In Manila, is public art just a front for poor urban planning?

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The distinct lack of public space in the forms of parks, promenades, and plazas in Manila has ensured that concrete walls remain the most popular canvas for public art, whether commissioned by government agencies or private companies. Does public art hide the fact that we can't fix our cities? Photo from ARTS AT BGC/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Public art is an important mediator of people’s relationship to the city that is instrumentalized by the private sector, cultural agencies, politicians, and city planners  to communicate their respective visions of urban development. In 2016, Bonifacio Global City (BGC) showcased 27 works of street art by a number of local and international artists in what was the first ever ArtBGC Mural Festival. But murals are not new to Manila, nor are they solely associated with westernized notions of street culture.

Covering extensive lengths of the city’s network of concrete arteries with large-scale artworks has been a conventional strategy of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the government agency created in the 1970s by Ferdinand Marcos — and headed by his wife Imelda — was responsible for, among other administrative matters, the “beautification” of the city.

Despite major differences in the ways they are produced and consumed, the murals in BGC and along EDSA both function to inculcate certain sensibilities among Manila’s citizenry in response to the city’s poor urban planning and dilapidated infrastructure, rendered evermore inadequate in the face of growing demographic pressures that even a masterplanned and highly regulated space like BGC cannot remain immune to.

The distinct lack of public space in the forms of parks, promenades, and plazas in Manila has ensured that concrete walls remain the most popular canvas for public art, whether commissioned by government agencies like MMDA or private companies like Ayala Land.

1102474_497204247020742_21471009_o.jpg MMDA’s project along EDSA is a partnership with Boysen Paint company, which depicts a series of trees invoked as the “lungs of the earth” that are meant to relieve the commuter stuck in traffic of the ugliness of the concrete jungle. Photo from THE BOYSEN KNOXOUT PROJECT: EDSA/FACEBOOK

As an almost-entirely privatized city, managed by a board of trustees and operated as a profit-seeking entity, BGC represents the convenient convergence between the interests of government and private capital in the construction of urban “public space.” However, such spaces bordered by high-end shopping malls and gleaming corporate buildings actually function as “privatized public venues,” as curator Tessa Maria Guazon puts it, financially inaccessible to most of the public.

As new buildings, apartments, and commercial establishments continue to rise in BGC, traffic congestion continues to worsen. In light of mounting demographic pressures that have thwarted the original vision for BGC as a pedestrian-friendly city, the Mural Festival could be seen as a reminder to visitors and locals alike that “Bonifacio Global City is really designed to be a walking city,” as reiterated by Monica Llamas, then Art Program Manager of the Bonifacio Art Foundation, Inc.

Art is the freedom to imagine but in its beauty is also the power to conceal contradictions.

The ArtBGC Mural Festival helped spawn a micro-tourism industry built around the appreciation of public art in BGC and has generated a number of cultural initiatives such as bicycle tours that spotlight BGC as a progressive, sustainability-minded city. But the festival was not without its critics, as some denounced the organizers for selecting mainly international artists whose work was not reflective of Manila as a city or of the experiences of its citizens.

Rather than being rooted in their locality, the murals in BGC are in keeping with the cultural nondescriptness the city has actively cultivated over the last decade as a “global city,” which has made it an attractive destination for international capital, especially the business-process outsourcing (BPO) operations of multinational corporations.

Meanwhile, in EDSA, one of MMDA’s projects along this extensive road is a partnership with Boysen Paint company, which depicts a series of trees invoked as the “lungs of the earth” that are meant to relieve the commuter stuck in traffic of the ugliness of the concrete jungle and simultaneously to share the government’s vision of creating a cleaner, greener Manila.

Art, in this particular public space, does more than impart a government slogan, and freely plays up on its subtle ambivalence instead, for nothing could be more ironically and painfully truthful than to be reminded that trees in parks serve as lungs to the city and that in this city of 14 million inhabitants there are hardly any tree-lined parks left.

23550066_1737400756279119_706532763058937143_o.jpg As an almost-entirely privatized city, managed by a board of trustees and operated as a profit-seeking entity, BGC represents the convenient convergence between the interests of government and private capital in the construction of urban “public space.” Photo from ARTS AT BGC/FACEBOOK

The biggest property, the 100-hectare military camp of Fort Bonifacio with its centenary trees, was sold in “the deal of the century” to the mega-developers of what today is Bonifacio Global City. The calculus of profits that could be made on every square meter dictated the inevitable disappearance of the city’s lungs. To the commuters stuck in traffic along those walls, the smog they are breathing is the reality of their daily existence while the trees on the walls remain an illusion, or for those who remember, an image of the past.

Government agencies responsible for urban renewal projects in Manila have conventionally relied on publicly-funded “beautification” projects that cover vast swathes of concrete with vibrant murals and color schemes that become associated with individual politicians. Just over a decade ago, former MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando’s Metro Gwapo (Metro Beautiful) covered main thoroughfares, overpasses, and bridges in his now-infamous brand of blue and pink.

Throughout Manila, one could find painted on walls and strewn across tarpaulins appeals for the public to keep the city beautiful (“gwapo”) by observing proper behaviour in public (“walang bastos:” no vulgarity), environmental cleanliness (“walang kalat:” no littering), for their own good (“tao ganado:” each one a winner). These verbal cues in pink and blue were repeated endlessly until the next administration, that of  Benigno Aquino Jr., came with its streams of yellow ribbons. The color effectively becomes the message.

But there also exist more subtle means through which Filipinos are encouraged with visual cues to do their best in their service to society. In 2013, the pillars of the Kalayaan flyover featured painted portraits of Filipinos in their various occupations, from doctors, engineers, teachers, to the pervasive figure of the OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker), whose remittances sustain the national economy. With millions of Filipinos working abroad, evidencing the lack of employment at home, these patriotic renderings honor their sacrifices in the service of the country.

For all its lack of public space, Manila has a vibrant culture of public art that, quite apart from its intrinsic artistic value, is intended by its patrons to fulfill specific utilitarian functions. The convergence between corporate interests and governmental programs in the commissioning of these murals is indicative of a trend in the instrumentalization of public art to promote visions of urban development.

The business districts want their murals to project an image of high-tech modernity in keeping with their role in international business as data processing centres. The city government commissions artists to beautify the drabness of concrete walls and pillars, while simultaneously exhorting the citizenry to help keep Manila beautiful, correcting their code of conduct as necessary in order to conform to the new urbanity. Exhortations to do one’s best for family and country are communicated through portraits of people in diverse occupations, with a special place of honor accorded to the OFW, “the unsung heroes” of the nation.

The artwork is thus intended not just to please the public but to plead for and elicit a target-response from the populace. As any art form, however, mural painting overflows original intentions with the power of its own intrinsic appeal, so a simple utilitarian message may actually set people to think of alternatives that are not there, such as the trees-as-lungs in a treeless urban jungle.

Art is the freedom to imagine but in its beauty is also the power to conceal contradictions; as the cultural theorist Malcolm Miles writes, “Developers do not develop in order to construct the ‘city beautiful,’ they construct the city beautiful in order to conceal the incompatibility of their development with a free society.” 

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Update: Monica Llamas is no longer connected with BGC.