With beginnings dating back to 2014 , Kamias Triennial (Quezon City, Philippines) has steadily created a formidable alternative to the flashy blockbuster art exhibition event. Though grown out of an independent mentality, it continues to thrive with the retained relations the organizers have fostered over the years with local artists and organizations in the host city. In its third iteration, the Triennial is a picture of what arises out of sustained collaboration and community interdependence within the limits of available resources. Hosted across several venues, this year's offering gathers over twenty different artists and collectives with connections to over ten countries many of which will be in attendance for the Triennial. And in lieu of the added costs of shipping finished works, the participating artists' presence there will be used as studio time to either create or complete their projects; allowing for experimentation and open possibilities. Titled under 'Sawsawan: Conversations in the Dirty Kitchen', the 2020 edition reinforces the domestic and intimate ethos the Triennial has been rooted in from the beginning. The "Dirty Kitchen" as the organizers describe referencing Filipino cultural worker Doreen G Fernandez, is "an extension of the home where nourishment takes place and friends and family gather." And in our conversation below, the generative significance of this spirit is generously discussed between the three curators/organizers (Patrick Cruz, Allison Collins, Su-Ying Lee) of this year's Triennial as well as the thoughtful decision making and critical considerations it took to bring together the event.
"A foundational element of the Triennial is to bring artists and other thinkers and makers together in recognition of the potential that exists in simply meeting"
Patrick Cruz: There were a lot of reasons for me to go back and start a project where I grew up. Partly because Quezon City was responsible for my formative artistic awakening, it was a nexus of all sorts of artists and cultural workers. Looking back after being baptized as a new Canadian, I think I was keen on contributing to the dialogue to the local community as an ex-resident and foreigner to my own homeland. My first visit to the Philippines in 2012 after being away for seven years inspired me to start again and reconnect with my old community. The first triennial began in 2014 and was initiated under the spirit of coming together with old and new friends - without necessarily realizing a goal or an outcome, we had zero budget with unlimited ideas. At the time, it was more of a celebration and an inquiry as to how we, as cultural workers could respond to the rapid commercialization of art in the Philippine art scene. The early context of the festival was very localized and friend centric. In a way, the seed of the project all began with a desire to reframe perspectives and question the purpose of making art in the first place.
Su-Ying Lee: For my part, I am working with four individual artists and two collectives from Mexico City. I am also working with an academic and a collective, both from Manila.
When I first met Patrick and we talked about the Triennial he mentioned that one of the things that he felt was missing from the 2nd iteration was political discourse. We had both been frequenting Mexico City and he identified the relationship and similarities between Mexico and the Philippines suggesting that he was interested in bringing artists from Mexico to the Triennial. Mexico and the Philippines were both colonized by the Spanish and have experienced U.S. imperialism. During the time of Spanish colonization, the Viceroyalty of New Spain (a territorial entity of the Spanish Empire), which included the Philippines was based in Mexico City. The Manila Galleon, the name of both the ships and the trade route between Manila and Acapulco lasted for 250 years (1565 to 1815) setting the precedent for spatial interactions between the countries. Though these are two distinct cultures with many rich narratives of their own both preceding and following colonization--shared histories, culture and present day realities are the underlying reason for bringing Mexican artists to the Philippines.
That said, I selected artists based on their work and the relationships I formed with them during my time in Mexico City. I never suggested to them that their work should relate the two geographical locations and cultures, refer to shared historical events or be overtly political. Some of the artists have come to those themes on their own. A foundational element of the Triennial is to bring artists and other thinkers and makers together in recognition of the potential that exists in simply meeting. I would say that the choice to include artists from Mexico was a deliberate effort to create synergistic conditions by recognizing proximities, but not to direct conversations.
