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As the cultural calendar increasingly becomes a feast of opportunities to fly off the beaten track, the Panorama series travels the world through the eyes of writers and artists. In this issue, Sidd Perez unveils Manila’s art scene.


Anarchists in a museum. Celebrities mingling with artists. The “young and emerging” artist you just met at the opening of her massive solo exhibition is rushing to pack up her costume and equipment, scattering glitter in the air on the way to perform a gig at a sound party. The coming weekend is packed with openings peppered in districts on opposite ends of the city. But to see them, you will first have to exit Manila international airport. You will be besieged by official-looking intermediaries hawking their taxi companies, but you’ll take no heed as you proceed to the far right of the driveway, approaching the queue of yellow cabs owned by Manny Pacquiao. You have come to understand the perennial fear of being stuck at one spot in main highways during rush hour (a misnomer, too, as you quickly realize). Nothing close to urban planning, the city boundaries crawl like an irregular graph from the construction sites of new condominiums drooping down to multi-level squats. Traffic and pollution take a physical form, as enforcers and beggars alike pepper the roads, looking for a quick buck.

The Manila scene is a dynamic one, with a peculiar brand of excess and energy that confounds any notion of the state’s lack of infrastructural support. The local art ecology bloats over the glut of production and circulation spurned by private sectors. The askew levels of support and infrastructure in Manila, much like its economic-political hierarchy, provide little public programming from the government beyond token art projects in off-center communities. In response, the scene relies on its independent, private players. The commercial galleries, still considered major characters, act as independent entities running their respective systems of artist representation and circulation of projects and artworks. The development of galleries is evidenced not only in their growing numbers but also in the expansion in programming and outfits outside of Manila. The active galleries have produced a veritable cartography of happenings, often coinciding with each other, supporting local young creatives’ fluid occupations as visual artists, designers and photographers. While some galleries, such as Silverlens and Artinformal, once focused on photography and sculpture exclusively, most have expanded to accommodate the multidisciplinary nature of contemporary practices.

The art ecology bloats over the glut of production spurned by private sectors.

While Drawing Room paved the way to promoting artists in overseas fairs in the early 2000s, wider representation in international art fairs from other local galleries reflects the increased opportunities for economic aspirations in the current market. Along with such support, artists initiate their own platforms as they address specific communities. Historically, artists function as major cultural producers, performing the roles of curators and directors. Previous models in the ’90s emphasized collective efforts, with artists showing in self-regulating spaces as a response to commercial marginalization. While these spaces have dwindled in recent years to make way for commercially viable careers, the agency of artists to represent their immediate circles now extends to pop-up events, international surveys and non-conventional programs. Artist collectives like 98B have looked to restore Escolta, an old colonial strip abandoned by activity due to its off-grid location. Working with local communities, 98B organizes interventions on the art deco facades and shop displays with their residency exchanges. Primarily linked with Koganecho Bazaar in Japan, the collective has also accommodated independent practitioners looking to collaborate in Manila. Longstanding schisms between cultural fields have gained synergy through an emerging generation. Collectives such as Tito and Tita have brought opportunities for young filmmakers to collaborate as visual artists in alternative programming in institutions and galleries. Painters of similar aesthetic design group shows, installing under titles like the Ganggo group. If the market has seemed to ignore younger artists in recent years, it has also motivated them to look to outside fields for authentic expression. Such relations have continued to allow visual artists to perform as musicians with a flair for the experimental.
Amidst this excess of production, criticality has proceeded more slowly. Given the gap of the prolific publishing activities in the ’80s and sections in other mainstream channels focused on arts and culture in the ’90s, the 2000s has seen a significant diminishing of accessibility for more public dialogues. The advent of social media, with the Philippines on the list for top users in the region, has effectively replaced traditional channels. Issues of criticality and discourse have pressed upon these informal networks through web-based critical writing platforms like Discussion Lab and The Manila Review. In terms of providing information and access to other resources from inert archives, Planting Rice attempts to provide a certain connection through its online presence and offsite programming. As these initiatives provide the means of self-education, validating avenues such as the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Award for Art Criticism are being reinstated after years of being defunct, allowing opportunities to publish both locally and beyond.
Indeed, ideas of internationalism have become more profound than ever: prizes like the Ateneo Art Awards provide a consistent channel for extended studio practices in Europe and Australia; overseas residencies specifically call on artists from the region; and an onslaught of international art fairs and other platforms have emerged with an eye on Asia. As these avenues provide opportunities for local artists to up their game, artists based overseas are looking back home. Biennale shows invigorate their countries of practice and birth, problematizing and reinforcing notions of representation. At the same time, this accommodates ways in which such artists invite those based in the Philippines to their audiences back in respective cities.
This dynamism so often attributed to the scene confronts the flawed infrastructure of the city of Metro Manila. While mobility between Quezon City to Makati equates to the same travel time from the Philippines to another Southeast Asian state, art practices continue to gain support—not from the government, but from peers, private entities and the global scene alike. Spanning generations, this DIY spirit proves that even left on its own, a community can endure.

Sidd Perez is the other half of Planting Rice, a curatorial collaborative and independent resource network from the Philippines. She is now based in Singapore.

Image: Dex Fernandez, Nothing New Today, 2011, Courtesy of the artist