Reflections on the TrAIN Seminar Series

11 03 2010

I just came back from a great seminar with Isobel Whitelegg where we discussed the historical and contemporary importance of the 1989 exhibition ‘Magiciens de la terre’ at Centre Georges Pompidou. It was a controversial show in that it claimed to be the first truly global exhibit that held ‘Third World’ representations. It ended up that the post-mortem discourse regarding the exhibition would be so engaged and heated that this show would prove to be a pivotal marking point delineating and critiquing problematics in the art community regarding the binary views of the ‘first’ and ‘third’ world.  We centered our discussion around a article by Guy Brett called ‘Earth and Museum- Local and Global’. In this Third Text article (written before the show), Brett critiques the whole premise of the show and deconstructs the validity of artist as a magician. He goes on to highlight several transnational artists (who were not involved in Magiciens de la Terre) as alternative examples. Artists such as Helio Oitica, David Medalla and Susan Hiller were used to illustrate the complexity of the ‘ethnic package’ within the museum context.

This is particularly relevant to my practice as I must inevitably work with the ‘ethnic packaging’ (both from gallerists and from myself) when approaching my art. Medalla has been of particular interest to me as he was one of the first Filipino artists to gain global recognition in the art establishment… but a lot of this can be found in the pages of my research paper.

For now (in the context of my Unit 1 Assessment) I think it’s important to bring attention to the seminar series as a whole. Since the start of this project I have been an active participant in the MA Seminar Series run buy the Transnational Art & Identity (TrAIN) course at Camberwell. This series involves a weekly meeting and discussion around specific texts regarding art, nation, identity, diaspora and migration.

Below are the seminar schedules and a list of the texts I have been engaging in. I feel this is important to note as these readings and subsequent seminars have been influential to the theoretical framing of my practice within a transnational context.

Reader part 1 .doc [Compatibility Mode]

Reader part 2 .doc [Compatibility Mode]

Reader part 3.doc [Compatibility Mode]


A question of why?

24 10 2009

I have plans to visit Earls Court tomorrow. This will be my first day out taking pictures of the PI community and I find myself asking why has it taken this long for me to get my hands dirty?

The most logical justification is that I’ve been doing a lot of planning, reading, writing and adjusting to my new life in London since I moved here over a month ago. All true. But, not exactly. Historically I’ve felt no hesitation talking to every Filipino store owner in the community, telling them of my art and asking permission to photograph their stores and homes. In fact, a good part of my creative process involved first going to the ‘field’ before I did any theorizing or planning. But it’s been different here. Why?

Pinoy Mini Mart, 2008

Pinoy Mini Mart, 2008 (Toronto, Canada)

I’m realizing that through this project I am trying to represent a community that I know very little about and possibly have less in common with. My tagalog is shabby and heavily accented and even my English is accented in this country! So I come back to this question, why? Allan Kazmer– Canadian copywriter guru who has work is in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and who helped me get my first post as an art director– once told me that in order to find the truth in what you are trying to say, ask yourself the question, ‘why?’, at least eight times. Of course he meant this as a distilling process to create better advertisements but it’s an exercise I have come back to time and again as a kind of litmus test of my true feelings. So…

Why the hesitation to get out there?

Because I don’t feel like I really belong. I feel like an impostor. I am not a British-Filipino, I am a Canadian-Filipino and to be even more transparent, I have often related more to my Canadian heritage than to my Philippine one.

Why don’t you feel you belong? Why are you an impostor?

I barely speak Tagalog. I am a vegetarian. I’ve only been to the Philippines twice. I feel like a loud and aggressive N. American unable to pick up subtleties of British parlay, let alone the how this has been translated in the Filipino community. I’m not even clear as to what being Filipino is to me! I feel displaced.

Why aren’t you clear on your Filipinoness? Why do you feel displaced?

I was born in Canada in the mid 70s to Filipino parents who both had their university educations and eventually got white collar jobs in Toronto. At the time there wasn’t a big Philippine community in Canada and a majority of the diaspora were of a working class background. I did not quite fit in with the pockets of Filipinos in Canada at the time, nor did I fit in with the sea of caucasian kids who filled the private school classrooms of my childhood.

