At Asia Society’s 2017 Arts & Museum Summit in Manila, artists, curators, and organisers presented their experiences working in cultural organisations ranging from artist-run spaces to museums and foundations. Norberto Roldan, who with Donna Miranda co-founded Green Papaya Art Projects in Quezon City, spoke about why the space came into existence and why it will close in 2020.
Opened in 2000, Green Papaya is the longest running, artist-led space in Metro Manila. The founders wanted to offer a place wherein artists in the Philippines and around the world could support one another in the creation of experimental work, sharing of intellectual ideas over communal meals, and bartering of resources. Researchers, artists, and curators around the world visit the space to ask for advice and consult Green Papaya’s collection of material about its exhibitions, performances, publications, residencies, and collaborations. In addition to extensive documentation about these events, Green Papaya has more than 300 artist-donated works on canvas and paper, photographs, and objects.
Asia Art Archive is working with Green Papaya Art Projects to archive their material. The following is a transcript of Roldan’s speech in November 2017.
Asia Society Arts & Museum Summit 2017
Good afternoon, everyone!
Green Papaya Art Projects was established in 2000. It was, and still is, an independent initiative that supports and organises actions and propositions that explore tactical approaches to the production, dissemination, research, and presentation of contemporary art in various and cross-disciplinary fields. It continues to provide a platform for intellectual exchange, sharing of information and resources, and artistic and practical collaborations among local and international artists and art communities.
Under inhospitable conditions, artists had to explore independent centres and initiatives that were responsive to their practice, finding ways to produce and present their work according to their own terms. Thriving alternative spaces during this period were able to sustain a creative and critical environment for experimentation and agency despite of, or perhaps even so because of, the dismal state of government-controlled art infrastructure in the country. More importantly, these alternative spaces were setting a precedent that artists can mobilise and organise themselves, take an active role in cultural production, and claim autonomy.
Ten years ago, the 2007 ArtAsiaPacific: Almanac wrote, and I quote: “In nearby Quezon City, Green Papaya stands out as Manila’s most venerable artist-run space. […] For 2007, Manila is likely to sustain its newfound vitality, and the art scene is maturing. Green Papaya is already transforming from an alternative art space into an alternative art institution,” end of quote.
Today, I ask myself if the forecast of ArtAsiaPacific indeed materialised. Did Manila sustain its vitality? Has the art scene matured? Have we become an alternative institution? I think the first two questions will provoke contrasting opinions. As to the third question, my answer is NO, we have not.
During the Southeast Asia Forum in Art Stage Singapore in January this year, Merv Espina and I shared what we thought and wrote about the art scene today and how Green Papaya has evolved under the radar of mainstream galleries, art fairs, cultural institutions, and their audiences. Merv has been the Program Director of Green Papaya since 2010.
For those of us operating in independent communities, the economy of Philippine art is an economy of “x-deals,” of barters and trades, of favours. It is built on friendships and shared resources. Green Papaya shares equipment and research facilities to a number of artists, researchers, curators, and other like-minded spaces. One week our sound equipment is with an artist-run film lab, for a few days our film projector is with a group of activists, and some researchers and curators would squat in our modest library for hours, sometimes for days, enjoying unlimited coffee and home-cooked food we are always happy to serve. But besides the shared physical resources, the most valuable commodity is the presence and time we have for each other.
Green Papaya is sustained by a small community who like the kind of art that no one else thinks of as art—yet! It aspires to provide a space for critique and experimentation. Green Papaya has transitioned from being a space for exhibitions, to a discursive and performative space.
Green Papaya is a space for good and bad questions, and projects that can both be great or total failures. It is a halfway house for ideas, a space to hang out and have real conversations again, a chance to cook and share meals. It is less about art than it is about being artists and being human again—and questioning what that means in our current context. That community of humans has changed over time. Some have stayed, some have gone. Others have come in their place. Before we had plenty of angsty painters, now we have plenty of angsty sound artists.
We love to nurture starving artists. Not the ones we usually think of as hungry artists. We see hunger as a value, not a physical quality. To be hungry is to be not satisfied with the status quo; to be hungry is to aspire for change—to be hungry for new ideas, for new platforms, for new audiences, for new connections...
We are happy to have remained grounded all these years. We did not aspire to become an institution as we consciously want to keep our capital asset the way it is. Institutions are like big baskets where the fruits of these independent artist spaces may be gathered and may be brought to the global supermarket of ideas. What we want is to remain this fruit-bearing small tree in the farm. And if I may, I would like to respectfully remind institutions that if they want to harvest these ideas, the artists, the farmers in our communities, cannot afford to pay PHP 7,000 to hear how these ideas are ingested in a global forum like this. I believe their presence here is as important as anyone else.
Finally, to get it straight, Green Papaya is as much interdependent as it is independent. Green Papaya is not sustainable. Green Papaya is destined to close.
The lack of sustainability can also be a value. Green Papaya is a bad business model. It is an expensive love affair sustained only by fidelity, commitment, and determination. These don’t pay rent, and these can also run out. Green Papaya is a performative endeavour, one that’s been endeavouring for seventeen years. Green Papaya will not become a self-perpetuating non-institution. Green Papaya has to die. And it is always helpful to plan your next steps when you already have a clear goal and end in mind. So Green Papaya is in the process of going through its assets, collating, cataloguing, and archiving, to later assess, critique, and share. This is our most important project right now and thank you, Asia Art Archive Hong Kong for your support.
By 2020, Papaya is no longer Green. It will be ripe and ready for the plucking. Working towards its death, Green Papaya is investing in possible futures.
November 7, 2017
As presented at Asia Society’s 2017 Arts & Museum Summit in Manila, Philippines, on November 7, 2017, at the Ayala Museum. Published with permission from Asia Society, New York, and Green Papaya Art Projects, Manila.
Norberto Roldan’s Note
This speech was sifted from an email exchange between Roldan and Merv Espina, Green Papaya’s Program Director, in early 2017. During this period, Roldan was preparing to participate on a panel entitled The Free and the Brave: Artist Initiated Spaces and Platforms at Art Stage Singapore's Southeast Asia Forum on January 12, 2017. The Asia Society speech is as much Espina's as it is Roldan's; it was edited by Joaquin, son of Roldan and Miranda.