At Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, every available advertising space announced the inaugural China International Import Expo, China’s first import-focused trade fair. Fast-track lanes were set aside for attendees. Widely discussed in the context of Xi Jinping’s US trade war, the event propagated the nation’s growing economic power. Welcomed to Roxas airport the next morning by a pair of folk singers, I was happy to see publicity of a different scale. Outside the baggage reclaim hall, a choreography of VIVA ExCon banners rippled in the dawn’s breeze. Tripping over my shoelaces with fatigue, I bundled into one of the city’s ubiquitous taxi tricycles to locate my hotel.
Driven by financialism and elitism, international contemporary art events often feel more like China’s Import Expo than the Philippines’ VIVA ExCon. Instigated by the Black Artists in Asia in 1990, and first staged in the city of Bacolod, in Negros Occidental, the Visayan Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) is a biannual arts festival that provides a platform for Filipinx cultural production outside of Metro Manila. The longest-running arts biennial in the country, this year’s 15th edition convened, for the first time, in Roxas, capital of the province of Capiz. Launched on November 8, 2018, it was lucidly curated by Norberto Roldan and Merv Espina of Green Papaya Art Projects, a nonprofit in Quezon City. Entirely organized by artists, VIVA ExCon valorises local and regional ways of producing culture and knowledge, contextualizing these within a Southeast Asian art discourse. Its tenacious lens offers an inviting template for arts festivals elsewhere, in which an emphasis upon degrowth can paradoxically enable more expansive political and artistic horizons.
I arrived late, in time for only the final of the conference’s three days—the festival’s fourth, overall, of activity. The energy was emphatic. In the morning’s session, “Unpacking Rituals and Festival Histories,” Dr. Christine Muyco gave a paper on the folk festivals of the Panay Bukidnon, an Indigenous tribe of Panay Island, and Dr. Cecile Nava presented on the MassKara Festival in Bacolod. These festivals are revitalising: the Panay Bukidnon’s continue long-running traditions, while MassKara, translated as “Many Faces,” was initiated in 1980 following the Marcos government’s monopolization of the local sugar industry, and its dramatic decline. The discussion was a highlight, as the festivals, which, taken together, collocate Indigenous ritual, Spanish-influenced religious ceremony, and tourist-driven postmodern pastiche, contextualized VIVA ExCon’s role amid the broad cultural landscape of the Visayas. Responding to the panel, curator and critic Marian Pastor Roces observed that “state of the art research should be done on VIVA ExCon.” Not only does VIVA ExCon uplift its province into a global art dialogue, but it complicates the aggressive contemporaneity of this discourse, pointing to a catalytic and community-driven bridge between experimental practices and pre-colonial rituals.
The curatorial theme was “Don’t even bring water (Bisan tubig di magbalon),” a line borrowed from the Visayan folk ballad “Dandansoy,” which encapsulated the festival’s aspiration of “returning to one’s roots.” In terms of hospitality alone, the theme rang generously—banquet-like meals and endless tea, coffee and snacks, were provided. The breaks encouraged networking opportunities between Visayan artists and other cultural workers from across the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and further afield. Around the Gerry Roxas Training and Convention Center, which hosted the conference, stands offered local wares like salted fish, and pop up stalls sold beautiful queer zines. I bought a handful, alongside volume 2 of the independent art journal Traffic, founded in 2017 by Lyra Garcellano, W Don Flores, and Leslie De Chavez.
As day conceded to evening, Roldan began the conference’s plenary by reading a statement on the Sagay Massacre. On October 20, just three weeks earlier, armed men, suspected to be state agents or affiliates of private armies, fatally attacked nine sugarcane farmers in Purok Firetree, Barangay Bulanon, Sagay City, Negros Occidental. The statement highlighted that, “Those killed were members of the local chapter of the National Federation of Sugar Workers pursuing legitimate claims to land reform.” It further affirmed:
As artists and cultural workers who engage with the complexity of our contexts, we reiterate our commitment to engaging with platforms such as VICA ExCon to collectively affirm our solidarity with issues affecting our farmers and the rural sector. We underscore how our continual gathering through VIVA ExCon is a political act: offering a space where these concerns can be collectively raised, weighed, and engaged with.
It’s hard to think of an art scene that doesn’t need better infrastructure for building meaningful exchange outside of national capitals—and centres of capital. The discursive richness and enthusiasm of VIVA ExCon evidenced that this is well underway in Visayas. To quote Roces, again: “the English word ‘festival’ is too primitive a word for the complexity of our situation.” Departing from the conference’s otherwise jubilant undertone, the Sagay statement attested to the fact that the decentralisation of cultural production is a fiercely politicised project. To be effective, this work must be grounded in local concerns and in the empowerment of rural workers: culture can only be decentralised when capital and power are redistributed. While this understanding was embedded in the festival’s structure, I’d be eager to see these ideas broached more explicitly, through queer, feminist, and Indigenous perspectives, at VIVA ExCon 2020, in Bacolod.
