ARTS

How a contemporary art show responds to the changes of a difficult time

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The core of ALT Philippines is centered around a manifesto that all the nine galleries have agreed on, driven to social responsibility, particularly on supporting artists and providing education. Photo by JL JAVIER

From the start, ALT Philippines wants you to distinguish that what you’re witnessing is not an art fair. While art fairs tend to revolve around booths selling art — where galleries will also have to pay for an application and a participation fee — ALT Philippines wants to focus on being a contemporary art show where viewers can interact with the art and the artists. Art fairs tend to have a herd that’s more inclined to simply look and purchase.

As ALT Philippines is made up of local galleries that put on shows monthly — participating this year are Artinformal, Blanc, Finale Art File, Galleria Duemila, MO_Space, The Drawing Room, Underground, Vinyl on Vinyl, and West Gallery — the five-day event is a skillful showcase of their expertise, from the curation, flow, to graphic design. But there is more to ALT Philippines than just an art show. At its core is a manifesto that all the nine galleries have agreed on, driven to social responsibility, particularly on supporting artists and providing education.

This year's ALT Philippines show was held at Finale Art File in Makati. Photo by JL JAVIER

“We wanted to give people the gift of a safe physical show, even if it is a much simpler one,” says ALT Philippines spokesperson Stephanie Frondoso. Photo by JL JAVIER

“It is a collaborative project and not just a participatory one,” says Stephanie Frondoso, ALT Philippines spokesperson. “The ALT 2021 show resembles art fairs even less because we have eliminated separate booths per gallery. All artists’ works are installed together with aesthetic considerations rather than divisions. With this format, we work together in presenting and selling each other’s art — a format that is completely unusual in the Philippines.”

ALT Philippines mounted their first show in 2020, a few weeks after the Taal eruption (they had an “ALT for Taal” initiative, which donated proceeds to people affected by the eruption), and a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Philippines. It all feels so long ago. During the first morning of ALT Philippines 2021, which ran from Dec. 4 to 8, the difference is quite striking. The daily COVID-19 cases may have lowered significantly since the last lockdown, but many safety measures had to be considered, especially since the show is in Finale Art File — a smaller venue compared to last year’s stylized show at SMX Convention Center at SM Aura Premiere in Taguig. All visits were scheduled and limited, even during the VIP previews where the biggest art collectors usually drop by to check on the best works that they can add to their collection.

The organizers did promise that ALT Philippines wasn’t going to be a typical art show that happened at the same time and at the same venue every year. This year, with safety measures in mind, the group chose one of their own, Finale Art File, which fits the bill quite nicely for a show during a pandemic. The space has high ceilings that don’t make you feel constrained while looking at the works (though the downside is that there are works mounted up high on the walls, which can be a pain in the neck to look at). Another upside is that it’s located in a warehouse compound, not inside a mall.

“We wanted to give people the gift of a safe physical show, even if it is a much simpler one,” says Frondoso. “Viewing art in person is tremendously more moving and gratifying than looking at art through a computer screen or a tiny mobile phone. A small physical gathering also gives us a better fundraising opportunity for our beneficiaries.”

Despite this, the pandemic still weighs heavily on the works in the show. Alvin Zafra’s “Swabbing Station, The Long Eve” is a stark reminder of the caution we have to exert on the daily — and that tests aren’t readily available to many. Cian Dayrit’s concrete tree stumps sculptures, “Monuments For a Silent Night” may obviously be ecological in nature but it also reminded me of the many lives lost due to the mishandling of this pandemic. There are also more macabre reminders of death amplified in the presence of the pandemic such as Jared Yokte’s “Pangkat Trentay Nueve,” Hamilton Sulit’s “Traces of the Flesh” and Bjorn Calleja’s “Symptom Sampler.” Reminders of the prolonged lockdown are also visible in works such as Audrey Lukban’s “Hibernation Den,” Kitty Kaburo’s “Before the 4ever,” Carina Santos’s “From a far off distance” and Pam Yan Santos’s “How do you know if you are there and not here?”

Alvin Zafra’s “Swabbing Station, The Long Eve.” Photo courtesy of ALT PHILIPPINES

Kitty Kaburo’s “Before the 4ever.” Photo courtesy of ALT PHILIPPINES

Audrey Lukban’s “Hibernation Den.” Photo courtesy of ALT PHILIPPINES

But not all works are grim reminders of our reality. The pandemic is quite a beast that weaves in and out of the creative consciousness of the artists and this is something that Frondoso acknowledges. She says, “Future generations will be able to look back at the art of today to have a sense of the collective and individual stories prevalent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: what we thought and felt, know and do not know, the successes as well as the failures. By continuing to bring art to the public, we are able to present ways of looking at the world with a critical eye, staying connected, making new discoveries, dreaming and reimagining better realities, allowing us to look outside of ourselves and be part of a greater human experience.”

Below, Frondoso talks more about the role of art during a difficult time, the social responsibility aspect of ALT Philippines, and finding momentary experiences of joy through art.

