Criticality seems the only capital that we have

Filipino researcher Renan Laruan explains why culture needs monologues




Open Place interviewed Renan Laruan

August 05, 2016
Warsaw, Poland


Renan Laruan, who represent the research team DiscLab, was born in Sultan Kudarat, a province at isle Mindanao. He identifies himself with this place because of its very particular history. “Mindanao use to be more dominated island before Spanish colonization. So there was sultanate, there was existing civilization, or even types of government before the colonization. And then during American imperialism period, they have State-sponsored project in which they wanted to repopulate Mindanao. So they brought inhabitants from Luzon Island, the Visayas Island to Mindanao which changed the demographic of the places. I’m part of this history because my parents are from Visayas, resettled in Mindanao”, – Laruan explains.

Firstly Renan identifies himself as a researcher. “On one hand it operates from certain insecurity. I really wanted to identify myself as theorist but you couldn’t easily identify yourself with that label in the Philippines or in Southeast Asia, just because of certain challenges, – Renan claims. – I studied psychology, but this is not the western psychology. The university where I studied promoted Filipino psychology and it was a product of postcolonial studies and critical to postcolonial studies. They wanted to bring a movement and a discipline that is not ethnocentric, but also in the same time critical to the all the legacies of knowledge they do have”.

Laruan describes himself as someone who studied psychology, someone who grew up in the south and now working in the capital Manila and of course internationally, and someone who doing research “always and continually”. With Renan we discussed concepts, which he enter into international context, in particular “discursive architecture” and “translation in transition”. Also we talked about relativity of names and meanings of terms and about work of cultural institutions in the Philippines.

Discursive architecture as a commonality of concepts

Open Place: Discursive architecture – this term we’ve heard from you. Please, could you describe the meaning of it?

Renan Laruan: It’s not a fully-formed theoretical and methodological project that I wanted to work on. I have this urgency to embody or to implement it, because it’s tied to the production and ontology of criticality. The notion of the artistic and intellectual as spaces where we could reclaim our positions, or where we could emancipate ourselves always go back to “being critical” or to that ability to be self-reflexive and to translate criticality into action and expressions of art. What hinders that kind of criticality is an existing discursive architecture or a discursive sphere we have at the moment. It’s calcified by systems and agents who are attached to this notion of criticality. For me, when I talk about discursive architecture, it also talks about criticality.

At this moment, I think we couldn’t really fully form the meaning of discursive architecture. It’s like a moment. It’s like a tendency to produce a situation that is not dependent on existing knowledge sites. What connects us to a discursive architecture, or what could form a discursive architecture, is our ability to open up. Our openness to actually transform these knowledge sites to knowledge scenes. Knowledges and sites are interdisciplinary: the space of the critical, the space of intellectual, and/or the space of artists. My problem with these spaces is that they are continuously eroding and fragmenting each other. It’s always important that you don’t just say that an artistic space is transdisciplinary. There is a struggle that one has to form the artistic site, for instance into a theme, a subject or a project. There is a process of disintegration and reconstituting in it. For me, it’s not necessarily about communities of people. It could be communities of concepts.

It’s connected to what I mentioned as curatorial exile. It doesn’t mean that you have to really operate locally. One could just be locally sensitive or you ground something into a context. It’s connected to how practitioners operate on knowledge sites. If you are socialized in a highly colonized or highly differentiated bodies of knowledge from a system of education, say Spanish, then it continues to become a more sophisticated system, for instance when another imperialism (i. e. American imperialism) creates another mode of capture.

In the Philippines we have a long history of university system and art education in Asia inherited from Spanish colonization. We have one of the oldest universities in the world. There’s this kind of production of good in education. When education continues into the American period, they declare it as something public. That is when the “good” coming from Spanish colonization became “public good”. When you operate in contemporary times as an artist, or a critic, or an intellectual, you have this kind of lineage of history that can’t easily come out of your system. The challenge, then, is for the practitioner to create his/her own discursive architecture, community of knowledges, new community of concepts. One needs to find new ways to rethink transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity.

During the Cold War the US government had all this knowledge system or knowledge production through Area Studies. It was a strategic method, where Area Studies was an inquiry for capture working  transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary. I’m cautious with cross collaboration of disciplines. I find it more interesting to use a discursive architecture, where one can find moments and situations in which one can join a group or connect with other people to rebuild all of these disciplines.

How to translate contexts and experiences

Open Place: The other term that you use “translation in transition”. What meaning do you put on this?

