A General Scenario for a Negros Biennale — 10.22.2020

Our June 11 TBT anecdote spoke about Manuel Chaves (“Manny” to friends) and how he helped define the trajectory and enriched the programming of Green Papaya as Executive Director from 2001 until his departure in 2005.

What was not mentioned in that TBT edition was his closeness to some members of the Black Artists in Asia (BAA) and his interest and familiarity with the art scene of Bacolod, the sugar capital of the Philippines, during a period of political unrest and social upheaval.

I believe one of his most memorable and notable contributions to Visayan contemporary art discourse is contained in a study we drafted together. “A General Scenario for a Negros Biennale,” commissioned by Carlos “Charlie” O. Cojuangco, was our analysis of BAA and VIVA ExCon containing our recommendations on how to proceed with an envisioned biennale in Pontevedra.

At the time, Charlie Cojuangco was the 4th District Representative of Negros Occidental. Pontevedra, a municipality about an hour’s drive south of Bacolod, was his home base. It was also where he was planning to build the Cojuangco Art Center (COC) amidst the vast sugar plantation owned by his family.

Manny passed away last Wednesday (October 14). In honor of his memory, we are posting below the paper mentioned above.

Norberto Roldan
October 22, 2020


A General Scenario for a Negros Biennale
Drafted by Green Papaya Art Projects

At the close of the 1998 VIVA ExCon 4 in Cebu, BAA presented a position paper proposing for Bacolod to once again host the biennial regional art festival with the expressed intention to reconfigure it into a full-blown art biennale. Bacolod lost the bid to Tacloban — in hindsight, a blessing in disguise since BAA was then organizationally ill-equipped to implement the mammoth undertaking.

Flash forward to 2001: Charlie O. Cojuangco set into motion the establishment of the Cojuangco Art Center (CAC) in Pontevedra. Envisioned to be a leading contemporary art museum not only in the Visayas but in the general national picture, the CAC initially embarked on a vigorous acquisitions program. To date, it is in the thick of cataloguing a collection of over 500 art works, a good number of which are major pieces produced by leading young Filipino artists within the past 20 years. Needless to stress, at the core of the CAC collection are works by Negros artists, particularly those of the prime movers behind BAA — Alvarado, Co, Roldan, and Ascalon.

With its museum facilities projected to be a venue for major national and international art events and to be fully operational by 2004, the CAC has just as naturally set its sights to host the VIVA ExCon scheduled for the year. Once again, the idea to reconfigure VIVA ExCon into a bigger and brighter Negros Biennale — even to constitute an entirely new event either parallel to or independent of it — is being floated.

Sorting Out
But isn't VIVA ExCon already a de facto art biennale? Yes and no. With VIVA ExCon 1 seen more as a run-up and preparatory event, VIVA ExCon 2 from all indications shaped up to be as close to a biennale as one can get given the support system and resources available then. It centered on a theme, there was some measure of national and international participation, the artists' sessions were balanced and well-programmed, and there was good public accessibility to the exhibition stagings.

When we get to VIVA ExCon 3 however, it again begins to sound like a run-up, a pre-departure briefing for a future flight to who-knows-where. It was turned into an all-Visayan affair because there was a pressing need for a closed-door assessment session (one big issue was that the Visayan artists felt overshadowed by the national and international participation). Much ado was given to the local participants' organizational concerns and updates on their art-related activities.

From thereon, sweeping a judgment as it may be, the fledgling biennale had willingly succumbed to the parochialism and facile introspection that has always plagued a good part of the Philippine art scene.

In sum, VIVA ExCon will have to be credited for the groundbreaking vision it proposed and — to a certain extent — operationalized. The linkages it fostered are the true measure of its success thus far. The challenge remains for it to fulfill what looked great on paper and sounded awesome in the plenaries.

No matter where we are coming from, an art biennale is in essence nothing but a periodic survey/showcase of art produced within some defined parameters/boundaries — subject/themes, type of art-making, modes of art production, geographies, etc. As such, it follows that it is being staged for a specific audience/public as well. All other attendant activities to a biennial are directed to support, elaborate, and further expound on the core essentials of the art being showcased and how it engages its publics.

Still, the question needs to be raised: does VIVA ExCon want to be configured as a full-blown art biennale? We can only say why not when the concept has always been intrinsic to its vision. We now even dare venture that only in doing so can VIVA ExCon be saved from its current state.