Brown Sheep, 2007

Brown Sheep, 2007 (Images used to create this collage were taken in Toronto, 1979)

I guess I’ve been on an identity search since then. Of course now, I realize that most everyone has gone through feelings of marginalization at some point in their lives, be it because of gender, class, accent, dress, religion, physical or mental abilities or challenges, etc. Foucault once said that each of is both oppressor and the oppressed– empowered and disempowered. I’ll take this concept of relativity one step further to say that I can be both part of a community and displaced from it as well.

Although I am certain there will be many things that I can relate to when researching the PI community here in London, I must expect that a part of me will always take this outsider status. I am the silent spy with the perfect disguise until I open my mouth. I am the anthropologist in the field with the ideal ‘in’. I am the tracker of a community who studies their echoes and footprints. I am the frustrated bird catcher in the rain forest… I am… still looking for those parrots 😉 and in a way my own identity.

Sifting through the flotsam.

16 10 2009

“Good ink cannot be the quick kind, ready to pour out of a bottle. You can never be an artist if your work comes without effort. That is the problem with modern ink from a bottle. You do not have to think. You simply write what is swimming on the top of your brain. And the top is nothing but pond scum, dead leaves, and mosquito spawn. But when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind?”

Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter

I was looking through an old blog of mine when I lived in Tokyo, a lifetime ago, and came across this quote which I was so fond of at the time. At the time I was studying shodou, Japanese calligraphy, and much of my time was spent making ink and repeating the same kanji, characters. In this repetition I found a meditative clarity and a sureness of stroke.

I find it fitting and relevant to my week which has come to represent a mental step back from the project. I have spent a lot of time developing my intended method and contextualizing the final piece. I’ve spent a lot of time imagining what I want this project to culminate to, but it was only this week that I was reminded that I needed to revisit the ‘inkstone’ and stop worrying about the final piece. It’s time to get out there and get my hands dirty.

But first it is important to record a few of the more seminal events of the week that have helped me along the way. This week has provided a multitude of inspiring, refreshing and critical moments but as a consequence I haven’t had much time to get it all down. So here is a quick summary in the chronology that they happened:

1) TrAIN seminar with Yuko Kikuchi discussing Edward Said’s 2003 Preface to Oreintalism. I had read parts of this text before but I had never read this preface which placed Orientalism in the modern context of the global fiasco caused by the US Bush administration. Salient points that I took from this seminar were:

Orientalsim is a formulated concept of the East which creates a binary “other” that helps to define the West. In effect, Orientalism is a man-made which has been created by force.

Said posits humanism as an alternative where societal priorities shift to the realities of our interconnectedness rather than differences.

At the end of the seminar Yuko turned all our philosophizing back at us and asked us how Said’s critique of Orientalism inform us, our practice and our study. I’m still chewing on this one 😉 no simple answers.

At some point in our discussions models for multiculturalism were talked about and I learned of the “British Salad Bowl” view that multiculturalism is a mix of leafy greens and  and sliced tomatoes and carrots. (just kidding). The salad bowl actually reminded me a lot of Canada’s mosaic model. I did not go into this in the lecture but I have critiqued these models of plurality as well as the US melting pot in a previous online publication with, but it was refreshing to hear of like minded opinions of the datedness of these models.

2) MADA Seminar discussing Stephen Boyd Davis’ Interacting with pictures:

film, narrative and interaction. I found the article to be very relevant and enjoyed revisiting this concept of immersion. Davis detailed the relationships between the aesthetic of film media and ‘new media’. I put ‘new media’ in quotations as we sorted out through discussion that this term ‘new’ was indeed problematic for a media that is already a few decades old. Specifically, Davis used video games and online interactive documentaries as his case studies for ‘new media’ which obviously does not represent the growing numbers of examples which could be cited under such a vague term. That said a lot of very fresh points were made and discussed about:

Davis argues that there are two main approaches to image making, the first being self-effacing (transparent in it’s depiction… direct point of view representation of a scene) and the second being pictoral (using interpretive methods to convey the reality of the scene but creating images that could never have been experienced by the human eye… ie the event/scene of Vivien Leigh falling down the stairs, in Gone with the Wind, used six different camera angels in eleven seconds to portray an immersive reality to the scene that could not have been done from a simple point of view shot).

