EILEEN TABIOS Engages
The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, edited by Sharon Louden; this review focuses on Norberto Roldan and Stephanie Syjuco
(Intellect Books / University of Chicago Press, 2017)
Editor Sharon Louden accomplished something wonderful with The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining A Creative Life, a collection of essays by 40 visual artists, including the Filipino artists Norberto Roldan (co-founder of Green Papaya Art Projects), Stephanie Syjuco (whose art encompasses public participation and performances) and with a reference to Isabel Manalo (founder of The Studio Visit, a blog where she features the artists she knows or are interested in meeting). To quote from the book description:
…the book describes how artists extend their practices outside their studios. All of these contributors have impactful, artistic activities as change agents in their communities. Although there is a misconception that artists are invisible and hidden, the truth is that they furnish measurable and innovative outcomes at the front lines of education, the nonprofit sector, and corporate environments. Their first-hand stories show the general public how contemporary artists of the 21st century add to creative economies through their out-of-the-box thinking while also generously contributing to the well-being of others.”
Presented are lives of non-solipsistic artists, artists whose engagements and collaborations with others are an integral part of their art-making. I knew what the book was about before beginning to read it. But it was only after reading the entire book that I realized just how much it benefited from the autobiographical perspective taken on by the essays—these artists wrote essays after they’ve lived through the art-making, thus eliding premature conclusions about their ways of life and art. Each conclusion or point-of-view is hard-earned.
Indeed, my biggest takeaway from reading the book is just how HARD it is to live the lives that these artists have lived. Of course, I’d anticipated that their lives as artists—especially without trust funds or subsidies from others like wealthier parents—would be difficult. But that assumption is too general. There is, as I gleaned from these essays, a particular difficulty or challenge in having to rely on others and elements out of one’s control; these artists had to rely on public interest, others’ participations/collaborations, overcoming certain bureaucracies, etc. Fortunately, the featured artists effectively managed their constraints to create art and a life in art, and what a pleasure to witness their mental acuity as they, indeed, became true artists with “out-of-the-box thinking.” It’s all organic, of course—many effective/successful artists inherently must think out-of-the-box, but these artists do it with the extra difficulty of doing something that results in them becoming “change agents in their communities.” The featured artists don’t only make their own works but create opportunities for other artists—they expand the scope of or help manage existing art organizations, create educational opportunities for artists or non-artist community members, among other acts of activism.
As an aside, the book’s approach made me wonder about those projects that fail to get off the ground because of elements outside of the artist’s control. I’ve always been interested in work that their artists considered “failures” (I once tried to curate such a show but failed-haha) and I speculate it’d be interesting to present how such and such public element or other matters not under the artist’s control failed to support a project. But I digress…
The book is organized and produced well with illustrations. In fact, looking at the artworks and then reading the autobiographical texts reminds how complicated and layered the art-making process can be—much of the thought and inspirations to the featured artworks do not offer a neat cause-and-effect, which is apt as art generally does not operate neatly or linearly. But a project, therefore, like The Artist as Culture Producer serves its readers well for providing much illumination about a variety of art and their underlying creative processes.
Given The Halo-Halo Review’s focus on Filipino artists, I want to focus my subsequent comments on Norberto Roldan and Stephanie Syjuco. But let me first say that editor Sharon Louden—whose art I’ve actually admired for years before she began editing collections of art essays (this is her second and her first, Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists, is also a read I highly recommend) has created a result where the effect of the sum is an extra layer in addition to the significance of each its parts. If I were one of the 40 artists in this book, I’d feel a heck of a lot less lonely as a result of reading how others have managed the difficulty of public-related and public-sensitized art and art lifestyles. But for the artists to have bared their lives as much as they did in these essays, they had to have trusted and respected Louden—a testament to her empathy, among other things. I, as a reader, am grateful Louden was able to elicit these views and to share these admirable lives.
It’s simply wonderful that, through this book, we’re able to hear directly from Roldan as regards his art career which accomplished the feat of Green Papaya Art Projects, perhaps the oldest artist-run gallery (it’s more than just a gallery but a facilitator) in the Philippines. Founded in 2000, Green Papaya is “the longest running, artist-led space in Metro Manila. The founders wanted to offer a place wherein artists in the Philippines and around the world could support one another in the creation of experimental work, sharing of intellectual ideas over communal meals, and bartering of resources. Researchers, artists, and curators around the world visit the space to ask for advice and consult Green Papaya’s collection of material about its exhibitions, performances, publications, residencies, and collaborations. In addition to extensive documentation about these events, Green Papaya has more than 300 artist-donated works on canvas and paper, photographs, and objects.”
The above quote is from a speech offered by Roldan (explaining, too, why Green Papaya will close in 2020) which you can access at Asia Art Archive.
In The Artist as Culture Producer, Roldan begins with how he became an artist—and specifically how he became a political activist, a point of view that most assuredly informed his art-making which includes the founding of Green Papaya with another artist, Donna Miranda. To recap, he began his art practice in the 1980s. While initially hoping to build a career in Manila, he was persuaded by his in-laws after his son was born to settle in Bacolod to manage his wife’s 60-hectare sugar farm that she inherited. There, he found “a totally different world…. It was the country’s sugar bowl, where sugar barons were born and ruled during the golden age of the Philippines’ sugar industry.” He continues:
Inevitably, this affected Roldan’s art practice:
Roldan found his “day job” in the advertising industry, but it was at ABS-CBN which came to be seized by Ferdinand Marcos’ government a day after Marcos declared martial law. It’s no wonder that he would say, “I believe being engaged in a contemporary art practice carries with it some kind of political awareness, as one cannot deal with contemporary issues without dealing with the conflicts attached to them.”