For the past 12 years or six VIVA ExCons, focus has been on the Conference — the Exhibition component coming in almost like an afterthought. Maybe rightly so since the imperatives then were to establish the linkages, to organize the network, and to prep up the artist-constituents in their art-making. Time well spent but, at this juncture, an exercise that is beginning to look like a dog chasing its own tail.

The Conference component — which was meant "to provide a mechanics for the discussion and assessment of parallel artistic development in the islands, to give an opportunity for analyses of [pertinent] academic theories and other relevant issues, and to serve as the context for a better understanding of various aspects of contemporary art practices” (VIVA ExCon folio, 1990) — can clearly happen only after the fact of an Exhibition which was staged “to showcase contemporary works of visual arts from the different islands but also to promote visual art forms reflective of the islands’ cultural influences, historical traditions, and current social situations…” (VIVA ExCon folio, 1990). For what best to confer about rather than the art on view?

Quite possibly, mainly in giving greater focus to the production of art which can be showcased, surveyed, and assessed every two years can VIVA ExCon and its constituency truly fulfill their expressed mandate.

Rough Sketches for a Biennale
All arrows now seem to point to the staging of a Negros Biennale by 2004 in some form or other. But can VIVA ExCon transform itself into an expanded biennale without appropriate institutional support and resources?

In the light of persistent recent developments, namely, that VIVA ExCon has for the past 12 years continually laid down the pipeline for a Negros Biennale, and that the nascent CAC now projects to make Pontevedra a viable venue for major art events, VIVA ExCon and CAC can thus take the same path and with their combined attributes create the ideal environment out of which a Negros Biennale can take shape and become reality. (It goes without saying however, that CAC can always launch its own biennale independent of VIVA ExCon if it so decides, and the same can be said of VIVA ExCon.)

And the offer of the CAC truly comes at no more opportune time. The museum's purported facilities and resources for exhibition presents itself as one solution to the inherent logistical nightmare that has confronted VIVA ExCon — probably also the only reason why the Exhibition end was somehow relegated to the background.

Let us now take a quick look at a working model for a better appreciation of possible approaches to the staging of a Negros Biennale.

The setup at the Giardini della Biennale Internazionale dell'Arte in Venice first comes to mind. The CAC can provide individual exhibition spaces for each island/province, ideally as individual pavilions as in Venice or at least in the form of a large exhibition hall subdivided into distinct alcoves as in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP)'s Bulwagan Juan Luna — particularly when it stages the 13 Artists Awards exhibitions. (The pavilions so named after each island/province, e.g. Samar Pavilion, probably Balay Iloilo, etc., are actually also the exhibition halls of CAC that will house its main collection and become venues for its exhibition program in between the Biennales — should this concept be amenable to the CAC. As an aside, the museum can even specialize on the art of the Visayas and focus its acquisitions program in conjunction with the VIVA ExCon exhibits in the same way as the Queensland Art Gallery does with the Asia-Pacific Triennial. Doing so might give it added focus and a truly distinct identity.)

These individual exhibitions will come as originated and packaged efforts. Organization and curatorship will be at their own discretion. Coordination and assistance — logistical and quite possibly financial in the form of grants — will be also available from the lead organizers of the Biennale. There will be no impositions other than physical and spatial limitations if ever. From the organizer’s end, participation can be as loose as in David Medalla's London Biennale 2000 where, apart from some routine registration requirements, almost anyone and everyone is welcome to join.

The arrangement allows each island/province as much autonomy as they could wish for to evolve how the current state of visual arts in their locale can be best represented. It will give them ample opportunities to actualize the problematics of art production and dissemination that they have continually grappled with on paper and in the endless discussions over the years.

It will hopefully set the stage for a healthy if vibrant competition of sorts among the participants. It will hopefully excise extraneous organizational politics out of the event. It will hopefully allow the audience a better framework for viewing and appreciation.

As an added dimension, there can of course be a parallel curated and thematic exhibition which will provide counterpoint and context to what will always remain as the centerpiece island/province exhibits of VIVA ExCon — much like the huge exhibition at the Arsenale, again in Venice.

Educational components such as symposia, curator's and/or artist's talks, lectures, and guided tours will necessarily have to revolve around these two distinct exhibitions and serve as integral links that will tie everything up both for the participants and the audiences.

The VIVA ExCon can remain the lead organizer with CAC as host venue and the main infrastructure and resource support or the two entities can forge a working arrangement that will be to their mutual advantage.

Stumbling Block
To operationalize such a blueprint for a Negros Biennale, a major stumbling block needs first to be addressed.