Davis also states that new media borrows techniques from cinematography to portray reality but that they eventually fall short as film’s guiding principle for spatial representation is narrative whereas new media may have a number of motivations outside of narrative.

Some holes in Davis’ argument involved the complete disregard of audio as an immersive element.  As I get caught up in figuring out the visual elements in my project I am reminded not to forget the audio component. How would I represent the multi-layered realities of the Philippine diaspora if my intended audience could not see. I believe that our current “MTV culture” has developed an acute and discerning eye for visuality as a result of several decades of movies, TV and advertising vying for visual attention and immersion. This has lead many to forget about humanity’s other four senses, specifically the immersive qualities of the auditory.  Back in the day when I used to teach English as a second language in Asia, I learned of a 1970s psychotherapist, Gregori Lazonov, who created a teaching method called Suggestopedia. Lazonov’s method involved creating an ambience that facilitated language learning. This immersive environment often included dimming the lights to dull one’s visual senses and playing classical music to turn on the learner’s ‘affective filters’. In the same way that we set the ‘mood’ for a romantic dinner by putting on Barry Mantilow to the dim of candles, immersion is caused by other senses other then the visual.

Furthermore there is an important shift in focus between film and gaming environments. In film, the focus is on characters and incidents whereas in gaming the focus is always on the one playing the game. In what ways will my audience be engaged in my work? To whom will my intended focus be on. In what ways have other artists dealt with this in their work?

A week of seminars, lectures and workshops (part 1)

2 10 2009

It’s been a busy, busy week of taking in information, scrambling to digest it and writing it all down. Happily, an initial draft of my Bibliography and Aims & Objectives sections of my proposal have come out of this week, and so I am still keeping up with the workplan. I read somewhere that the best way to learn something is to teach it. This certainly was the case for the workshop I gave regarding my workplan. Although I had the main ideas and timelines hashed out on paper, it was planning for the workshop that really forced me to think through all the details in my timeline and look for any holes in the planning. In reality I think I benefited most from of all of it. Now all I have to do is try and stick to the plan 😉

Also this week, I was a part of two very engaging but different seminars. The first was led by TrAIN’s Oriana Baddeley and we discussed the merits and context of Mandan Sarup’s article on ‘Home and Identity’.  Sarup’s article was subjective and auto-biographical. His writing style is unassuming but he manages to slip in so much relevant theory that ones hardly realize how deep everything is getting until one is in the thick of it all 😉 Everyone in the seminar agreed that his writing is a refreshing difference from the  much of what you see in academic articles.

More importantly for me, Sarup broke down the main differences between Marixist and Heideggerian thought in the context of place and nation and ultimately identity. Essentially, Marx defined places as being created through movement of capital. Furthermore, Marx stated that ‘capital is about technological change and the (consequent) expansion of places.’ In last week’s Methodolgy Lecture, David Cross mentioned that his process was influenced by Marx and he referenced the Marxist tenant that clearly defines differences in use value (the physical and practical worth of a commodity or service) and the exchange value (the market worth of a commodity or service). This becomes relevant to my project as much of the migration of peoples is effected by individuals looking for a better life in a different place from where they were born.  A ‘better’ life can then be translated to more exchange value for their work. Thus, following this logic one can state that the migration of people is a consequence of a migration of capital which in turn is technological change. People follow technology. Of course things are not as simplistic as this in reality, but I find the connection quite between people and technology quite relevant. My coming to London to study digital art is in itself reaffirming this logic.

Sarup also summarized some Heideggerian theories relevant to place and the experience of the individual (Being).  Heidegger deals with issues authenticity and inauthenticity of place. Heidegger places more emphasis on the social construction of places and tackles issues of roots and rootedness in a place. Diaspora narrative will ultimately lead to themes of displacement and assimilation which for me is essentially the shedding of old roots and the finding new ones. In this en masse movement of people, an evolving transnational identity forms and ultimately changes the landscapes of the places it passes through. and the land in which they wish to settle. It is this aspect of the Philippine-London diaspora I wish to represent and refer to in my current project.