In his art practice, his life with sugar workers and a temporary stay in the seminary (his pre-art period) fostered a fascination with Christian and folk religious rituals and objects:
Today—or at the time of finishing his essay for The Artist as Culture Producer—Roldan says he often asks himself: “Where and how have I pulled together all those precious hours to create art? I did it in between intense cultural and political work, in between rallies, in between teachings, and during the days I did not have to drive to the sugar farm while I was in Negros. In between a regular job and a weekend job… after getting home from ABS-CBN, in between semesters in graduate school, in between projects and gigs in Green Papaya, on weekends, on holidays, and when my children were peacefully tucked into their beds at night…”
It’s inspiring but also exhausting to read his recollections, though perhaps more exhausting for him while his efforts were unfolding. Thankfully, the art surfaced. A life in art was created for himself … and for others, both his peers and those learning about him and Green Papaya an ocean away like myself, and, no doubt, those who in the future will acknowledge him and his activities as part of Philippine art history and history.
What’s also educational about Stephanie Syjuco’s contribution is that it comes from the vantage point of a highly successful artist with more acclaim, awards, publicity (mainstream as well as otherwise), and exhibition exposure than many artists will ever receive. It is, thus, generous of her to bluntly state—and thus create a truly helpful essay—that such success did not prevent her from being broke and in debt—
Syjuco’s state of finances resulted partly from the nature of her artwork:
Syjuco’s first big international break was “COPYSTAND: An Autonomous Manufacturing Zone”:
“COPYSTAND”’s reception helped Syjuco start “believing that I deserved better and pursued better-paying opportunities” which, in turn, helped her “receive…more back in terms of compensation and respect,” including a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship Award. But she also had spent a decade adjuncting at five different programs until she landed a tenure-track assistant professor position at U.C. Berkeley: “There, I teach and develop coursework in social practice sculpture, graduate studies and professional practices, among others. I emigrated with my mother from the Philippines when I was a. young child, and I remember growing up on welfare and being incredibly class-conscious. I know this feeling of economic alienation has influenced my consciousness about economic access and teaching at Berkeley. I actually do think that teaching in a public university is a political act in an era of privatized education and rising tuition costs; in some ways, doing so falls into line with themes that I address in my own artwork—mainly, working with and teaching others how to gain agency and a voice within a larger system of capitalism that seems overpowering or overwhelming.”
She concludes her essay with
“What I’ve learned through the ups and downs of my career is that it’s imperative to advocate for and work towards sustainable models of art-making, for the sake of others moving forward with better knowledge. I lecture often about artist compensation from the standpoint of someone who has experienced the gamut, from precarious individual to well-funded collaborator. I create open-access archives of my grant and exhibition proposals, so that it demystifies the application process….I’d rather foster a sense of cooperative knowledge-sharing as opposed to competition. It creates a healthier art community, and one that doesn’t rely on keeping trade secrets or hiding information from fellow artists. We artists are a creative force, and we do much better when we consider ourselves to be collaborating on the ultimate project: a society and community that values what we produce. And this includes sharing the means to create that success.”
Though I’d followed Syjuco’s art for years, I didn’t know about her background (described above) until I read this book. The knowledge makes me appreciate her work even more as some (many?) of her projects are not didactic in reflecting her immigrant experience; deftly, she incorporates surprise. This is also to say, she’s not created predictable works and/or works limited by preconceptions on what works should look like by immigrant, POC, or even economically-struggling artists. Her works of course are influenced by her life—both experience and thoughtful considerations of such—but in a deeper (and more alchemized) way (you can peruse them at her website https://www.stephaniesyjuco.com).
Her essay displays her generosity which, as one thinks about it, was/is a logical impetus for an artist sensitized to public-oriented art. Her past challenges and work history did not lead her to hoard resources but compelled her to both share existing as well as create new resources. It’s what Filipinos call the “Bayanihan” (or community-oriented) spirit and one can easily see how such can only benefit her type of art projects in the future … even as her vision displays a singularity of a unique voice. I—like the book—won’t go much into her other artworks but I want to say that in addition to her concern with community and the public, her sculptures present a point of view that makes one conclude in admiration: only a Stephanie Syjuco could have created these works. As an example, the older “Wirtschafts-werte (Economic Values)” is among my favorite of her works; its concerns are well-considered as they continue on to her most recent projects which you can peruse at her website.
Here's an unexpected (to me as I didn't expect this to come up when I decided to review this book) throwback: I once met one of the dealers representing Stephanie Syjuco. That dealer, at one point, said to me, "I should do more for her" or "I should be doing more for her." That's the point—sure, Syjuco, like all of us, could always use a helping hand. But she knew better than to not make her own opportunities and, generously, expanded and expands that knowledge on behalf of other artists. That knowledge bespeaks the wisdom of a mature conceptual artist whose practice of community activism is both logical and critical.
Eileen R. Tabios has released about 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays (including MY ROMANCE, prose and poetry on the visual arts), and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. Most recently, she released a short story collection, PAGPAG: The Dictator's Aftermath in the Diaspora, and a poetry collection, The Inter(vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019 as well as wrote the catalog essay for INTERWOVEN, a joint retrospective exhibit by Miriam Bloom and Ron Morosan. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into ten languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com