Kinds of Relief
on Field Trip Project Asia's take on the randoseru as relief carrier
diskurso.com's video interview with Field Trip Project Asia's co-curators. Our apologies that we made the mistake of placing the video interview in a room where the central air conditioning's hum was quite audible.
text below by Jojo Soria de Veyra
interview principal photography by Miguel Antonio Roxas de Veyra
ON THE THIRD DAY, November 14, 2015, of the Field Trip Project Asia: Philippines exhibition at UP Vargas Museum, diskurso.com interviewed Japanese-Canadian artist Daisuke Takeya and Filipino curator Laya Boquiren, co-curators of the show, about the poignant project.
Although the show itself included works by 42 other contemporary artists from Asia and the Pacific, the exhibition poster highlighted the names of Filipino artists chosen by Boquiren, including Manila and Osaka-based artist Mark Salvatus; sculptors Mervy Pueblo, Noell El Farol and Paul Albert Quiano; crochet artist Aze Ong; weaver Jason Domling; Baguio-based artist Jhoan Medrano; and 98B artCOLLABoratory artist Anjo Bolarda.
The choice of UP Vargas Museum as the venue for the show was logical, being one of the purported centers of Philippine contemporary art, thanks perhaps to its having contemporary art critic Patrick Duarte Flores as resident curator. Flores was also Boquiren's graduate program mentor.
And though Takeya is Canada-based, his involvement in the relief efforts for victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and in the on-site trauma release art workshops in the temporary housing in Onagawa thereafter, would lead to this idea of using randoseru bags as both canvas (or main sculpture ingredient) and traveling "conversation pieces" (as Boquiren would put it). That is also why Boquiren was able to get main sponsorship for this show to travel to the Philippines from the Japan Foundation and The Japan Foundation Asia Center.
"Randoserus are given to Japanese children upon their entry into grade school, and, traditionally, each child is expected to wear the same firm-sided backpack issued him/her until Grade Six."
HERE'S how it all started. Among the food, clothing, and blankets sent in as relief supplies to that tsunami disaster area were randoseru backpacks, obviously for the children victims. For everyone's information, randoserus are firm-sided backpacks made of either stitched firm leather or synthetic leather used in Japan by elementary school children. Randoserus are given to Japanese children upon their entry into grade school, and, traditionally, each child is expected to wear the same firm-sided backpack issued him/her until Grade Six.
"At the end of March in 2012, a year after the disaster," wrote Takeya in the project catalog, "large amounts of relief supplies were still filling up local school gymnasiums as surplus and were soon to be discarded." Takeya was referring to a period when the idea struck him to use the backpacks as material for the trauma release art workshops, noting that the backpacks are "a metaphor for affection, learning and childhood memories" in Japan. He then later thought of commissioning Canadian and Japanese artists to transform the surplus backpacks into artworks, thereafter bringing back these transformed pieces into the disaster areas to connect them with the original interactive trauma-release art program.
Pretty soon, after a two-week first exhibition of these backpacks at the Onagawa temporary housing (Onagawa was one of the municipalities most heavily damaged by the tsunami), a show curated by the survivor children of the municipality themselves, the backpacks traveled Japan without Takeya's having planned it to become a traveling exhibition. It simply found itself starting to travel from the perspective of Takeya's need to expose "the difficulty of balancing support from outside with actual local needs." Using the exhibition as a vehicle, it seemed to Takeya then that "two-way communication was an absolute necessity." And so the backpacks traveled to about twenty destinations in Japan. Takeya also noted that, soon afterwards, instead of "having serious in-depth conversations about the disaster" around the backpacks as conversation pieces, "we shared unique local issues at each destination." Now, wearing "the artworks gave people a chance to share memories, and we had rather light, and possibly sustainable, introductory dialogues about environmental and natural disasters."
Here is what interests me about this. Should artworks really be themselves, as in the Structuralist ideal or in the l'art pour l'art utopia? Or can artworks be both perfect as themselves as well as vehicles for further conversation on topics near the intent of the artmaking and even topics far removed from the springboard?
