Penman No. 278: The Wealth Within Us (2)


Penman for Monday, November 20, 2017


THE ARTS are the tangible and creative expressions of our culture, and this is where our strength as Filipinos lie—a strength, however, that we should first recognize, recover, and sustain.

We Filipinos have distinct natural cultural advantages. We are a naturally and irrepressibly expressive people, with strong artistic and creative talents and impulses. We think and speak freely, no matter the cost or the consequences. We reject and resist tyranny; we have no taboos, no sacred cows. We sing of love and death in the same breath, we laugh and weep without shame, we create and light up lanterns even in the most difficult and darkest of Christmases.

That freedom and that courage is our strongest cultural resource, the wellspring of innovation and productivity. This is why we have such great artists, writers, musicians, singers, dancers, filmmakers, designers, and artisans.

This brings me to the economic argument, which is that culture is not just an expenditure, but a valuable resource that, properly managed and supported, can reap substantial material benefits for our people, in the form of what have been called “creative industries.”

In 2009, when the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines initiated a focus group discussion on creative industries in the Philippines, they defined the sector as embracing “a wide array of subsectors including advertising, animation, architecture, broadcast arts, crafts, culinary arts, cultural/heritage activities, design, film, literature, music, new media, performing arts, publishing, and visual arts.”

I won’t go into great detail here, but there are many studies—a recent report commissioned by the British Council, among others—that show how vital these creative industries are. According to that report, and citing UNCTAD figures, “Depending on how they are defined, the Creative Industries are estimated to represent anywhere from 3% to 12% of global GDP.”

I noted in a previous forum that in 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P660 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from less than 5 percent in 2006 to more than 7 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to over 14 percent four years later.

In 2014, the DTI and BOI held a series of Trade and Industry Development Updates to present six industry roadmaps, one of which concerned creative industries. In that particular forum, the DTI’s presenter noted that Singapore and Thailand led ASEAN in creative exports, and while our creative industries have grown, we were a net importer of creative goods as of 2008, with books and movies apparently accounting for the bulk.

This reminds me that in that conference of Asian writers and translators that I attended a couple of weeks ago in Bali, it was reported that Asia is now the world’s biggest producer of books, movies, and games. But that’s an Asia dominated by China, Japan, Korea, and India. The question is, how can we Filipinos and Southeast Asians partake of that boom? First, of course, by strengthening those industries in our countries.

There seems to be a greater awareness on the Philippine government’s part of the economic utility of our artistic talent. In 2012, for example, RA 10557 was passed to promote a “national design policy” highlighting “the use of design as a strategic tool for economic competitiveness and social innovation.”

It’s heartening to note that Chapter 7 of the Philippine Development Plan for 2017-2022 is devoted to “Promoting Philippine Culture and Values,” in which it is acknowledged that “The current governance framework for cultural development has been inadequate in addressing the concerns of the sector.” The plan contains salient proposals for using and promoting cultural values to promote the common good and identifies key legislative measures to achieve full cultural development, including the long-overdue establishment of a full-scale Department of Culture that will not be a mere adjunct of education, sports, or tourism.

But we remain a long way from translating policy into action. As with most things cultural, the first transformation has to take place in the mind—more specifically, in the mindsets of our leaders.

Only now, in preparation for this talk, did I become aware of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community and of its noble concerns which include human development, social welfare and protection, social justice, and so on. But only at the very end of its “scorecard” report does it deal with “Building ASEAN Identity” and promoting cultural creativity and industry—talking, for example, about networking among small and medium-sized cultural enterprises of SMCEs around the region.

It’s rather sad in a way to speak of culture as a business, but if that’s what it takes to wake people up to the wealth within them, then by all means, let’s draw on our hearts and imaginations to showcase the best of what we can be, and inspire ourselves in the process toward a stronger sense of nationhood and of regional community.

Penman No. 227: The Southern Lights Shine Brightly

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Penman for Monday, November 28, 2016




A RECENT gallbladder operation and the stitches in four corners of my belly couldn’t stop me from flying down to Iloilo City last week to catch the tail-end of VIVA Excon 2016, which I’d plugged here some time ago but just had to see for myself. The personal reason was that my wife Beng was one of the scheduled speakers, for a session on “Art Conservation and Restoration,” but I’d also heard that VIVA Excon was one of the most successful events of its kind in the country (“probably the only surviving and longest-running Filipino biennale,” VIVA Excon stalwart and chronicler Cecilia Locsin-Nava would emphasize to me). Here’s what I found.

