Words John Alexis Balaguer
Images PAVB-NCCA and Andrea D’Altoè (Philippine Pavilion)
Inspired by the local sogna, sung to express the self to participants in a gathering, the Philippine Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, “Andi taku e sana, Among taku di sana” (All of us present, This is our gathering) visualizes soundscapes of local cultures as an interdisciplinary approach of weaving sound, image, performance, and object. The exhibition presenting works by Gerardo Tan, Felicidad A. Prudente, and Sammy N. Buhle, curated by Yael Buencamino-Borromeo and Arvin Flores shows the transmission of customs into codes transcribed through painting and weaving, bridging tradition and technology in the contemporary moment. We grab a quiet moment with the busy collaborators as they share and ruminate on their sensorial work for our national participation in this year’s installment of La Biennale.
Congratulations to the team for the successful opening of the exhibition Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana (All of us present, This is our gathering) at the Philippine Pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale!
Yael Buencamino-Borromeo: Thank you, John, and thank you for the great questions. They allow us to think about the exhibition from different angles.
Cautiously emerging from the lockdowns in our country, how has the experience of Venice been so far for the team, surrounded finally by artists, arts professionals, and visitors of all kinds from all over the globe? Why did the team take interest in participating in the Venice Biennale?
Buencamino-Borromeo: It’s been a wonderful experience on several levels. Being in Venice which is practically back to normal after the pandemic was truly refreshing.
Speaking personally, I thought that the project of Gerry, Fe, and Sammy, which I had seen in Vargas Museum would be an excellent exhibition for the Venice Biennale. I felt that the ideas ruminated upon by the exhibit and its process would resonate with international audiences: translation, collaboration, and the dialogue between traditional craft and contemporary art, among different artistic practices.
Gerardo “Gerry” Tan: We took interest in proposing the project to the Venice Biennale because we thought the work was relevant to the theme of the biennale that partly deals with the relationship between individuals and technologies.
Felicidad “Fe” Prudente: Travelling to Venice to participate in the Venice Biennale is a liberating experience and at the same time enriching. After two years of limited movement due to the pandemic, it is refreshing to connect with people, converse, and talk with friends as well as new acquaintances face to face.
How do you think the Philippine Pavilion informs other presentations in the biennale? Was there an overarching idea in the projects amongst all participants, and how did the Philippine pavilion interpret this?
Buencamino-Borromeo: The title of the Biennale was “The Milk of Dreams” but this referred principally to the exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani. The national pavilions are not required to conform to the theme of the main exhibition. Curatorial proposals for the Philippine pavilion were submitted to the NCCA before the title of the biennale was announced. However, since the national pavilions are presenting contemporary art, they deal with current issues and ideas and tend to represent the zeitgeist so there are inevitably relationships and common threads being explored.
Tan: There was no overarching idea amongst all participants. Each pavilion tackled the theme of the biennale from their own trajectories. For the Philippine Pavilion, the general mode of presentation is trans-media that merges sound and sound transcriptions, textile, performance, and video into a cohesive whole.
The collaborative exhibition presents many layers: from soundscapes to visual weaved forms and music performance; researching and recording processes; as well as translating intangible heritage into sensorial contemporary discourse. What were some of the considerations of each artist in their interventions and elaborations?
Tan: For me as the artist, I conceptualized the work and thought of the different processes and components that go into it with special attention to the significance of each component, how each distinct element shifts and merges into the other, and finally, where and how they should be deployed in the exhibition space with assistance from the curators.
Prudente: As a musicologist, my main concern was the putting together of music symbols in my sound transcriptions which should be consistent as well as appropriate for weaving in a loom which has its limitations. Because I have never done transcriptions of sound coming from non-pitched instruments like the weaving loom, I had to invent and build a vocabulary of sound symbols specifically for the 12 textiles collectively titled “Rendering.”
Why did the team deem it important to put attention and discourse on the idea of soundscapes? What sort of inquiries and conversations were expected in translating them?
Buencamino-Borromeo: Gerry’s encounter with the sounds of a weaving house was the impetus for the entire project. He was intuitively drawn to the soundscape and imagined how this might be rendered visually. Collaborating with a musicologist deepened conversations about the aural experiences of a community. In a paper Fe Prudente wrote about this project, she remarked “Weaving sounds are integral into the making of cloth. Although ephemeral in character; their audibility is vital in the production process which complements the privileged visible design of a cloth. She also called attention to the idea of soundmarks, “the audible sounds which identify a community comparable to landmarks when locating a place.”
