The Disaster of Social Engaged Art

“When a man in devastated Tacloban takes food from the shelf of an abandoned grocery, he is called a looter and a thief. When a man in Manila takes money meant for the man in Tacloban, he is called a senator.” – Waraywaray Journalist

While writing this I am simultaneously thinking of my subject matter for my work-in-progress undergrad thesis in College of Fine Arts.  I am very much preoccupied with it that everything I randomly encounter from practical books, theories, music and the previous talk on Art Economies aptly relates in the idea of apocalypse.

“Disaster brings people together,” sums up Rebecca Solnit in her award-wining book “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (Viking, 2009)”. This primal reflex of bonding together to survive in the verge of apocalypse delighted me presumably because I experienced near apocalyptic disasters, Fukushima and Yolanda, which shook decadent contemporary worldviews. And it is indeed true that when the world collapses people come out of their apartments and meet their neighbors for the first time (Japan/Fukushima); they share food, stories, companionship (Tacloban/Yolanda). This apparent altruistic primal reflex, however, I believe is the genealogical meaning/context behind the word Economy.

The forum entitled “Art Economies” hosted by 1335 Mabini and Back-to-square 1 (BS1) tried to search and define this kind of social engagement in the local art scene. Those who were invited to talk shared their methods and practices enthusiastically. Nevertheless, during the presentation it was apparent that the word economy revealed its schizophrenic definition. Some stand behind its altruistic sense and others simply understood economics as management of money or both (for example community development projects of 98B).

Economy is a word that comes from the Greek ta oikonomikos, which means the science of household management. It is simply how everybody takes care of a house. But this practice nowadays is contradictory to its inherent altruism if we understand the word economy from the context of “disaster” especially in the parlance of Milton Friedman and neolibaralism. With neoliberalism the word economy is aptly misunderstood as ecocide, meaning the destruction of a house from the Greek word oikos (house) and cidium (to destroy).

However, the Fundacion Broke  of Gary Ross Pastrana is not McDonalds that commits forest clearcutting for immense cattle ranches to boost profit. But I hope Pastrana’s artist-day-laborer venture is not in common with McDonalds triumph for an economic system that valued money over all else. Because if it does, this small-scale day laborer agency of Pastrana that hires local artists to manually produce work for international notable artists will simply destroy the implicit motivation for creativity. This alienating aspect of production will only make these people end up spending amount of time doing things they don’t want to do.

In contemporary art, process is valued than product says Nicolas Bourriaud in his treatises. Given this theory Pastrana’s process of pulling hired artists might be provocative if the gravity of the work is the process itself especially if the hired artists involved are actively present in the production. Meaning, power is distributed to neutralize hierarchical relationships. But, nevertheless, Fundacion Broke didn’t overcome the predicament of Conceptual Art.

This alienation is very much similar to Mitch Garcia’s encounter with the homeless people. Her involvement with giving away free food and stuff enabling gift economy is a spectacle without involving these people in the actual collecting and preparation of the shared food. Moreover, Garcia’s being silent in the actual decision making process, because of their difference among activists, only add up in the predicament.

However, given these pathetic attempts to enact social engagement in the local contemporary art there is a recent phenomenon that probably might interest contemporary artists, designers, thinkers and curators alike. During typhoon Yolanda that left Eastern Visayas totally devastated, affected people organically bond together, seized the food warehouses, reclaimed their lives and shared everything to everyone in order to survive. They understood completely the meaning of Economy in the true sense of the word and I find it very aesthetically pleasing.  As Rebecca Solnit puts it, “disasters give us more grounds to question institutional authority than to question ordinary human beings.” Yes, let’s be human beings again!

Jong Pairez
January 2014
Quezon City, Philippines


One thought on “The Disaster of Social Engaged Art

  1. Pingback: Day Two at CIV:LAB (January 8, 2014) | Neo Tasaday

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