Tuesday, July 18, 2006

And the winners are...

It took forever for me to find out who the winners of the Fully Booked contest were. It took a while for them to announce their list of winners (that, or I just couldn't find the links). Thankfully, the Literature Philippines blog had pointers.

And the winners are:
1st place (tied) – “The God Equation” by Michael Go and “A Strange Map of Time by” Ian Casocot
2nd – “The Great Philippine Space Mission” by Philbert Dy
3rd - “Atha” by Michaela Atienza

I'm happy Ian is up there in first place. Three reasons: (1) I liked his story; (2) promotion for Dumaguete; (3) I can bug him for pista sa Dumaguete. Yeah!

And the honorable mentions:

1st Honorable Mention – “The Omega Project” by Kim Marquez
3rd Honorable Mention – “Monstrous Cycle” by Cecilia Estrada
4th Honorable Mention – “Stella for Star” by Yvette Tan

I wonder what happened to "Song for Vargas." Was it the 2nd honorable mention, and the Fully Booked people forgot to add it in?

And for the comics:
1st – “The Sad Mad Incredible But True Adventures of Hika Girl” by Clara Lala Gallardo and Maria Gallardo
2nd – “Splat” by Manuel Abrera
3rd – “Dusk” by Rommel Joson and “Defiant: The Battle of Mactan” by Juan Paolo Ferrer and Chester Ocampo

I never got to write reviews for the comics, but I really liked "Hika Girl." I'm not saying that because it won. I'm saying it because it's so. The art may have looked childish, but that's part of the appeal. The story reminded me of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." Loved it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Live from Neverland

Well, I'm becoming quite the reviewer. Snigger. I attended a presentation at the Luce Auditorium tonight. I was suitably impressed to write it all down lest I forget some of the details.

Paul Pfeiffer's impressive yet unusual resume cites his groundbreaking works in video, sculpture, and photography to dissect the role of mass media in shaping consciousness. It's an eclectic collision that results in art, specifically, pop art. But what is it about exactly?

"Live from Neverland," a joint presentation / performance by Pfeiffer and Silliman's Department of Speech and Theatre Arts, was an introduction of the uninitiated to the world of avant-garde video art. Held at the Luce Auditorium last July 14, "Neverland" featured samples of the Pfeiffer's work as well as a live recording of a speech choir for use in one of Pfeiffer's ongoing projects.

Pfeiffer's brand of art defies easy description because it doesn't fall into the traditional categories that many of us are used to. It's work that needs to be experienced firsthand even as the effect varies from one viewer to another. Pfeiffer's first presentation, "Pure Products Go Crazy," set the tone for what the audience was to expect for the rest of the evening.

"Pure Products Go Crazy" is a video of a half-naked man in briefs, face planted into a sofa, performing a wild epileptic dance. It goes on and on for quite a bit until one realizes that it's actually a short clip of Tom Cruise from the movie "Risky Business" run in an infinite loop. The effect is unsettling, so much so that many of the Luce audience burst out in nervous laughter, possibly unsure of how they were supposed to react.

Pfeiffer's other works follow the same spirit. "John 3:16" focuses on a basketball, and just the basketball, as it is passed from hand to hand. "The Long Count" is a triptych of famous Muhammad Ali fights, including "Thrilla in Manila" and "Rumble in the Jungle", in which the fighters are digitally erased, leaving only the ring and the audience. "Caryatid" features a floating Stanley Cup as its bearer is digitally removed, leaving just an adulating team. Another work also entitled "Caryatid" shows scene after scene of soccer players tripping and falling down. "Fragment of a Crucifixion," like "Pure Products," is a clip in infinite loop: it shows basketball player circling a small section of the ring in what looks to be agony or ecstasy.

These are samples of some Pfeiffer's earlier works, and they can be quite disturbing to watch. Pfeiffer removes the context in which the scene is being played, leaving the viewer gasping for some structure, any structure. Pfeiffer explains he likes to make the audience aware of themselves instead of being lost, as with traditional cinema, in the story and in the medium. In this he succeeds: owing to the lack of linearity, the viewers find themselves detached from the work yet affected by it.

Other aspects of Pfeiffer's work with his art are time and perception. A video sculpture displayed in the World Trade Center (prior to 9/11) depicted incubated eggs hatching into chicks which eventually grew into fledglings and then full-grown chickens. The video played in real-time, with a total run length of two-and-a-half months. It may sound like a kooky idea, but one has to view it from the perspective of its audience: busy Manhattanites catching a few seconds' glimpse at a time over a period of two months, and then, all of a sudden, the exhibit is gone.

