Renan Laru-an talks about his upcoming collaborative project in the Philippines.

Conceived in collaboration with other young curators from the SYNAPES Workshop in Berlin, the trans-regional project “Herding Islands, Rats and the Anthropocene” uses video and moving image to tackle discourses of development and integration, from the starting point of the Philippines.

Christian Illi, 'Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }', 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Christian Illi, ‘Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }’, 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Renan Laru-an is a young Filipino researcher and curator currently based in Quezon City, Philippines. He is founder of DiscLab | Research and Criticism, “an independent, non-aligned multidisciplinary platform and virtual organization on critical writing, theory, discursive activities, and long-term research on Philippine contemporary art and visual and network culture”.

Laru-an studied Psychology at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and participated in the 6th Gwangju Biennale International Curator Course led by Ruth Noack. He is the editor of An Auto-corrected Journal of Printing Properties and co-author of From Bandung to Berlin with Brigitta Isabella. He has presented projects and lectures at Academy of Media Arts Cologne, Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, De La Salle University, the University of the Philippines, Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, and Osage Art Foundation (2015). Recent projects include the First Lucban Assembly: PAMUMUHUNAN (Waiting for a capital), organised by Project Space Pilipinas.

“Herding Islands, Rats and the Anthropocene” is a trans-regional curatorial and research project he initiated in 2015 in collaboration with curators from the Haus der Kulturen der Welt‘s SYNAPSE Workshop. The project, which considers discourses on development and integration, will initially focus on the Philippines and will soon launch a press preview at the Vargas Museum and Filipinian Research Centre on 14 October 2015 (2.30 – 4.30pm). The project brief will also include the screening of two key video works, which are crucial to opening up the discourse on development and integration.

Art Radar spoke with Laru-an about his curatorial vision and the upcoming project in the Philippines.

Renan Laru-an. Image courtesy the curator.

Renan Laru-an. Image courtesy the curator.

Renan, could you begin by telling us a bit about yourself, your training and your interests as a curator?

[…] I am currently based in Quezon City, but I was raised in Sultan Kudarat, part of a region excised from Cotabato (Central Mindanao) during the intensive state-sponsored migration of inhabitants from Luzon and Visayas Islands to Mindanao. Then, I moved to Metro Manila to study Psychology at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman. It is a crucial foil in my thinking, which, perhaps has led to a sustained reflection on how I form relationships with discourses.

Particularly, I was educated in an interesting system of antagonistic knowledges: UP is a premiere state and research university founded by the Americans, but it has also been an institution known to organise and rally actions and thoughts for resistance. While the university was initially yet aggressively privatised then, it became a rich territory for me to challenge how I was socialised, and, in turn, it grew on me the possibility of engaging with strong Manila-centric ideologies. I remember writing a rather crude essay asking how the images of Mindanao and the consciousness of people living in Mindanao figure into Sikolohiyang Pilipino, a discipline and a movement promoted in the university’s Psychology Department.

My initiation in art was non-formal; consequently, my engagement has always been informed, but not subjugated by practical commitments (i.e. maintaining a non-art-related day job). I was not formally educated in curatorship, art criticism, critical theory or cultural management, or in the so-called “global(ised) / international(ised) higher education,” which seems to be one of the most concrete grounds among emerging art professionals.

My learning has been tied to my resources and, of course, on the possibilities of accessing and using them – learning in constraints. I think my training oscillates between being embedded within structures of lack and a refusal to reinforce mythified and calcified ways of learning and doing. (But I need to clarify that it is not coming from the pervasive anti-intellectualism in Manila. Maybe it is closer to resisting different strains of elitism in Manila.) And, this forms my curatorial imagination and conceit as well as my interests and limitations.

Christian Illi, 'Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }', 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Christian Illi, ‘Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }’, 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

What is the “Herding Islands, Rats and the Anthropocene” project about?

