The word I propose is “alternating”; and I begin with a commonplace: that the hegemonic institution is foiled if it is negated and constructed in an idealised alternative, which is conceived as something diametrically different from that which activates the negation. It is this alternative that refuses the norm and tends to harden in the course of its career, or tenure, as the seemingly preordained opposite of the institutional. Perhaps, the word “counter-culture” may be revived provisionally just to set up the stature of the “alternative”. Of interest to me are the categories “counter” and “culture” and how the two would consolidate into a fairly stable element that supposedly threatens the existing doxa. The term culture is obviously attractive, largely because it invests a transcendent moment such as the “aesthetic” or the “zeitgeist” with a context or a ground, or that fine grain of materiality. That being stated, how culture inevitably becomes captured through meaning and tradition has prompted scholars to calibrate its valence and investigate the capillary circulations of power. For instance, Lila Abu-Lughod challenges the “coherence, timelessness, and discreteness” that the rubric of culture presupposes and urges us to write against it by way of “discourse and practice”, “connections”, and the “ethnographies of the particular”. I take these to mean the intense interrogation, reciprocities, and annotations of the idiosyncratic. The “counter” and the “cultural” dissipate in this hectic exchange of energies, this “proliferating act of → translation [→ translation]”.
In light of this reconsideration, I ask: What if instead of alternative, the term “alternating” is contemplated? I am keen on a term that infuses institutionality with a current that changes direction from time to time, every now and then, and is not constant and direct. In alternating current, the charge carriers move back and forth instead of merely transferring from positive to negative; they in a way carom, or bounce back at an angle, beyond the binary continuum or a predictable polarity, as it were. Eventually, these charges drift, wander across an indefinite cycle. I try to inscribe alterity, a charge of difference, into the institutional to harness its transmission more broadly, and to some extent more efficiently, because of the repetitive translation and eccentric switching through the subjectivity that is the alternator, the conduct of which may be embodied by the curator.
Let me discuss “alternating” across different scales.
First is the scale of political economy. The term “alternating” is seen in relation to the context of the “developmental”. The “developmental” references the potential of transformation in which a world “suddenly turns visible” in the words of the artist-curator, poet, designer, and thinker Raymundo Albano. He regarded contemporary art and his curatorial work in the 1970s through the 1980s, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which stands on ground reclaimed from the sea, as akin to the way the government of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos was priming the Philippines to become an industrial nation through a regimen of development strategies. The developmental agenda largely meant, according to Albano, the “building of roads, population control, the establishment of security units”. Developmental art in his mind was verisimilarly made from the same facture and affect: “sand, junk, iron, non-art materials such as raw lumber, rocks” and “people were shocked, scared, delighted, pleased and satisfied” when confronted with this method of making art”. Alternating here comes in two forms: the → alignment of contemporary art with the economic policy of a Third World, Southeast Asian developing nation-state that had undergone three successive colonialisms from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, on the one hand, and the insertion of experiments into the official program of a cultural centre which postured to be simultaneously civilisational and international, on the other. Let it be said as well that attending these successive colonialisms were the Pacific War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Albano demonstrated that what “embodied → bureaucracy” might be able to insinuate in the technique of cultural work, which is not entirely estranged from development work fostered by the state. An artist-curator like Albano, a position that in itself had been an alternating one, would vacillate between regulated assimilation and nimble intermediation at a time when a “world” was sensed as “suddenly turning visible”, a prospect that puts its faith in the “turning” and is thrilled by suddenness. It is the visible, however, that may prove to be more complicated, alternating between what Mark Currie posits as “anticipation” and the “unexpected”, open to both the calculated and the unforeseeable. The alternating, therefore, is always a suspended, suspenseful dynamic. The artist-curator Albano executed programs in an institution which he was building almost from scratch, and at the same time mediated the various demands and pressures of administrators and politicians who intervened in the field of art and culture. In other words, Albano was at once elusive and present, a proficient worker and an unknown quantity, a cog in the machine, so to speak, and also a monkey wrench.