Renan Laruan: It started with my project titled Lightning Studies: Centre for the Translation of Constraints, Conflicts, and Contaminations (CTCCCs) at Hangar in Barcelona. The initial motivation of the project was to think how we could actually initiate solidarity through translation. Creating solidarity across different contexts assumes equivalence of contexts. I disagree with that position. I believe there is always that kind of non-equivalence between contexts. A specific case is the notion of precarity. Precarity in Western Europe differs from precarity in South-East Asia. The same way within Europe there are differences in terms of precarity. How do we translate precarity ways that do not marginalize a certain context? That’s my first attachment to translation. And that’s why I use the text the relay translation on “Robinson Crusoe”, spatial-temporal, as a way in which we could talk about translation. How can we translate contexts? How can we translate experiences? “Robinson Crusoe” was translated from English to German, and then from German to Spanish and then Dutch. These four translations, when they were translated to bahasa and tagalog which is the language in the Philippines it actually brought out the differences between the notion of difficulty which is connected to precarity between continental Europe, insular England and archipelagic spaces.
The notion of precarity and difficulty in Bahasa Melayu and in Tagalog is that more connected to the notion of endurance of the will rather than to the notion of precarity in Europe that is something that you can overcome. The western text of “Robinson Crusoe” has this notion of technology, has this notion of innovation. It’s very individualistic. It knots this notion of individualism in which I can develop technology, I can develop something out of my precarity and survive being struck on an island. On another hand, the translation in Bahasa melayu and in Tagalog was not actually about developing this technology in order to overcome. There is also misreading of the will and the endurance in Bahasa Melayu and in tagalog as something that is because its religious. This was misreading of some intellectuals about this text. But it’s actually more about a radical waiting for transformation. This notion of will and self-preservation as something that you could do while you are stuck in island. We see the difference between the translations of difficulty into these two places or two experiences.
I wanted to transfer these questions in the continuation of Lightning Studies: CTCCCs in Manila. The project looks into the production of public good in infrastructures, specifically of public health and hygiene. I’m interested in the notion of translation in transition. In 1898, at the time where the Empire of Spain bequeathed the administration of the Philippines to American imperialism. Growing up, major ideologies were implemented in our education system: Spanish colonization wasn’t really known for having these infrastructures that are for the public for the entire communities, because they were more interested in notion of class. When American period happened, the notion of class diminished but it became a notion of race. So, how this system of governance from the Spanish period actually transited into American period? It was a continuation of surveillance through public system. Because at the time Filipinos already knew exactly what are the mechanisms of colonization and governmentalization. So translation of them this is a challenge for the Americans.
The notion translation in transition enables us to see how these strategies of governance can be very sophisticated and can be embedded into what we see as good for instance in health. Americans built sanatoriums, public hospitals. They invested into professionalization of nurses. During the American period they had this project of controlling epidemics tuberculosis and cholera for instance. They had this great believe in scientific truth. The scientific truth is that they invested in the ways of living of the Filipinos. They try to control the housing system. They issued laws and regulations on what should be a clean, tropical Filipinos house, a hygienic space that doesn’t accommodate epidemics. It’s not highly visible anymore, it becomes more molecular at that sense. So how would we translate this as a point of critique and also as a parallel sphere of how the things are translated similarly right now, but this translation at the same time is just in transition?


Open Place: We also thought about terms that we use, namely about different meanings that the same terms have in different contexts. So should we use universal terms with meanings that seemed shaped already? Or maybe it’s better to use not a “term” but the meaning, definition for these terms that will correspond in each context?

Renan Laruan: It’s the ideal situation that we find different ways to signify similar experience. But on another hand, I see the need to work in the same process of naming for a certain period of time. It doesn’t have to be a long-term process of naming or a long-term use of the name. For me, naming is a way in which we could enter into each other’s experiences. Sometimes we just rename past experiences with another term without resolving other issues and other problems with the previous term. There is also an advantage in doing that, because it allows certain movement. “Modernism”, for instance. After modernism there was postmodernism, on the social level people started using development. But development has its political roots in modernity – this is European thought of progress that’s embedded in modernity. The same way the whole project of developing countries, developing cities are attached to the notion of modernity. It had its different turn when people use development. And then recently we heard of the “anthropocene” as a term that could articulate certain issues at the moment.
What we can actually do with this naming process is that we allowed the discursive sphere of these new names to attach to the previous names. It’s a point of conjunction and at the same time of exposing the problem of the previous naming process, thus it’s a process of conjunction and disjunction. Ability to name is always coming from a privilege group or a privilege position. And while other positions are marginalize within this naming, there is that potential in which you use the frame of a certain power position and then hijack it in a way. So you always produce new meanings into these new names. In “precarity” for instance, when everyone was discussing precarity in the past few years, especially with economic crises in Europe and in the US, for me it allowed to return to a moment of Asia in 1997 when there was great Asian economic crises which no one wanted to talk about. We had different kind of arrangement with IMF. It’s not the same way with Europe or the US.