Pfeiffer's artistic philosophy tracks the influence of pop culture and the mass media on the human psychology. Inasmuch as he uses contemporary icons familiar to everyone, the viewers become part of the canvas. Pfeiffer, who studied in Silliman as a child and continues to visit Dumaguete regularly, notes the unique effect this has on Filipinos who are primarily impressed by American-style media. "You are aware of it, you have an almost intimate knowledge of it," he says, "and yet you know that you're not really part of it."

His Filipino heritage makes its way into some of his works. His most ambitious project to date, an audio recreation of the England's 1966 World Cup victory in Wimbley Stadium, to be replayed in Wimbley Stadium, makes use of Filipino voices to supplement archive sound footage. Another project he plans to work on involves the Wowowee game show, digitally erasing the host, the dancers, the audience, and all other visual cues, leaving just the contestant.

"Live from Neverland" is another such experiment, one that the Luce audience was privileged to hear as part of a live performance. "Live from Neverland" references a 1993 interview with Michael Jackson, protesting his innocence and decrying the indignities he suffered at the hands of the police. The Speech Choir, a troupe of over 80 Silliman speech students directed by Dr. Eva Lindstrom, mimicked this speech, down to every pause, every inflection, every nuance.

Eighty voices speaking in near perfect synchronization is no easy feat to manage, and yet the Speech Choir pulls this off. It takes on an eerie quality as a mix of male and female voices match Michael Jackson's monologue, describing how he was made to strip and how they took photographs of his penis and his buttocks. Pfeiffer intends this to be a modern take on the Greek Chorus, where the actor becomes everyman. The voices will later be superimposed against the clip of the Jackson interview. In this way, we've made some small bit of history in Dumaguete.

Paul Pfeiffer's work won't appeal to everyone, at least not on the first go. Not only is it unconventional, it's also uncomfortable. But that seems to underlie the whole point of it: to take the viewer outside of the established boundaries. It makes one think and it makes one feel. Ultimately, that's art.

Paul Pfeiffer was born in Hawaii in 1966 but was raised in the Philippines. He spent part of his grade school and high school years at Silliman University. Pfeiffer relocated to New York in 1990, where he attended Hunter College and the Whitney Independent Study Program. He is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, most notably The Bucksbaum Award given by the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was also artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Artpace in Texas.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On Being a University Town, Part 2

There's no question as to the economic impact of the academic sector on the economy of Dumaguete. The seven universities and colleges pump in an estimated P2-B into the city annually. Much of the city's services -- the restaurants, the laundromats, the boarding houses, the department stores -- depend on the thousands of students who call Dumaguete home. That, however, seems to be the extent of the relationship between the academe and the city at large. What a waste of potential!

Take, for instance, the relationship between the city's universities and the local government. It's an oft-repeated complaint that local government policies do not reflect the needs of the academic population. On the flipside, the universities seem content to take a reactionary stance towards the local government's policies. Witness the recent debacles on the unwanted flyover and the previously proposed port area reclamation. No doubt, academe can be vociferous in its response to these issues, but all the same it has always been reactive, not proactive.

These issues, like so many others affecting the city, could have been taken as a joint practical exercises in urban planning and traffic management between the local government and a university. Yet we see no such cooperation taking place. It's not that we don't have a congestion problem along a major street fronting Silliman; we do. It's not that we don't need better terminal facilities; we do. But academe cannot leave it to city planners to devise the solutions; academe needs to participate and propose alternatives.

It's much the same situation with the state of entrepreneurship in the city. Letter-writer Razcel Salvarita laments the lack of creative performances, of coffee shops, and venues for artistic expression. He would do better to see these as opportunities for enterprise in a market that he and his compatriots obviously know so well.

And that's just it. How many local small business startups catering to the aforementioned markets have emerged from the business management programs run by the local colleges and universities? In a university town, the academe is supposed to be the breeding ground for wild yet plausible business ideas. If Salvarita says there is a demand -- and I believe there is -- then how come our business majors are not partnering with the artists to meet the opportunity?

Admittedly, it can be hard starting new ventures in a conservative town like Dumaguete. For one thing, local business is dominated by a few families who have made their fortunes and the tried and true formulas of retail, transport, construction, and real estate. But of the three -- academe, business, and government -- local business is the most pliable because they are the most predictable in their motivations, which is to increase their fortunes. Aspiring entrepreneurs simply have to be more creative in their approach. Don't they teach that in marketing classes?

Of the local government what can be said? Say that local government lacks foresight (flyover), morally bankrupt (proposed ordinance rewarding confessed killers), devolves to demagoguery (ordinance 88), ignores environmental issues (dump site location, lights on acacia trees), or is just plain medieval (banning a controversial movie): but who put them into office in the first place? This I find unbelievable: a sector comprising more than 20% of the population of the city and contributing over P2-B to the city economy annually cannot parlay these numbers to represent their interests. Tricycle drivers, it seems, have a more effective political machinery than the academe.