This year's show happened at a crucial time when the restrictions have eased. Can you tell us more about timing the show at such an opportune time?

The show was originally planned to be purely online, but when restrictions suddenly eased and COVID-19 cases dropped, we decided to quickly mount a physical show. One of the advantages of being the organizers of our own show is the ability to move more quickly and to make our own decisions. It is a much simpler show, but we feel that it meets our objectives.

How did the educational social responsibility aspect of the show come about? Is ALT hoping to sustain it for the coming years?

At the beginning of the pandemic, our organization, Contemporary Art Collective, decided to donate funds for the PPE suits of frontliners. We are aware of the needs of our community and realize that we have the capacity to address certain social needs. As part of our ongoing social responsibility projects, we have decided to grant full four-year scholarships and online learning tablets to 20 deserving students through the ABC Foundation. We selected students as the beneficiary because this is a concrete step in improving our difficult state of affairs in the Philippines with a solution that is long lasting and whose benefits can multiply exponentially. Lack of education and a high rate of illiteracy are some of the key problems in the Philippines that give rise to a cycle of poverty and other social ills. Particularly during the pandemic, the education sector was one of the hardest hit, with the Philippines being the last remaining country in the world that has yet to return to face-to-face learning. This has adversely affected an entire generation of our youth — the largest demographic in our country.

On the floor is Cian Dayrit’s concrete tree stumps, “Monuments For a Silent Night.” Photo by JL JAVIER

All visits were scheduled and limited, even during the VIP previews where the biggest art collectors usually drop by to check on the best works that they can add to their collection. Photo by JL JAVIER

People are still steadily buying art but what are the challenges in marketing an art show during a pandemic?

Our galleries had to close for several months in intervals throughout the pandemic. There were also restrictions on the amount of people allowed for gatherings and so we had to do away with our formerly large opening receptions. Yet we have forged ahead with exhibition programming despite these countless challenges, and have made additional efforts to migrate online as the most accessible way to continue engaging with our audiences. Part of these efforts were the production of short videos that provide an insight to artists’ processes in their studios, a behind-the-scenes look at installation day that demystifies the complex tasks of galleries, and artist conversations and interviews that highlight the significance of the artist’s voice.

These perspectives aid us in thinking like artists: always asking questions, examining current events, finding innovative solutions to problems, developing ideas through research, experimentation and the constant attempt to master one’s craft. Being able to share these with the public while supporting our artists has made surmounting all the challenges worthwhile. For ALT 2021, we invested in new technology that allows viewers to go on virtual tours of the show via our website. That way, even if they are unable to physically visit because they are in quarantine or any other reasons, they can still virtually experience and navigate the show without having to rely on just catalogs and pictures.

It's interesting to know that ALT operates from a non-profit organization. How does this affect the structure of the show, where art shows are usually primed for selling?

Contemporary Art Collective Inc. is registered as a non-stock, non-profit organization and ALT Philippines is one of its events. As a collective, we are able to work together in raising funding in a structured manner by combining the galleries’ various competencies, resources and networks. This way, we are able to give back to the non-profit so that it can function. We also come together as a group of galleries who care for our artists. By organizing a combined group show, we are able to give our artists a focused, concentrated market, while sharing the load of community service together and do more.

In the show, all artists’ works are installed together with aesthetic considerations rather than divisions. Photo by JL JAVIER

This year's ALT Philippines is made up of Artinformal, Blanc, Finale Art File, Galleria Duemila, MO_Space, The Drawing Room, Underground, Vinyl on Vinyl, and West Gallery. Photo by JL JAVIER

For ALT Philippines — for its artists, curators, workers — what was the role of art for the better part of 2021?

By the time the pandemic dragged on into 2021, many Filipinos had already been experiencing extended periods of isolation, restriction from their usual activities, frequent personal tragedy, and constant frustration with deep flaws within our systems. It became increasingly important for us to support society through art. Along with the ravaging effects of the pandemic on our physical health and ways of life, we also witnessed a growing mental health crisis. Studies have shown both the physical and mental health benefits of art making and art viewing. It boosts brain function, is a form of stress management, an aid in processing trauma and dealing with anxiety disorders, depression, feelings of anger and shame. It promotes meditation and mindfulness. The mind and body are intrinsically linked, and as our mental stress decreases, so does our susceptibility to disease and other ailments. Art can be a mental break from the gravity of current events or conversely, a way to use visual language when words do not suffice. Even within dire circumstances, we are able to have momentary joys through the arts: music, film, literature and the visual arts.

Art can also be a cathartic act of resistance or a bringer of comfort. When an audience sees their experience mirrored in art, they feel a sense of empathy. Art encourages us to search deep into ourselves and draw inner strength and inner peace. It can be a source of delight and contemplation, show us new paths to explore, benefitting our overall wellness. Ultimately art brings hope. It is a testament to the enduring human spirit.