(Un)empty(ing) concepts from Manila to Europa, 2023

Preface 

There are occasions when words are repeatedly used too much, they lose their value, then they become empty concepts. There is no metre on how many repeat utterances is too much. It just happens. Sometimes without us recognizing that the concept becomes useless until the minute we invoke it. I believe this. For this reflection I would like to think about the concepts that guided me in attending to my tasks for this year— mainly as curator, and how some supposedly empty (or more precisely disembowelled) concepts brought me to a different place (literally and figuratively) in my current state. 


This is supposedly my reflection on the curatorial work that I did in 2023 in Manila, in other parts of Asia, and Europe. The intention to write this reflection was triggered by the last project I attended in Europe, which brought a totally different experience logistically and content-wise from those that I experienced before. This is however not entirely a critique of that (at least not anymoe). It has taken a different form and tone. But still it is a device that will make productive the (good and bad) experiences I had. 

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One reads the title as either “empty concepts” or “unemptying empty concepts”. Again, you see me weaving several words into one. Not out of habit, but because this is how I see them—it could be one or the other depending on the perspective one would choose to take. 


The title, if read as “empty concept”, came from that specific Europe experience I briefly mentioned above. I am borrowing it from a colleague who constantly so generously lend her thoughts to the rest of us. I am borrowing her kindness of spirit in writing this text, as I hope that I too will be guided by reason, no matter how ironic. Her presence seemed to be an orchestrated irony, in the context where I met her—she was the silence you hear amidst the noise. 


The actual title then of this reflection is “unemptying empty concepts”. At least, this is my attempt, to make concepts that became empty over the period of time of use and misuse, unempty again—to exorcise the workplace of hollow/ hallowed ghosts. I am keenly aware that unemptying is not even a real word… but then again, what is?! 


 *** 


For this reflection, I am talking to curators, like myself – “those who wear black”—those who actually know from experience that black is something you wear and to look unfrazzled from ingress to the vernissage.” In other words, those who have experienced working with a/many different formats of art projects, beholden to or at least informed by their privilege (age, gender, status, race, connection). This is NOT a first lesson module for those who are starting. This writing to be better understood requires a certain level of knowing “the workplace”. I feel that this reflection will be too messy if I would try to include describing possible usual scenarios where the lessons might apply. So, in its present attitude, I hope this reflection is useful to those who would recognise themselves in a similar situation, and I offer affirmation of heartbreaks/ and healing, in a form of written rumbling. Much to say that there really is no pedagogical attempt in this text. 


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Also, what this is not, is a review of related literature or a definition of terms in the same sense as an academic research paper. The concepts were used as headings. Below them are reflections on how I/we experienced them at the workplace and how they opened up new possibilities of understanding and doing what I/we do. (I/we because sometimes I am more than just 1 person—group, pair). The workplace, I refer to, is not an office. It is network of people and systems that I navigate all throughout the day, for many days until (a) project is concluded. 


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Community 

I start with this at length, to also frame the rest of the concepts below. 

Community is by far my most favourite concept in any language. 


As a curator, I ask, first, what community do I serve? It is the one primal question that directs all other actions. It is my mortal and ethical north as a practitioner. Second, whose agenda do I promote? Because it is not always that one promotes the agenda of those they study or work with. There are occasions when an action becomes disservice to those that one studies or work with. This question can be reformulated into—who do you work for; to whom your service is beneficial? 


Next, asking whose influence do I propel? This may appear similar to the first two questions, but it is not. In this third one, the influence could even be another sector besides that one you work with and works for.


Ultimately, a curator asks, do I (even) serve a community? Because it is not always that there is a community to serve. Some are promoting oneself or just another individual. This is not always wrong. But not knowing may cause a lot of trouble. Thinking you are serving a community when you are only promoting your own personal interest creates a lot of arguments. It is where a type of irreversible wrongness lies. 


In other words, there are at least 4 types of communities, curators have to consider—a community they work with, works for, whose interest they promote, whose influence is promoted. On the flipside, curators should also recognise the community that they excluded in determining the scope of their concern. 


These were my musings earlier in the year. In my privileged and equally challenging multiple position as a curator, an academic and an artist, I unwittingly assumed that a community can exist in an institution (like a space within a space). But then in the middle of the year, the “community” I thought I have signed-up to (for life), found my “membership” wanting. 


It brought me so much confusion (and distress (understatement!) because my understanding of the community, coming from community of sound and media art practitioners in Manila, particularly, and by extension other Asian countries that I have done work with, lived, and/or researched, is that it has porous borders, nodal juncture, and mobile core. The porousity of the border allows members to come in and out; nodes in the junctures, makes it easier to know where to attach; and mobile core decentralises power. It is a type of “utopic spaceness”. It is not really the utopic tendencies that entices me. It is the malleability of its shape that attracts me to it. Something I realised (bitterly) cannot exist inside an institution or in some cases in organisations, as the double borders can make it rigid or crumby. 


So where can this utopic spaceness exist? Months that followed, after that misencounter in the institution, I found that working on the Listening Biennial and my engagement with the Institutional Audibilities, help me refine my understanding of what community is. 


What is it really—this community? Or how do I see it now? 


It is a grouping, an attitude, a sense of belonging brought by or achieve through sharing something or many things. It is not a population or peopling of a “space”; it is how people "people with each other"—or how each other are mindful of each other as creatures in a society as individuals and in a collective. It is then informed by what they are, and who they are, or what they do, what they are made of, how dark is their bone marrow, do they believe in unicorns, among other factors that creates a person. 


In the work that I do, being in the interstice of more dogmatic disciplines, and with the (eccentric) personality that I chose to nurture, it may appear like I will have a hard time finding my community, or maybe not, for as long as I am not looking for it from a place, but instead from persons. 