From November 17 to 20, more than 250 artists, speakers, and guests from the Visayas, Mindanao, and Manila gathered at Casa Real in the old provincial capitol of Iloilo to celebrate, interrogate, and propagate art in all its splendorous variety—the important qualifier being that this was new art produced south of Manila. It’s been around since 1990, moving around the major capitals of the Visayas such as Cebu, Bacolod, Dumaguete, and of course Iloilo. Surprisingly, it was only the second time that Iloilo hosted VIVA Excon, after a 20-year hiatus, so the local organizers made up for lost time by mounting one of its most vibrant editions ever.

When it started—spurred by the need to create a southern antipode for the arts, given the emergence of such bright new talents as the Negrense painter-sculptor Charlie Co—VIVA Excon had to be funded by the artists themselves, but this year Iloilo’s provincial and city government pitched in to guarantee the event’s success, with help from a host of sponsors led by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). On top of the local planning was painter Rock Drilon, assisted by a corps of wizards and elves who made sure that the dozens of events on the program went off like clockwork. VIVA Excon originals Ed Defensor, Charlie Co, Peewee Roldan, and Cecilia Nava were also around to lend their wisdom and support.


As its name suggests, VIVA Excon (the “VIVA” stands for Visayas Islands Visual Arts) was at once both an exhibition and a conference. As someone who has helped to organize quite a few literary conferences myself, I was much impressed by the scope and depth of the topics taken up at the conference and by the expertise of the speakers engaged for the occasion, some of them coming from as far as the US, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I missed most of the earlier sessions, but I would have loved to listen to Ma. Victoria “Boots” Herrera speak on “Museum Practices: What Artists Need to Know”; Silvana Diaz on “Creative Economics: Art Management and Economic Viability”; Elvert Bañares on “Creative Crossover: From Visual Art to Cinema and Back—The Visayan Artists’ Experience”; Rex Aguado on “Art, the Artist, and the Art Collector”; and Patrick Flores on “Art Criticism—Its Value to the Artist and the Artworld.”

Fortunately, I came in time to catch UP art theorist Lisa Ito address issues in writing about the arts—“for what and for whom,” she would say, “beyond the popular writing geared toward the art market, and the academic writing produced by scholars and theorists.” Lisa felt that more writing should be undertaken to “connect artistic production to social contexts and current realities, and developing publics and communities that validate the vitality of art and culture” as well as to “document design practices and projects and to record transient cultural events for future generations—how communities adapt, such as by using tricycles as mobile galleries and by putting up makeshift museums.”

She was followed by New York-based Carina Evangelista whose lecture on “When Forces Shape Form” led the audience to where art has gone far beyond and outside the museum, in performative gestures—often deeply and manifestly political—that emphasized process over product, transience over permanence, and repurposing over originality. (One example: the banknotes that Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles stamped with a political message and circulated in 1970 as a form of mobile graffiti, which nervous recipients couldn’t pass on quickly enough, thereby abetting its purpose.) It was truly a semester’s worth of material packed into 45 minutes on new forms of art from body mutilation to sound and video installation, reminding me of Marjorie Perloff’s lecture on avant-garde poetry just a couple of weeks earlier in Singapore; sometimes you learn the most wonderful things in the oddest places.

Of course, I was happiest and proudest to see Beng onstage walking the audience through the various stages of restoring Amorsolos and Botong Franciscos, and it was clear from the flurry of questions she fielded after her presentation that conservation and restoration were two of the least understood concerns of the art world, yet also two of the most vital if not inevitable. (Sculptor and installation artist Martin Genodepa graciously emceed the presentations.)

Outside the conference hall, three art exhibits were held: a curated one on “Contemporary Art of the Islands” at the UP Visayas Art Gallery, the more freewheeling Visayas Art Fair at Casa Real, and a special retrospective of the late Ilonggo sculptor Timoteo Jumayao at the Museo Iloilo.


The culminating activity of VIVA Excon was the presentation of the Garbo sa Bisaya award to eight outstanding Visayan artists for excellence in their respective fields: painter Antonio Alcoseba (Cebu); scholar and painter Dulce Cuna Anacion (Leyte); film artist Elvert Bañares (Iloilo); film animator Oliver Exmundo (Iloilo); painter Allain Hablo (Iloilo); multimedia artist Manny Montelibano (Negros Occidental); painter Javy Villacin (Cebu); and painter and scholar Reuben Cañete (Cebu).


