At the 13th VIVA ExCon in Bacolod, the curatorial forum initiated a discussion about current curatorial practices in the Philippines and around the world. Patricia Tumang spoke with some of the visiting curators to ask about their curatorial practices and approaches, and their thoughts on VIVA ExCon, past and present.
Dr. Reuben Cañete, curator of the 11th and 12th VIVA ExCon
Patricia Tumang: This year, Dr. Patrick Flores is the head curator, but you’ll also be moderating a discussion with some of the curators. Can you tell me more about that?
Dr. Reuben Cañete: The curatorial forum, based on the briefs I was given, will talk about curatorial practices not only in the Philippines but also throughout Southeast Asia. This is aimed towards an audience that the organizers assume doesn’t know these practices yet, so it has to be taught to them. So it’s basically up addressing down.
PT: What do you think of that model? Do you think it’s effective?
RC: I think it’s necessary. But it’s also necessary to talk about curatorial practices within a given discussion of relevant political and economic conditions of artmaking. But people don’t talk about that because there’s a tendency to focus on what’s wrong with Philippine development in the regions. There can be very embarrassing questions.
PT: So your participation this year is only as a moderator?
RC: As a moderator primarily, secondarily as an observer, and thirdly, as a board member of the The National Committee on Visual Arts (NCVA). We’ll have our quarterly meeting here, which has also been the tradition of the NCVA; every time there is a VIVA ExCon, they’d hold a quarterly meeting.
PT: Is this the first time you’re participating in VIVA ExCon?
RC: No. My first participation was in 2008 when it was held in Cebu. I was asked to curate some of the exhibitions there, and it was in 2008 that we came up with the concept of the Garbo sa Bisaya awards. There was a sentiment among the artists in the Cebu that too much emphasis was on the successful artists. There wasn’t enough attention being given to comparatively senior artists in the provinces that were successful as far as artmaking was concerned, but were not as visible or known in the Manila scene. We started off by mixing the successful Visayan artists from the Manila viewpoint with some that are more regionally known. All of them had to be Visayan by birth.
PT: Who were the more successful Visayan artists that were recognized?
RC: The first batch included Charlie Co, Nune Alvarado, Raul Isidro, Raul Lebajo, and Romulo Galicano, among others. We emphasized living artists. We haven’t yet given an award posthumously. That distinction was made so that we could give attention to those who are still alive. In 2010, I was again made curator. That was the point in which the title change came about from Viva Excon to the Visayas Biennale.
PT: Can you describe that shift?
RC: That shift was made primarily on a conceptual level based on some of the senior artists feeling that Viva had run its course in the sense that it was always a barkada (“group of friends”). There was a need to expand the scope and emphasize issues of artmaking, provide a formalized infrastructure and a differentiated system of classification, and offer more opportunities for participants to engage in specific artful activities, such as exhibitions and an art fair. We were the first ones to pioneer the art fair concept in the Visayas. SM Cebu as a co-sponsor offered space, not only for the conference component, but also for artists to sell their works outside of a clearly exhibitionary regime. There were actually two levels of exhibitions in 2010: the curated exhibitions and the broader delegate exhibition, which allows participants to enter as long as they submit works that met the standards of the show.
PT: How were the criteria determined?
RC: The curators on the ground determined the criteria. Then they put it all together [the exhibitions] in these large hallways that SM provided, which were primarily the trade halls and the art center.
PT: How were the turnout and the impact?
RC: It was quite well received. We were particularly proud that there was a lot of space for everyone to participate. We had exhibitions in each [hall] of around 50-60 works from 30-40 artists. There were several exhibitions, not just one. We even had specialized exhibitions in addition to the general and curated shows, such as a senior artist show featuring Charlie Co, Nune Alvarado, and all of these guys from VIVA ExCon. We continued with the conference component, which were seminars, lectures, and workshops, and then of course the congress at the end that decides where the next VIVA ExCon will be.
PT: Was it always that way in the beginning with the setup of the conference?
RC: It was basically a development program instigated by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in the early 1990s. They wanted to develop the visual arts in the Visayas through learning techniques; expositions of more advanced concepts and practices; and, the recounting of experiences from the cosmopolitan, metro-based artists, so that people in the provinces will get to know the so-called habitus of being an artist. That was also coupled with documenting the artistic practices of different regions, which we now call the island reports. The island reports started as far back as 1994, and that constituted part of the tradition of Viva Excon, but our innovations wereGarbo sa Bisaya, the art fair, and special, curated exhibitions.
PT: How was it like to work with the Philippine government in terms of them supporting the initiative of Viva Excon and also during its transition to become the Visayas Biennale?
RC: It was always a government initiative. It started off with the CCP under Pandy Aviado and Brenda Fajardo, which is why the first venue was in Negros because her [Fajardo’s] friends were there. It’s really like that, a personality-based network system of artists of prominence, so to speak. You know who has the resources, and depending on who hosts it, the level of activity and success varies. For example, Bacolod usually hosts exhibitions focusing on the masters, and Cebu would have both the senior artists and everyone else. The problem is when it goes out of these three zones—Bacolod, Cebu, and Iloilo—that things get hairy because of what’s needed to put on such complicated program that’s extremely metropolitan-oriented. So if they’re not used to this, they fall back on certain patterns. The problem was relying too much on the local political patronage system. It tends to wobble because the emphasis is on the politician. The events occur during the politician’s birthday or a binyag (“baptismal ceremony”). That has happened. We all agree that that’s not a good idea. Now it really depends on the organizers and the curators that they appoint, which would determine the look, feel, and approach of each biennale. The biennale has always been known as an opportunity for artists of the Visayas to come together to talk about each other’s work and be this moveable feast. The emphasis is really on celebration because if they emphasize too much on the art, it is inevitable that people will start fighting. Mine is better than yours, for example. We try to avoid that. So I think that’s really the success story of VIVA ExCon: how to bring artists together without degenerating into a food fight.