My contribution to KT3 extends to engaging Rosemarie Roque to curate a screening of Filipino documentaries. Rosemarie is an Assistant Professor, Department of Filipinology, Polytechnic University of the Philippines, and has extensive knowledge of Filipino documentary film with a focus on protest films. Grrrl Gang Manila (GGM) is a multi-disciplinary feminist collective that I have asked to create a reader to contextualize feminism in the Philippines. GGM's Filipino feminist reader is in-part my effort to provide a balance of voices. A project by Mexico City based feminist collectives Prras! and Amasijo will be presented at KT3. Because feminism has different urgencies, timelines and approaches depending on whose feminism it is, providing a platform to represent local feminist voices is something that I consider compulsory. It is important that I credit GGM with leading me to a text by Filipino writer, teacher, cultural historian, food critic and scholar Doreen G. Fernandez, "Culture Ingested: Notes on the Indigenization of Food." Fernandez's text was introduced to me when I attended a GGM reading group in 2019. In it, Fernandez speaks about foundational Filipino values that manifest in food culture, particularly sawasawan (dipping sauce), and overlap with what I understood to be the values of the Kamias Triennial. I introduced the text to Patrick and Allison who agreed that the ideas that Fernandez had articulated felt relevant and meaningful. This is how "Sawasawan: Conversations in the Dirty Kitchen" came to be the title and theme of KT3. These and other parts of KT3 with Filipino roots are essential for their own inherent value, as part of the foundation of the Kamias Triennial and ways to inform cross-cultural dialogues.
Not only are many of our artists from abroad, but several of our friends and colleagues will be travelling to Metro Manila for the Triennial making it imperative to provide contextualization. In addition to Rosemarie's program and GGM's reader, we are presenting a screening and talk by local artist, film-maker and human-rights activist Kiri Dalena. Dalena's work deals with historical and present day social justice movements in the Philippines and she is co-founder of the media collectives Southern Tagalog Exposure (ST eXposure) and Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings (RESBAK). ST eXposure is based in the Southern Tagalog region and "promotes the rights and welfare of the country’s marginalized sectors and their struggle for social justice" and have produced a number of films. RESBAK is a collective of artists, media practitioners, and cultural workers who have united to condemn the Duterte regime’s brutal war on drugs and have produced work in film, photography and literary works.
Su-Ying Lee: For me, this is a matter of the intersection of art practice and context--being familiar with both Metro Manila and Mexico City as contexts for contemporary art practice, but also social conditions across strata. As a curator whose work includes a significant amount of travel abroad, I consider communicating the realities of entering into or coming from a different context one of my responsibilities. There is a certain amount of advocacy that happens when your artists are from a location that your colleagues may be less familiar with. I would also consider the way that I discuss Quezon City, Metro Manila and the art ecology there to be a kind of advocating for a place, to set the conditions for people to acknowledge the particular characteristics of a place so as not to centre one's self. This is part of the care work in curating, laying the groundwork for informed interactions. After spending a month or more in both Mexico City and Metro Manila, I have an idea of what ought to be communicated, what someone may need to be prepared for, take for granted and be surprised by if they are from one city or the other. Of course, I am a foreigner in both contexts so on the one hand, I don't have the comprehensive understanding that comes from being a resident, but on the other hand, my encounter of a place as an outsider enables me to recognize some of the things that may be noteworthy to a visitor. We tend to be context blind in our own places of residence and if we are willing to think critically, experiencing difference can help us be empathetic and develop an understanding of nuanced but significant facets of a culture. All of these ways of laying the groundwork contributes to the conditions that are created for audiences. As it should be, there isn't certainty in how a creative project will be received; however, the aim is for this approach to inform a program of events that remains engagingly creatively and intellectually challenging, but avoids being alienating.
Our audience and how we shape the Triennial's program is to a significant degree built through our local relationships with cultural producers and artist-run organizations, relationships that Patrick first established and Allison has contributed to deepening. We work in close consultation with our partner venues. While we bring new and different content, we offer it in milieus familiar and comfortable to local audiences. We have hired local liaisons who reside in Manila to help with some of the preparations before we arrive and who will continue to work with us throughout the Triennial. I am working with Neo Maestro who is himself an artist and very involved in the community. The logistical conversations he has taken part in give my artists and myself a valuable sense of the social and built environment that we are entering. I would describe part of Neo's invaluable work with us as consultant and cultural translator.