But I’m sure that all the attendees will agree if I suggest that the best part of VIVA Excon was, ultimately, the company of fellow artists, a fraternity forged over beer and music as much as over linseed oil and plaster. Even if I was little more than an onlooker at the event, I was glad to meet up with old friends and acquaintances like Rock Drilon, whose Mag:Net bar and gallery on Katipunan Avenue used to be one of our favorite hangouts. He moved to Iloilo years ago to take care of his ailing mom, and found himself drawn inextricably into the local art scene, until he realized that he was truly home. “Viva should last beyond the Excon,” Rock told me, “so an artists’ cooperative has been organized to sustain the energy sparked by VIVA Excon.”


Two years from now, the event will be hosted by Roxas City in Capiz. Iloilo could be hard to top, but these Visayans are full of surprises.

Penman No. 197: Why the Arts Should Matter


Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016


FOR THE first time ever, the University of the Philippines held a Knowledge Festival in Tagaytay last week, showcasing the most significant and interesting projects being undertaken by UP scientists, artists, and researchers, with an emphasis on interdisciplinarity. I was asked to present a keynote talk on “Why the Arts Should Matter.” Herewith, some excerpts:

It has become practically a cliché to say that our lives, and certainly our learning, would not be complete without some appreciation of the humanities. Our tradition of liberal education has primed us to the necessity of cultivating the “well-rounded individual” schooled in the basics of various disciplines.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

But conversely, let me ask: Why indeed are the arts and humanities important? I’ll turn to conventional wisdom and quote what should already be obvious, from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities:

“The humanities enrich and ennoble us, and their pursuit would be worthwhile even if they were not socially useful. But in fact, the humanities are socially useful. They fulfill vitally important needs for critical and imaginative thinking about the issues that confront us as citizens and as human beings…. We need the humanities. Without them we cannot possibly govern ourselves wisely or well.”

What strikes me here is the word “govern,” which seems to me to be of utmost importance to us at this juncture of our history, and which is key to our topic today. The role of the humanities in our intellectual and cultural life is to enable us to govern ourselves wisely and well. They deal with issues and value judgments, with defining the commonalities and differences of human experience, hopefully toward an affirmation of our most positive human traits, such as the need to work together as families, communities, and societies. In sum, they help us agree on a common stake, based on which we can make plans, make decisions, and take action.

That notion of a common stake is crucial, especially on this eve of one of the most contested elections in our history. Despite all the predictable rhetoric (and the real need) for national unity, we find it difficult to unite beyond short-term political expediency because we remain unable to agree on our most common ideals—the national dream, as it were, or the direction of the national narrative. What is our story? Who is its hero? Are we looking at an unfolding tragedy, a realist drama, or a romantic myth? To go further, what is important to us as a people? Where do we want to go? What price are we willing to pay to get there?

These are questions that are answerable less by scientific research and inquiry than by artistic imagination and insight. It will be mainly the humanities and the social sciences that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities, as it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

This does not mean that scientists and engineers will have little or nothing to contribute to the crafting of this vision; I firmly believe they should, and that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Ours is an appallingly innumerate society. Most of our people do not know the simplest numbers that describe our lives, and much less what they mean. We are raised on concepts like the national flower and the national bird and the national tree, but even in college we are hard put to say what the national population, the national birth rate, or the Gross Domestic Product is, and why they matter. This innumeracy is balanced, sadly, by cultural illiteracy. Our notion of culture often consists of pretty images, pleasant melodies, theatrical gestures, and desirable objects.

We have much to do by way of cultural education, and artistic expression is a vital means by which this can be achieved. The arts are the key to those parts of us that reason and logic alone cannot reach.

But I came here this morning to go beyond the obvious, and to present an aspect of the arts that few national and even academic policymakers ever think about, and it’s this: the arts should matter not only because they’re good for the soul, but because they’re good for the body as well—taking the body to mean our economic and material well-being. In simple words, and moving from the philosophical to the practical sphere, the arts can mean big business.

The arts underlie what have been called “creative industries,” and these industries have made tremendous contributions to the economies of countries as diverse as the US, the UK, China, Japan, Brazil, and Thailand.

In 2009, when the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines initiated a focus group discussion on creative industries in the Philippines, they defined the sector as embracing “a wide array of subsectors including advertising, animation, architecture, broadcast arts, crafts, culinary arts, cultural/heritage activities, design, film, literature, music, new media, performing arts, publishing, and visual arts.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P661.23 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from 4.82 percent in 2006 to 7.34 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11.1 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to 14.14 percent four years later.

There seems to be a greater awareness on the Philippine government’s part of the economic utility of our artistic talent. In 2012, for example, RA 10557 was passed to promote a “national design policy” highlighting “the use of design as a strategic tool for economic competitiveness and social innovation.”