I hope to be able to find physical evidences of displacement and assimilation in London’s urban landscape. Specific transition points where this may occur could be in the evolving storefronts of specialty shops (Philippine variety shops that are a mainstay in both the Philippines and many metropolitan cities I have observed so far- Paris, Tokyo, New York, Montreal, etc.) as well as the line of consumer goods (both imported and exported) that these stores choose to carry. Restaurants are another good point of transition. Evidences of displacement and assimilation will be found in the menus of the Philippine restaurants of London. What dishes are commonly considered traditionally Filipino in London? What dishes can easily be made in London? How have dishes evolved in the cultural integration process of the community?

I am reminded of my time living in Tokyo and my first visit for breakfast at a Denny’s (a chain diner in North America that I had always known to serve a proper ‘Western Breakfast’ of sausage, eggs, toast and coffee or the standby Canadian preferred alternate of pancakes, eggs, pea-meal bacon and maple syrup). The Denny’s chain in Japan carried a similar menu of toast, eggs but little sides of seaweed, rice, fermented beans and green tea had slipped into the menu to fit the Japanese palette. As with most people who have left their ‘home’, food can be an immediate reminder that you have changed place.

Things will not and cannot be exactly the same as the place you left. For me this is often a good thing but for those who fight it, displacement can be profoundly felt. That said, I still am thoroughly frustrated with the ridiculous amounts red tape required to cut through to get internet access at home. It has been one month of trying to open a bank account to get a valid debit card, call British Telecom to set up a landline and finally get a modem installed in my flat and still no internet! Hot spots abound in my neighbourhood so I shouldn’t really complain, but it is just one of those points of transition where I am forced to accept my own feelings of displacement.

Oriana commented on levels of displacement between individuals and each of us in the group discussed how in some way or another we play the role of ‘the other’- the foreigner without place in society. She also noted that recently in London the Philippine migration has occurred through populations of women who are domestic staff to wealthy Saudi families that have moved to the UK. The levels of displacement these women are two-fold. Firstly, they are in England and must deal with assimilating to British culture from a South-east Asian background. Next they are tied to a family of Saudis who are going through their own assimilation and displacement.  I should also mention the obvious master/servant/division of class these women must also feel. Do the employers of these Filipina women relate more to their domestic staff now that they too are foreigners? With English as the primary language in the UK do these women feel more/less empowered in London? What influences if any have these women made on the existing Philippine community? How have they changed the visual landscape?

Lots of questions to answer. It seems like the closer I get to finding something, the more questions I get.

Aims & Objectives (first draft)

1 10 2009

Below is the initial “Aims & Objectives” Section for my proposal.

The primary aim of this project is to better understand the ways in which migration, immigration and movement of transnational communities are visually represented in London’s urban landscape. In particular, I will focus on visual representations of the Philippine diaspora. London arguably has the largest population of Philippine migrants in Europe but where is ‘Filipinotown’? How is this diaspora visually changing the city? What footprints (discreet and indiscreet) are being left in the landscape by this migration/settlement of people? What aspects of Philippine culture have been diffused, morphed or have remained intact in the integration process to the UK?

To answer these questions and achieve this aim, my first objective is to locate, observe, interview, record and photograph evidences of the Philippine community. I then intend to distill the collected data under my ‘subjective lens’ to find several underpinning themes. I stress the subjective nature of this project as I am a Canadian born Filipino living in London temporarily with my French-Canadian wife and mixed race baby. I acknowledge my unique narrative and influence it will have on this project. My diaspora story carries with it varied levels of displacement, biases and assumptions inherent to my life experiences. With the collected data, gained experiences and realized themes I will then create a series of digital collages that best illustrate my findings and the personal process I went through in searching for ‘roots’ in London.

The secondary aim of this project is to locate points of connection between digital art and the phenomenon of global diaspora. Specifically I want to better connect my digital art practice and interest in new media to my own research interests in transnationalism. How can I best utilize the immersive nature of digital media to represent the organic fluidity of transnational communities? Is there a need to make such a connection? To what extent have other artists and academics bridged these two possibly disparate themes?

To achieve my secondary aim I will start by locating any relevant discourse, key artists and primary schools of thought in digital and transnational art.  I intend to pinpoint, infer and possibly create further bridges between these two fields of study/art. My next objective is to acquire further digital imaging skills that better express themes of organic urban change, layered urban narratives, cultural displacements/integration and memory. These themes have been relevant for me in analyzing my diaspora narrative and have structured much of my current digital art practice. Finally I intend to create a series of works that digitally represent an essence/aura of a specific diaspora– that of the Philippine-Londoners of 2010.

