Dayang Yraola (Curator) curates exhibits, performances and residencies; builds archives; and teaches art history. Her upcoming exhibit Composite By The Numbers begins August 17, and will engage 20 artists in direct response to recent crises around the world. Here, she reflects on her 2012 ACC Fellowship, the relaunch of her archiving project Sonic Manila Research, and the threads, or strings, that tie together the loose ends of these disconnected and disconcerting times.
I was an ACC grantee in 2012 for my curatorial work Project Glocal. It was an art project, a flash residency, and a cultural exchange involving artists from Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore, which I started around 2010 and concluded in 2014. For the later iterations I added artists from Bandung, Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Taipei and Tokyo. I was doing this while I was working for University of the Philippines Center for Ethnomusicology, wherein one of my tasks is to convene Laon-Laon, a consortium of music research centers in Asia. My role for both largely demanded making and maintaining connection with kindred spirits in Asia.
In 2015, I changed course by moving to Hong Kong. I did my PhD in Cultural Studies. It had been so long since I had been a student when I decided to do grad school. It was not like riding a bike really. But then I learned about “Asia as Method” by scholars Chen Kuan Hsing and Chua Beng Huat, this was a string that I was able to use to tie my curatorial practice to my grad school research. Grad school required me to work long hours, without any days off, in constant self-doubt but with surplus of awesomeness from friendships, for at least five years. Actually, technically just three years, because I had to battle cancer somewhere in the middle of 2015-2019.
I returned to Manila in January 2020. I was excited to restart another full grind of curatorial projects. In February I was forced to slow down because of medical concerns again. I cancelled a number of projects and focused on the few “less-demanding” ones—those that would let me do the required 12 hours sleep. In March, Manila was placed on Extreme Community Quarantine. My slowdown became full stop as the last remaining projects were either cancelled or postponed to much later dates. For the first time in a decade I had so much free time.
Many had prompted me that this luxury of time is backdropped against the nagging question: what has art got to do with these troubling times?
For me, this is the short of it is: troubling times are a vortex of change. And change, as the cliché goes, is the only thing constant. They have always had to do with each other. It may not be the same troubling in different times, but art is never not in troubling times.
Here’s where I am at in this particularly troubling time: I knew exactly how I wanted to spend my free time. For once in a very long while, I have enough time to do my two favorite things: to catalogue stuff and to take as much time as I want looking or listening at what I am cataloguing—my book library, digital libraries, audio collection (pictured below), crates of gadget and tools, among others. I knew, or at least I hope, that this is where I will find the strings that will tie what feels to be a loose end of disconnecting and disconcerting times.
One of the materials that I spent time with was the book “Performance Notes”, written by Dr. Elena Rivera-Mirano, a scholar and a musician. The author mentioned in the introduction that she didn’t write the book in the usual academic manner, instead, she wrote it like a conversation. And it is in this manner of writing, where I found my string. On my website, I wrote:
I am glad she wrote it the way she did, because more than its contents, this book is a reminder that spending time to reflect on our creativity and where we spend it, is not a task of academia. To try to understand, remember, question the masks that we wear, which is the same mirror we hold against ourselves and those looking at us, and that that is within us; the stage that we stand on and our bodies as stages for different performances, is a privilege that comes with our being artists. It is something we should practice, for our own benefit.
As I refuse to see myself a victim of this lockdown (or any other situation), I took the newfound privilege to try to understand what this pandemic enables. I tried to understand, remember and question the masks that we wear, the stages, the mirrors. Directly responding to the nagging question, I wrote: “Ang maging artista sa panahon ng digma” (not so sexy translation: To be an artist in time of struggle).
It is a long piece. And I couldn’t translate it in English at the moment. Perhaps, what I wrote on the addendum summarizes it, and may be my other string:
We have not been in a similar condition as today. And we might not be here for long (or maybe we will). Those three points I mentioned (the material, platform and performance) and our social condition at the moment provides us a unique situation where we can explore creativity like it had not been seen/done before.
In other words, while this troubling time halted our (original) plans, it also enables new conditions for our practice.
Inspired by this, while continuing with my cataloguing, I relaunched an old pending project, called Sonic Manila Research. This is an archiving project for sound and listening works in art, design, social projects, or science. This is my direct response to the “new normal.”
I realized that in facing the new, it makes total sense that we recognize the old or what is to become known as old. This project then may contribute in producing sonic and auditory knowledge by mapping sonic environment.
People are talking about “new normal”, I thought, this mapping may be useful in the imagining of the “old normal” of the sonic, of the auditory, as Richard Cullen Rath said in his essay “Ethnodigital Sonics and the Historical Imagination”:
…Hearing has a history: the senses are culturally and temporally shaped, and soundscapes of previous times are recoverable (…) we can hear history. That is, we can use our ears to understand the past.
The starting collection of the archive are the materials I gathered from my curatorial projects and grad school research. Since I have to ask permission from the people who made the materials to allow me to digitize and archive their work, I created an Instagram account. Not even a month into it, I reconnected with old friends and made new ones. I found others who are doing something similar to what I am doing, and there is enough space for all of us in this online world that is much bigger but at the same time also much smaller. And somewhat I found the string that ties us all up. The allure of belonging.
This reflection is a recollection of how I ended up spending the much illusive “free time” on “work.” And in the end, how it looped me back to where I started, to an art project that connects people; one that forges belonging, despite and beyond many forms of inconvenience. The challenge now is a bit different, as all challenges were or should be—different all the time. As a strange consolation maybe, it looks like there is still the promise of long hours, and no day off, and maybe (or definitely) still in constant self-doubt, but with surplus of awesomeness from friendships for at least until this new normal creates a new vortex and spits us out to a new, new normal.
Grantee Reflections is a platform for ACC alumni to share their collective voice as an international community of artists, scholars, and cultural ambassadors. This is a cultural exchange of words, image, video, and sound from around the world. While our bodies cannot travel, our minds can still meet.