Earlier this past spring, I made my way to Plug In ICA for Patrick Cruz’s artist talk. I skipped Patrick's gallery walk-through before the talk as it was being given in Taglish (Tagalog and English). Not knowing a word of Tagalog, I had curiously made my way through the event write up in that language, recognizing the affinity between the sounds of some words in Tagalog and in Spanish.
Patrick’s exhibition, Brown Gaze (Titig Kayumanggi), had opened a couple of nights previous. In the gallery, I walked onto the paintings installed on the floor, noticed the stacks of cardboard boxes of food products, and stopped at the videos within the stacks. What looked like cell phone videos of: a puppy lying on a tile floor, cut to footage of a protest march, cut to an insect that looked like a vinagrillo getting burnt, cut to people walking on a bridge, cut to clouds from a plane window… There were also a couple of beach towels on the boxes, and black unintelligible signs and symbols on every enclosing surface around me. I wrote in my notebook: “not overwhelmed but definitely surrounded.”
During his artist talk, Patrick spoke about life and art in the Philippines and in Canada, and about how he addresses colonialism and his personal history in his practice. He spoke about language, kitschy video transitions, and clown school. And then he and I talked some more. What follows is a months-long email conversation with Patrick Cruz.
"ultimately, for me, I see art's purpose as having no purpose other than creating more purposes."
Mariana Muñoz Gomez: The title of your recent show at the Plug In was Titig Kayumanggi (Brown Gaze). Can you tell me about your decision to put Tagalog before English not only in the title but also the tour you gave of the show, within a Canadian gallery?
Patrick Cruz: I think the deliberate choice to situate my language before English is a strategy of visibility. I don't mean to exclude any audience or perpetuate exclusivity but there are times that audiences need to re-think the idea of accessibility.
At this moment, I believe my art practice revolves around the negotiation of constructs in society, whether that may be nationality, ethnicity, class structures, or beliefs. It has come to my attention that being a person of colour can be seen as a privilege rather than marginalized. I think this sentiment is also a form of decolonizing what we are made to believe as people of colour. But of course, what I mean by 'privilege' here is not being privileged in a Eurocentric sense (like making a work and declaring it neutral) - but a form of privilege to be able to speak up and use identity as a site of inquiry and critique. I think the cultural climate today demands a sense of responsibility from each one of us and if we don't it's hard to make it relevant. At least, I don't think art for art's sake is enough these days, there are so many injustices in this world already and being an artist is a privilege, criticality is a privilege. I always ask myself: what I can contribute to the conversation? Can I raise awareness to people? What can art do? This way I find more meaningful experiences living in this crazy world.
I guess being an artist is already a form of refusal to comply with the world. The fact that we can earn money from art that critiques its very same structure is as radical as it can get. What a funny paradox [Laughs].
MMG: At your talk at the Plug In, you mentioned that you feel that the work you are making here in Canada would not have the same relevance in your home country, the Philippines.
I was listening to an interview with Durga Chew-Bose a while ago, and she spoke about being introduced as "all the qualifiers people want me to be: Canadian, South Asian, woman, feminist, whatever," particularly when others write about her and her work. She noted that this makes it easier for some people to understand her and where she is coming from. Yet, she says she wouldn't describe her Canadian, South Asian, female, feminist friends in this way, because she is part of that group (and already understands their experiences).
You mentioned the Eurocentric privilege of making work and declaring it neutral. Of course, an individual's background informs their life and their being. Do you feel that whatever you make is informed by your own background as an immigrant to Canada? (Or any other qualifiers that you or others have attached to your identity...) Do you feel that you can't be satisfied making artwork that is "neutral"?
PC: Political correctness has its flaws and it is something I encounter quite a lot both in the Philippines and Canada. Perhaps each country has its own threshold of what being politically correct or incorrect really means. Identity politics in the Philippines doesn't have the same weight on how we treat the issue in Canada. I would even claim that most of the time identity politics isn't even an issue at all among artists in the Philippines, despite the long history of colonialism.
Since identity is a social construct it can be read and misread constantly. Context is very fluid. I think I am always very conscious and aware of where my work is shown - who experiences it and who accesses or encounters it. The exhibition Titig Kayumanggi (Brown Gaze) is an example of it. I used the context of Filipino immigrants in Winnipeg as a departing point.
Identity is very much tied to my work and it is also hard to negotiate when your practice gets pigeonholed. Some institutions prefer that I exercise my Filipino identity more deliberately in my work and some are more open to any conceptual framework that may or may not connect with my identity. I think it's a fine line how to respond to these issues. I notice some artists use their identity (being a person of color, or experiencing a form of marginalization) as a means to create discourse and stake a position and I think it's a good thing to do that, but sometimes it just feels sensationalized and exoticized.
