Thursday, February 5, 2009

Words Are Things was something | Angelo Suarez

In part contrary to Green Papaya's expectations, what began on August 6 as my residency project was not STREET SMARTS as I had originally proposed but WORDS ARE THINGS, a brief survey of a marginal practice in poetry that foregrounds language as a material object (pliable, physically manipulable, can occupy space, has potential for literal weight, i.e., w/ visual, aural, textural aspects, produced by physical processes). It is under this survey w/c the less ambitious (& more personal) STREET SMARTS has been temporarily subsumed.

Part-performance in its act of engaging taxi drivers in conversation as they drive, & part-textual/aural document as conceptual poem in the recording/transcription of these conversations, STREET SMARTS in itself was intended to be a play on parataxis—a technique employed by contemporary poets where words &/or phrases are violently wrenched from syntactical convention & juxtaposed against similarly dislodged words &/or phrases for an effect that is more or less accidental.

Incidentally, the bilingual imagination can take the word "parataxis" itself as composed of two units: "para," w/c in Filipino is an expression exclaimed when one hails a cab; & "taxi," w/c is the cab itself, a public vehicle one rides to reach any point of the Metro. When a passenger & a driver are conjoined in a single cab, parataxis occurs not just on the level of language itself but also on the level on which people as linguistic subjects exist: such that two discourses—each already heterogeneous in itself—wrestle w/ each other for prominence, & the micro-politics of conversation emerges. Whose utterance overtakes whose—the driver's, or the passenger's? Who drives the conversation forward, who allows himself to be verbally driven?

While STREET SMARTS already takes on parataxis as a kind of conceit (that is, as an extended metaphor or framework) that takes off from what is normatively perceived as language & toward linguistic subjects or bodies, its technique of juxtaposition is appropriated by WORDS ARE THINGS in examining the larger field of poetry that emphasizes the material in local practice. Instead of phrase against phrase, practice against practice is juxtaposed, as are forms against forms—where Green Papaya, known primarily as a locus of discourse for visual art, is turned into a venue for linguistic & poetic discourse.

August 6, for example, saw accidental collaborations between myself & guest Belgian artist Angelo Vermeulen, as well as between young prose stylist Pocholo Goitia & renegade filmmaker John Torres. After screening a short film that relied heavily on language-use as dialogue, Vermeulen sampled from his vast collection of 8-bit music to accompany my reading of selected transcripts from STREET SMARTS, conjuring a barely intelligible soundscape in w/c text juts in & out. Torres on the other hand screened a short film adaptation of Goitia's text "The Maximalist," & using his idiosyncratic technique of collaging found footage w/ deadpan voice-overs made a subdued display of irony by using 'factual' docu-type imagery to convey a wholly fictitious story. Also featured that night were Adam David's playful forays into the verbo-visual processes of cut-ups & erasures toward textual production, & the performance of a balagtasan—that is, a traditional form of verse debate in rhyme, in w/c a topic or issue is volunteered by the audience on the spot—by renowned performance poet Vim Nadera as well as Michael Coroza & Teo Antonio.

The following week presented a fun fiesta of forms, w/ Raya Martin at the helm showing a couple of short films. The series' 1st text-installation was care of conceptual artist Bea Camacho, whose small label on the wall posited the label's reader to be her artwork, the small rectangular piece of cardboard saying "Person Reading a Label / Bea Camacho / 2008" in regular gallery-wall-type demeanor, calling attention to language's relationship with the visual/spatial as exemplified by conceptualist practice. Then as Khavn dela Cruz explored the medium of pop song as poetry against the backdrop of a silent film, multimedia artist Mark Salvatus in an off-site—or, perhaps more appropriately, translocal—performance sent SMS messages to people present at the gallery that repeatedly exclaimed "Text pollution." The night was once again capped by a reading of more transcripts from STREET SMARTS w/ 8-bit music by Vermeulen.

