Carlos Celdran is known for being a number of things, including a performance artist and a tour guide. But what he is arguably most famous for is his cultural activism, something that prevails in all his works. The whimsicality he injects in his walking tours is just one of the many ways by which he makes history interesting and memorable for his audience, in the hopes of instilling in them an interest and appreciation for local culture. These hopes are put on a grander scale in his latest endeavour— the Manila Biennale. The event, which runs throughout the whole month of February, brings Intramuros to life with the many exhibitions and activities set in place.
PT: What sparked the deep appreciation you have for all things Old Manila?
CC: The obsession I have for Manila is a direct reaction to my sheltered and insular upbringing in Makati. I grew up in Dasmariñas Village, unapologetically upper middle class. I studied in the village, I socialised in the village, and my whole world revolved around the village. It was a comfortable and safe upbringing but an absolute nightmare for any creative spirit. I knew there was more to my city than gated communities, social clubs, and malls. So, when I graduated from high school in 1990, took up Fine Arts at UP Diliman, and began roaming the streets of Intramuros and Malate during my free time. I discovered another side to my city, one that wasn’t so controlled and precious; a city that was exciting, unpredictable, and full of life and culture. Since then, I never looked back.
PT: How did you come up with Manila’s first biennale?
CC: It wasn’t a solo decision. I came up with the idea along with a few artist friends of mine while we were doing a residency at Santiago Bose’s house in Baguio. We were expressing our frustrations with the current art scene in the Philippines. We felt that Manila’s art scene needed something more than just gallery openings, sales fairs, and the ever-growing culture of patronage and commerce. Not that there is anything wrong with the status quo; I’m absolutely grateful that the museums, galleries, and patrons support and promote artists, keeping this creative industry alive. But we felt that it was time for artists do something for themselves. It was time to mount an artist-run, artist-centric, artist-focused exposition mounted in an authentic setting that would create a larger context. So, I went online and bought the name ‘Manila Biennale’ by credit card.
PT: What does its theme ‘OPENCITY’ hope to convey?
CC: The current theme OPENCITY references Intramuros. It brings to mind its histories as a trading port, as a spiritual and cultural touchstone, and its importance in the development of the capital that we live in. It also refers to World War II, the 1945 destruction of Intramuros and the loss of over three centuries of culture. The loss of Intramuros—its churches, architecture, and art—is one of the biggest tragedies we’ve ever had as a people and we hope to invite people back to the city in order to revive it both in form and in thought. We hope to open up the city through art and culture and authentic experiences. Consider the Manila Biennale an intangible memorial to the destruction of our walled city and the 100,000 civilians who were lost in the Battle of Manila.
PT: How is an exposition like this different from the others that have taken place?
CC: First of all, it is run by artists like me; we did the curating, the fundraising, the organising, and the promotions as a collective effort. Secondly, it’s not a marketplace; we don’t sell the art on show. What we are actually selling is the experience of art interacting with Intramuros itself. We’ve introduced day passes, packages for schools, hotel overnight deals, and art passports. We’re planning to have pop-up shops, parties, and lectures. These incentives hope to attract people downtown. Frankly, the simple act of purchasing a cappuccino at an Intramuros coffee shop is already an act of patronage. What’s important is that we show up and use what’s already there. Being there is the best and most direct way to revive a heritage site.
PT: Do you feel that the local art scene is in need of something like this?
CC: The Philippines is in need of more art and more initiatives to protect and revive heritage spaces, not only in the art scene—but outside of it as well.
PT: How do you want visitors to react to the exhibitions?
CC: I leave that open to the viewer. I don’t want to dictate what they will feel. Some may love it, some may even hate it. But if I’ve made anyone skeptical enough about the biennale to actually leave their comfort zone and go down to Intramuros, that’s already a victory in itself.
PT: What thoughts do you wish to impart to people through this event?
CC: Just remember the 100,000 civilians that perished back in 1945. Remember that we had a beautiful city once, and remember that we have the collective power to create a beautiful city once again.
PT: Given that the event is the Manila Biennale, what will ensure its continuity?
CC: On the part of the organisers and artists involved: attention to detail and competence. On the part of the public and government: support, assistance, and understanding. This is a community effort. No one can define Manila alone. We’re in this together.
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