In translating the sounds into musical notations and weaving patterns, the ephemeral becomes visible, tangible, and open to interpretation and iteration. Making them accessible to others and open to evolution allows the traditional to remain vibrant and relevant. Relationships may be drawn to the way that languages are preserved when they are translated with new words incorporated into common usage.
Tan: I was curious how the sound of the pedal loom will look like if woven. As for the “Speaking in Tongue” where I painted with my tongue the notations of the Mandukayan chant with squid ink, I thought that the black ink that is emitted by a squid to hide itself alludes to how meaning is revealed and concealed, in the process of translation.
Prudente: The concept of “Rendering” in the exhibition came from participating artist, Gerardo Tan who intuitively thought of the idea of weaving the weaving sounds produced by the looms back to textile. Gerardo was reminded of minimal music when he heard the multiple loom sounds “playing” together in a Miag-ao cooperative. To my knowledge, his concept is an original idea and therefore noteworthy to be shared with the art world.
Did the translations of soundscapes and re-presenting intangible heritage pose new examinations for curation and exhibition-making? How did the curatorial concept and design for the exhibition manifest into what it is now?
Buencamino-Borromeo: I think that all exhibitions present opportunities for a re-examination of curation and exhibition-making. This proposal was quite a challenge because it was an elaboration of a successful exhibition in Vargas Museum which provided the intimate setting conducive to the kind of contemplation ideal for appreciating the work. The space in the Arsenale was anything but intimate—a large, cavernous box with its own character—we grappled with the challenge of how to engage an audience that was going to be there to see ours and at least a dozen other shows. We considered several configurations of the works but the final installation was arrived at through continuous conversation about the project, the ideas that it explored, and how the artists wanted the audience to experience it.
My co-curator, Arvin Flores expressed the layout very well in our exhibition notes: “Renderings” is a mixed media installation on the main floor featuring sound, video, and textiles that traverse vertically from the rafters and horizontally across the floor. This binary alignment gives an imaginative rendition of the warp and weft weaving process, the presence and absence of representation, and the intersection of technology with tradition. Unburdened by conventions, the textiles, laying on the floor, appear also as a form of institutional critique. They interweave accordingly and are linked at the end with video monitors facing each other.
Tan: The main thing was to make the exhibition large enough to cover all areas of the pavilion. For this reason, we added eight new textiles and one TV monitor to make nine TV monitors altogether. Another was to plan the placements of the cloth pieces and videos to distribute the weight of all components in the best possible way.
The introduction of the show in the form of a tunnel where the work “Speaking in Tongue” was installed is interesting as it connotes the invitation of the sogna as a call to gather. Can you tell us more about this work, and the messages it hopes to bring about?
Buencamino-Borromeo: The particular sogna that Jose Pangsiw is chanting in the “Speaking in Tongue” video was composed for a family gathering where relatives from all over came home. It was selected by Gerry as a part of the exhibition before the pandemic but its words acquired new meaning and were particularly poignant to us as we were preparing for the exhibition. We worked on the proposal and much of the layout via Zoom because of the pandemic, missing the personal interaction that curators and artists normally enjoy when preparing for exhibitions, so All of us present, This is our Gathering, was also about hope, that we would be able to gather again soon. And of course, it found resonance in the biennale which had been postponed for a year—it echoed the joy of people being in one of the world’s largest art gatherings.
Tan: Aside from what I have mentioned earlier, “Speaking in Tongue” aside from being a call to gather, is a video piece that anticipates the various translations that happen in the installation of textiles and videos.
Prudente: I recorded Jose’s chant when I was doing some field research in Kalinga. With a request from Gerry for a close-up of Jose’s mouth when chanting the sogna, I took some video clips and later notated the sogna chant’s melody. “Speaking in Tongue” is Gerry’s tongue painting that simulates the melodic contour of my sogna notation.
“Renderings” apply several multi-media translations to the original soundscape of the community weaving houses. Can you tell us more about the idea of collaboration and transformation presented by these works? Were there challenges met in conceiving and creating them?