However, culture as a whole remains a low priority, often subsumed to other activities like tourism, entertainment, and sports. And it’s getting worse; very recently, cultural funding by the NCCA—the largest source of government funding for the arts—practically dried up because of onerous conditions imposed on cultural organizations in the wake of the pork-barrel scam, requiring them to undergo a tedious accreditation process by, of all things, the DSWD. Unlike many progressive countries, we do not even see it fit to have a standalone Department of Culture, so the DBM and even the DSWD can push the NCCA around.

We need to see the arts as more than a frivolous diversion that keeps on drawing funds without producing appreciable pay-offs, like an exotic and expensive pet you keep around the house, but rather as an area of strategic and profitable investment that will yield both moral and material dividends. Just as we need to develop more PhD-level scientists and researchers, we need to support advanced practitioners and theorists in the arts, as they have every capability to achieve world-class status, with the right incentives.

Let me end with a message—perhaps even a plea—to those who hold the purse-strings of our institutions. That journal, that play, that exhibit, that concert, or that workshop is always more than a line-item expense. Supporting and patronizing these artistic endeavors is the price we pay to understand ourselves in all our complex, and wondrously unquantifiable, humanity—and also, in ways you may never expect, to create new knowledge and new wealth in many forms.


Penman No. 12: Singapore’s Cultural Renaissance (2)

Penman for Monday, Sept. 10, 2012

ANYONE WHO doubts that Singapore is going through a cultural renaissance just has to drop by places like the Goodman Arts Center, the Arts House, the National Library Board building, and any one of the many museums that have sprung up around the city-state city-state celebrating everything from historical heritage to biodiversity and toys.

On a recent media visit to Singapore, I was shown by my hosts from the National Arts Council around many of these cultural hotspots, and they offered a wealth of insights into contemporary Singaporean society and its concerns.

Housed in what used to be a school run by the La Salle Brothers, the  seven-hectare Goodman Arts Center in the Mounbatten district opened last year and has quickly become Singapore’s largest arts enclave, serving as a studio, meeting place, and performance venue for both local and international artists. Studios in the GAC are generously subsidized by the government, and “There’s a long waiting line of artists wanting to use the center,” said Evan Hwong of The Old Parliament House Ltd., which manages the GAC.

Being a complex of converted school buildings, there is nothing particularly impressive about the GAC on the outside; but open one of the many doors and instantly a world of artistic creation meets the eye and swarms the senses. During our visit, we encountered Jerry Hinds, an expat Briton who’s helping young Singaporean cartoonists sharpen their skills not just in terms of drawing but also in sharpening their narratives; Iskander, a longtime transplant from the Netherlands, who’s working to help people see comics not just as entertainment but also as an art form; Sonny Liew, Malaysian-born but Singapore-based, who’s already drawn for Marvel Comics; Japanese artist Eriko Hirashima, who’s turning books into art objects in themselves; and Singaporean copywriter Amanda Lee and artist Winnie Goh, whose Studio Kaleido explores crossovers between visual and literary art.

Not only professional artists are welcome at the GAC. Ongoing at the GAC this month and open to the public are a batik painting workshop, a professional singing course in Mandarin, and classes in contemporary dance, hot glass bead-making, bookmaking, and pottery, among others.

Theater has always been particularly strong and popular in Singapore, and performance venues abound, such as the landmark durian-shaped Esplanade, the elegant Arts House at the Old Parliament Building along the river, and the Drama Theater of the School of the Arts.

We had a special encounter with an icon of Singaporean theater, the playwright and novelist Stella Kon, at the Peranakan Museum which had dedicated an exhibit to her play Emily of Emerald Hill, much performed and beloved of generations of Singaporeans since it debuted in 1982. Although born in Edinburgh (she later reacquired Singaporean citizenship), Stella is of Peranakan origins, referring mainly to the Chinese who settled centuries ago in certain places around the Straits of Malacca, particularly in Penang, Melaka, and Singapore. The Peranakans have contributed richly to the economy, culture, and cuisine of their host countries; most outsiders will recognize, for example, the sarong kabaya immortalized by the TV ad’s “Singapore girl,” a stylized version of traditional Peranakan dress.

Emily of Emerald Hill is a long dramatic monologue in English (most recently and brilliantly performed by the cross-dressing Ivan Heng) that takes the audience through the colorful life of Emily Gan, who rises from poor Peranakan girl to powerful matriarch. It’s a sad story but one that has resonated powerfully with its viewers (it’s being taught here in the Philippines by Dr. Lily Rose Tope, our new departmental chair in UP, in her Southeast Asian literature class), and it’s too bad that we didn’t get to see the play, but meeting the author herself as we walked through the Peranakan Museum was a special treat. “It used to be that being Peranakan was something of a disadvantage,” said Stella, “but today’s it’s become chic.”