Ideally, I would prefer to have work that can operate as "neutral and political" simultaneously. I think this is hard to achieve at times, but there are ways to manifest this. For this to work, there needs to be an awareness of what is at play, a base knowledge of what makes up the work, ie influences, context, and materials. I think it's like cooking, it depends on what flavour you want to heighten for the dish. Maybe more salt or maybe more sugar.
Ultimately, for me, I see art's purpose as having no purpose other than creating more purposes.
MMG: You said that identity politics isn't something that's brought up much from Filipino artists. Can you think of an artist that is to the Philippines, what Frida Kahlo is to Mexico? In that she did bring in identity politics in her work; considering her mestizaje, her identity produced by a history of colonialism in Mexico.
PC: Something on par with Frida Khalo I think would be Santiago Bose. Historians might not agree with me but I think Bose brought a lot of folk sentiments in contemporary art. Although he had training in America, I think he took this process as a way of dismantling his own identity. Bose definitely brought some challenging questions about identity and his use of local materials as a form of critique to the hegemonic model of the west's use of modern and industrial materials. I still look up to his work for inspiration.
I think the reason identity politics is not such a concern among local Filipinos is that there are other problems to deal with like poverty, corruption, and environmental pollution. There is a sense of urgency when it comes to survival. I think when you are hungry (literally), you forget other concerns, there is no time to ponder what identity politics you are occupying or other cultural problems that exploit you. It is actually quite a privilege to have time to think about these. It just shows how much time we have on our hands here in the west. Although, I think it is also worse when no one is pondering about these issues, when in fact we have the time to do so.
I also look to artists that resist ideological hegemony within their art practices - artists that use alternative economies or histories that do not depend on the western canon. It is definitely hard to imagine an art practice that refuses that. After all contemporary art is a western construct, although I believe there are still ways to destabilize this structure while using the hegemonic language. That is something I learned from Kerry James Marshall, who used a lot of Eurocentric tropes in painting but imbued its content with his own discourse. Iza Genzken is another artist I look up to, an artist who resists being interviewed. I find that very powerful, especially when one's agency is at stake.
"there are so many injustices in this world already and being an artist is a privilege, criticality is a privilege. I always ask myself: what I can contribute to the conversation? Can I raise awareness to people? What can art do? This way I find more meaningful experiences living in this crazy world."
PC: One project I am currently working on right now is the Kamias Triennial, a tri-annual event that happens every three years in Quezon City, Philippines. The idea that propels the project deals with issues of global exchanges, cultural differences and disparate artistic strategies in art production and consumption. In a way, this curatorial endeavour still engages with socio-political constructs and ideas, but I am focusing more on my role as an insider and an outsider; a foreigner in my own country, seeing it with a very different sensibility.
MMG: The Kamias Triennial looks like a great initiative! It's really exciting that there will be so much cultural, social, and political exchange from this. I can see that your curatorial approach for this project is not just as an organizer, but also as an art project in itself, creating opportunities for conversation and exchange between international perspectives.
PC: Yes! I think the 2nd Kamias Triennial was a huge success in terms of sharing knowledge and cultural values among artists and disparate artistic communities. As an independent artist/organizer, I aimed to situate the project less so as a formal Triennial. It is somewhat a counter to those huge festivals that have huge funding. We worked with what we could and luckily we got a bit of funding from Canada, which made the process even more productive. In 2020 I envision the 3rd Kamias Triennial actually involving Mexico and Mexican artists due to the rich historical relationship it had. I think Mexico City has a parallel energy to Manila, it’s very electric and alive.
MMG: Because you grew up in the Philippines into your teens, it's interesting to me that you might feel like a foreigner there. I've thought that if I grew up in Mexico for some more years, I might speak Spanish more consistently with my parents and somehow have a more active connection to the language and culture. Do you feel that distance most in regards to pop culture, communication, way of life? Everything?
PC: Distance for me had more to do with human relationships. I think food is another thing that has a very alienating quality, in terms of time. Filipino food normally takes quite some time to prepare and make, sometimes hours sometimes days and I think food is this vessel where culture can be examined. Food embodies most of the cultural history of any culture. I get a really good kick when I think of what Canadian food is.
MMG: Talking about food and seeing that one picture on the Kamias website reminded me of this performance piece by some artists I think you would be interested in. Praba Pilar and Luna, who are two Latina artists who were based in Winnipeg, did a four-part performance night in January of 2016 called "Dirty Cochinas of the AMERICAS" at Urban Shaman. One of the performances involved them opening food/packages of food and kind of washing themselves with it. The overall theme of the performances was about their mestizaje, and the food one really stuck with me.
Installation of Brown Gaze (Titig Kayumanggi), 2017 at Plug In ICA Photo: Karen Asher
PC: Being Canadian is another conundrum in this question too. What does it mean to be Canadian? This construct is only 150 years old... What does it mean to occupy multiple nationalities and disparate geographies?