“Herding Islands, Rats and the Anthropoceneis a trans-regional curatorial and research project for reading discourses on development and integration. It operates with the overlapping coordinates of the Anthropocene and Southeast Asia. It has two specific goals: first, to irritate the current modes of understanding and explanation of the Anthropocene; and second, to locate and gather mediating structures and systems of exposition based on Southeast Asia’s political economy and knowledge scenes. In other words, “Herding Islands…” is an attempt to constitute a dialectical and multi-layered approach into the current gymnasium of discourses, where the Anthropocene or anthropogenic issues takes the centre stage while other subjects of discourse are pushed aside or existing issues related to it are disconnected in order to privilege subjects seductive to factors, such as funding.

I think it is equally important to highlight that “Herding Islands…” is not interested in franchising the prevailing discourse of the Anthropocene and its network of problematics. It is quite clear for the project that it must be strategically antagonistic – or at least, as it forms itself – to the largely Euro-American deployment of discourse, and suspicious of how such discourses are circulated and performed. This preliminary position is integral in finding forms for a dialectical discursive sphere. Dragging the Anthropocene project in the quandaries of development and integration could provide historical conjunctures and contemporary disjunctures for new readings.

Beyond the thematics that hold the project together, the image of “herding” attached to “islands” and “rats” reflects on the tendency of custodians of discourse to tame or gather the unruliness of knowledge systems. It happened in the discourse of precarity (and of course, the curatorial), and I am quite sure that it would also happen in the Anthropocene project. The image of “herding islands and rats” figures itself as an organisational component together with its logistical manifestation in order to note that explanation and/or understanding is more complicated than its usual representation, deployment and distribution.

Click here to watch ‘Muslim .357’ official trailer on YouTube

How did the idea for “Herding Islands, Rats and the Anthropocene” originate?

A few months ago, I showed an excerpt of the 1986 action film Muslim .357 (1986) in two separate occasions with different purposes and audience: first, at a postgraduate seminar in Cologne, and second, at a curatorial symposium in Manila. The extracted fragment shows two boys playing with a .357 Magnum, which was accidentally fired by one of the boys. No one was hurt, but they were apprehended by the film’s protagonist Fernando Poe Jr. The apprehension, however, was an interesting scenario of didacticism, almost a pedagogical approach – of showing how notions of understanding and explanation, and how conceptions of intervention, violence, and reaction are intertwined and inextricable from each other.

In the clip, the protagonist explained the violence that guns enable, but he also rationalised the need to learn how to use a gun at an appropriate age. He stressed that the boys should not play with the gun (again), but he explained the different types of bullet and described what these bullets could do. And, in both instances, the fragment elicited confusion. Here, we have a fragment that was shown and allowed to perform almost oratorically, but it didn’t fully transmit its context. It didn’t disclose itself. It is not visible.

Subjects of development and integration share a kinship with this fragment. They carry/are forms of knowing and unknowing, which slip into the cracks of our “trained” and “educated” eyes and/or not easily seen by the preciseness and “well-articulation” of critical theories, policy-making bodies and consortia of research organisations. They either appear to be perverse and unintelligible. It is the same with rats in the islands. We see them, but we can’t really see them. They are partially visible.

I think we have this arrogance that we will fully know something at a certain point, that we can explicate something in the future, that there are communities or people who need to be educated on how to know something. So rats are laughing at us, because we never really know them. We tend to see things from above. Rodent pest management is always ecological. The aggressive rationalization of development has also produced violence. When the T’bolis, an indigenous group in South Cotabato, rallied against the construction of an Asian Development Bank-funded hydroelectric power plant, they asked, “Where will we hang the lightbulbs? From the trees?” They exposed the insufficiency of our knowledge system, of our capacity to understand. Through this stream of thoughts, I asked myself how can we herd things and subjects we don’t know?

Jan Patrick Pineda, 'Memorial to an Inquiry', 2014, (video still) three channel video installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Jan Patrick Pineda, ‘Memorial to an Inquiry’, 2014, video still, three channel video installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Christian Illi, 'Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }', 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Christian Illi, ‘Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }’, 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

You have mentioned the SYNAPSE Workshop 2015, in which you participated, as a key source of inspiration for the project. You also said that collaborating curators for the project come from SYNAPSE 2015. Could you tell us a bit more about your collaborators?