"Sometimes I feel that art is forced to be part of things, when maybe it’s not necessarily"

Open Place: You often use words “intimacy” and “smuggling”. How does it work in your cultural practice?

Renan Laruan: It would be concrete to give an example. We organised and curated a festival in an agrarian town four hours away from Manila. It was called the First Lucban Assembly. Titled PAMUMUHUNAN (Waiting for a capital), we borrowed the local term “pamumuhunan,” which means “investment” or “taking stock” in rural areas and in marginalised urban sites. The use of “investment” in local culture isn’t equivalent to “investment” in financial capital. For instance, I could describe my engagement with your interview as “pamumuhunan”. I’m investing into it — to your thoughts and interests, to possible connections between us. This form of investment doesn’t expect something in return. The local meaning of investment temporarily extinguishes the expectation of exchange or the notion of transaction. For Project Space Pilipinas, the organizing institution, and DiscLab | Research and Criticism as the curator, it’s interesting how this term “queers” our notions of the Capital.
When we did the project, we were aware of our irrelevance in/to the context. Lucban is a town with existing economies: economies of critique, economies of participation in culture, economies of representation. The Assembly took place during a religious festival that honours the patron saint of harvest, when people decorated their houses with agricultural products. So, how would you offer something beyond the religious economy? How would you create a parallel performance? What we thought that we could develop a level of intimacy: introducing the notion of looking away, but looking away in order to look into [the religious festival] again.
What we wanted to do is to allow them to look away from it momentarily, so that they can look into it again. For us it was clear that we wouldn’t intervene in any of the processes. Doing art has tendencies to interfere in the local system of development in these areas. It’s a complete town with local museum, local tourism and cultural office, as well as a small heritage department that takes care of old churches. Of course, tourism is one of those big earning economy or market in Philippines. So, we thought that we won’t do anything about it. We will not intervene in a way that would promote our brand of criticality to be honest about it. What we wanted to do is to remain our position that we are doing art and that perhaps we could introduce a space, just a space that can accommodate other things and other ideas already invested to religious festival.
One concrete example would be about installed video works in familiar places. We installed one work by Indonesian artist Mahardika Yudha in a barber shop. The title of the work is “Sunrise Jive”. It’s actually about factory workers who were doing exercise every morning outside this Indonesian factory. The factory workers seemed not happy at all, they just want to get over with it. We juxtaposed it with the barber shop because we wanted to criticize the way art has become nostalgic about time in local culture. I see this among Filipino practitioners: they go to the rural areas, because they think that it’s timeless and rural area is slow based. But it’s not true. When a barber cuts hair of a guy, it’s really fast either when you see this kind of urban area, and that is actually slower. Just because it’s away from the capital, people think that there is absence of capitalism in it. I find it very problematic.
We also show a light installation “pananampalataya” which is translated into “faith”. The light in the middle of installation was purposely broken, and it became “pananampa” and “taya”. “Pananampa” apparently is a term used by activists who finally decided to “go to the mountain” or “to enter to the forest”, which means officially joining the armed struggle. We have one of the longest insurgencies in the world, a long standing communist underground movement. You have a different level of participation in this underground movement. If you claim to be someone who will be doing “pananampa” it means that you decide to join it, you are going to the mountains, and you will immerse there almost forever. And “taya” means “to bet”. So this notion of “faith” was deconstructed into two words “finally going to the mountains” and “to bet”. There is a level of intimacy there coming from art without actually forcing the people to participate. When art always intervenes, it sometimes tense in the notion of democracy. When democracy is at gun point, for me that’s very problematic. Sometimes I feel that you force art to always be part of things, when maybe it’s not necessarily the case or it should not be the case.

"The criticality is at the point of fatigue and exhaustion"

Open Place: Why do you think that sometimes better not to say, than to be in trend? And also better not declare your position publicly to not being used by somebody, am I right?

