W.A.G.’s art objects may be in the custody of the Bureau of Customs, but what they have achieved, albeit unintentionally, is a kind of dematerialized circulation.
At the time of writing, Working Artists Group (W.A.G.), a compendium of four artist’s folios weighing less than two kilograms that was commissioned by the Kunstvlaai Festival of Independents for its 2012 edition INexactly THIS, and which was recently sent from Amsterdam to Manila, resides in the custody of the Philippines’ Bureau of Customs. There it will remain until Green Papaya Art Projects, named as the importer of said articles, settles importation duties amounting to U$300 prescribed by the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines. We have been, from the date of the work’s arrival, given a grace period of 30 days to “lodge an entry declaration with the Bureau of Customs”—that is, to pay the said duties—or the package shall be “deemed in favor of the Philippine Government.” The grace period expires today, February 21, and still we are nowhere near raising the U$300 or completing the bureaucratic process that might achieve conditional exemption.1
Perhaps more frustrating even than all this is our own ineptitude at dealing with tax and other financial matters—matters that in our thirteen years of operation we have managed to either evade or disqualify ourselves from, having for the whole period operated under the vaguely defined status of a non-profit organization, and survived on hand-to-mouth resilience via intermittent grants, donations, and international commissions. Yet, obliquely, we almost welcome this legal entanglement as, just maybe, a signal of our active participation in the social construction of objects, articles, and commodities circulating in the economy.
That none of this was anticipated is frustrating because, in terms of reaching beyond the art world, it might have been an effective continuation of the work that W.A.G. as an organization set out to do. One is reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s reference to the old proverb about the only thing worse than not getting what one wants being getting it. Except in this case, the final outcome was far from what we had anticipated. This demonstrates how, despite attempts by artistic initiatives like W.A.G. to engage the social, or realities deemed more compelling than the production of art for the propagation of art, there is still much administrative work left unaccounted for.
W.A.G. was convened to reflect on the strategies and conditions of subsistence that allow artists to participate in the social production of art and commerce. It surveys marginal tendencies in the Philippines’ contemporary art landscape, engaging artists who investigate their relation to the modes and means of art production and to the neoliberal economy in general. In pursuing the dematerialization of the art object by means of a straightforward accounting of activities ordinarily considered extraneous to art production, but which enable them to participate in artistic activities, they transform their labor into nothing but artistic labor.
As we examine the positions of each W.A.G. artist, what becomes clear is how, other than non-artistic work being integrated into artistic work (becoming, for instance, the condition according to which an individual from a working-class background might initially come to make art), it also becomes clear that, as participant artist Angelo V. Suarez notes, artistic work can become a condition of possibility for other forms of labor. The unexpected tenancy of W.A.G. at the Philippines’ Bureau of Customs and possibly its indefinite custody—or, in the government’s term, abandonment—indicates not only the field of potential that the art object creates, but also the impossibility of remaining marginal, alternative, or below-the-radar. W.A.G.’s art objects may be in the custody of the Bureau of Customs, but what they have achieved, albeit unintentionally, is a kind of dematerialized circulation. This optimizes our intended demonstration of the ways in which art objects and/or practices share the same fate as that of goods and services that cross borders, are traded, and facilitate exchange.
Donna Miranda is a choreographer and critic based in the Philippines.
Download Working Artists Group (PDF).
- A brief overview: Section 100 of the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines stipulates: “All articles, when imported from any foreign country into the Philippines, shall be subject to duty upon each importation, even though previously exported from the Philippines, except as otherwise specifically provided for in this Code or in other laws.” However, section 105 of the same code states that some articles may be granted conditional exemption from duties if “articles previously exported from the Philippines and returned without having been advanced in value or improved in condition by any process of manufacture or other means, and upon which no drawback or bounty has been allowed.” As advised by a customs broker, we may seek an endorsement for exemption from the Department of Finance. ↩