Affective Labor and the Philippine Body
For this panel on “bodies politic,” occasioned by the 8th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art , I would like to look at the theme as referring to the political nature of the body. I am drawn to the phrase “political nature” because it tends to surmount certain divides between a sensing body and a sensible practice. In this regard, I turn to the Philippine term naturaleza, which is obviously a Hispanic derivation. It roughly means the condition of a person’s body, or better to say, an embodiment of its life force, its level of vitality; in the old Spanish lexicon, it is essence and attribute, in other words, “nature” in the sense that it is a “quality” and therefore not opposed to “culture.” In fact, the nature and culture duality is transcended by the concept; it makes of the body a vessel of distinction and hence of discrimination; and of nature as human, a biological and political form that enlivens and at the same time enfeebles. Naturaleza is perceived to inhere in the person so that whatever is perceived as coming from the outside, or the foreign, is mediated by it. This naturaleza may be discerned as part of a person’s destiny, an inheritance, conditioned by lineage and the state of the body that is always vulnerable as it is self-renewing, finite as it is persistent. It may also, however, be regarded as a medium in the active process of the body’s response to the various ways by which it is acted upon by an ill wind or a virus or a curse.
Naturaleza may be akin to the word favored by Spinoza, by way of Étienne Balibar, which is ingenium. It is a complexion or a temperament, “a memory whose form has been determined by the individual’s experience of life and by his various encounters, and which, as a result of the unique way in which it has been constituted, is inscribed both in the mind (or soul) and in the disposition of the body.” For this presentation, I propose the framework of naturaleza to talk about contemporary art practice in the Philippines that is sustained by an inquiry into affective or intimate labor.
Much has been said of the exceptional techniques of the Philippine body to perform affective labor across the globe beginning in the nineteenth century. This labor has assumed diverse forms, from entertainment to care giving, and has significantly shaped the economy of the country in recent time. This presentation will sketch out lines of conversation between the practice of Eisa Jocson and the theoretical efforts of Rhacel Parreñas in her study in Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo on what she calls “indentured mobility” to describe the condition of Philippine migrant workers in Japan. Tangential to this discussion are the initiations of Russ Ligtas as well as the projects of Chinese artists Peng Yu and Sun Yuan and Tintin Wulia on Philippine domestic workers in Hong Kong.
In discussing affective labor, I turn to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt who define the term as “labor in the bodily mode,” investing in the intimacy of human contact and interaction in their book Empire. According to them, “what affective labor produces are social networks, forms of community, biopower.” They continue that in affective labor, “the instrumental action of economic production has been united with the communicative action of human relations.”
Eisa Jocson fleshes out the Philippine body as a body of entertainment that mediates the pedagogy of its source, mimics its habits, and complicates the nature of the body. Jocson is an artist in the field of performance. Her research on the practice of macho dancing, or dancing by male performers in a gay bar in the Philippines, had culminated in a performance piece titled “Macho Dancer.” She elaborated on this project in the exhibition “Philippine Macho Academy” at the Vargas Museum: a fictive structure or institution that serves as a classroom where the principles of macho dancing in the Philippines are analyzed and conveyed.
This exhibition is a documentation of Jocson’s research and articulation of macho dance movement vocabulary. It comprises artifacts, texts, drawings, video, installation, and performance. It is a course on the physical principles of macho dancing based on a syllabus designed through a woman artist’s macho dance practice. Central in this project is the affective labor of man performed in the woman’s body. The latter undergoes both physical change and social habit, ultimately complicating the notions of the feminine and the macho.
All this is materialized in the body and its movement. The artist makes ample reference to it in the form of drawing and performance, as well as the ethnographic details of her research and collaboration with practitioners. She also notates it in the modernist method of Laban, rendering turns of the body graphic, and so reflecting on erotic desire and the devices of modernity. This is her articulation of a striptease: a laying bare of the gendered body that finally becomes queer.
It is interesting to note that Jocson is keen to probe the implications of the vertical and the horizontal as indices of control and release. In an earlier work on pole dance, she argues: “It is a series of public interventions that moves the practice of pole dancing to the public landscape using urban fixtures as sites for play. These architectures of control strategically placed as constraints and disciplinary objects are transformed into playground fixtures for movement exploration. The pole dance vocabulary is used as a starting point to initiate other possibilities of moving in a given site with urban fixtures. I tag and document each public intervention, in the process mapping the fixtures in the urban landscape. The public intervention intends to provide an alternative practice and a different perspective towards how our bodies move within the urban landscape.”
