Appropriative resistance

Derailed MRT train. Photo by Rey Laguda, from an article by T. J. Dimacali, courtesy of GMA News.

I am writing this two days past Independence Day, a national holiday that witnessed anti-imperialist rallies organized by a broad multisectoral alliance that critically involves the Philippine Left to combat bureaucrat capitalism of which expansionalist efforts by China and the US are symptoms and operations. On the days leading up to this, my Facebook newsfeed has been hijacked by much of the Filipino middle class dripping and hardening with celebration over the partnership between the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) and Uber, as well as similar profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing ventures like GrabTaxi and Easy Taxi, for what this government agency views not only as a solution to present public transportation woes but a challenge to taxi operators to update their services and compete with innovative new players in the industry. Secretary Jun Abaya — head of the DOTC and pawn of the Aquino regime whose advance of neoliberal policy manifests in its defense of and insistence on an iteration of a corrupt pork barrel system that advances patronage politics characteristic of the semi-feudal haciendero class the president belongs to — has in several statements to varying news agencies expressed pride in his collusion with the private sector that monetizes the present breakdown in public transport.

The said breakdown could be ascribed to the privatization of public transport at large. Gaining the most attention in media of late has been the MRT, of whose twenty trains — all in varying stages of dilapidation, which is expected of them for carrying almost 900,000 passengers daily (that’s around 450,000 in excess of their daily maximum capacity at optimum performance of only 350,000) — only seven are in operation. The situation has been the outcome not only of private maintenance deals that have been anomalous, to say the least, but of a stand-off between complicit government officials supposedly regulating public transport and opportunistic oligarchic players who possess true control and ownership of the train lines that has made the acquisition of new trains more daunting than it should be — a labyrinth of red tape and legal one-upmanship wrought by a bureaucracy of struggle between public and private.

Not to mention that sometime between the diminishment of the number of functional trains and the struggle to acquire new ones occurred not only the derailment and shooting of a train off its elevated terminal to land onto the country’s busiest intersection below, but also the implementation of a malicious, unwarranted, and much-protested fare hike across all train lines that doubles the cost of travel for those who commute from one end terminal to another — and it bears mentioning that those who rely most on this mode of transport are minimum wage workers and casual laborers, peppered in between with a range of urban professionals from white-collar cognitariats to the salaried bourgeoisie. To say that lines just getting through the turnstiles have gone kilometric despite the discouragement posed by the increased fares is no exaggeration, and so many have come to rely on pricier alternatives just to avoid getting physically mauled in and out of the trains as well as evade the uncertainty of how long it might take them just to step inside a coach. 

Of these alternatives, the buses are the more affordable option, owing to the necessity of keeping to their designated routes made sluggish by legendary Manila traffic during rush hours. They have also acquired notoriety for being tin-can perils on wheels — either spontaneously combusting on the road out of lack of maintenance by their private operators, or colliding with other vehicles from their drivers’ hustling practices necessitated by the oppressive boundary system that works by way of commissions in excess of their daily fare quota instead of regular wages. Those who can afford to evade the urban terror of highway traffic resort to cabs, notorious for their outlawed practices of rejecting passengers whose desired destinations are out of drivers’ more convenient routes as well as padding costs way over the government-approved fare matrix — all in view of meeting the quota imposed on them by a similarly exploitative boundary system in lieu of a fair wage system, which demands maximum hustling for any driver in such precarious circumstances to bring home decent earnings.

These are the conditions that have primed the landscape for the opportunism of Uber and its ilk: matters of labor whose worsening conditions are simultaneously symptomatized and compounded by privatization as a neoliberal operation of bureaucrat capitalism. What should be no more than a symptom of breakdown in public transport as an outcome of state abandonment and government neglect has been reframed by the Aquino regime in cahoots with profiteers as not even a palliative but a solution to problems they themselves have constructed for the benefit of the ruling elite. This partnership institutionalizes exploitative labor practices left unchecked due to the relegation of public transport at large to a business-minded private sector — exploitative labor practices that themselves have created the conditions propelling profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing services to prominence for the few who can afford them, exploitative labor practices not only reproduced but heightened by these same profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing services in their reliance on casual laborers whose earning a living precludes disenfranchising the majority of commuters while leeching those who have extra to spare.

How absolutely deplorable it is — if not criminal — to valorize the smartphone-enabled institutionalization of exploitation as social innovation in a milieu that finds three hundred contractual workers on strike for receiving less than minimum wage with no promise of regularization in sight being water-cannoned by hired paramilitary personnel backed by the repressive state apparatus of the police for picketing at the union-busting distillery of the country’s leading brand of rhum, and seventy-two contractual laborers making flip-flops for a manufacturing company burning to death in sweatshop conditions behind chicken-wire-sealed windows in the biggest factory fire in Philippine history — both within the same month, both stemming from the deep-seated problem of inequality. Needless to say, public transport is hardly the only field in which privatization, as the deepening and expansion of the structural problem of private property, wreaks havoc.

Workers in protest being water-cannoned from Arkibong Bayan. Image courtesy of Southern Tagalog Exposure and Pamantik-KMU.

