The Serious Art of Design
diskurso.com covered an Angel Velasco Shaw symposium project set at the Philippine Women's University where she gathered a roster of prominent "designers" to talk about "the art" in their art.
video coverage and text below by Jojo Soria de Veyra
AFTER tackling the muddled issue of indigeneity among the people of Baguio through her Markets of Resistance happening project, curator Angel Velasco Shaw then ventured to gather renowned Filipino designers to (directly or indirectly) talk about "the art" in their art. The criticism in this gathering, which happened on November 26 last year, is obvious: it states that while there is indeed design the sole purpose of which is either decorative (e.g. the creation of trendy fashion or edgy houseware) or unquestioningly traditional (e.g. the design of Sto. Niños for the religious or the design of American-style houses for a pretentiously-named subdivision), there is also design that delivers what may be serious unwritten treatises usually associated with pure (or serious) art. Conversely, the gathering---two sessions of which diskurso.com was able to cover---may also be read as a questioning of the true depth of the concerns of certain "pure art" or "basic art", parts of which latter may, in the end, actually manifest more of those decorative or unquestioningly traditional directions associated with design. And as for the issue concerning the mercenary priorities of design, that too is a bias subtly questioned by the context of the gathering.
". . . there is also design that delivers what may be serious unwritten treatises usually associated with pure (or serious) art."
In session 1 of the symposium, for instance, one already sensed an overwhelming and unwavering postcolonial passion for national identity, not necessarily nationalist (read: anti-globality), in the three panelists that included clothes designer and piña textile activist Patis Tesoro, indigenous textile weaving researcher Amihan Lim, and architect, urban planner, and ecological architecture advocate Cristina Turalba.
Tesoro's talk treated of the holistic process of art-making, process being perhaps a great factor for qualifying what and when fine art is. This was understandable in Tesoro's case. First of all, Tesoro is a campaigner for the preservation of the farming, traditional processing and broad use of fine piña fabric, which by itself is also devotion to both the material and its proud cultural and geographic context as well as to what we in art and design call techne. Techne, yes, with all the positive value that action artists would attach to it, best exemplified by the Japanese potter's context (which even furthers the potter's ritualistic process of creation with a later attitude of re-creating the broken via the kintsugi). This sort of devotion to material and process qua techne was probably what Tesoro was alluding to when she also emphasized discipline as well as perseverance in her lecture, to highlight a consequent unrelenting devotion to the fine, which all requires the craftsman's daily ritualistic sacrifice for the attainment of pure joy. . . . Still on process, further in her talk Tesoro also inserted a take on the artist's need to be unconventional in order to achieve integrity, as well as on the artist's (or, for that matter, the businessman's) need to be focused within the struggles of his growth in order to retain this same integrity. In short, what Tesoro seemed to be saying within the context of the symposium was that while she can boast about her designs and creativity as what constitutes her art, there is already prior pure art in one's devotion to material and process and even sacrifice and labor. It should be the honing of this devotion, therefore, that should act as the mother of one's consequent devotion to what follows, creativity, for creativity would then have to nurse its own struggles within its own growth within a conventional, trend-riding community. So, as an obeisance to the sanctity of this overall devotion to integrity within the pressures of society, she also recognized the artist's need to manage his/her individuality within the overall environment (thus preaching that artists must demand for that quiet space wherein nature becomes their better community, at least during the process of ideas-making, mentioning some comic artists who have made San Pablo City in provincial Laguna as the home base for their dreaming). But, again, she made it clear that this is her own choice for inspiring her own artistic needs, for she recognizes that other artists would prefer to work within their ready urban environment in order to engage it in their art, in the same way that she engages what is Filipino and present instead of escaping them towards a fantastic utopia. Simply all a part of process. All a part of process.
Then, Amihan Lim, creative director of the Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation based at the Asia Center of the University of the Philippines, brought the conversation into the indigenous design of the indigenous people's textiles as well as into the contribution of research and knowledge (about the old) into the process of design-making and art-making. After all, appropriation must know original context before it can know it is truly appropriating and is not---especially to the eyes of knowledgeable viewers---merely aping, no? Even a tribute must know, and know well, what it is saluting. That was one point that Lim brought to the table, and it was a big point that cannot be taken less seriously simply because her lecture was quicker than the others'. And when she said knowledge, she wasn't just referencing contexts but also processes. . . . Then, after gaining knowledge of original contexts and processes, Lim then ventures to create from within that knowledge. One might say that that is the series of stages necessary for creating intelligent and impeccable design, but it is really also what makes that evolution---from imbibing knowledge of contexts and processes to creating new things around it---art. To a more pragmatic valuation, Lim also demonstrated what is common to design and art: finding resolutions to a problem concerning process by researching that that one aims to represent instead of venturing to reinvent the wheel from a position of ignorance. She also touched on where ignorance can take one, as in treading on someone's imagery by recontextualizing it from its original sacred position to something suddenly, unintentionally, even dangerously banal.