Bibliography in progress

30 09 2009

This week marks the end of my initial bibliography research and I’m feeling pretty good about the material I’ve been able to gather. There certainly is a lot of it anyways. It seems like every exciting book I come across leads me to at least five more relevant resources!

I applied to the course with some theoretical knowledge and context to my work. Key artists like Ken Lum, Manuel Ocampo, Byron Kim, Coco Fusco and Niki Lee have been influential in introducing me to themes of transnationalism, diaspora identity, migration and assimilation. Furthermore, travelling exhibition “Cities on the Move” (curated by Hou Hanru in 1999) introduced me to a slew of diasporic artitsts in Asia and how they tackled pertinent themes of multi-modernities and glocalism. On the technological side, I have been influenced by artists Marcel Duchamps (in regards to his ‘readymades’ and the debate it started over authenticity in art and has lead to my ‘made_ready series’), David Hockney (for his visual cut, paste and layered landscapes) and Nancy Burnsen (for her earlier digital manipulations profile distillations). Media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard and Walter Benjamin have also provided theoretical underpinnings in my artistic practice… I should probably add cultural theorist Epifanio San Juan for his specific work on the post-colonial Philippine diaspora and the ubiquitous Edward Said for his much referenced ‘Oreintalism’ as well.



That said, in the last few weeks I have been introduced to so much more!

Some key names that come to mind are digital theorist Lev Manovich who in turn got me into Friedrich Kittler and Peter Weibel. Other new media theorists that have come may way in the building of this bibliography are Christaine Paul, Andrew Murphy and Rachel Greene. Key transnational/diaspora theorists I have been introduced to are Homi K. Bhaba, Olu Oguibe and Mandan Sarup. More excitingly I am starting think about my work under the context of Marxist and Heideggerian theory (specifically in regards to space and movement of capital and consequently people) as well as thought from David Harvey who has offered a post-modern analysis of Marxism.

Ultimately the result over these last few weeks of visiting libraries and combing through bookshelves is a working bibliography which I’ve divided into three themed sections:

1) Transnational, Diaspora and Asian Art Theory

2) Media, Digital and Visual Art Theory

3) Philosophy about Society, Space and Movement

In the search for these texts, I discovered that there is an overwhelming amount of discourse regarding digital art and an equal amount for transnationalism– both, interestingly enough, are relatively new fields of study in academe and seem to carry a trendy, sexy buzz around them. But, I am having trouble finding any writing that addresses both themes, specifically in regards to digital media and urban diasporas. Of course there are artitsts who have instinctively incorporated both themes in their work. Maria Lucia Cattani immediately comes to mind as I just heard her speak at the FADE (Fine Arts Digital Environment) Lecture today about her methodology which involves a process of bringing ‘the original’ to ‘the multiple’ and back to ‘the original’ again. Her creative involves scanning fictional script, laser cutting a dye caste (not sure if this is the correct terminology), making prints from the dye, then destroying these prints to create original books that are in libraries in the UK and Brazil! Brilliant really. She clearly flows between themes of reproducibility and global movement as well as cross cultural communication and what get lost in the translation. I love it and hope to touch on her elegance of message in my own work.

Ok, that was a mouthful.  CAVEAT: I’m not claiming to know these artists’ complete life’s work or to have read a complete text by any of these authors (with exception to Marshall McLuhan, Walter Benjamin, Christaine Paul and Lev Manovich… authors I couldn’t put down when I got hold of their texts), but what I am doing is starting to scratch the surface. More importantly, I am starting to discover is that there is a massive world of thought and really thoughtful art out there and that my little old project just might have a place in it. 😉

The Origin of the Nation, Imagined Communities

22 09 2009

Today’s TrAIN seminar was with Michael Asbury discussing an essay by B. Anderson titled ‘The Origin of National Consciousness’ in Imagined Communities. Anderson’s essay written in 1983 is almost picking up on Renan’s definition of a nation. Where Renan was revisionist in his definition of nation (a counter-action to the growing popularity of eugenic thought in the 1880s according to Michael), Anderson uses a historiographical methodology to define the nation. Anderson also has the luxury of a century to reflect on Renan’s previous postulations. Influenced by Marxist theories that history is determined by production, Anderson focuses on the advancement of print technology to help him define the origins of a nation.