It is in this context of flagrant privatization that appropriation in constructivist poetic practice becomes necessary, even inevitable, emphasizing the need to keep a commons intact in the same manner public services, utilities, and infrastructure must be kept intact. By constructivism here I mean Conceptualism that foregrounds the insistence on autonomy as its political edge (faktura in the featuring of the infrathin, tectonics in the defamiliarization of faktura, construction in the positing of a world that refuses the monetization/instrumentalization of tectonics), and by appropriation I mean as much a technique where composition consists of reusing a found object — be it situation or sentence, shit or shovel — as a Conceptualist ontology that is founded nevertheless on the technique.

When Douglas Huebler articulated his now-anthemic aesthetic refusal — “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more” — it wasn’t so much to call for a halt to object-making as it was a call to conceive of art as a heuristic object that exists simultaneously with what it frames, though the latter often comes by way of the former. One could, therefore, create multiple art objects out of a single object — and not in the sense of taking a sheet of paper, folding it into a crane, then burning it to ashes, but in the sense of taking a sheet of paper, taking a sheet of paper, and taking a sheet of paper. The heurism of the art object is what makes possible John Cage authoring nothing in 4'33" in 1952, the fictitious Jacques Cégeste authoring nothing in Nudisme in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée in 1950 before Cage, José Garcia Villa authoring nothing in “The Emperor’s New Sonnet” in 1942 before Cocteau, and Fray Manuel Blanco authoring nothing in El Indio before Villa, rumors about the existence of which had been circulating by 1877.

Jose Garcia Villa’s “The Emperor’s New Sonnet.” Image courtesy of Bibliotheca Invisibilis.

This is also the principle that makes possible, decades later, the emergence of a fantasmatic and fragmentary Fernando Pessoa from Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s erasure of Rene O. Villanueva’s memoiristic essays in his work Pesoa; the emergence of choreography in documentary bookmaking from Donna Miranda’s durational revision of John Cage’s lecture on silence in her work I have nothing to dance and I am dancing it; the emergence of poetry from Oliver Ortega’s gradual substitution of exhibition notes with top ten trending searches in 2014 in his work Spam; the emergence of an assemblage from Conchitina Cruz’s anthology of lists by Villa in the first volume of her ongoing work The Uncritical Villa; the emergence of comics posed as soliloquy from Josel Nicolas’s transcription of exchanges in panels of chat boxes with sexbots luring him to adult websites in his work Wooty Baby; and the emergence of an unveiling from the Pedantic Pedestrians’ detournement of Senate Bill No. 2758, or the “Artist’s Welfare Protection and Information Act of 2015,” authored by Senator Grace Poe, which institutionalizes the patronage politics on which the artworld subsists in the face of worsening labor conditions at large and the general lack of access to public services such as healthcare in their work PROVIDING PROTECTION / PROVIDING PURPOSE. It bears mentioning that all these works are, if not freely downloadable or readable online, self-published without profit or published by small presses that operate at a loss.

Conchita Cruz’s The Uncritical Villa and Josel Nicolas’s Wooty Baby. Image courtesy of Angelo Suárez.

The same principle also makes possible the emergence of criticism in Adam David’s Hi Ma’am Sir, and one of its resultant collections of collages, It will be the same but not quite the same. The former, described as an online randomizer that takes copyrighted excerpts from the flash fiction anthology Fast Food Fiction Delivery from Anvil Publishing, had been the center of a heated discussion (that is, if a clash between echo chambers, one with more [financial] power and [institutional] influence than the other — one party on the side of enriching literary history and another on the side of protecting of private property — with opportunistic instances of fence-sitting marauding as nuanced participation scattered in between, could pass for discussion) that was catapulted to a measure of public attention by a request signed by lawyers sent David’s way, mentioning the threat of potential legal action for copyright infringement as an offense that could result in jail time and an exorbitant fee, to take down the site within a designated time span; the latter had been a downloadable .pdf gathering numerous outcomes of the randomizer — which anybody could replicate, in a sense, using the same source text from In effect, anybody could author such a randomized collection, provided they use the construct authored by David, with It will be the same but not quite the same as the first and only collection to have been publicly declared authored (unsurprisingly) by David himself.

Both works were extensions of, according to the notice on David’s blog after taking them down, “a microreview focusing on what I perceive to be the anthology’s lack of an acute curatorial framework. HMS was the second part of this critical response. It was meant to demonstrate what I think is a flattening of aesthetics, politics, language, and form in contemporary English-language short story writing in the Philippines.”[1] By authoring an electronic platform through which he had authored a collection of collages of randomized fragments which anybody else could also generate and author, David was, without question, guilty of creating a platform that called attention to a split in Fast Food Fiction Delivery that might as well as have been in any textual corpus — its status as an object, and its capacity to be reframed, heuristically, springing directly from its object status, into a new work even while keeping the originary object as source text intact. For in Conceptual art, it is art itself that is the concept.

Introduction to Adam David’s
It will be the same/but not quite the same. Image courtesy of Angelo Suárez.

That the appropriative core of Conceptual practice features that the found object can be reused without any diminishment in its object status towards the production of another art object constitutes its resistance. Conceptual practice not so much reflects as directly enacts the making accessible of what it would make no sense to keep inaccessible — from knowledge and information to medical assistance and sustainable energy. To foreground appropriative resistance in Conceptualism makes Conceptualism constructivist, energized by the same utopian drive that animates the fight against privatization in the specific and bureaucrat capitalism in general.

1. Adam David, thirty minutes or less (blog), April 19, 2015.