It cannot be ignored that an unprecedented forging of ties between BAA and CAC may be seen from most quarters as an unholy alliance — at the very worst, sleeping with the enemy. The ideological impetus that gave rise to BAA and has informed its art-making is at face value clearly at odds with even just the inescapable fact of the name behind CAC. By some extension, the same goes for VIVA ExCon having been a BAA-initiated and propelled activity. The issue becomes convoluted many times over with the plan for BAA to bag the bid to host VIVA ExCon in Bohol and deliver the booty to CAC in a silver platter as it were.

Allow us then some room for generalizations as we try to untangle this delicate matter — not being equipped with properly gathered data.

We of course hear of the major paradigm shifts that have taken place — and are still taking place — in Pontevedra and in the other towns beyond where CAC will stand. Pontevedra is said to have initiated a landmark break from the contentious sugar crop economy that has been the bane of Negros. Crop diversification and corporate farming methods and technologies are said to be working wonders here on an unprecedented scale.

We can only surmise that all these developments have of course taken into account the stubborn fact of realities such as extreme poverty and exploitation which has brought about the major political and socio-economic conflicts in the area. For isn’t Pontevedra at this point already proposing/actualizing a way out of Negros' woes?

Surely against such a backdrop, an alliance between BAA and CAC can almost become a foregone conclusion.

A Greater Biennale
In this light, a Negros Biennale in Pontevedra is in actuality a showcase of something even bigger than the arts of the region. It can be a showcase as well of such major breakthroughs in the political, economic and cultural paradigms operating in Pontevedra today. It can even be a showcase of operational models that can be actualized throughout the rest of Negros and elsewhere in the Philippines. (Such claims can/will have to be backed up by thoroughly researched and documented socio-economic statistics and data.)

It is a well-known fact that art biennials — even the mere establishment of specialized museums with very distinct collections — in recent history have become gatekeepers to culture, socio-economic, and political development. (There is also the oft-quoted remark by Pat Hoffie about art and culture being "lubricants" for trade and commerce to take root.) In much the same vein as the Olympics or the World Expo, the staging of biennales at the very least presupposes or can jumpstart the readiness of a given locale to manage and process the influx of participants and audiences. Thus, heretofore unheard of/bypassed/blocked-off places such as Kassel, Gwangju, Havana, Christchurch, Busan, Vilnius, and Queensland are suddenly thrust into the limelight and become destinations of the moment. (Art has also come in handy when needed to refurbish ingrained notions/unfavorable images about certain places like what has been done to the port cities of Yokohama and Fukuoka.)

In real terms, it almost follows the trajectory of siting tourist destinations. There will be major infrastructure requirements such as access/transport facilities, accommodations, restaurants, and yes, tourist/recreation sites to augment/make the trip all the way to a place like Pontevedra worthwhile. We can even see Pulupandan being developed into an alternative point of entry. Needless to say, all these become an exciting arena for public and private endeavours to come into play. The fiesta spirit will of course be harnessed to its full potential to engage community interest, participation, and support. In lieu of lodging facilities in the early stages, home-stay programs can very well be put in place. (Fukuoka even brought in Arata Isozaki to design a small hotel to revitalize the waterfront area just before he built the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. And the new Tate Modem is of course expected to push the envelope for the neglected side of the River Thames.)

Scale and focus will always be a relative matter as shown by David Medalla and his one-man-engineered London Biennale or The Free Biennale staged last year on the internet. In Christchurch, NZ, the Art and Industry Biennale is expressly a joint venture between existing art organizations and local business Interests focusing on public art. It is interesting to note that the fabled Documenta in Kassel was first launched in 1955 as an accompanying program to the Bundesgartenschau or the German Federal Garden Show (we cannot help but think of the Orchidarium or the organic farm in Pontevedra and what parallel events here around the same time can do to double the impact of a biennale!)

We can always begin where we can — comfortably and conveniently — and take it to glorious heights step-by-careful/well-planned-step. The only imperatives are to work within a clear vision and context.

M.G. Chaves / Norberto Roldan
Green Papaya Art Projects
July 2, 2002

Manny Chaves and Norberto Roldan in Green Papaya, Teachers Village East, 2003. Photo courtesy of Asia Art Archive Hong Kong.

A General Scenario for a Negros Biennale Proposal PDF

Norberto Roldan. “What Brought Us to Become the Hottest (It Had to Go on Fire Last June 3) Space in Kamuning?” (11 June 2020)

VIVA ExCon 2020 opens on November 8 in Bacolod.