Finally, the audience we meet in Quezon City has the potential to be quite international. Alt Philippines 2020 is a new art fair that will take place from February 14-16 that seeks to "reframe the art show" and collaborate for "meaningful engagement". We will be cross-promoting one another's events. Art Fair Philippines is an established fair which draws visitors from across South East Asia and beyond and will take place from February 21-23.
Allison Collins: The Manila art scene is quite large, and we are mainly working with the QC community, which still brings us into connection with a large audience. It is somewhat like layers of an onion, as we are really also working on the scale of the Kamias neighbourhood and a few others quite nearby. We start at the core of that onion, thinking about a continuity of how we engage the immediate place and community, and work our way outward, all the way back to wherever we call home, I suppose. I think about our work under that frame, as a contributor to an expansive community, rather than as a show to an audience.
Selecting the artists I chose, who are mostly Canadian, had a lot to do with relationship building through me or Patrick, between them and the artists, curators and organizers that I know in Quezon City. I deliberately pursued artists who I knew I could trust to enter and engage this context with an openness to engaging the artists and also the social realities in QC. It was important to work with openness about expectations for luxuries that people might be accustomed to back home, for example, or for artists to be conscious and ready to acknowledge how they fit into a complex social reality that is unlike what we experience in Canada.
As Su-Ying highlighted, an integral part of the project this time has been also working alongside artists in Quezon City, Neo Maestro, Gerome Soriano and Gail Vincente, all of whom make art and show regularly here, and are also very active in organizing in the local art scene. These three have been working directly with invited artists, who through them have a chance to understand better the workings of this city, and perhaps offer something reciprocal in return, through their working processes.
We are also considerate of how we can support artists here to make or contribute work, and we made a clear plan to engage all artists equally with fees and commitments to supporting what they want to do as part of the Triennial. Working with many people on a modest scale allows for ambitious intimacy, and we hope that translates to meaningful engagements with the work that results.
"Western paradigms of looking at or making space for experiences of art may resonate within Western traditions, and may inform our knowledge and skills in different ways, but we are not interested in importing a worldview here. What appears ad-hoc or loose is actually a very strong network of support that is organized differently to accommodate different sets of needs and relationships."
Su-Ying Lee: Since this is my first Triennial, I looked at the past two iterations and listened to Patrick and Allison speak about what they enjoyed, what they achieved and what they wanted to build on. What emerged frequently was the idea of affinities or activities that foreground the practice of art within a space of making, thinking and doing together. We each had artists that we had wanted to continue conversations with and to see develop work in these conditions. So, in this way the works that the artists contribute and how those works speak to each other are less of a determinant than they would be in a milieu that is more categorically a group gallery exhibition. Together we find both juncture and contrast points that we consider affinities and opportunities.
It is important to note that all of the artists involved, from many different locations, will be in attendance. This is as much a factor in our selection of artists as any other.
Also of note is that several of the works are being developed through ongoing research and conversations and will be made or completed in Manila in response to what they encounter there.
Allison Collins: Whether or not the works speak to each other isn’t something we deliberately or actively edited, the process was more about offering a space for each artist to contribute in a way they choose, within the confines of their resources and offering our thoughts and experiences for context. There are some similarities and affinities that have emerged, and perhaps as we share certain sensibilities, but this grouping also reflects the fact that we are three curators working with very different experiences toward a shared project. So, perhaps constructive friction is a good term
Su-Ying Lee: Since I have been travelling frequently for work, I have seen a need to challenge and expand my definitions of art practices and my assumptions about where it occurs and belongs. When we as Canadians refer to traditional spaces we are largely referring to conventions and structures developed in Europe and North America. Although similar methods can be found world-wide, there are also practices that we have less or no experience with in the Western context. When we try to understand them by forcing them into categories and prescriptive terms from our own contexts we can end up creating a hierarchy. For the curation process this means asking "what are the resources I am working with?", in the most plain and practical terms, in order to try to avoid the assumptions that come with trying to transpose models and structures. I would try to avoid using terms such as provisional and ad hoc. Instead I would simply acknowledge that this is a home and a presentation space; this is a presentation space and a bar etc. Of course this also means communicating the milieu clearly to artists who may have their own expectations and approaching artists who you believe will thrive with the particular set of circumstances that a project offers.