Cristina Turalba, the third speaker of session 1, is of course a stalwart among advocates of Philippine architecture as well as of the need for urban design and planning in Philippine societies. Now, how to make her fit into this symposium. Well, perhaps she cannot make apologies about how architecture is art. Perhaps the way to demonstrate how architecture is high art is to simply go about demonstrating its ideals where it can delve deeper into its concerns beyond being engrossed in the beauty of lines and patterns and textures. . . . So Turalba talked about the communal and cultural rationales behind folk architectural designs, which by itself was an explanation of why nationalism in a nation's architecture is really more about what people want and need than about the simple waving of context-less flags celebrating inexplicable uniquenesses. She talked about the need for architecture today to reexamine its relationship with the needs of people, which relationship---she pointed out---is the very reason why there are laws against architectural disservice that protect people from harm from either the materials of their house or the environment that surrounds that house. Which logic led her to emphasize that architecture cannot be other than holistic. It must address the needs of its natural environment as much as it should address the need of its inhabitants inside. It must address the consequent position of people who would surround its space either as passersby or as neighbors. And while architecture learns from the past (where we are able to glean reasons for the present), it must also refrain from ignoring the urgent needs of the day and insisting on the obsolete ways of the past. . . . And, so, if architecture must be holistic by nature, then it must be part of urban design, just as urban design itself must not be subdivided into a metropolis of independent and conflicting urban designs. . . . And what did she mean by addressing the needs of the people? She put it this way: many architects today forget or take for granted the fact that architectural design is also practically a manipulation of the movements of people. This power can be used to control, but it can also be used to serve. . . . So, there you go. Architecture, after all, is not merely decorative or doing something unquestioningly traditional, at least when approached through the Turalba ideal. Perhaps it is in its wider holism, when realized, where its higher art resides. Where its tag as "mere design" crumbles.
MEANWHILE, in session 2, rattan furniture design innovator and Filipino branding and higher craftsmen's wages advocate Kenneth Cobonpue was unapologetic about having turned his passion "into a global brand" and about having, by his creativity and innovation, been catapulted into fame by the international market in his "professional life". But, wait a minute---unapologetic, did we say? So, are we now asking painters and sculptors whose names have likewise become global brands to apologize for their own attainments and to deny that creative painting and sculpting sculptures are professions, too? No? Then, if not, could we allow that perhaps Cobonpue, qua artist as designer, was here doing a Warholian or Juzo Itami-esque sort of self-denial in preferring to call himself commercial designer rather than artist? . . . Still, Cobonpue does pay homage to inspiration and creativity. So how is Cobonpue an artist? He cites as his first inspiration his mother's departure from the then-trendy rattan furniture culture in Cebu of copying Western designs, this in order to create her own ideals for rattan furniture (or, rather, her visions for how else rattan furniture can be instead of how it should forever be). Then, though Cobonpue would readily admit that his drawing was never good enough to get him into the UP College of Fine Arts, his entire lecture in the PWU symposium gathered around the idea that it was the recognition of emotions elicited by forms (thanks to his Pratt Institute education where he was finally admitted) that pushed his passion to create further, not his hands' deftness with forms. And so, aside from a training in a leather shop in Italy that made him appreciate what he had at home in Cebu, he came home with an eye for patterns, structures, and all those elements that combine to make beauty. The combination of influences from his past, starting with his mother's unconventionality, soon started what we now know as the prolific Cobonpue sensibility. Pratt might have given him that sense to recognize the inner-structural (aesthetic) value of what he may have come up with, but it was his mother's rebellion in him that made him also see the comparative (market) value of those first pieces of his. Mother and Pratt would then combine further to make him defy the culture of appropriating from history, choosing instead to seek inspiration from the most mundane of objects around him. This led to his concocting pieces with humor in them that at the same time were simple but unforgettable experiences, as puns are. . . . Now, again, the Cobonpue brand qua commercial brand should not make Cobonpue less of an artist and more of a businessman. In fact, Cobonpue's branding (initially seen as haughty self-importance) would soon be copied and start the liberation of many a rattan craftsman from being mere craftsmen subcontracted by foreign brands; soon, local craftsmen became kings of their own brand (or sub-brand). I'd say that that in itself could be deemed as a protracted sort of social sculpture, no? And talking of sculpture, maybe we ought now to talk about Cobonpue's varying choice of material/s as he moves from piece to piece, his sense for combining materials to likewise meld conflicting patterns, his sense for contrasts of texture, and all that which we usually expect from sculptors to take liberties with but deny furniture designers to apply in their creations with such aplomb? . . . Then, just as painters would diversify and enter specialized but related fields such as sculpture or printmaking, Cobonpue would later create another brand for the production of insane concepts for lamps and lighting, inviting other designers to "go crazy" with their designing prowess for the brand. He also ventured to propose a redesign of the Nicknamed Aquino International Airport, which never came to fruition in time for the laglag-bala scandal of 2015.
