Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s easy to miss the intricacies of a space in a city where establishments come and go so quickly. On an unassuming corner of Kamuning Road and T. Gener Street, Unit 41-B was, until recently, bustling with life. The building was shared by artist-run space Green Papaya Art Projects and the bar Catch 272 — their histories and purposes inextricably linked.
A space for those in need
Green Papaya Art Projects is famed for being Manila’s oldest artist-run space, founded by Norberto “Peewee” Roldan and Donna Miranda in 2000. It planted its roots in Kamuning in August 2008. They have been called numerous things, from “multimedia gallery” to “artist’s collective,” but according to program director Merv Espina, the keyword is space: “We provide space and give space to others, especially those [who] need it most.”
This has been the aim of Green Papaya: to provide a space for creatives to experiment, interact, and engage. While they were not the first of their kind in the Philippines, Green Papaya was a part of a generation of successful artist-run spaces in Metro Manila such as Third Space, Surrounded by Water, Big Sky Mind, and Future Prospects — the likes of which sought to circumvent the constraints of traditional galleries. “They all had gallery and exhibition programs, but to call them galleries would be a disservice to all the experimentation and interdisciplinary practices that they gave space to,” explains Espina.
Artist-run spaces like Green Papaya provide an iterative environment for artists: the works informed the setup and vice versa. This led to the flourishing of experimentation and critical discourse in an environment where artists could present their works on their own terms — the larger picture being that artists are empowered to produce art and organize autonomously.
In that regard, “gallery” and “collective” doesn’t quite encompass all the work that Green Papaya does: they operate on a per-project basis, which may entail physical exhibitions, but they also host experimental performances, film screenings, and avenues for discourse.
Some of the more recent projects they have undertaken includes an exhibition entitled "DON’T EVEN BRING WATER," where they headed the curatorial team of the 15th run of the biennial Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference. A good example of their desire to uplift new and diverse talents is their 2009 project "Wednesdays-I’m-In-Love," an open-platform curatorial residency featuring six artists from different backgrounds — Martha Atienza, Jed Escueta, Mark Salvatus, Diego Maranan, Angelo Suarez, and Andrea Teran. Today, each artist has carved their own path in contemporary art, for instance, with Martha Atienza’s video installations and Jed Escueta’s photography being of both local and international renown.
Everyone was welcome
In 2012, Catch 272 was known as Boho Sarapsody Bistro under the helm of owner and manager Aplue Apauls, later joined by assistant manager Tao Aves in 2015.
Aves was friends with Roldan and Espina, and as fate would have it, Espina was there on the night that Boho was asked to stop operating. “We know intimately what [Espina] meant when he said that Green Papaya provides space and gives space to others, especially those that need it the most,” says Aves.
The move to Kamuning was a necessity. It was in September 2015 that she and Apauls reached out to them for a space with a working kitchen that could accommodate live music. “We are Green Papaya’s little sisters na maraming bisita,” Aves muses.
Since then, Catch 272 had become so much more than just a watering hole; it was acclaimed as a space for activists and members of the LGBTQIA+ community to freely express themselves. They have hosted fundraisers for workers on strike, for urban poor communities, for those directly affected by the government's war on drugs; the owners have been vocal about being queer, hosting Pride Month events and after-parties for the march itself.
Aves dispels notions that their bar favored any demographic. “There is no particular group of people or ideas that we anchored ourselves to. We've been called a queer spot, an activist spot, et cetera. We're just a pub.” And the openness of their space is precisely what has drawn so many to them — Catch 272 has hosted events for causes at no charge. Everyone was welcome, as long as there was no hate or persecution of minority groups.
Catch 272 was a regular venue for various advocacy groups and a starting point for many performers’ careers. At a time where government intervention has threatened its citizens clamoring for change, venues like Catch 272 protected its patrons’ rights and generously provided a space for expression free of censorship — a space needed now more than ever.
One particular incident that stands out was when artist-activist group SAKA (Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo) hosted an anniversary party in 2018, in which more than 20 armed policemen nearly arrested a guest, claiming that “public smoking” was the charge even when no other bars were searched. It was then that Catscratch Club organized a fundraiser called “Landi Stories” for Catch 272’s outdoor roofing, bringing together disparate groups of regulars for a concerted effort. “We had a roof go up so that the division between what belonged to us and what belonged to the city would be clear,” says Aves.
In the wake of the fire
It was on the morning of June 3 that the communities of both Green Papaya and Catch 272 mourned the devastating loss of Unit 41-B: a fire broke out from the furniture shop next door. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but the flames damaged both of their facilities, as well as nearly two decades’ worth of Green Papaya’s archives.
Archiving is a necessary yet invisible task. Apart from artworks, Green Papaya housed a great deal of research and documentation dating back to the 70’s. The artist-run space though has been working on their inventory throughout the years with the help of their archivist Lesley-Anne Cao, in coordination with their archiving partner, Asia Art Archive.
This is now their most important project, especially in light of their projected closure in the year 2021. Cao explains, “The structure that goes with working with the archive — creating the necessary timelines, inventories, and categorizing of events and materials — encouraged [Green Papaya] over the last three years to remember and rethink what its existence meant then and now and what it continues to do and stand for.”
Green Papaya’s archive contained a multitude of Philippine cultural artifacts. It had upwards of 300 works in their care; ongoing research and collections from members of their community and their team; community archives from past events; Filipino animator Rox Lee's drawings and comics from the ‘70s to the ’80s; and rare documentation of experimental performances from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
While substantial archival work has been done since 2017, the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent fire continue to be major setbacks to the process. “We normally don’t prioritize the organization and care of these things, and understandably so, due to economic reasons and crises,” says Cao. “We do our best with the resources we have, though I’ve wondered since the fire if the blow would have been less painful had the archiving process been possibly quicker and less things completely lost. At the end of this project, the archive will be what it is; it won’t ever be ‘complete’ but we’re working to make it as rich as possible.”
What cannot be touched by flames
Espina notes that Green Papaya and Catch 272 have always been partners. “Although we have our specific niches, our communities are intertwined. I particularly enjoyed the looks on people’s faces, especially first time visitors, when they came expecting a serious, critical discussion or some arty thing and saw an anime lip sync battle.”
It has been impossible for both spaces to operate as they used to. For Green Papaya, resuming operations means continuing their online projects, as well as archiving and chronicling their history in preparation for 2021. Some of their recent projects include the Mañanita Anthology featuring 18 artists and a series of posters on their Instagram expressing their critiques of the current administration.
However, on top of losing equipment and furniture, Catch 272 also has to contend with government-mandated COVID-19 restrictions on food establishments. It’s now through their Facebook page that they update their community: “We will have to make a shift in how we express ourselves as a public house. We have some ideas, not a lot. None of them will be easy, but thinking about them brings back a little spring in our step,” they said in a post.
The communities they have created, advocacies they have supported, and voices they gave a platform to cannot be touched by flames; online, many have expressed their grief at the loss of a safe space, the loss of irretrievable works. “We have been getting a lot of encouraging messages from around the world,” says Espina. “These keep us and the team going. Green Papaya has had a hand-to-mouth existence for the past 20 years; money was always a problem. But it was this sense of community that kept us going this long, and we need our community now more than ever to help us piece back our history,” says Espina.
In spite of everything, Green Papaya and Catch 272 push onward knowing that they have made an indelible impact with the spaces they created. The last line of a Facebook post by Green Papaya reads, “We are safe for now. But the house is still burning.” While both establishments have lost their physical spaces, they continue to rouse their communities to express themselves online, just as they did all those years on that corner of Kamuning Road and T. Gener Street.