ISSUE 1 Curatography
There are No Blank Slates
Installation shot of Alma Quinto’s CP Garcia Extension/No Build Zone with the participation of the mothers and children of the UP CP Garcia community

At the risk of preaching to the choir, let me offer this text as essentially a plea for counting on history in the curatorial toolkit, primarily as a wake-up call, an anti-amnesiac in post-truth times if you will, now that so many leaders and their groupies remain keen on fueling war, propping up dictatorships, and making “difference” a reason to kill and to refuse basic rights. It is indeed tragic that too many today are intent on forgetting and making up the past in the most blatantly self-serving and incongruous ways. This is sadly true in the Philippines, and across the world, where at each site the ominous occurrence of forgetting is nuanced in its own way. We need not dwell too long on the pulse points in this broadened notion of region or spatial remit—there is Hong Kong, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Japan, China, and so forth.

Of course, incongruity and complexity are standard fare in the work of the intrepid curator. Raqs Media Collective used “thicket” as a stand-in for that on our first day at Curators’ Intensive Taipei 19 (CIT19). So again I would have to say, if it will ever matter the most, this might just be that precious juncture at which we ought to be called to task. As curators (along with the other multiple hats that come with the donning of curatorial dress), we “tell”, or at the very least, we insinuate doubt. Our endeavors enable us to proffer other stories apart from what already circulates as unquestionable and forever in the ether.
The shaping of scripts and propelling of narrative is at the core of putting together an architectural structure for many curatorial enterprises—by effecting a necessary and healthy irreverence for what is given and already known, the platforms we occupy and expand our reach from allow us to go out on a limb and invite beholders to come with us on a journey, to at least tentatively consider the possibility of a rehang or re-think of what has become sacrosanct or self-evident.
In the interest of attempting to take this somewhat full circle, let me refer back to critic-theorist David Teh, who lent his voice as one of several keynote speakers present at CIT19. Teh, in his compelling book on Thai Art1, persuasively argues that the specter of “nation” insinuates itself even on the most avowedly post-nationalist of ventures, and of course any project in this field even minimally laced with notions of regionalism and contemporaneity becomes potentially subject to that. Yet at the same time Teh consigns both criticism and art history to inevitable obsolescence: “For it hardly seems incumbent on cosmopolitan critics or curators to familiarize themselves with such art histories lying far from sight, let alone those in exotic languages, or those handed down but not written down.”2 And to that I would say such a dose of skepticism is clearly justified, given the too many sins visited upon public consciousness by those flippantly crafting criticism and art history, fields that arguably still serve adjunct functions within curation. Nonetheless, this leaves us with a rather unfashionable premise to deal with. If the obsolescence of criticism and art history is undeniable, why should we trouble ourselves now? Let me try to persuade you that there are ongoing conversations and writing happening even as they are posed as conjectural. Some such instances were also cited during CIT19—Havana, Documenta5,11/14, and Gwangju—ventures that have seriously attempted to situate what they do in regard to history, politics, and locality, predictably with variable degrees of success.

1 Teh, David. Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary. MIT Press, 2017.

2 Teh, 121.

Tree extension of the Honesty Library by Claro Ramirez

Elsewhere, and in the 2019 year-end issue of Southeast of Now journal where I had the privilege of exchanging ideas with a cohort of generous Asianist scholars, we have Singapore National Art Gallery curator and historian Phoebe Scott invoking a particular strain of cosmopolitanism propelling the mobility of Vietnamese artists in Paris. Her essay suggests that a rereading of what appears as a strain of anti-modernism is conflated by both patriotism and a desire to exercise stake over the coveted place. I would argue that such carefully considered leverage or a highlighted stab at agency by artists is what history allows us to sense, but these would be something totally overlooked by curators who might opt to only look at objects from a lens blindly anchored on the “now” and thus unproductively fleeting and dispensable.

