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Abandoned in Favor of the Philippine Government

English | Filipino

Donna Miranda (ed.), Working Artists Group, (Manila: Green Papaya Art Projects, 2012) at the Philippines Bureau of Customs, 2013

Donna Miranda (ed.), Working Artists Group, (Manila: Green Papaya Art Projects, 2012) at the Philippines Bureau of Customs, 2013. Photo: Courtesy Donna Miranda

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.
Sandra Palomar, Bleed Suite 2 (detail), 2012

Sandra Palomar, Bleed Suite 2 (detail), 2012. Pineapple fiber, blood, and paint. Reproduced in Working Artists Group. Photo: Courtesy Donna Miranda

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).

  1. 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.

Are there any kinds of activity or structure that entirely resist absorption into art making?

  • MichaelJWilson

    Since the formulation of Conceptual art in the 1960s, many artists have incorporated apparently banal or seemingly unpromising processes and institutions into their practices, often also identifying them as the subjects of ironic critique. W.A.G.’s interrupted trajectory links it, albeit accidentally, with Mail art, a fragmentary “movement” that, as its name suggests, involves using the postal system not only as a means of communication, but also as a gently subversive platform for creative experiment.

  • MichaelJWilson

    To get a little closer to the question: In 2001, the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art staged an exhibition titled “Art at the Edge of the Law” that featured artistic explorations of various legal grey areas. And in 2012, SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco did something very similar with their exhibition, “I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of the Law.” Artists are drawn to structures and systems, but also tend to be naturally anti-authoritarian. When the two traits are consciously combined, the results can be remarkable.

  • Ressa Cortudi

    Where is the sense of responsibility in delivering the works to the artists safely? Ethical protocols lie not only with the government or institution, but also of who is responsible it organizing the exhibition. In this instance, the article was made to articulate resentment and bounce off to the international community, but a sense of pro-active stance to protect the works of the artists at this instance? Where is the sense of immediacy? I could sense none, as the works lie rotting in the hands of the underserving, the artists are also left to just wait.

    • MichaelJWilson

      I think it’s for the author (and the artists) to respond to this particular criticism, but I’m bound to add that W.A.G.’s detention has at least had the positive effect of making its contents known, paradoxically, to a new audience via this essay and its appended PDF.

      • Norberto Roldan

        Just to put things in perspective: First, Green Papaya Art Projects’ position in regard to the “abandoned” artworks does not mean that it doesn’t recognize government’s taxation and tariff rules levied on artworks intended for the art market that go through the standard commercial trade channels and customs brokerages. Green Papaya has been conscious of the fact though that the W.A.G. artwork were never intended for the market as its provenance will attest that it went to and came from a not-for-profit art festival in Amsterdam. But it is the inability of governments to distinguish what is taxable from what is not that creates a grey area. Second, tariff and duties imposed on the said shipment amount to US$250. Although Green Papaya may not have this money allocated for such, for sure we are not irresponsible and mindless to allow artworks to “rot” in some Bureau of Custom’s warehouse for an amount equivalent to one fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Yayoi Kusama Town Speed bag available in an open market in Manila. But if we pay this amount outright, we will loose the opportunity of battling the establishment for what we believe sucks with our government’s taxation policy. Third, should we stick to the basic principle not to pay any taxes for non-commercial effects and arrive at the final decision of abandonment, this will surely come with consent of all artists involved in this project. Finally, these works were never meant to entangle with the law, or were intended to end up as mail art. But as the curator aptly articulated in her “status report,” we are quite amused and happy, and never resented the turn of events that helped expand the interest and currency of the works notwithstanding the ongoing tussle with the Customs personnel.

    • Donna Miranda

      The essay actually welcomes the entanglement that WAG found itself in, and if I may reiterate: “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.”

      I’m not sure I understand what you meant by the article bouncing off resentment to the international community. Because as I’ve said there is no resentment in the first place. If there is anything that we lament is not having foreseen the wider implication of circulating objects in the economy as if art/cultural objects were exempt from the same regulating mechanisms that police the inflow and outflow of other goods and services .

      As for returning the works to the artists “safely” — Green Papaya Art Projects is working towards securing a “conditional exemption” so that we may retrieve the works without having to pay duties, an amount the organization does not have as we function and subsist from intermittent grants and commissions, unfortunately we did not anticipate this in our budget allocation, reason for which I have already stated in the essay. Also, I’d like to point out that while it’s easy to think of the works as “rotting,” perhaps in some dark warehouse of the Bureau of Customs, what I propose instead is that in thinking of them occupying an institutional space other than “art” or other than the privacy of the artist’s studios, perhaps WAG gains more relevance than it had originally set itself out for.

  • Dean Harrowing

    The fact that the writer of this essay is also a main proponent for the exhibition, is a bit bewildering. I think more effective critical writing automates distance from the actual creation of the work – once objectivity has been established the piece may pass for being effective. Otherwise, there will (first and foremost) be bias, and misuse of the critical voice.

    • MichaelJWilson

      While I appreciate the need for a degree of critical distance in writing around contemporary art, the kind of absolute distinction between artist and viewer implied by the line “once objectivity has been established” suggests a black-and-white perspective that is surely rather removed from the on-the-ground realities of production and reception. (As English critic Adrian Searle has it, “No conflict, no interest.”) It seems a slightly odd basis too on which to criticize Miranda’s article, framed as it is not as a review but rather as an inside account of the somewhat unexpected trajectory of a particular collaborative project. I would agree that Miranda might not be best positioned to assess the quality or success of the W.A.G. initiative, but who more appropriate to describe the potential effect of a circumstance such as that described on its ongoing meaning?

    • http://www.facebook.com/gelo.suarez Angelo Suarez

      What critical voice has no bias? Even if this were a review–w/c it isn’t–it would only be a review of the variety in w/c a participant–in this case the curator–were making a critical reading of a work, privy to info that most audiences wouldn’t have access to. This access doesn’t make the review of one who has no access to such info any better or worse; it’s just a review generated by a wholly different subjectivity. If a text does the job of shedding light–even if obliquely, even if on aspects of the work that the audience may or may not know actually even exist–on an artistic project, I see no reason why it ought not to be welcomed. What would be bewildering, in fact, is if the curator who wrote this article went out of her way to mask her involvement in the work by way of a pseudonymous subjectivity–but while that would be bewildering, there’s also an entire tradition of writing that takes that route, & even then I wouldn’t know why that sort of critical writing shouldn’t be welcomed. What would constitute a “misuse of the critical voice,” if I may ask? Does the articulation of a position or attitude toward a work–w/c I suppose would constitute a bias–be a point against a review? But shouldn’t the elaboration of a position or attitude toward it be a review’s merit in the 1st place?

    • Donna Miranda

      I think Michael Wilson’s reply is spot on. This is not a review of the W.A.G initiative but a critical account of the circumstances that the investigation/initiative currently face. This is not the first time in art history that artists/curators critically reflect on their own initiatives so I don’t see why their is further need to belabor the point of critical distance.