untenable: the only element of the work that could be said to have a connection to the bill would be the condoms, and I saw no compelling reason to draw that connection—not least because the proposed measure is concerned with more than just prophylactics.

But the burden of the blame for the frenzied character of the dispute is not only for Webb, “XXX”, or ABS-CBN to bear. Understanding, no doubt, that anything related to the controversial piece of legislation would serve as a reliable magnet for rapid, even rabid, reactions, which would then translate into increased ratings, several prominent members of the fourth estate wasted no time jumping into the fray in order to whip the public into a state of hysteria.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

Mulling over “Kulô”

Art, all art, as the British writer Jeanette Winterson would remind us, is a foreign city, which is to say that it is fluent in tongues and steeped in traditions that inevitably require no small degree of adaptation and acclimatization on the part of those who seek a meaningful encounter with it. To behave as though art bore the onus of conforming to and confirming beliefs and expectations long held and cherished is to act like the boorish tourist who assumes, nay, demands that the locals speak his or her language, indicating a fatal combination of arrogance and ignorance that ought to be despaired at and deplored. And yet it is that very combination with which the past several days have been marked when one examines the clangorous—I hesitate to use the word “popular”—discourse that has erupted around the now-closed Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, which, in addition to 31 other works of art intended to play off the convergence of the sesquicentennial of national hero Jose Rizal and the quadricentennial of the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas, features Poleteismo, an installation by Mideo Cruz that is both fulcrum and field for what been not so much a debate than a protracted shouting match, with terms yanked out of context for maximum incendiary effect: “blasphemy” and “terrorism” on the one hand, and “moralist hysteria” and “religious myopia” on the other.

[Read the rest in Interlineal.]