Still elsewhere and from 15 years ago, the US-based historian Joan Kee in a 2004 essay titled “A Call for a Normalised Art History”3 made a strong case for returning to an accountability for the work particularly in the case of Kazuo Shiraga’s pieces being awkwardly and conceptually flattened through reductionist references to Jackson Pollack. Kee argued for turning again to the art object in all its necessary problematics—such a task is also arguably something out of pace with today’s rapid staging and gobbling up of curatorial fare—how might we take that challenge and look at the work of curation as not some merely ministerial window-dressing of sensual desire?
3 Kee, Joan. “A Call for Normalised Art History.” Asia Art Archive, https://aaa.org.hk/en/ideas/ideas/a-call-for-a-normalised-art-history.
Another US-based Asianist, Nora Taylor, on the other hand put forward an implied charge to those of us who continue to curate and by default, participate in historicization. In “Art without History:  Southeast Asian Artists and Their Communities in the Face of Geography”4 she called on us to account for what and how we make art present, and in the course of that task, hopefully take stock of our deeds, and assess how this engenders the public to engage in dialogue about our current intense political climate.

4 Taylor, Norah. “Art without History: Southeast Asian artists and their Communities in the Face of Geography.” Taylor and Francis Online, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00043249.2011.10790996

Precisely because, like most postcolonial sites, Asia continues to be associated with tropes of emergence, particularly in regard to contemporary art, Taylor also challenges us to think upon an expanded albeit temporal and possibly flimsy notion of “neighborhood,” and affinities which may be born of grassroots artists’ mobilization as opposed to protocol-laden and ceremonious geopolitics. To my mind, the Yogyakarta Biennale’s framing of country pairings in reference to the equator is in keeping with this. More importantly, Jogjakarta sets both art/artists and visitors off to sense socio-historical and spatial confluences which make for denser reads that might be satisfying not just sensorially but in multiple dimensions.

In keeping with Taylor and Kee’s views, among others, I would encourage further exploration of the importance of Teh’s project in what I see as calling out art history for being generally oblivious to local nuance, and too easily subject to complicity with globalization’s necessary evil of branding5. For instance, Teh elaborates: “My aim here is to give Thai relational practice a history it doesn’t want—not an art history but a cultural history that has shaped its professional molds yet lies hidden from those who lubricate its international circulation.”6 Perhaps dangerously veering toward generalizations, we might suggest this gesture would still be prudent to attempt across territories. Because lubricating is certainly what we end up doing by moving in these international circuits—we participate in the self-perpetuation of our practices and keeping those channels hospitable to our presences, yes?
5 Teh, 110. 6 Teh, 112.
Installation shot of Katti Sta. Ana’s Tangay-Tangan (Carry Off-Hold) with the participation of the UP academic and Arboretum communities

Undeniably, curation is about making art present. Through this, exposing the seams of history through what we do in exhibition making, platform making, and the other curatorial variants of our practices, perhaps becomes more purposeful.

