Transdisciplinarity as grounding: ‘broadening horizons of empathy and expanding spheres of action’

by Tessa Maria Guazon

Culture as potent driver of development frames the Escolta case study: myself, visual artists Alma Quinto, Nathalie Dagmang, and Cian Dayrit are interested in ways communities mobilise themselves to survive rapid changes happening in cities. We have three projects that mobilise creativity and conversation as central approaches to field work and research.

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Image 1: Letter writing, a private act in public space: as researchers, we ask ourselves ‘who is intruding on whom?’

Transience is the life rhythm that pervades Escolta. It was also evident from our early visits that traditional notions of neighbourhood do not apply to Escolta. We often use ‘community’ in our conversations. Our recent workshops reveal local understandings of living together, specially for those who have made city streets their home.

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Image 2: Unmoving time: vintage images of Escolta are printed on tarpaulin and posted to buildings, street dweller and an office worker at lunch hour

After three team visits to Escolta in June 2017, we decided to have a workshop to ground our research. I wanted three case studies (all proposed by artists) to unfold simultaneously, all small scale, and relying on one-to-one conversations with research partners. They will address groups residing in the fringes of Escolta: areas by the river and the creek, and street corners at Escolta’s edges. We wanted to map creativity in two ways: the modes it allows the rapid onset of development and change; and the ways it realises survival. Our research workshop focused on ethnography, ethics, new ways of viewing the city, and how best these translate into pedagogical methods. We wanted to move away from the paradigm of the city as laboratory and frame an understanding of the city as a network of relationships and contrasting ways of life. We were interested to gather stories from the ground.

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Image 3. Manila Team’s June 2017 workshop: we had two resource persons, both university professors in anthropology and art history

Our shared practices as researchers and artists are grounded in communities. Art projects by Alma, Nathalie and Cian all rely on relationships formed with members of communities, founded on proc!2ess, and typically veer away from the mere production of objects. My research on cities go back to early 2000, with the implementation of the redevelopment program Revive Manila. I have done similar research in Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia in previous years. Members of the team share an interest in conversations emerging from prolonged immersion, and a person-to-person approach.

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Image 4: Manila Team April 2018, artist Cian Dayrit, research assistant Krinkle Yap, myself, artists Nathalie
Dagmang and Alma Quinto

We knew that for the Escolta case study, all will ‘take time’ and that we should patiently visit and periodically come back. It will be necessary to exercise reflection at numerous junctures: what it is we take and bring back? How can our research efforts become ‘multi-scalar and nodal’, and sensitively respond to rhythms of time and place? How can it be assertively local? How can we forward meanings through the lenses of the local that is present yet tangential by nature and practice?

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Image 5: Escolta tour with our research partners and student volunteers. The tour was preparatory activity for Alma Quinto’s workshop on homelessness, April 2018

We set the following research goals for the Manila case study during our June 2017 workshop: for it to align with SEANNET goals of developing new pedagogical approaches to urban neighborhoods in Southeast Asia; to mobilise the tools artistic approaches allow to interrogate and analyse the dynamics between culture and urban development; and to examine purported gains from the arts within the creative economy paradigm by considering relationships between agents of urban redevelopment and communities in the city.

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Image 6: After going to the market, cooking and preparation of a shared meal, women vendors at work on a timeline for a workshop on vendors and livelihood in Escolta, facilitated by the Escolta team and led by artist Nathalie Dagmang

We want to make the argument that if the creative economy and culture industries paradigm frame creativity asdriver for development, then creativity and its vernacular expressions can also be mobilised for platforms that are emancipatory and inclusive. Ultimately, we aim to forward the possibility of art becoming a powerful mediator in
understanding contemporary life in Southeast Asian cities.

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