I zero in on Eisa Jocson’s practice because it raises important issues in the political nature of the body in terms of expenditure, exhaustion, pedagogy, discipline, and dissemination. But on the other hand, it also implicates the conditions of affective labor in a migrant context. Here the work of Rhacel Parreñas on Filipina migrant hostesses in Tokyo becomes cogent. She argues that to more fully understand the tension between “coercion and choice” embodying “labor migration experiences...we need to dismantle the binary framework that separates these two distinct migratory flows and construct a middle ground that recognizes the agency of migrants without dismissing the severe structural constraints that could hamper their freedom and autonomy.” Parreñas provocatively marks out a “middle zone between human trafficking and labor migration” and calls it “indentured mobility,” a process that creates degrees of unfreedom and financial and sexual liberation.
I bring up this notion particularly because it has animated the work of Eisa Jocson who has done work on the Philippine entertainer in Japan, focusing on the various forms, from the traditional style to pop, and will work on Philippine entertainers in Hong Kong Disneyland.
Another trajectory that this discussion on affective labor opens up is a possible queerness, a quick-change procedure that reveals layers of repressed personae that are then performed as a protracted confession. I reference here the work of Russ Ligtas on a multi-character persona called Mdm. B. Niyaan is Russ Ligtas, or Madam Abandoned is Russ Ligtas. The piece takes off from the original one-hour performance Mdm. B. Niyaan is Russ Ligtas where the artist undergoes an exercise to manifest the character Mdm. B. Niyaan and in doing so manage the suffering caused by a tragically frustrated love affair. “Being B. Niyaan” extends the second step of the exercise. Around the perimeter of the Cultural Center of the Philippines fountain, Mdm. B. Niyaan, according to Ligtas, continues the cycle of her grief: from the heights of her most ecstatic memories to the consuming depths of her anger and pain. The performance covers eight hours, one cycle of the ramp covers an hour of Being B. Niyaan. She relives her origin and being, ending only after she's clocked in a day's work. It is interesting to mention that Mike Parr also performed in the premises in 1995 as a bride.
Finally, this conjuncture of migration and affective labor, this exceptional sentimentality in foreign spaces that is rendered ultimately intimate, has prompted artists outside the Philippines to speak to the condition of the Philippine bodies that are embedded in the houses of their masters like some terrorist bomb or seen as forming a sprawl, a horizontal gathering across an urban space marked by cardboards that become houses. I refer to the work “Hong Kong Intervention” in 2009 by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu in which they asked Philippine domestic workers to plant bogus bombs in the houses of their employers, photograph them, and ask their fellow workers to take a photograph of them standing with their backs turned on the lenses. I also bring in here the 2016 work of Tintin Wulia called “Five Tons of Homes and Other Understories” on the used cardboard boxes appropriated by Philippine domestic workers in Hong Kong as transient floors or mats in urban pavements during their rest days. These works are potentially provocative, inscribing the internal danger of strangers who dwell in domestic spaces and the occupation of public space by both body and cardboard.
These brief notes on the political nature of the body in the Philippines hopefully stir up interest in affective labor in the migratory ethnoscape. I think it is important to talk about the habits of the body and the changes it has to carry out – out of a robust relational will or under adverse duress – in situations of self-disclosure and collective desire. There is a need to speak to the consequences of pedagogy and repetition as well as the promise of sympathy, intimacy, and the sadness as well as the thrill of indentured mobility and the mediation of the compromised but prevailing naturaleza of the Philippine body.
Patrick D. Flores
Patrick D. Flores is Professor of Art Studies in the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines, which he chaired from 1997 to 2003, and Curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila. He is Adjunct Curator of the National Gallery Singapore. He was one of the curators of Under Construction: New Dimensions in Asian Art in 2000 and the Gwangju Biennale (Position Papers) in 2008. He was a Visiting Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1999 and an Asian Public Intellectuals Fellow in 2004. Among his publications are Painting History: Revisions in Philippine Colonial Art (1999); Remarkable Collection: Art, History, and the National Museum (2006); and Past Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia (2008). He was a grantee of the Asian Cultural Council (2010) and a member of the Advisory Board of the exhibition The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989 (2011) organized by the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe and member of the Guggenheim Museum’s Asian Art Council (2011 and 2014). He co-edited the Southeast Asian issue with Joan Kee for Third Text (2011). He convened in 2013 on behalf of the Clark Institute and the Department of Art Studies of the University of the Philippines the conference “Histories of Art History in Southeast Asia” in Manila. He was a Guest Scholar of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2014. He curated the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015.
 The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art Conference 23 November 2015, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia. First publication of the text. (ed.).