The essence of the text, as I read it, points to the creation of a print language (as an early mass media) as the catalyst to creating a national consciousness. He broke it down to three main factors.

  1. print created a unified and accessible line of communication among the masses that circumvented regional disconnects that normally happen between spoken dialects.
  2. print gave a permanence to the vernacular “low” language creating and empowering otherwise disconnected communities.
  3. print caused a societal shift by creating languages of power outside of the elite (often inaccessible) administrative Latin

I immediately saw parallels to the lines of communication created by the internet in the last few decades and how it has propelled English as the global vernacular. I’m sure there are many arguments for the proliferation of English around the globe but I find it’s connection to digital media fascinating. Anderson cites modern examples of the Thai government actively discouraging missionaries from providing minority hilltribe groups from with writing systems and publication methods for their own languages. With printed text there is power. Community. Identity. Or so goes Anderson’s argument. I find myself thinking of the militaristic stance the Chinese government has put to firewall the internet and search engines such as Google. I say this with a grain as this is all coming from the popular media that I received from Canada when I was there. I had the good fortune of travelling through China for over a month and found the internet cafe to be quite a ubiquitous institution. These cafes were not set up for foreign backpackers looking to for a cheap way to check their email and skype people back home. These internet cafes were filled with young Chinese mainly gaming and chatting online. Not so different from anything in the west really.  I didn’t however try to google anything contentious like “Tibet”. Maybe I would have felt the weight of big brother if I did… I’m running on another tangent…

To stay on track, Anderson went on to cite factors that caused print media to come to the forefront in the mid 17th century.  At the time the international language of Latin was shifting to a more obscure Ciceronian that was increasingly inaccessible to more and more people. Furthermore, the Reformation, with Martin Luther’s Protestant campaign facilitated by the spread of print immediately created a print-capitalist dynamic (a profit driven creation of books to meet high popular demands of the masses), also caused print media to gain prominence.

The seminar was very stimulating and I appreciated it’s divergence into contemporary art.  Michael showed us some work from a show he curated where artists

Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain created a series works that referenced history, nation and digital media in a very clever way.  The artists created a typeface called “Utopia” that looked more like the pictograms one would find from MS Webdings only they made it open source which spoke to issues inherent in profit based digital products. Furthermore the pictograms were of idealized Brazilian landscapes of Neo Maya (not sure of spelling… will have to google this at some point) the architect who helped build the brand of Brazil the nation from the top down. When used as a functioning typeface, landmarks of beauty are strewn with power lines and gates, the reality of todays urban landscape that Neo Maya may not have envisioned.  Furthermore as a display piece, the artists translated a section of Thomas Moore’s “Utopia” when Rafael describes the landscape of utopia to Moore. The result was a noisy mess of buildings, discordant power lines, and obtrusive gates.  I think they were trying to show a parallel distopia but to me this was in a way beautiful as well.

utopia font

utopia font

The Utopian typography project has a blog too! Read on if you’re interested.

I found this work particularly inspiring in that I appreciate the way “Utopia” has successfully combined several different themes: reality of urbanism/ historical idealism, digital media/ print media and national identity creation. It works on so many levels… it just came to me that another level could be the disconnect between the signifier and the signified. These images of distopic Brazilian landscapes communicate a certain message as long as the viewer understands the context of Neo Maya and his dream of a utopic Brazilian nation. However by making “Utopia” an open source font that coud theoretically be used by anyone in the world, these symbols lose this particular context. Typography, which is generally designed to facilitate communication could now be seen as vehicle for a lack of communication.

Hopefully I can make such elegant connections on my own work. Factors I want to address in my project are the urban landscape, the Philippine diaspora and ultimately finding a way to represent the fluidity of the two through digital media. Some sub-themes that are coming to mind are authenticity of the image (digital manipulation puts into question the validity of the photograph/video as truth) and memory/ loss of memory.(can I somehow represent the changes that happen to the landscape through diaspora in terms of what is lost or forgotten?).