Most delegates returned home by the end of the weekend. For those who stayed, post-conference programs commenced on Monday morning with Amy Lien & Enzo Camacho’s “Bleeding from the Waist.” Noting that a local Aswang Festival had been banned in 2009, Lien & Camacho introduced their Manananggal sculpture series, positioning this chasmic corpus within a survey of recent acts of artistic ‘cannibalism.’ Their talk, like later screenings and presentations by Muhammad Sibawaihi and Otty Widasari, who shared their short film “The Harbor,” and Nguyễn Quốc Thành, who discussed Queer Forever!, a festival he founded in Hà Nội in 2013, was held in Ang Panublion Museum (in Hiligaynon, ‘panublion’ means ‘guardian of precious things’). Informally staged yet strikingly informative, the collateral events had an engaging intimacy, in which personal anecdotes often pirouetted into insurgent counter-histories.
The official city museum, Ang Panublion is nested in an old water tank. It housed two shows, one, by artist-researcher Liby Limoso with collaborator Ray Zalde Laude, in its rotund central pavilion, and another in an adjacent gallery. Curated by Marika Constantino, the latter, Pagtahud: Lessons from Unsung Luminaries, grouped elder Capiz artists, introduced, by wall labels, with titles like “founder” and “instructor.” Two gravelly, globular lion sculptures purred at the room’s far end. These were stone-carved by Nelson Sorillo, a celebrated teacher who offers free art classes every Saturday morning. In a corner, among a selection of the artist’s paintings and sculptures, an angled cabinet contained a simulation of a portion of Ricardo Lauz’ (a co-founder of the Art Association of Capiz) Roxas City studio. On a folding chair sat a cluster of paint brushes and old jars. Other materials were bunched atop a small table, and all around the busy scene were preparatory sketches. It was like a part of the artist’s workspace had been airlifted into the museum. Beyond its alluring proto-conceptual commentary on painterly apparatus and material, the immediacy of the display encapsulated the effusive generosity of the exhibition, which foregrounded art as a site of intergenerational learning.
Nearby, in the city’s hangar-like Civic Center, the biennial’s flagship exhibition grouped local and international artists alongside vitrine displays that forayed into VIVA ExCon’s history. An untitled installation by Paul Pfeiffer looped a field recording of a Roxas City Hall employee’s basketball game, held at the Civic Center just days before the exhibition was installed. Emanating from loudspeakers in the middle of the hall, high pitched sneaker squeaks and whistles jostled with the beat of the bouncing basketball, delicately rupturing the temporal continuity of the multi-use centre. The exhibition buzzed with sensitive curatorial juxtapositions, exemplified by the placement of Olive Gloria’s textiles next to expressive paintings by Rock Drilon and Charlie Co, both of whom have directed VIVA ExCon in the past (Co is a cofounder of Black Artists in Asia). Based in Bacolod, Gloria’s work, hand-embroidered and daring, overlaid woven patterns with machine-made patches depicting feminised labour or advertising US emergency services alongside fragments of text that declared things like “abstraction is decadence.” Archival documents reaffirmed the biennial’s commitment to hybridizing the regional with the international—as early as the second edition in Bacolod in 1992, a contingent of Japanese artists, including Tatsuo Inagaki, participated and produced new work. I was interested, too, to note that earlier exhibitions had likewise been held in civic centres.
Exiting the building, we were drawn down a small market alley leading to the city’s landmark central fountain. Like bright, hanging flags, drawings of ugá (sun-dried fish), in textile ink on blue, orange, green and yellow polyester fabrics, lined the street, part of an installation by Ginoe, titled Sunshowers. Reflexive to its environment, VIVA ExCon encapsulated a rolling, gleaming type of exhibition-making, in which each aesthetic encounter provoked, re-framed, the last. Though tightly scheduled, it had no clear centre. Social moments—at bars, beaches, restaurants, waterfalls—were as energizing as the art. In structure and function, it was archipelagic: an example of what Édouard Glissant has termed “archipelagic thinking”—that which is opposed to, and which undermines, the hegemonic and homogenizing forces of insular and continental thought.
 The Black Artists in Asia derive their name from the Visayan island of Negros, the fourth largest in the Philippines. Originally known as Buglas, it was renamed by invading Spanish colonists in the 16th century.
 From the biographical information available: “This sprightly 76-year-old artist walks 8 kilometers a day with his short-range vision still intact. Despite his years, he still teaches every Saturday from 7:30 to 11:00 a.m.: anyone who wishes to learn about art can just drop by his house in Lutod-lutod and avail of his level of instruction free of change.”
 Glissant, E., Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997. 194.