One peaceful late afternoon, on the beach of a small fishing village at the foot of Mount Pinatubo in Zambales in the Philippines, three young men were watching a ray of light breaking through the clouds onto the South China Sea, a little boy was joyfully throwing an irregularly shaped ball made from a foam container into the air, and a group of older men was stoking a fire and preparing straw and bamboo to construct another row of vernacular village houses. A group of young men and women rushed toward a fishing boat that was making its way back to the shore. Annabellie Gruenberg, a psychologist from Manila who relocated to the small village to teach young children, was excited by the moment. She explained that this is always a beautiful sight: “The people who push the boat to sea and pull back to shore are given slices of fish if it is big,” she explained, “or a piece of fish if it is small.”
A little further away from the water, on a low, narrow wooden pedestal, there was a gathering of young children. They seemed to be installing a kind of conceptual-convivial situation, a relational artwork of sorts. Gruenberg explained that the children gathered found objects, flower petals, leaves, sand, and soil in different shades of gray. “They are the ingredients, and the children are pretending to cook. After they cook, they will share the food with one another.” Behind the rows of bamboo houses is the main road leading back to the center of San Antonio. There are little “sari-sari” grocery stores, a church, an elementary school, some holiday villas owned by foreigners, and a mixed-use basketball court that is sometimes used for concerts and community events. Through the fence of the court, a two-year old boy waved happily at Gruenberg, one of her students. Gruenberg was also pleased to see him at first, but quickly noticed what the boy had in his hand—soda in a plastic bag! He ran away after claiming that his grandma had given it to him.
The setting for this peaceful, carefree afternoon was an altogether different scene 23 years ago when, on June 15, 1991, many of the villagers here witnessed the second-largest terrestrial volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Even today, one can still easily find traces of the destruction in the dry soil and thick air. This is the context in which Gruenberg chose to be: Casa San Miguel. Casa—the name is an acronym for Creative Alternatives for Social Actions—was initiated in 1993, when the area was still recovering from the devastation. An artist-run initiative, it was established by internationally acclaimed concert violinist Alfonso “Coke” Bolipata. Shortly after he finished his studies in the United States, Bolipata returned to his homeland where he opened up his family estate to the local community with the aim of turning to turn it into a hub for social change through the arts.
In an interview, Bolipata explained that after the eruption, “people were looking for other sources of livelihood, like sari-sari store businesses. During these times, art and culture for Zambale’s residents were like, “what?!” It was under these circumstances that we started and we haven’t stopped since.” Casa is many things in one: a school where local underprivileged children are given the opportunity to learn from the country’s best talents in art and music, a museum that celebrates the rich local heritage and indigenous culture, and a residency program where international and local artists continue their cultural production. There is also a cafe with an open terrace, and a bed-and-breakfast for visitors who want to rally immerse themselves in the environment.
Resident artists also engage the wider public by intervening in public space. In Casa’s garden, Plet Bolipata Borlongan made a kind of participatory installation composed of multiple interconnected structures, large-scale sculptures, a Combi van converted into a bookshop, and some tea and light canapés. She later made a larger version of this environment in the atrium of the largest shopping mall in the region. Other artists have worked with local youth in creating public murals.
Casa is one example of a type of artist-led initiative emerging in the rural areas of Southeast Asia. Another is Bencab Museum in Baguio, home to the art of Benedicto Reyes Cabrera. With limited support from public and private sectors, communities away from the major cities are often neglected, but there remains at large a wealth of culture and heritage distilled from hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of human civilization. These initiatives inevitably operate in a space that we might call, to borrow a term from curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, an “interstice,” “a space in social relations which, although it fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, suggests possibilities for exchanges other than those that prevail within the system.”
Like plants bursting through concrete, such initiatives establish an ecology to which subsequent generations may contribute, and like the fissures after an earthquake, they form an archive of the aftermath of intense energies, a proof of life and existence.
As the sun set behind the South China Sea, Mount Pinatubo’s majestic contours also disappeared into the dark sky. Gruenberg explained that what is now a lively street will soon be completely empty. Casa, which was filled with visitors and dozens of children with violins returned to its original state, a quiet family holiday retreat.
Kingsley Ng (伍韶勁) is an interdisciplinary artist with a focus on conceptual, site-specific, and community-engaged projects.