Trust 

From these recent experiences too, I realised that communities operate with different currencies. A shared currency however is trust. It is in all billings. 


Trust is the fuel that allows mobility (and by extension displacement). By this I mean, only when one trusts, would they engage in a community. Only if the one is trusted, would they have a chance at membership in the community. Trust can be vouched through or by another member. And a trust broken may or may not be repairable through challenge and negotiation. Trust is when one puts their confidence in another’s hand; when one allows one thing to happen devoid of their own control. It is when somebody says “us”, “we”, “ours”, while the “I”, “me”, “my” is NOT threatened. 


But what is trust really—as a currency? It does not seem to have a material corpus. It doesn’t look anything. It does not even have a sensorial corpus. It does not even feel anything. It is invisible. The presence of this invisible currency lies in the one that is giving it away. The “I” who trusts, is the one who owns the trust. The “I” who receive the trust may trade reciprocity, but not as an imperative. Trust then is a brand of vulnerability that is necessary to make possible an engagement with others. It does not guarantee anything. But not having it, guarantees isolation. 



Access 

Accessibility is often mistaken as availability. Like exhibiting or performing high art in a mall, is providing access to art. My conviction tells me, it is not. Knowing one thing exists does not guarantee the feeling that you belong there, or it belongs to you; or even it is relevant to you. Access is not only opening a door, but also making sure that a door opened would not lead into a ravine. Providing access (to something) is valuating that what is being offered is something of importance—is something worth of that trust. And that this something is of value or importance too to the one receiving the offer of access. That this something has the ability to bring people together—always bring together; because when it draws people apart, that is not access. If one makes available something, and the supposed recipient feels excluded, it is simply not access but an altered state of othering. 


Unlike trust however, the owner of access is both the one who is offering and the one who receives. Each expects to gain something (no matter how abstract) from making something accessible. In this view, access then is a mutual (although maybe separate) responsibility. It is a task for those who are in either ends of a transaction. This task requires a lot of trust from both parties. 


Diversity 

Diversity is a clincher in this whole idea of access. It is a transaction when one allows access to differentness (or differenthood), or regardless of differences. It comes from inclusion or including and its many levels of engagement. It is recognising that there is more than one—whatever it is (identity, gender, race, religion, etc), and allowing these multiples to co-exist. 


When this diversity is used as flagship or a framework of an endeavour, those who are stalwart of the endeavour are assumed to know the different fragments of the multiples—their differences, and their similarities, their intersections and even their gradation. One would or should ask, how or why these multiples are grouped? What is the point of grouping these multiples? 


Like access, diversity can be a tricky playmate. While it may have the intention to include, there is a strong potential for exclusion too—it is when difference is highlighted, as a severing quality, and not as a point for coming together. 


Safe space 

Safe space is again not a space but another form of transaction. It is supposedly a condition created by interacting parties that allows each to not feel the borders or limitations of sociation. It is not simply a space where one can allow oneself to be inappropriate, or wrong, or ill-equipped. It is a transaction where one can expect recognition of their actual being. It is where one is seen/heard/felt without endangerment because those perceiving are without prejudice. But is it really possible not to judge (or be judged?). I do not know the answer to this. But what I am sure of is that there is a possibility that one will have a feeling of safety. Again, we go back to trust—it is only when one trusts, that this feeling of safety can even be conceived. As a transaction therefore, it is both internal and external. The manifestation is external, but the processing remains internal. For this to ever happen one has to care about the trust that the other invests.


Care 

And finally care. When do we say we care? Clich√© would have it that sharing is caring. So, is it when we give? Is there a quantum of action before one is considered caring? The same colleague who I said is generous, was the one who suggested that caring or care could be an empty concept, especially when it is used in the context of curatorial. She could be right. But I want her to be wrong by looping this back to the concept of community, of it being a grouping, an attitude, a sense of belonging. In my thought and experience, care exists here. Earlier we were looking for corpus of trust, I think this is it—care is the corpus of trust. It is where trust resides. One trusts when one is cared for. One trusts when others care for what they say, feel, think, what they are, or what they are not. Carefully, I close this reflection by saying that care is the wine that fills the cup. Every concept mentioned above becomes empty when care disappears. 


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 [PS. I am writing this in a place of clarity (I hope). It is essential to say that at time when the projects I referred to are happening, I was in a state of emotional whirlwind (turmoil?). Actual circumstances maybe irrelevant now (or I’ll refer to them later, if they become relevant), but as a context, in most days then, I felt betrayed and/or abandoned— by those who said they got my back, and because of that I felt disappointed with myself, for trusting. Doubt was so prevalent. I became unsure about many things including those I thought are undoubtably stable. 


This present state of clarity, ironically sprang from trusting a new person, whole-heartedly without safety nets. He said, let me take care of you. And I just let him. I found myself in an unfamiliar place of precarity. And this is where I was able to weigh everything, I hold dear. This may or may not exactly be a love story, but definitely a people-ness story. 


I’m slowly getting out of that rot. It looks like I will not slide directly back to depression this time. It was just a temporary bleep. I thank the people who didn’t get tired of pulling me out of it— Ate (fulfilling her filial obligation), D (who unbelievably invested so much in so little time), Tine&Jeline and Mona (with equal balance of presence and space), Decca&Lisa (for many tears and displaced laughter), Gelo,J&Mark&my sound boys&girls (for being my constant multiverse), and finally to the Tambayan Collective—starting humble with a full heart (you are worth every Euro/Krone/ stress bits spent charged against unpaid labour). Thank you, I love you to my very core, and you know I mean that.] 


Manila, October2023