But to continue our narrative, it was at the height of these backpacks' touring of Japan that Boquiren got wind of the phenomenal randoseru traveling show, which tickled her curiosity and interest as a member of an East Asia study group at the university where she teaches art history (University of Asia and the Pacific) and as once a short-term creative industries management course participant in Keio University as well as being once a Baguio-raised kid who now remembers her childhood with the pasiking and as a survivor of the 1990 Luzon earthquake. She contacted Takeya through her curator friends and broached to the artist the possibility of bringing the traveling show to the Philippines. It turned out that Takeya had a similar invitation to bring the show to Singapore.
A SAMPLING OF WORKED-ON RANDOSERUS AT THE SHOW:
And that's how it happened. An August to September 2015 exhibition was hatched in Singapore in collaboration with Singaporean and Singapore-based artists; there was also an engagement with students from a secondary school art class. Then, between October 26 to 28, some of the backpacks were already in the northern Philippine city of Baguio, where Boquiren arranged for an art intervention involving UP Baguio art teacher Jhoan Medrano and her students. In the intervention, Boquiren, Takeya, and Medrano and Medrano's students walked with the randoserus around tree-clad heritage sites in the city currently in danger of being replaced by high-rise condominiums and malls. The intervention was posing two questions: what one would consider a disaster (e.g. the 1990 Luzon earthquake) and what one would consider as a disaster in the making. It was also in Baguio that pasiking weaver Jason Domling was invited to join Takeya and Boquiren for the backpacks' travel to another disaster site, Leyte.
Takeya, Boquiren and Domling, along with crochet artist Aze Ong and sculptor Paul Albert Quiano, camped out at an elementary school in Tanauan, Leyte between 4 and 6 November for the implementation of the backpacks' interactive exhibition, with some traumatized victims of the Typhoon Haiyan disaster of 2013 for an audience. At this "show," Ong used the crochet process to exchange stories with parents and children, Domling gave workshops on his style of rattan weaving, while Quiano did a workshop on clay for young people. The interactive show and workshops brought to Leyte were all part of Boquiren's belief in the "transformative potential of art," wherein an art "intervention centered on trauma release would complement the material aspect of rehabilitating towns." After all, art "provocations in the form of workshops also underscore the need for creative ways of recovery, for they promote not only healing but also long-term, sustainable, creative cultures." And as for the interactivity facet of the whole Field Trip Project Asia itself, she feels that "communities affected by disasters should not be mere repositories of ideas from metropolitan centres. They should not be mere audiences in an exhibition of art objects. Instead, artistic interventions should be a two-way process. The activities serve as a way of activating the backpack; it is a prop for dialogue between artists and the community. More than just an object for a mobile exhibition, it acquires a social life---like a visual motif, as we weave a beautiful network narrative of disaster, mitigation, and healing."
AS for the artists who participated in the transformation of the backpacks, they were given the leeway to "deliver" the kind of "relief" they wanted to "send" through the randoseru as vehicle. And this would be the reason why each artist would approach the imagined receiver as either needing some sweet imagery to forget the traumatic experience, at one extreme, or imagery that would recall the experience to a point of catharsis, at another.
And this was where the exchange of cultures comes in, involving both the culture of the artist as sender and the culture of the artwork viewer in the gallery as receiver (or virtual disaster victim). The exchange would sometimes result in a magical harmony between the sender of the assumed need and the receiver with a predetermined need. Or it could result in a rupturing of the connection, creating frustration.
Thus, you could say that the randoseru as trauma relief vehicle also functioned as either a metaphor for what often happens in relief operations or as a tester of what sort of relief works and what sort sometimes does not. And when we say "the culture of the sender" and "the culture of the viewer," that is in cognizance of the fact that a tribe of, say, Filipino victims could have needs after a disaster different from what a foreign tribe of relief workers would assume as the needs of the former. This was what Takeya meant when he said that it seemed to him "two-way communication was an absolute necessity."
Ultimately, therefore, the randoseru art-cum-conversation pieces transform not only the conversation about a disaster into conversations about deeper roots of disasters (disasters that happened and "disasters in the making"), but also---because of their travel---get to translate localized concerns into globalized ones wherein even the foreigner gets to empathize with what is going on in, say, Baguio City today. In practical terms, this would seem to embrace a new geographic and anthropological basic for relief operations everywhere prior to the act of delivering goods or prior to planning programs for disaster relief. . . .
Better catch Field Trip Project Asia: Philippines at the third floor galleries of UP Vargas Museum before the show closes on December 11. [d]
Text © copyright 2015 by diskurso art magazine online. Photos by Marcel Antonio..