While certainly not the series' 1st off-center performance (performances, after all, mostly use either a stage or at least a symbolic, provisional one to keep a distinct divide between performer & audience in the subtle micro-politics of theater), Buen Calubayan's patience-trying work of erasure was the series' 1st durational performance. It went on for hours on Green Papaya's 2nd floor on August 27, in a quiet corner where the occasional curious passerby would peer into what he's laboring over: Ironically spelling out the word "bibe" (Tagalog term for "duck") by erasing those letters w/ white paint from the entirety of his small Bible. For this night, however, Calubayan was content w/ finishing only the 1st chapter, Genesis, as if to wryly declare, "In the beginning, there was light, sure, but there was no duck," inadvertently bringing to mind local churchside images of ducklings caged in glass, warmed by a lightbulb, sold to moms w/ hopeful kids for a few pesos. As this was happening, looped in a single TV in another corner was a video collage by video artist Jay Pacena, whose commercially released music videos were collaged & played in reverse, turning the song lyrics into an unintelligible wall of regurgitated sounds. Also, between Calubayan's & Pacena's works was a performance by Costantino Zicarelli who, after a brief trip to Australia w/ his ex-girlfriend, rambled for an hour about his travel, each tale punctuated by a strange mixture of deliberate dullness & shyness. True to poetry's convention of asserting a kind of constraint to give textual production form (what are sound patterns such as rhyme if not constraints?), his rambling was never as haphazard as it seemed, guided by a careful, linear progression of travel photos—mostly personal, occasionally intimate or even silly—he would project on the wall, presenting poetry where one would suspect there wasn't any. Following Zicarelli was a performance by Kaye O'yek, whose visceral spraying of perfume into her mouth as she repetitively spoke—tho bordering on the kind of masochistic melodrama that has been plaguing much of local performance art over the years—provided an effective counterpoint to the current state of Philippine letters, composed mostly of flowery utterances that are paradoxically malodorous.

New media artist Pow Martinez met our September 3 installment w/ much laughter solicited from the audience. Appropriating content from YouTube, Martinez revealed the way STREET SMARTS would too that an act of writing didn't need an actual act of writing—that is, of putting words together in a deliberately fresh & discursive manner. Instead, already extant words could be, again & again, wrenched from their original contexts & reframed in foreign contexts to reinvigorate them w/ new potentials for signification. While playing a YouTube video of John Cage's most notorious piece, Martinez highlighted w/o discrimination all the comments that could be found in YouTube's comments stream that related to the video—sundry reactions that ranged from plain confusion & utter anger to faux intellection & humble illumination. Following him was Mideo Cruz, whose semi-elaborate preparation for his performance was uncharacteristic: Known for large-scale performances that are often outright critiques of consumerist society, Cruz this time quietly meditated on the disparity between what is said & what is heard. From the sidelines, he would pump air into a small balloon attached to a chair; & as the balloon enlarged, the looped video projected onto its surface was made more visible: A close-up of Cruz's mouth saying something over & over, depicting lips that moved but no sound came out. This went on for minutes till the balloon was large enough to pop; & when it did, small sheets of paper scattered from inside it, containing a short phrase in Latin w/ religious undertones. Whether what was written was what Cruz was uttering onscreen would remain unknown, possibly an allusion to what Christians would call "the mystery of the Word." After that, poets Mikael Co & Waps San Diego came onstage to discuss a series of procedural writing collaborations they had been religiously doing w/ a group of other writers every week. Their constant insistence that these collaborations were mere writing exercises & not actual poems, however, could be symptomatic of the mainstream writing community's unfortunate suspicion of the merits of both process-based (rather than discursive, insight-driven) & collaborative (rather than individualistic, highly idiosyncratic) poetry—a suspicion WORDS ARE THINGS had wanted to help get rid of. Closing the night was a performance of more pop songs depicting heartache by Khavn dela Cruz in simultaneous counterpoint w/ my lautgedicht or textsound achieved thru procedural erasures of poems by Ophelia Dimalanta, an old poet whose poetry had been typecast for decades as primarily erotic, to whom the performance was an anti-erotic tribute. Interestingly, Donna Miranda spontaneously joined the fray, sitting on a chair w/ sheets of paper, furiously jotting down the few words her ears would catch w/ clarity from dela Cruz's lyrics.