The second aspect of the alternating is the aesthetic underlying its logic of practice. Albano, in an effort to convey a post-colonial critique of Western modernism, wrote in an essay that installation is, first, as innate as “childhood urges” and, second, indigenous to the Philippines, as opposed to painting that he deems Western. Here, he alternates between a desire for authenticity, even originality, on the one hand, and a desire to belong to the currency of international contemporary art by contracting the language of installation, on the other. He sketches out this memory as a link between the memory of hometown lifeways and “an artist’s open-mindedness in expressing new sculpture – especially the kind that hangs, leans, or gets support from an existing structure, something that we call an installation”. In Albano’s mind, the connection is primal, and he crosses the gap between “custom” and “academic evaluation”. Of consequence here is the way Albano recovers something bodily, seemingly unmediated, to situate or provide a context for an inculcated norm in the field of art. According to him, this “gives an explanation to the roots of the concerns of artists doing this type of art”. On the one hand, Albano saturates the urge to install with local and intrinsic integrity; and, on the other, he finds it necessary or strategic to contract the idiom of the international art world to make it intelligible. In a significant way, the option of installation permitted Albano to draw several lines of critique: first against the primacy of painting, and second against the kind of art that the allegiance to painting had generated. He points out that “through the years, installations enabled artists to broaden their list of materials for art: sand, stones, bags, rubber tires, painted bread… items taken from the outside world”. It was not only the medium that had expanded but the technology as well: “spreading, hanging, stretching, laying down arbitrarily, et cetera”. This critique of form for Albano was ultimately a critique of space, or more specifically, the limitations of gallery space as furnished by the museum institution. For him, the said conventional space “does not provide the ‘nature’ that their works depend on. Hence, the necessary hanging or leaning”. He explains that “in echoing the natural world, the artists confront the characteristics of installation itself… The fact that a sculptor no longer depends on gravity alone changes attitudes towards the concept of art itself”. The installative, therefore, serves as some kind of a vehicle of translation, an alternator.
The third register in the alternating is the disposition of the agent who alternates. The Philippine lexicon yields the fascinating word diskarte, which is basically a kind of metis, a sense of cunning that is able to refunction the dominant structures or adverse circumstances through a series of turns in form, in other words through a multiplicity of tropes. The alternating, polytropic agent is able to ultimately transcend the binary of mastery and hybridity by entitling himself or herself to both in going through the tricky processes of imitation and intimacy so that the foreign and the native would no longer be feared or reified; they would neither be heroically resisted nor hopelessly orientalised.
Finally, the alternating implicates a possible theory of interval. In the atmosphere of the alternating, the interval is key in resisting reconciliation and in pursuing risk through embodied bureaucracy and the everyday improvisation of an embedded and emergent interlocutor. In a climate of ubiquitous tropical decay and political corruption, natural calamity and endemic exploitation of power, the alternating ingrains in the agent exceptional practical intelligence in which the institutional is lived out and outlived in-between crises. The interval is neither disruption nor nexus; it is an opportunity, a relief from routine and transaction, and in a setting of scarcity, a time to make the most of.
The alternating, however, because of its vigorous oscillations may at a certain point be exhausted and inevitably overcome by the complicity with discrepant interests and expectations. It may also tax the quick-change talent and virtuosity of the alternating agent who has to relentlessly translate, rescale, and perform temporary conditions of possibility though cannot prefigure lasting results, or regulate → sustainable infrastructure because of fluctuating sources of capital and patronage. That being said, the alternating is, I think, generative and hospitable, indeed, in a way more political than the radical schemes of the seizure of the dominant apparatus or abandoning it for extremely opposite structures. The alternating is not so much anti-institutional as it is proto- or para-institutional, always incipient and tangential relative to that which is aspired to and infringed upon. The temptations of seizure and rupture are surely irresistible. But they tend to be uncompromisingly committed to the ideological, the dialectic, and the → autonomous, too beholden to the avant-garde as the episteme of transformation or the fundament of any alteration. The alternating dynamic is successive but not necessarily progressive, reversive but not immediately subversive. I am reminded of the Filipino woman revolutionary Salud Algabre, who took part in a peasant rebellion in the 1930s against the Americans, who said: “No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction”. The alternating is patient, spirited.
While the alternating dwells in that delicate tension between everyday and emergency, the timely and the untimely. Raymundo Albano spoke of “metaphysical → unrest” and the “time to unlearn” in the same breath amid the designs of the state to speed up development and stage its spectacles. The alternating responds to what Ben Anderson calls “everyday emergencies”, the “precariousness of the everyday”, the critical condition that demands urgent action and persistent attentiveness. It is drawn to the modality of the series or the cycle, to incremental, accretive engagements that may not necessarily cohere into a centre like what Imelda Marcos had imagined as the classical Parthenon or the First World Lincoln Center in Manila. Intimating the nature of the country, with its intermittent monsoons and exceptional humidity, the alternating in the Philippines may be reckoned as archipelagic, at once aesthetic and natural history, like islands surrounded by a level of water that continually channels and mutates. It can only be finally tropical: prone to turning, likely to decline.