What would such added burdens mean though in regard to the curator’s indomitable infidelity, lightness of foot, and near rabid independence? We ask ourselves such questions today in quite tenuous moments—where Hong Kong’s anti-“deportation”-cum-independence movement propels itself steadfastly while remaining essentially rudderless but nonetheless dogged, where the ability to realize dream projects often becomes a tug and pull between yielding some desperately crafted distance from institutional mangling through dangled state support translating to art-washing—how does the curatorial impulse speak or at least attempt a conversation with such impurities on the horizon?
Particularly in Kee’s and Taylor’s texts, we—specifically those working in and on Asia–seem to still be stumped or held back by nearly two-decade-old questions relating to superficial inclusion and tacked on thematics. This is not to say that such dilemmas leave the field bereft of victories—there are certainly breakthroughs however measured, and it behooves those of us who are able to take breathers from the career rat race to cheer on even flailing attempts, more so when we sense an earnestness behind even the most disastrous of ventures.
In bringing this to a conclusion, allow me to invoke a personal project that continues to weigh heavily on how our work — referring to my partner Claro Ramirez and I who have partly constituted the collective Back to Square 1/Juan since 2005— has shifted from a wholly more institutional curatorial practice to a far less fettered and under- resourced one while confronting no less complex situation of contending interests. My intent in ending this way is also a gesture to not only consider documentation as being very much part of historicizing, or placing ourselves into history, but to see how we might invoke a critical stance to that documentation and not just use it to help us get the next gig that rises on the horizon. I bring up a project called Off Site, Out of Sight which Back to Square 1/Juan took on in 2014. At the moment I still teach and thus am institutionally anchored in the University of the Philippines (UP), an American colonial period tertiary institution with an over one-hundred-year-old history of pedagogic influence. The project is sited within UP, which is a major landholder in Quezon City where it holds claim to close to five hundred hectares of property, within which, by 2006, seventy thousand informal settler families resided, with some of these families predating UP’s occupation of the property. A specific and tight-knit group of these settlers living in a sub-area called Krus na Ligas has been asserting land claims versus UP, and this only recently seems to have been rectified and decided in favor of that sub-community.
Off Site/Out of Sight consisted of profoundly soul-wrenching work. It was about working with pre-existing spaces and pre-existing publics very much entwined with charged histories. We quickly realized as we began oculars and community research that we were perceived as would-be usurpers given that anyone associated with the university may have been sent as undercover pre-demolition surveying teams. Our hope was to carve out common spaces within the campus amidst the informal settler enclaves, some of which had been fenced off to deter even more settlers coming in and building more permanent structures. It was Claro who found the site we would eventually work in, this was a former national stud farm for elite horses, and by the time we were doing research for Off Site had already been transformed many times over as a squat, a place to do drugs, and a literal dumping ground with goats running freely, but more importantly the axis of at least three sub-communities of settlers where children and adults could cut through to get home from work and school near UP. In the course of negotiating with UP, we learned to phrase our speech in the language of pedagogic work in opening up workshop spaces, offering de facto extension opportunities for teachers and students, staging immersion sites, and etc. At the beginning, both at the institutional and community level, we were meeting with much goodwill despite losing access to a competent and sympathetic community development staff complement and being kept at the mercy of bureaucratic vicissitudes. Claro was the pied piper and ever the optimist in the team, I the resident cynic. Community leaders initially it seemed were simultaneously suspicious then baffled, but by the end were doing their own self-directed tours of the site which to us indicated very real ownership. At the peak, we were attracting kids and teenagers even from outside UP to use the site for play—biking, skating, signing up for a range of workshops run by artists, painters, poets, performers, and photographers from both within and outside UP—the site becoming a converging point for the academic community and those they had previously been oblivious to. Unfortunately, we did not quickly enough pick up on how fractured the communities themselves were. Generational dispossession and intra-community tensions became more and more real as Off Site, Out of Sight took shape and eventually went into denouement after a year and six months. The university eventually shut us down, I would say rather cunningly and unceremoniously, as we were obviously becoming a nuisance in their containment efforts.
My point in bringing this up is primarily about underlining the reality that the space and time for curatorial hubris never really comes with the luxury of ahistoricity. In fact, I wager this could be the moment to go beyond the overprivileged posture of the curator and to shift gears into performing more overt gestures to share, more pointedly disabuse ourselves of the illusion of control or curatorial sovereignty so that our co-agents in the ecology may indeed recuperate art from its bloated sense of self. That I believe might help in decolonizing ourselves as subjectivities inevitably bump up against each other in these projects. Very much part of our jobs is practicing the ability to speak in variant registers—discursively, sensorially, theoretically, and colloquially— and we invoke commonalities often as we evoke divergences and what is confounding. We may continue to imagine how able we are to thwart such infinite parameters, but we are quickly disabused of our invincibility. We step into a quagmire no matter how shrewd we think we are and how good-natured the proposition. Again, I bring up this project without intending to cast ourselves as some heroic duo dueling with windmills. On the contrary, what I had hoped to do is turn on the lights upon the workings of both history (not just art history) and curation particularly now when veiling and obstruction are the operative modes of operation. How might we come clean about our foibles instead so we can take the hindsight and try again?
So, here’s to possibly untidy and undone curatorial ventures that might just keep us more skewed toward some unkempt but needed honesty. And this is precisely and particularly in the case of projects framed within the context of participation and social engagement, where the degrees of contingency are high and the prospects of perpetuating inequitable relationships and structures remain far too plausible.
Detail of collaged stables wall by the art collective, Windang Aesthetics Labor Army (W.A.L.A.)

