The half-truth and half-lie about watching

Now having settled on the initial discomfort of watching, it remains to be further pricked upon why the insistent demand of distance as a strategy to sustain curiosity, when there are hints at constructing a deferential, provisional, even bureaucratic detachment of self or suspension of judgment.

The need is of course not so obvious, given that Manila is – no Berlin, or New York, or Vienna, or Amsterdam – a cosmopolitan schizoid not urbane enough to let go of its post-Marcos guilt and parochial artistic concerns. Any discussion about art and culture will almost always induce those dirty words: Filipino, identity, social responsibility, history, gratitude, etc. Not enough art exhibitions or contemporary performances challenge our comfortable, parochial minds.  Neither do we have any festivals that force us to re-examine the experience of watching apart from merely judging a piece of work as good or bad.

Despite the growing practice of art outside the cultural center, most of which are merely reactionary, the values attenuated on art still hinges on the age-old patronage system.

Nothing wrong here really; the performing arts practice in the country is after all premised on patronage system pretty much until now. The cavernous Cultural Center of the Philippines building is reminiscent of Rockefeller Center, an elite secondary school for the performing arts patterned after the famous Hollywood flick Fame: dancers coming from privileged families from down South, scholars sent by rich people to study abroad, all dressed up pretty and nice performing at benefit dinners. These dancers are idealized as glamorous, beautiful, ephemeral, poster images on magazines and dailies, and the body brutally molded to idealize the human condition if only as reactionary response to all of the above.

Again, nothing wrong here except that it’s boring, staid, and uninteresting.  It perpetually reinforces the deceptive conception of art as something that should be breathtaking and beautiful, and therefore alienating. Alienating in so far as the thing remains far from us. Should we accept this premise then there is nothing left for us to do but slip back into the passive consumption of a performance. Within such a setup, this ranting could might as well be taken to the privacy of backstage dressing room talk.

Whether it is even productive at all to discuss how dance has lagged behind contemporary thought is probably not as important as appreciating our place in it as viewers or spectators. A performance is never complete/d without the complicit imbalance of power between performers and its spectators. And this premise need not be taken seriously (no matter how jolting it may sound) but humorously and constructively. Should we consider a performance as a construction rather than a “way of imitating reality or expressing states of the mind,” then its completion rests not in the reality of the dancers sweating their guts out but within our imaginations and how it subtly affects the way we see (our) bodies. In fact, this is why we watch, we like the distanced vulnerability of watching something unfold while experiencing a connection to it, be it emotional, physical or intellectual, without having to risk so much.

But distance is also risk, more so for the artist drawn to guard the meaning of their work. They hold of on impulsive creative decisions and instead modestly maintain the empty potential of the stage – a site where significations are not only contested but also stripped bare of their necessity. Instead they have to illustrate the obvious, such as the frame of the theater (notwithstanding its ideological and historical baggage) and the ‘performance event,’ the body and its organization, the choreographed assignments of who is watching and who is doing, the performer and the spectator. Paradoxically, the performer-maker or author is left impotent, castrated. Their function is left to merely establishing a situation or pretext for an ‘activity ‘ to take place, which is the performance itself — a performance that includes both spectator and performer.

So what makes a performance contemporary or what makes watching contemporary? What makes for contemporariness is perhaps not simply the content of a work, no matter how sociologically loaded or relevant it is to the times, or in how innovative the gestures we witness onstage. The way it resists the fascist tendency to represent the abstract into form or inscribe some notion of the human condition on the emotional expression of a dancer’s body, yet paradoxically keeping the tension in the way things are. Performing involves a negation of an act in order to communicate something transparently outside of the body.

Detachment is necessary if only to effectively slide into that critical zone of doing and looking at the same time or what Joao Fiadeiro refers to as “protecting myself from what I want.” Why take this risk? We can take this risk precisely because the stage is safest place to, because we are distanced away from it.

[this essay first printed online by Philippine Online Chronicles at, 25 March 2010]