Josephine Turalba, meanwhile, session 2's second speaker, is already an "artist" specializing in performance art, art interventions, installation art, bricolage, video and multimedia art. But her presence in this symposium about design is important because it addresses the question of whether an artist can bring her "art" into "design". And when an artist does, does he/she then stop being an artist, or does his/her design stop being design? And, by the way, prior to being recognized as an "artist", Turalba was already an award-winning jewelry "designer". Hmm. . . . Anyway, first Turalba showed the audience her performance art pieces, just to give them a taste of her art as artist. Then, surprise, surprise, she was commissioned by Samsung to come up with a multi-channel video piece with augmented reality for three TV HD monitors. The video was both an art piece and an advertising vehicle with a features-advertising message. So, what was it? Art or design? Or both, separately taken? Or both that can be taken together? . . . Then Turalba showed us how she turned her bricolage dress made of empty bullet shells (which she had used in several of her art interventions) into a collection of similar dresses. Though exhibited at a Baguio arts festival, she showed the collection on a ramp to mimic a fashion show, modeled by fashion models. So what was it? Art or fashion design? Or both, taken separately? Or both that can be taken together? . . . In the same sort of system interplay, she would later show her bullet shell creations as slippers and flip-flops at another arts exhibition in Istanbul. Being an arts show, what was her slippers' context there? Art? Had they been shown at a mall instead, would the slippers collection have automatically become products of design? . . . Perhaps to answer this question, she showed the audience what happened at a project called Caravanserraglio: here, five artists ventured to transfer their sort of art into jewelry. No sweat. Just like Picasso taking a break from the well-revered art of painting and allowing Life magazine to see that it's just as respectable to do mass-produced (though limited) block prints, doing this without condescension.
What really answered the symposium's basic questions head-on, however, was the lecture of Baby Imperial (helped by her French partner Damien Anne) of B+C Design. Imperial (who delivered the duo's lecture) iterated the symposium's concerns and answered them bluntly with lines like "even Michelangelo was paid by patrons to do art, so that was commercial." Imperial did not present anything done by B+C Design initially. Instead, she first brought us back into moments in the history of art (old and recent, foreign and local) where the presence of design did not seem to be separated from art but was operating within art as part of art and its concerns. Skipping such periods as the rococo and the baroque and the designs of the medieval guilds that she mentioned, she presented us with more recent images, like those from the De Stijl group whose utopia or ideology for art was a utopia or ideology for all things social, including, as a matter of course, design. She acknowledged the similarities between this utopia and the aesthetics of Filipino ethnolinguistic groups presented earlier by Amihan Lim. Her point was simple. Make the audience decide about the separations dividing art and design after she is done bombarding them with images to do with connections between the two (from the past and the present) where they have been seen to "reference each other". Minimalism, for instance, was as much a design movement as it was an art movement, and so was Constructivism, which was also a political philosophy. Bauhaus, meanwhile, was---you could say---an artistic philosophy that was born within design or primarily for design, if only because it was started by an architect in an art school without an architecture department. That architect was perhaps led to idealize a "total art" that included even typography. Imperial also presented the audience newer images, showing objects by design groups like Droog, as if to taunt us to recall what art movements the designs had a lot in common with, as well as by design groups like the Memphis Group of Ettore Sotsass that have been inspired by postmodernism in art. She showed us a Louie Cordero painting that could be used as a ping-pong table, coming on like a conceptual fuck-all to the avowed sanctity of wall art. And, finally, designs from Filipino ethnic groups that recall De Stijl's romance with the simplification (abstraction qua rationalization?) of nature, and a painting image from one of the members of the Vienna Secession movement, which Imperial and Anne probably meant to challenge us to research on, that movement being comprised of painters, sculptors, and---oh, you guessed it---architects. When it was time to present B+C Design's own landscape designs, the allusions to history and the immediate natural and social environment surrounding their concepts seemed easy to swallow. Artistic theses in design being not so new, after all; it simply must never be forgotten as having always been so. . . . In the Q&A portion of this second session, Anne and Imperial emphasized design's relationship with design history, which is kind of the same way art has been harping on its history to rationalize its own importance. Answering a question thrown by Turalba, Imperial averred that art concerns have really expanded in design, at least in the case of those who have had the privilege of being educated in art and design history, and that art concerns have simply been natural and intrinsic to B+C Design's design bent.
The gist of the whole symposium could be paraphrased by Cobonpue's answer to a question where he said, "there are a lot of good designers in the Philippines. Probably the reason why you know me is because I insisted on putting my name on every piece early on. But that was because I just wanted to be respected as a designer, as an artist, in the world." The respect for art has always been hinged on names as art brands containing artistic statements; it's true even with copylefted art by advocates of the cultural commons, even with conceptual art by those questioning art. When Velasco Shaw conceptualized a symposium with designers with names, which could also have been attended by lesser known designers intent on signing their names on the sky, a statement was set.
Now, this statement simply should never be forgotten as having always been said. [d]
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