Renan Laruan: It’s connected with what we understand about criticality. Sometimes the notion of criticality, we subscribe to or we embody, become violent. It’s like an epistemological violence. We always have this kind of faith into criticality, because we have a consensus that it’s something natural or given or coming from a lineage. People don’t talk that criticality is something that we can inherit, but actually in arts and in intellectual practice we feel that. We’re not directly confronted by this problematic notion of evolution of criticality, but it is actually there. One of the manifestations of this problem is that to always externalising, always performing this criticality, and always using this as a counter capital to any problem or any situation that we seem unable to engage with.
When people say that we have to continuously being critical, I don’t know exactly what they mean by that. When it being used in conversations and in texts, it seems that there is only one form of criticality and it’s very homogeneous way of talking about criticality. That in a way at this point allows me to use the term “naivety” as something that wouldn’t perform criticality. When I say maybe it isn’t important to always show your position, because that position in itself is just an expensive energy. It goes back again to the notion of care in relation of criticality or self-preservation. Is this the right place and the right time to “overperform” your criticality? We have to think about the timing of criticality. The criticality is at the point of fatigue and exhaustion. Criticality seems the only capital that we have. What will happen if we have exhausted all performance of criticality?
I had an interesting conversation with Marti Peran. His work is about translation of fatigue into exhibition format. I ask him: “What do you think about the position of monologue?” The point is that people always say that we need things being in dialogue and assume that the opposite of dialog is monologue, but I don’t think so. He said, “At this point of neoliberal logic monologue is the new silence.” Marti Peran also told about the false dialogue that need of consensus, that maybe there is radical possibility with monologue. The tendency that I see right now is that the contexts and experiences are putting in the position of exchange, communication, but on the premise that they are actually equivalent. My position is that we don’t need more dialogues we need more spaces for the individuals who have their positions extinguished in their locality or in international context, a space where they can do a monologue, because often they aren’t heard in dialogue. They don’t have a voice in dialogue. It’s impossible to have an actual/real dialogue. For me, the art world and culture in general need monological circuits. There is already a conversation taking place within a monologue. Marti Peran said: “When you perform a monologue, you take the conversation out of value making”. For me that’s interesting, because again this is my problem with discourse right now. Discourse right now is a sophisticated capital in arts and even in technologies. Innovations right now are mobilized by discourse. Discourse in itself carries value, this is a very sophisticated form of capital, that’s easily distributed and circulated.


Open Place: But whether a dialogue is just about forming value? For me it’s rather about shaping of the language.

Renan Laruan: I’m finishing essay right now and the title of it before publishing “Infantilization of context”. And here I talk about dialogue and monologue but in relation to context. My argument is that international art world wants and forces contexts to speak to each-other. I was really confused, how in this hyperconnected environment, in art at least, a context could be in relative isolation? I feel that contexts are already speaking to each-other precisely because of the distribution of capital. The capitalism makes everyone interconnected already. In this situation the dialogue seems to be given from above position.

“DiscLab is a mix of individuals”

Open Place: You associate yourself with DiscLab, doesn’t you? How the collective had appeared?

Renan Laruan: It’s started in 2012. We organized ourselves after “Art Criticism and Visual Literacy” workshop. The first members of it weren’t the part of art world at all. There were relatively new graduates from the University coming from different practices: economics, literature, one studied philosophy, and one was graphic designer. These individuals weren’t a part of an existing system of art world that time. And most of us wanted to be identified with being art researchers and art writers. What we wanted to do at that time was to write criticism and to do a discussion. Because we feel that there is specific practice and audience that were alienated in the system of arts and visual culture in the Philippines. And the Internet was very important for us, because we wanted to call ourselves virtual organization. Those were the elements how we organized ourselves at first.


Open Place:What is the aim of collective?

Renan Laruan: The aim of the collective has really changed a lot and quickly in span of four years. And I wanted to share why there was this kind of aggressive change. There was also the some sort form of violence inflicted in initiatives, specially coming from the outside of the system. So we wanted to perform in a way that appears “strong”. And that’s why we committed ourselves from doing criticism and discussion and translating it into doing small scale research attached to long term activities. That’s the clear pass right now we are working on.
The second is that we wanted to appoint ourselves as institution, not as an alternative art organization. The problem that we see connects with marginalizing ourselves as an alternative. We always have to defend ourselves why we are doing this, even if we don’t get anything from them. So we wanted to do some sort of taking care of ourselves before performing. We wanted to put of some sort of shield. Initially it was just a shield to call ourselves as an institution or organization, because otherwise people would always think that we are a magazine, and museums would ask us into their new exhibitions and the dinner parties, as they wanted us to write about their exhibitions. And we were so mad about it, clearly, that the kind of writing that we do isn’t the same that you can see in magazines or blogs. We asserted that we’re a research organization.