September 10 saw Norberto Roldan's work occupying Green Papaya's 2nd floor while presentations were happening downstairs. Who said painting was a static enterprise? At event's beginning, people were invited to view the painting upstairs—a bleak depiction of an historic tragedy—one that would eventually be replaced by another, equally bleak, painting in serial continuity while people began to trickle out of the gallery towards the end of the night. Some people noticed the change; some didn't. But the performance's off-centeredness was highlighted by the notion that some people didn't even know there were changes—an explicit critique of the apathetic mind where landmark occurrences could be but marginal concerns, & simultaneously also an implicit critique of every artist's tragically burgeoning ego in the context of highly commercialized, catastrophic art economies: a lesson on hubris both historic & personal. Downstairs, Pocholo Goitia discussed w/ collaborator Allan Pormento an ongoing project involving depersonalizing Goitia's online networking accounts, particularly his Friendster one, where—by slowly replacing Goitia's self w/ a balloon-headed simulation of himself—issues of virtual vulnerability were tackled as well as fleeting moments of online trust, rhizomatic constructions of identity, & alternative modes of narrative production where rather than thru prose one could engage the act of emplotment by means of the User Profile. To cap the night off, Donna Miranda performed by making use of two chairs & masking tape: the latter to set an overt distinction between audience & stage, & the former to subtly invite the audience to penetrate the boundary, to come in & sit in one of the chairs. The other chair was reserved for Miranda, who had planned on interviewing &/or getting interviewed by whoever would sit in the vacant chair, but no one eventually did—possibly a symptom of how deep the divide between audience & performer was, & always is.

The following week, the entire night was devoted to a large-scale performance by Costantino Zicarelli, titled "God Made Pasta So I Could Waste It." Proficient in the various ways of cooking pasta, Zicarelli's Italian father & Filipino mother made a demonstration in faux cooking-show-fashion how to prepare different sauces for the fettuccine they had brought, each giving not just useful cooking tips but as well as little anecdotes about life at home, how it was living w/ their son Costantino, etc. Once in a while, Zicarelli would intervene to ask questions that were at once irrelevant & irreverent, such as "Papa, what do you think of contemporary Philippine Art?" to w/c his father would reply by addressing the audience composed mostly of writers & artists, "He asks me the same question every night." The performance ended with the Zicarelli family distributing food they made on the spot to the people present inside the gallery—as if in a generous display of charity that both conjured & ridiculed the age-old notion of the 'starving artist.' But there's a kind of reversal at work here, one that entailed a kind condescension where feeding starving artists was equated w/ wasting pasta, implying not so much that we should let artists starve but perhaps that we should let the cliché of the fauxhemian 'starving artist' die.

Jeff Carnay, Camille Banzon, Tengal Drilon, Joel Toledo, & Marie La Viña punctuate the whole series of POEMS ARE THINGS on September 24, preceded by a performance by Donna Miranda in collaboration w/ new media artist Ria Muñoz where, utilizing Miranda's body as locus for movement, language almost literally danced w/ sound: In one continuous gesture, it was the mouth & tongue enunciating words in her reading that continued the work began by her feet. And when her mouth stopped, it was my own mouth that carried on the action w/ a reading of another transcript from STREET SMARTS, providing a new textual backdrop to Miranda & Muñoz's performance. Carnay, in another masochistic fit not unlike O'yek's weeks prior, performed the traditional punishment for children where they're made to kneel on rough rock salt while surrounding him were photocopied photographs of the person to whom the work was addressed, the blurred black-&-white face made creepier by a parody of The Lord's Prayer being chanted in the background. To continue the carnivalesque strain began w/ dance & ritualistic pain, Banzon followed w/ a solemn ode to a friend who had been going thru tough times, her face covered w/ a mask in an attempt to ironize the confessional quality of her writing by masking her identity. Then past Toledo & La Viña's continuation of the discussion initiated by Co & San Diego regarding collaborative, procedural poetics (still however w/ the same disclaimer that these projects were exercises rather than actual poems in themselves), the night was wrapped up by a set of instructions penned by Drilon to be carried out by myself, w/c simply involved me passing around a glass of milk after labeling the glass "Made in China"—a sly allusion to the supposed 'milk scare' that had spread around the world from China, where the fatal compound melamine was feared to had have contaminated volumes upon volumes of exported milk products.

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