It should be fairly obvious by now that the thrust of my argument points to the universities and colleges as the source of these new ventures. Why should the onus be on academe? Why not on local government or on local businesses? Because to those whom much is given, much is demanded. Because the currency of these ventures is not money or influence but ideas, passion, and daring, three things which institutes of higher learning are supposed to breed.

Fortunately, we're starting to see changes in this dismal landscape of an academe indifferent to the practical needs of its host city. Dr. Perry Mecqui of Foundation University began what's turned out to be a very successful marathon clinic, one that attracts hundreds of runners every Sunday. Ian Casocot of Silliman University organized the Literatura Festival (of which I hope there will be more). Boni Comandante put up an innovative venture out of his graduate thesis and is giving back to the community by funding new business plans.

These are the initiatives we need to transform the city. After all, a university town is to a large extent what its university population makes it.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On Being a University Town, Part 1

Rational Technology for July 12, 2006

Before the story becomes lost in the mists of legend, the local historians ought to document the beginnings of the application of the term "university town" to Dumaguete. It's still a fairly recent usage, one I first heard around the same time I started writing for the Metro Post some four years ago. I'm curious as to its definitive provenance, and I'm sure a number of people are, too.

Regardless of its origins, "university town" is a monicker that has stuck with some ease to Dumaguete, largely in recognition of the seven universities and colleges that drive the city's economy. People wear it like a badge of pride, and "The Philippines' only university town" is as much a nickname for Dumaguete as "The City of Gentle People."

And yet, lest we get too complacent, we have to ask ourselves: is Dumaguete deserving of this distinction?

This is essentially the question that Razcel Jan Luiz Salvarita asks in his letter to the Metro Post entitled "A Pseudo-University Town" some two weeks ago. Salvarita's starting point is an observation by a foreign visitor who calls Dumaguete a "sleeping University Town." It's a comment worthy of some consideration because within the answer lies the kernel of truth as to who and what we are.

First, what makes a university town? It's a community, as small as a neighborhood or as large as a mid-sized city, which is dominated by its university population and where the educational institutions pervade economic and social life.

In a paper published in 2004 by the University of New Hampshire, Professor Blake Gumprecht established the parameters for his study: Are the educational institutions the largest employers in the town? What is the enorollment of the schools compared with the population of the city? What percentage of the labor force works in educational occupations? Of the US cities that Blake studied, college students made up at least 20% of the town's population. By this basic metric alone, Dumaguete clearly qualifies as a university town.

But wait! Gumprecht makes the distinction between a university town and a town that is merely home to a university. While he admits that the difference between the two is fuzzy, it was real enough for him to list down some distinguishing features of real university towns. Gumprecht makes further observations in his definition.

University towns shape the urban personality of the communities around them. They are youthful places, with average population age being at least ten years younger than industrial cities. They are also transient places as both professors and students tend to stay only a few years. By these factors, Dumaguete meets the standards of being a university town.

On the other hand, some other demographics bear further consideration. Gumprecht notes that university town populations are highly educated, with adult residents are twice as likely to possess a college degree in comparison to similar-sized cities, and seven times more likely to hold a doctorate. University town residents are also more likely to work in education than in other industries.

By far the most marked difference between Gumbrecht's definitions and the reality of Dumaguete is the effect of the universities in the personality of the community. University towns are unconventional places, known for their slightly eccentric atmosphere, liberal politics, passion for sports, and environmental stance. On the whole, university towns are comparatively cosmopolitan.

One may argue that these also characterize Dumaguete. Here I beg to differ. To be certain, we may have some vocal groups who campaign for causes, but for the most part, these seem to be isolated and cyclic concerns. Apparently, I am not the only one who feels that way as Salvarita's foreign visitor, too, comments that "there were no intellectually-stimulating and creative activities, no art performances, no [open] museums, no old-school, Parisian coffee shops where artists abound, no murals on the so-many blank walls, no green projects."

For the moment, never mind the bohemian slant apparent in Salvarita's lament. It's his vision and his prerogative to seek such an artistic eden. The question is why, given the academic population that is supposed to inhabit Dumaguete, such enclaves and endeavors hardly register a blip in the city's life.

This is where Dumaguete's shortcoming as a university town is most apparent. There's a dichotomy to Dumaguete: on the one hand, you have the universities and the colleges. On the other, you have the city itself which, despite the stellar history of education in its confines, seems to have been largely insulated from the intellectual, philosophical, and even emotional effects of the universities and colleges. Instead, the impact is largely isolated to the economic contributions of the academe. Why is that?

Salvarita ventures some answers: the local government is not responsive to the needs of the studentry, and neither, it seems, do the local businesses. These accusations have some truth in them, but they are not the complete picture, either. All well and good to blame government. Anyone can do that.

A harder question to ask is: aside from the economic contribution, what have the universities and colleges of Dumaguete done to positively influence the community around them?