Buencamino-Borromeo: Although transcription sounds very technical, in this case, it was a creative process. First of all, creating transcriptions of loom sounds was not something Fe had done before. Fe could not use western musical notation so she had to develop a system through which she could capture the non-pitched sounds of the looms. She also had to take into consideration that these symbols would be the basis for woven designs.
I think it reflects great curiosity and openness to engaging with artists and people from other disciplines that Fe chose to embark on this very conceptual project that Gerry was proposing. Gerry and Fe were also very fortunate to find Sammy who, by his own admission thought that what they were proposing was quite strange. However, he was intrigued by it and was likewise open to doing something that he had not done before. He talks about how challenging some of the designs were for him, he had to think about them for days. His approach was also very intuitive, he did not write down pattern instructions, preferring to be able to keep the process fluid, allowing him to adjust as he saw fit.
Tan: From my point of view as the artist, the challenge was how to turn the sound from the loom into its visual counterpart in a non-hierarchical process because each component plays a significant role in materializing the work.
The collaborative part was in the creation of a common language in the form of visual patterns that is doable in ikat weaving. Initially, Fe, our musicologist, makes the sound notations based on the sound from the loom that I then turn into colored patterns for Ifugao master-weaver Sammy Buhle to weave into cloth pieces using the ikat technique.
From the exhibition opening, it was also noted that cultural identity is significant in the discourses presented by the exhibition. How productive is it to have conversations about identity in the present time?
Buencamino-Borromeo: What is being referred to here is not the imagined homogenous cultural identity of a nation-state but the character of local cultures. Each community’s traditions are derived from their specific circumstances, environment, history, etc. These should be given importance and preserved in a way that allows them to flourish and continue to develop.
Tan: To me it is never possible to pin down one’s singular identity in the present because over time we have become a mix of different races, but definitely, there is an overriding character in how we do things or express ourselves as a people that makes the quality of our cultural outputs distinctly ours. Perhaps we can call it our cultural capital.
Prudente: It is precisely more important to assert one’s identity amidst the challenges of living in a global environment.
The conditions of communities are also touched upon by the many layers of the research process and art-making. What were the hopes of the team for indigenous communities in the presentation of this project?
Tan: I hope for the indigenous weaving communities to gain more visibility through the project.
The visibility can lend awareness to their status that can translate into more sales and support from the government or concerned individuals. However, the project is not a textile exhibition nor an advocacy for textile weaving, even if it is one of the main components of the project.
Prudente: We need to encourage the public to support our weaving communities around the country; buy local to be able to sustain our hand-woven textile industry.
The art pavilions are reflective of how our artists and curators are in the present but also provide a glimpse of future trajectories. As more and more audiences see and interact with the exhibition, what has the experience taught the collaborators of the Philippine Pavilion and how might this experience inform how we approach and share art?
Tan: For us to better share art with audiences that are interacting with the exhibition, we must have adequate informative materials in the pavilion for the taking such as brochures and catalogs about the exhibition. Since there are so many national pavilions to see within a limited amount of time, having informative materials can augment the audiences’ appreciation of the exhibition, and the artists and curators who are responsible for setting up the exhibition.
Prudente: Collaborative projects being multi-disciplinary like “Rendering” (musicology, visual arts, weaving) and “Speaking in Tongue” (chant performance, visual arts, musicology) undoubtedly produce new knowledge and illustrate the relevance of musicology (music research) in other fields of endeavor. At the Venice Biennale 2022, for example, participating musicians are mostly composers and music performers. The Philippine Pavilion, on the other hand, demonstrates the significant contribution of music research (musicology) to the art world.
Buencamino-Borromeo: In this biennale, not just our pavilion but the main exhibition and in other national pavilions as well, there has been a centering of artists, art forms, and places that were considered “peripheries.” I believe and hope that this expansion continues. Bringing in different voices, practices, and issues can only enrich the art world. •
John Alexis Balaguer is a curator, critic, educator, and artist based in Manila. He is the founder of Curare Art Space, a digital space for curatorial collaboration. He received the Loyola Schools Award for the Arts in 2012, the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Award for Art Criticism in 2019, and was the proponent of the heritage project which was awarded the Philippine Heritage Award for Adaptive Reuse in 2021. He currently contributes art writing and criticism to Art Asia Pacific magazine, and Kanto.com.ph, and is an Instructor of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines – Baguio.