Open Place:How do you share the responsibilities in organization?

Renan Laruan: We don’t really work in a way that’s typical for a collective, because of this violence that we experience. There is internal competition that we feel in the context. You would see members identifying themselves with DiscLab and other members who wouldn’t do this. That also sort of map out the kind of work what we do. There are individuals who would be keen to work on certain aspects. For instance, curatorial people can feel more comfortable being associated with it, but when it’s about criticism and writing critical reviews about certain texts, they would disengage with it, that kind of different levels of engagement and association. Artist run organizations in the Philippines were clearly formed out of specific ideologies. So, you have group of artist run who would promote conceptual art, you have artist-run spaces promoting new reform out of the left, you have really fundamentally left groups, but in the case of DiscLab it’s a mix of individuals.

"For me institutions are already sick"

Open Place:  Should the cultural institution clearly articulate its political position?

Renan Laruan: As in most contexts, any organized political organizations would always take chance to connect an issue in culture into a larger political issue. I think right now cultural institutions, including self-organized infrastructures such as artist-run spaces, don’t really have a language in terms how they would express their political position. They seem to be very eager to put forward their position, but they aren’t really effective at all. No one really care about their position.
In the Philippines or countries with colonial legacies recuperated in ethnonationalist and fundamentalist notions of nation-state, we can see how the construction and operation of cultural institutions support this lineage. It’s endemic and embodied either in the performative production of public good of private institutions or in the bureaucracy of “mid-managerial” positions in art system. This comfortable biography of institutions and its cultural workers allows a form of self-censorship.


Open Place:  What activity does your organization conduct?

Renan Laruan: Right now we’re doing “Waiting Sheds” Cooperative Study and Research Program. We use to do discursive activities, meaning discussions and writing. Then we realised that these activities were just really precarious, because no one really pays for the writing, no one really wanting to sponsor writing and discussion activity. So we decided to gather all the elements that we’ve been doing and organised it into one flagship program. It works as a continuing program and attached to very specific event happening right now in the Philippines – the change of education system. The Philippines is one of the remaining countries with only ten years of basic education. And government decide to change it to twelve years of basic education (K-12), but that doesn’t really respond to problems of education and resources we have. So we wanted to create a program for both emerging and mid-carrier cultural practitioners, artists and journalists, to work with us and actually propose a model that isn’t necessarily against K-12, but builds up on the strength of K-12 and calls out the problems of K-12. So we lunched the program in 2015, and it will run until 2018.


Open Place:  What are the mechanisms that ensure your financial independence?

Renan Laruan: We will be funded by Arts Collaboratory for this project. But first run of the project was funded by our curatorial activities. We were invited as curators and artistic directors to the FIRST LUCBAN ASSEMBLY and the negotiation was that we could do the “Waiting Sheds” project within the assembly. Before we organised “Waiting Sheds” we were self-sufficient – people use their own money, if they wanted to do projects. We don’t really have a sophisticated financial structure.


Open Place:  How does your organization affect cultural policy of state?

Renan Laruan: Our strategy is very simple. Museums and cultural institutions in the Philippines have very weak educational program or barely any educational program. We have research centres with collection, and because exhibition has more visibility they would rather prioritise the exhibition instead of doing something about their collection. We realise gap in their programming, so we created some sort of network in which we invite them as research partners. It’s usually one year of research of the institution but not producing for them. We can use their holdings, their archives without any fees and then a year after the partnership the institution can ask the fellows or members of the organisation to develop a program out of it, but it’s not necessary. As I mentioned earlier, we’re dealing with a system of institutions with pre-set ways of operation and behaving to those who are not a part of it. We will see if we can affect them in the future.


Open Place:  What is the ideal institution for you?

Renan Laruan: Everyone gets paid there, everyone treated with certain dignity. There is proper valuation of work. I don’t know, maybe there is no ideal institution, because for me institutions are already sick. The institutions must be sick before they really become institutions. How are we deal with sick institutions? It’s like being born with disability or with chronic illness, but you’re demanded to leave alive. And what else can you do about it, is to prolong your life. Even with the notion of palliative care, you just minimised a pain.