MMG: I remember when my family got our Canadian citizenship. Growing up, sometimes I would feel embarrassed by how cheesy my parents would be around Canada day etc. As an adult I have more insight into what getting our Canadian citizenship would have meant to them, though. At the same time, to be Canadian and to be an immigrant are loaded concepts. I also often wonder at how a choice (a series of choices, really, but you know), made by my parents, has landed me here and now.
PC: Being a Canadian immigrant is definitely challenging, not only does it provide more space for an identity crisis to flourish, but another identity to be negotiated besides our own. We have to deal with other histories that are layered between them.
I think we have an interesting context here too – you and I both share a very strong cultural history from Spain, I believe the Philippines was once a colony of Mexico during the Manila and Acapulco trade. At some point, we were also Mexicans! It's unfortunate though that we lost the step-mother tongue of the Spanish language. Although, most tools or objects in the Tagalog language are still in Spanish. They were really good at modernizing! [Laughs]
MMG: Speaking of what it means to be Canadian, and considering more histories in the idea of “Canadian identity,” a friend of mine pointed out the similarity in "Métis" and "mestizo." I'm sure a term for a general marker of part European, part Indigenous identity exists in Tagalog as well, and I wouldn't be surprised if it were similar to either "Métis" or "mestizo."
PC: Mestizo is actually the same term used for half Filipino and half European descent. They normally possess a high position in society, even up until today. The whiter your skin, the better treatment you get. It's quite rare to see a dark-skinned protagonist in mainstream Filipino cinema or television.
I left the Philippines when I was 18. It was a very formative time in my life. It was also the moment I decided to become an artist. Getting accepted and leaving art school in the Philippines within one semester was really hard. I remember not wanting to leave because I was just beginning to understand my own culture.
My first visit to the Philippines took me seven years after we got our Canadian citizenship and during that visit, I remember feeling excited and also nervous about the changes that had happened. I definitely think that my Canadian-ness revealed itself more when I saw and re-experienced my culture again. There were social norms in the Philippines that really threw me off, like the prevalent class system that is inscribed in many upper-class Filipinos. There is perhaps a long list of things that I could criticize among traditional Filipino ideas but I think it could also be applied to Canadian culture as well.
MMG: Thinking about how you encountered your Canadian-ness going back to the Philippines for the first time, do you find that your Filipino "other half" comes out while you're here in Canada too? Maybe that depends on the community you are able to surround yourself with in Vancouver/wherever your home base at the time is. Here in Winnipeg there is a very small Latinx community, so I would say for myself, I feel that contrast of my Canadian perspective in Mexico for sure, but don't really have too much of a Mexican perspective with life here in Canada.
PC: I think this duality that we experience here in Canada is definitely an interesting resource. I believe my Filipinoness does come out when I encounter cultural codes that challenge my upbringing. That's when I know that I am still colonized by my own traditions and beliefs. I guess that could be good and bad at the same time.
Quarantine of Difference, 2017 at Wil Aballe Art Projects
MMG: Backtracking a bit, it is interesting and troubling that colourism is such a global issue. It makes me wonder when this type of thinking started - did it begin when white Europeans went exploring, or was lighter skin praised in some cultures even before that? I know there is an older connection to class and colour of skin in that labourers would have darker skin because they would be working outside. It's also interesting that there is another level to this connection of tan skin and class, in that in the west now, having a summer tan is a signifier of having a good or luxurious vacation. A vacation where maybe you've gone to an "exotic" place, which is often a colonized place.
PC: I have thought of that before as well, this notion of escape to paradise. A lot of immigrants think about these things, such as a better life; and after that, a bitter one, since the dream of having a comfortable life often leads to marginalization (getting minimum pay, the un-acknowledgment of experience and education from other foreign countries). The island is a good image for this, a remote paradise but also excluded from the world - kind of similar to the experience of being an immigrant.
From what I know, colourism began in the Philippines through the introduction of Hollywood films in South East Asia. It is the time when independent cinema emerged locally and had to hire Spanish looking actors to mimic their western counterparts. This gaze has led people to look up to white skin. Media has fucked us over so many times over many generations and still perpetuates these ideals today.
I was watching a film by Adam Curtis the other day called the Century of the self. I didn't finish the whole thing but the first part discusses the use of Freud's psychoanalysis in tandem with advertising. It was quite sad to see how people get attacked in a very subtle and unconscious way to plant misleading ideas about desire. It would definitely take some time for the general public to wake up from this spell and until then these false desires will continue to perpetuate, and ultimately consume us. I think our desire to be like one another (some wanting to be tan and some wanting to be white) needs to be decolonized, and I think artists have a big task of shattering this false mirror.