This time I tried something different.
I went to the Philippines twice this year (well, three times, but you didn’t fund me the first time and it was only two weeks anyway). I did my Asialink residency in two parts: 11 weeks from March – May, then 6 weeks over November – December.
From March to May, I was in town doing all the things I promised in my residency application. Worked with Sipat Lawin on our new large-scale participatory work Gobyerno, which we toured to Korea for Festival B:om in its prototype version, before running large-scale tests in Manila. Helped produce the international stream of Sipat’s Karnabal Festival, bringing 18 artists from around the world to collaborate with local artists in a two week festival laboratory. Wrote some new pieces with long-time performer collaborator Isab Martinez and kicked off a new American-Australian playwriting collective with a development in Camiguin and a scratch show in Karnabal.
This was all the stuff I promised to do in the application and it went well, I promise it went well, albeit as ragged and emotionally chaotic as always.
In November, though, I came to Manila with a whole different set of goals. Still worked on Gobyerno (we toured it up to Baguio and ran it for La Salle University students up there), did a bit of prep towards Karnabal 2016, but honestly, for a few weeks, I turned my head in a completely different direction.
This trip was my ninth visit to the Philippines in nine years. I have this sense that I’m in it for the long haul with my relationship to this country. And it seemed like time to do something with that relationship.
I spent a lot of my time this time listening, waiting, sensing – rather than leaping towards a project that I’d already articulated, I arrived with time up my sleeve, ready to follow opportunities where they emerged. I wanted to absorb more Pinoy pop culture and go deeper in my relationship with the culture.
Full disclosure: my collaborators and host company, Sipat Lawin, are also my dear friends. We live together, we tour together, we make art together and we also hang out and talk, constantly, unpacking and chewing over ideas, stories and feelings. This time I let myself be guided somewhat by that friendship, and I offered my time to them, to give each of them a nudge towards making something new, beginning a period in which Sipat will be presenting a series of new solo works. The earliest nascent forms of some of these solos were kicked off at a Strange Pilgrims event, a performance night we held at the TomatoKick on Tomas Morato in Cubao.
But alongside all this organic flow, I also came prepared with a very specific purpose.
Before I went over there this time, Asialink, I spent weeks in preparation, putting together a weird little parcel. Long distance, over many conversations, the members of Sipat helped me put together a collage of iconic Filipino poetry, folk music and pop songs, a sort of audio sampler of Pinoy culture. We sourced kareoke and instrumental versions of all these tracks, and then Australian sound artist (and also Sipat collaborator) Nick McCorriston mixed them into a single audio collage.
I didn’t tell you I was doing this, Asialink, because I was worried you wouldn’t take me seriously. And this project is very, very serious.
When I got to Manila, I began memorising this six and a half minute slice of Pinoy poetry and lyrics. I spent a lot of hours on this. It’s awkward to say how many hours, but one day I will share the rehearsal footage of me running each line of the Abra rap a thousand times, before piecing them together into the whole verse. You will probably say, why, what was the point of all this time and effort, but you don’t get anywhere great without a training montage, and this was mine.
At the end of it all, Sipat and I (and videographer Brandon Relucio) filmed the result – a one-take, long-shot performance video through the ruined school of Pugad Lawin in Quezon City. I framed it as an ‘audition’ for reality TV gameshow Foreignoy, even though Foreignoy is no longer being filmed. It seemed like a good way to help people make sense of it, though Carlos Celdran got it closer when he called it ‘an artistic intervention’.
The video went up on Youtube and got 1500 views within three days. After a huge cluster of people shared it with the producers of Eat Bulaga (the daytime show that produced Foreignoy), they got in touch to let me know they’d put me in the next lineup for the show, when and if that happens in 2016.
There’s a new show in this, Asialink, and here’s what happens next:
I’m going to get back to the Philippines in the next 12 months, and then I’m continuing on my journey to get up close and personal with the Pinoy showbiz industry. The machine, for want of a better word. I want to see it up close and get my head around it.
There’s a particular place that foreigners occupy in Pinoy pop culture. It’s hard to put your finger on precisely, but you see it in the over-representation of Mestiza (people of mixed Filipino and foreign ancestry) on TV, in the countless adverts for skin whitening creams and soaps, in the tense place that Americans occupy in the country’s cultural discourse, and particularly in shows like Foreignoy, in which foreigners literally compete to prove their ‘Filipino-ness’.
It’s hard to justify a project that doesn’t exist yet. We do it in grant applications frequently, but often there the language is, if not dishonest, at least not very true to how artists think and talk about our projects among ourselves. I can make a clear case for the value of engaging with the Filipino television industry in formal terms, if I need to. I would say things like, ‘this subject speaks to the complex ways in which Australians are represented within Filipino culture, and to our place within a broader Asian cultural context.’
All of that is true, and important. But honestly, I’m pursuing this because I have a gut feeling that this is a story worth pursuing. There’s something there. I don’t know what, and I won’t know what unless I dive all the way, and even then maybe I’ll be wrong (I’ve been wrong often enough before).
But in the meantime, Asialink, I got within striking distance of being cast as STEVE, a 40 year old ‘man of power’ and father-in-law of Filipino reality TV star Daniel Matsunaga in new ‘interracial love story’ soap opera BE MY LADY (I was not ‘heavy’ enough to pass for 40 years old, dammit), and I know this isn’t the first time you’ve accidentally nearly launched a south-east Asian soap opera career, but isn’t this at least slightly why Asialink exists? Don’t most, if not all, Asialink recipients end up as E-list daytime TV celebrities in whichever country they’re travelling to? (Don’t answer that question.)
I didn’t put this down on my official grant acquittal form, but I got really really close. And the quest isn’t over. Not even a little bit, not even at all.
Thank you for letting me sit with Sipat Lawin pursuing mad schemes this last few weeks, Asialink. I promise it’ll make sense in the grand fullness of time. You will look back on this and there will be some kind of meaningful artistic result, some kind of creative outcome that adds up to something worthwhile.
Or there won’t, but you still won’t regret it.