I have previous experience creating my own platforms for art exhibitions (alleyway in Toronto, walkway in Hong Kong, public spaces in Toronto) so, these past projects have helped to inform my way of working for KT3.
Allison Collins: I really appreciate what Su-Ying said here, and want to echo it. Western paradigms of looking at or making space for experiences of art may resonate within Western traditions, and may inform our knowledge and skills in different ways, but we are not interested in importing a worldview here. What appears ad-hoc or loose is actually a very strong network of support that is organized differently to accommodate different sets of needs and relationships. We are entering that network, and the Triennial is stronger and more interesting because of the support it brings to us and the enthusiasm shared.
The need to be fleet-footed and adaptable has come somewhat from our distance, working from Canada (and sometimes other places) to curate and complete a lot of logistical arrangements here in QC. We have a gallery space which we are constantly fixing up, and time away makes any small problem or repair compounded. Having an open thinking process that allows for change while also thinking through all the planning so we have time to make change possible has been important. If I’ve learned anything this time around it’s that making more time and space and energy for flexibility really helps the curation process along.
I've been thinking about the problem of some artists that I may like to invite to take part and the reasons that that isn't currently accessible. Some solutions that are obvious would come across as radical when in fact they are simply a matter of where we place our care or which affinities we choose and which affinities we make a space for. If a central concern of curating is selection, we have to inform our methodologies so that selecting doesn't equal reproducing inequity. I feel hopeful that the experimental nature of the Kamias can lead to attempting to create methodologies of liberation.
Towards the question of doing things differently or making improvements, Patrick initiated a feedback forum as our final Triennial event. Receiving robust and useful feedback requires asking the right questions. I think back to a publication by a group of artists in Manila titled "Traffic". As part of it they interviewed cultural producers while in transit. Manila has the most intensely congested traffic that I have ever experienced. It has a quality that is difficult to describe to people because many people think of their own cities as having "the worst" traffic. Once when I was commuting through Manila with Neo we were talking about traffic, both vehicular traffic and the publication. He said that one of their interview questions was "how can we make it (traffic) worse?" I thought this was a clever rejoinder to the overwhelming question of how to make it better. Often those "how do we improve things?" questions never go anywhere. It may be helpful to follow the traffic question approach for the feedback forum. When you think about how to aggravate a situation you identify problems that may be hidden in plain site. When those problems are identified you can think about solutions. The Triennial's curatorial team is the Kamias Special Projects Collective--our acronym KSP references a Tagalog language abbreviation, which translates as “kulang sa pansin” meaning lack of attention. I am likely misinterpreting this cultural reference, but I will go ahead and say that I am thinking about this acronym and thinking about strategies for relaxing attention on some things in order to find our way to others.
Allison Collins: Adding a third curator with new ideas and strong experience has been a big shift, and the Triennial has grown a lot from this addition of new experience. Even though Patrick and I had only done this project together once, we had established some clear working patterns, and having Su-Ying in as a new voice in the mix has shaken that up a bit. Particular political discussions are an agenda that requires care, which sometimes can only be effective because it is supported by knowledge gained through experience. I recognize my limits in that regard, and have been extremely interested in how the process of supporting others, curators and artists alike, who have the generosity to share and open up such experiences enriches everyone.
To be super practical, with our skills and experiences, we are definitely more organized with three curators, and even better with the six of us when you include our local team. I think it’s important to acknowledge that aspect of what we are doing - all the little details of making the project happen behind the scenes - because I often hear horror stories about large festivals, biennials and events where everyone feels burned out, or the artists don’t get paid, and people are not cared for. We have been quite deliberate about supporting ourselves, each other and all our collaborators through this project, and being organized and clear helps make sure that the real impacts of our ideas and creative work stay aligned with our working process.