It is a diverse group of curators who operate in very specific contexts with strong affinity to discourse and knowledge transfer or production, and with different conceptions and practices of exhibition-making. Juan Canela, Sofia Lemos and David Ayala-Alfonso participated in the latest iteration of SYNAPSE, while Kevser Guler and Mi You are friends from the 2014 Gwangju Biennale International Curator Course. Other collaborators, like Tess Maunder, Grace Samboh, Vera Mey, Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi and Mahardika Yudha, have been DiscLab’s partners and mediators in many of DiscLab projects since the organisation started.

I am really excited how this group of curators engages with “Herding Islands…” because the output could be very heterogeneous and unpredictable. Perhaps some of the positions or articulations lie in opposing spectrums. There are a lot “meaningful misunderstandings” and “productive antagonisms” in the contributions. Even the SYNAPSE curators involved in the project register their thinking quite differently, so the intersections are not pre-meditated and not fixated on procuring an art and science fusion.

Another interesting conversation is how they finalise their presentation and selection according to their positions and affiliations, say being an institutional or independent curator, and a curator working for an artist-run space or a curator primarily working for an academic institution. For example, Barcelona-based curator Juan Canela is the co-founder of an independently organised mobile platform BAR Projects, which recently launched an alternative pedagogical platform for curatorial processes called Curating the Space / Space for Curating. On the other hand, Vera Mey has been working as Curator for Residency at NTU-CCA in Singapore, which opened a curatorial programme early this year called Curatorial Space. Meanwhile, Grace Samboh, Hyphen Co-founder and curator based in Jogja, collaborated with Jatiwangi art Factory’s Ismal Muntaha for the project.

Christian Illi, 'Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }', 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Christian Illi, ‘Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }’, 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

The project is focused on the Philippines. What problematics in particular are you considering in the Philippines? Or are you considering more region-wide issues that are also applicable to the Philippines? What is the significance of ‘Asia’ and ‘Southeast Asia’, and how do you insert the issue of development and integration within these regional frameworks?

[…] It would be narrow and myopic if we don’t share the notion of reading Southeast Asia, development, integration and the Anthropocene with other sites of articulation or with different epistemological bearings. I am more interested in how these knowledges contaminate each other either directly or obliquely.

[…] “Herding Islands…” looks at the Philippines as a subject and a site of development and integration. But it is not just that. “Herding Islands…” looks at Southeast Asia as a subject and a site, too. But again it is not just that. When I say that the focus is on the Philippines, or say on Southeast Asia or Asia Pacific, the notion of looking can never be singular or to be a little generous, looking is never between two subjects or two sites. I am not sure if the project or group will ever come to a point of defining problematics to undertake, explore or challenge. I think that would be boring.

Overall, it seems that the project is more interested in disclosure and looking. I take a cue from film theorist Kaja Silverman who reminded us that, “We cannot confer Being upon the world without appropriating it, carrying it away from itself, conferring upon it a supplemental value, [because] the world “knows” this. It does not circumscribe in any way the meaning which we can give to it. All it asks us to do is to look at it first.”

Perhaps, that’s what we are doing here, looking at it first and again; inserting other ways of looking; or looking at each other’s way of engagemet.

Christian Illi, 'Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }', 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Christian Illi, ‘Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }’, 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

The project is divided into three parts: Intervention, Violence and Reaction. Could you tell me what each session is about?

Intervention classifies artistic intervention and intervening images as processes of reading, then it complicates the discussion with the critique on how such reading unites with/diverge from knowledge-based interventions (i.e. the curatorial) and with broad disciplines, such as social sciences. We find here selections of collaborators David Ayala-Alfonso and Mahardika Yudha, practicing artists who have been working curatorially.

Violence proposes to look into the particularities of violence within the regime of development and integration. It strives to veer away from the apocalyptic and self-defeating representation of violence, which overproduces fear and paranoia and neglects to specify perpetrators of violence. It goes beyond positivist awareness promoted in corporate social responsibility ethos. Polemically, it asks, “Can we still talk about violence with(in) the Anthropocene?”