To my mind, one of the real challenges of doing work in the cultural sphere today is about effecting candor in regard to the complications underpinning what we do. That of course can be attempted spatially, discursively, and experientially, counting on dynamic narrative flow, variable entry/exit points, scenography—the bag of tricks is deep because of seasoned interventions not just by theorist-historian-critics but by artist-designers and mediators. It is that imaginative working together that makes contrarian voices bounce off the walls and dangerously push buttons among our publics, not just to consume what we make but to hopefully come away moved to the point of non-perfunctory action. Quite obviously I’m very inclined to say that curation participates in crafting art history even when not overtly recognized as doing so. The question is, what kind of art history is being made in the process? Do we churn up the obvious and untroublesome, or ask the tough questions that might lead to our own embarrassment? Do we merely whet the inquisitive impulse or saturate by the way we do things? By all means, let us not tire of exceeding the preset logics of structure and history even as we still refrain from being foolish enough to ignore context. Sometimes ahistoricity issues out of naivete but also could be merely mercenary. I believe it is very much the curator’s job to sniff out what is hidden under the veneer of the official to hack away at what makes that impenetrable. Squeezing into institutional cracks is possibly where we can best be of use in this field of mystification. The parting pitch here is to keep our sense of time and space malleable, to stay creative but to also keep an eye out for some way to return to navigational anchors—that might be the redemptive place of art history. I leave you with questions inspired by what I heard during my very productive time spent at CIT19, and they are: How might we make curation more neighborly, particularly in regard to how people are engaged, and in how parallel practices such as art history, art education, and so on are not only begrudgingly lived with but are actually seen as healthily co-dependent? How to not just fan further facile antagonisms but instead mutually enable channels of discursive visibility?

While not consciously regurgitating the Euro-American 1990s museums versus academy and the two art histories formulation, where scholarship and aesthetics are pitted against each other and where supposedly context gets subsumed over experientiality—of letting the art speak versus evoking conversations through and around it, I would still submit that this is an opportune time to underline the indispensability of research. That is, that it isn’t merely about studio visits and networking for resources to get curatorial projects off the ground. Certainly, this is not some call to taking on affectations about curatorial sophistication for its own sake, but one that hopefully encourages a more agentive engagement that is not singularly celebratory nor merely instrumentalizing in intent. As curators as well as social agents, we really ought to zealously guard the spaces opened up to us for calculated risk-taking, then we might be upfront with the odious histories we are all subject to and hope to shape. Ultimately, we hope to emerge wiser and scathed to some healthy degree.
* All photographs are from the Off Site, Out of Sight 2014 project archives. With special thanks to Mars Bugaoan and Claro Ramirez.
1 Teh, David. Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary. MIT Press, 2017.
2 Teh, 121
3 Kee, Joan. “A Call for Normalised Art History.” Asia Art Archive, https://aaa.org.hk/en/ideas/ideas/a-call-for-a-normalised-art-history.
4 Taylor, Norah. “Art without History: Southeast Asian artists and their Communities in the Face of Geography.” Taylor and Francis Online, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00043249.2011.10790996
5 Teh, 110.
6 Teh, 112.
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Author
Eileen Legaspi Ramirez is an Associate Professor at the Department of Art Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman. Moving forward with degrees in Journalism and Art History from the same university, she is currently in pursuit of a doctorate in Social Development in line with long-term research on site-specific community art initiatives across the Philippines. Her international engagements include serving as member of the Southeast of Now Editorial Collective, Advisory Board member of Asia Art Archive, and Steering Committee member of Another Roadmap School. She has also received research, writing, and curatorial fellowships from the University of Sydney/Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture, the US National Endowment for the Arts, and the Asia-Europe Foundation. She is the associate editor of the Visual Arts volume of the revised Cultural Center of the Philippines Encyclopedia of Philippine Art and has served as curatorial consultant of Lopez Museum and as President of the non-profit art organization Pananaw ng Sining Bayan.
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Extended Living Room: Space and Conversation ruangrupa(Ade Darmawan, Mirwan Andan)
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Archive
Issue 2 Curators' Living Rooms
Editorial Curators' Living Rooms Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo
Extended Living Room: Space and Conversation ruangrupa(Ade Darmawan, Mirwan Andan)
Freeing the Weights of the Habitual Raqs Media Collective
Curating Topography Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo
Issue 1 Curatography
Editorial / Curatography Hongjohn Lin
What is Curatography? Hongjohn Lin
Les fleurs américaines Yoann Gourmel, Elodie Royer
There are No Blank Slates Eileen Legaspi Ramirez