The stories of the Peranakan—and much more—are lodged in the National Library of Singapore on Victoria Street, a breathtakingly modern building whose collections comprise not only the traditional hardbacks but a growing library of digitized e-books as well. (Just how far ahead Singapore is in the digital game struck me when I overheard someone mention a “Donate your old iPad” campaign being undertaken there for the use of schoolchildren.) “We don’t actually keep all that many books here,” a reference librarian told me, “because they’re sent out to the public libraries.” In other words, Singaporeans are busy reading. The National Library Board also runs a vigorous publishing program, and its products—such as an annotated bibliography of contemporary Singaporean literature in English—are available for free to anyone interested. The library’s collections are searchable online. At the time we visited, a large and groundbreaking exhibit featuring the letters of Singapore’s colonial founding father, Sir Stamford Raffles, was just about to open; there was also an exhibit upstairs of the personal memorabilia and writing tools (the pens were of particular interest to me) of some of Singapore’s most prominent writers. And here’s a travel tip: the best view of Singapore’s skyline can be had at the National Library’s Pod venue, open by special arrangement.

We ended our visit with dinner and music at Timbre at the Arts House, a bar and restaurant along the breezy riverfront operated by a group led by Danny Loong. Danny was himself a musician but has moved on to become one of Singapore’s leading arts managers and music entrepreneurs. (Danny told me that he was due to fly to Manila soon to judge at a blues-band competition; he’s also brought some Pinoy bands over to Singapore.) The music scene in Singapore was varied and dynamic, Danny told us—and we could hear that for ourselves, as a local trio essayed Bon Jovi on acoustic guitars. Some years ago, a Singaporean rap tune called “Why You So Like Dat?”—in Singlish, of course—was a big hit on the airwaves, and you can still catch it on YouTube. A message on the TV monitors at Timbre reminded the audience that they could send in their dedications to one another via SMS. It was a Monday, just the start of the work week, but the young Singaporeans around us were clearly enjoying themselves—and the great food and wide range of beers—at prices that weren’t going to bust anyone’s wallet.

It’s this kind of popular enthusiasm that Singapore’s cultural planners want to tap into, toward the creation of even more original material that would engage Singaporeans of all ages and levels. There’s a master plan behind all this, and it’s contained in the recently released Final Report of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which noted among others that “Since 1988, our cultural vibrancy has increased exponentially, with activities rising almost twenty-fold. Local audiences now have a year-round selection of festivals, fairs, events and activities to choose from. Demand for arts and culture has kept pace with vibrancy, with ticketed attendances and museum visitorship rising three-fold and eight-fold respectively.”

The review is a very detailed plan that our own cultural poobahs can learn a thing or two from—such a streamlining funding requirements for the arts (the NCCA, bound by COA procedures, makes our artists go through hoops of fire for the simplest things). And it should be noted that Singapore’s National Arts Council is backstopped by its Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth—leaving us, again and parochially, one of the few large Asian countries without a Department of Culture to spearhead these initiatives at the highest levels of government.

On a more personal note, I was happy to be able to indulge myself this last visit in some of my favorite Singapore pastimes—feasting on the chicken rice at the Kopitiam, looking for bargains at the Sunday flea market on Sungei Road, and ducking into the Aesthetic Bay pen shop at ION Orchard for a bottle of ink. On my last morning walk, I stumbled serendipitously into a sidestreet that led me to Emerald Hill, the setting of that fabled play.

And even in Singapore’s smallest corners I found a Pinoy connection. Chatting with Kenny Leck, the owner of Books Actually (who publishes handsome little poetry chapbooks under the Math Paper Press imprint), I discovered that a Filipino poet—my old student and beer buddy Joel Toledo—lived just across the street in Tiong Bahru. Joel’s in Singapore to do his PhD, and has begun to make his mark there, with his Ruins and Reconstructions sitting on the same shelf alongside the works of Alvin Pang, Edwin Thumboo, and Kirpal Singh. I flipped through a copy of the Asia Literary Review in the bookshop, and found contributions by the Ateneo poet Anne Carly Abad and the Leyte-based poet Michael Carlo Villas. One way or another—and let’s not forget the forthcoming Singapore Literary Festival in November—Filipinos will figure in Singapore’s cultural reawakening.