Reaction expounds how a network of the Anthropocene, development and integration forms subjects of action and intensifies/desensitises critical thoughts and actions for response. The outline of this session clings on developmentalism’s reactionary action to the constraints of the so-called sustainability, and on the project of integration’s administrative and economic understanding of social cohesion. It is interested to explore how this imposition annexes the daily tactics of subjects of development and integration in dealing with their constraints, and how these subjectivities shape the representation of institutions for development and integration.

Archie Moore, 'Moving Image And Sound', 2014, digital video still. Image courtesy the artist and The Commercial Gallery.

Archie Moore, ‘Moving Image and Sound’, 2014, digital video still. Image courtesy the artist and The Commercial Gallery.

Could you give us some highlights from the project’s sessions?

Brisbane-based artist Archie Moore’s False Friends (2014) and Moving Image and Sound (2014) will be presented in Reaction. With Tess Maunder’s curatorial direction, these two works serve as necessary abrasions in producing conjunctures in the discussion of extractive colonialism and hyperactive postfordism, and development and integration.

Moore’s contribution in the project tethers us onto the abstracted land, where struggles are imagined, people are displaced, and relationships are formed. But we don’t see any piece of land or a group of people tilling the soil. We see a set with people in costumes, dining in together and socialising. In Moving Image and Sound, we are ushered into a stage and a performance of “cultural values and tradition”.

Sofia Lemos’ thoughtful screening programme titled Hind Spectrum under the Violence session will feature works that “probe the penalties of colored celluloid in the film industry […], exposing the relationship between the social and the material.” One of them is Rainbow’s Gravity (2014) by Mareike Bernien (Berlin) and Kerstin Schroedinger (London / Zurich).

This cinematic study throws us into the terror of the Agfacolor-Neu colour film stock made in Nazi Germany. Puncturing the interface of coloured mediation, the work’s interrogation of image production conjoins with a space of reception grappling with diverging lines of modernism. As this work colludes with the question of the aesthetics of conflict, it is intriguing how these images would appear as critical vectors in discussing the invisibility of violence.

Christian Illi, 'Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }', 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Christian Illi, ‘Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }’, 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Finally, what is the significance of this project according to you right now? Why do you think it could help in some way with development and integration?

“Herding Islands…” perhaps could communicate a more complicated discussion on a corpus of issues attached to development, integration, the Anthropocene and other regimes without becoming positivist, melodramatic, self-inflicting and self-contained. The scarring that “Herding Islands…” could inscribe is not necessarily strategic and essentialist; at this point, it inaugurates a return or a step backwards to a Euro-American epistemological horizon through a raft from Southeast Asia arriving at multiple terminal points and charting diverging trajectories. However, this raft is not primarily made of questions from art, but outsourced from development and integration discourses. […]

Of course, there have been artistic, curatorial and design projects on climate change, disasters and sustainability in the Philippines, especially after the series of calamities that struck the country. […]

Christian Illi, 'Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }', 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

Christian Illi, ‘Planting Rice; { planting ≠ rice }’, 2015, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

“Herding Islands…” is a long-term trans-regional research project, which will be more visible in the arts than in the development sector. I doubt that artistic and curatorial projects will reach a close engagement with development and integration infrastructures where they can influence policy-making and building of new institutions, especially if it is from Southeast Asia. Precisely because they might be operating in the same terms with developmentalism and the nostalgia of social cohesion and nation-building. If you map out funding for arts, you can trace it back to development organisations.

Unlike CSRs or academic research, I see “Herding Islands…” as a knowledge scene made of a number of discursive spheres filled with uncertainty. It is not replacing the vigilance of investigative journalism or other think thank groups in issues of development and integration; or competing with private interests fixated in the role of arts in development and integration. Maybe it is like a conspicuous architectural assertion/blunder in the Philippines, a waiting shed, which could be turned into something else by different publics. Or, maybe it is similar with Warburg’s nameless science. I don’t know. Let’s see how it evolves or disintegrates.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: art in the Philippines, curatorial practice, curators, video art, film, interviews

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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