Criticism is Hard Work: a retrospective artist’s s

Angelo V. Suarez

Wrestling 11 300x300

The photograph in this post is the only documentation the author could find of the work, as he never planned to document it. The photograph does not belong to The Manila Review or the author. If you are the owner of this photograph, please email  so we may be able to provide proper credit.

Angelo Suarez and Costantino Zicarelli made streetchildren wrestle for an art show in the Cultural Center. Too much? Suarez revisists the controversy.

1. Concept

Authored by myself & the visual artist Costantino Zicarelli, Criticism is Hard Work is a collaborative experiment in textual production. An assisted readymade, it consists of

a)     a wrestling match between a group of streetchildren
b)     displaced from the streets & into an institutional art context,
c)     moderated by modified WWF Royal Rumble rules,
d)    & intruded upon by commentary from the artists as commentators.

A group of streetchildren = more or less 10 of them, each no older than 12 years of age. Institutional art context = a space or situation publicly/officially identified as 1 meant for the exposition of art. Modified WWF Royal Rumble rules = the match begins w/ 2 wrestlers in the ring; every instance a predetermined duration of time passes, a minute for example, a new wrestler enters the ring, opening the possibility that all wrestlers will be present w/in the ring at the same time; the objective of every wrestler is to eject all opponents out of the ring; to be out of the ring is tantamount to be out of the game w/c means loss; the winner is the sole wrestler to remain in the ring; the game ends when no other wrestler is left in the ring save for the winner. Artists = Angelo V. Suarez & Costantino Zicarelli, tho anybody who wishes to take the score implicit in the performance may carry out the commentary, shld artists other than the authors wish to perform this same work in the future.

The work was conceptualized in 2007 upon 1st encounter with a group of streetchildren actually wrestling—in physical, albeit playful, combat—openly on a sidewalk in Manila. During this initial encounter, two questions came to mind: In what way wld the game change once brought into an institutional art context, e.g., once perceived as an artistic spectacle rather than a non-artistic spectacle? What effect cld critique—by way of commentary—bear on the game?

A consideration of the generative impact on artistic work by criticism, Criticism is Hard Work was prompted by writer Alfred Yuson’s dismissal of Bienvenido Lumbera’s critical oeuvre as a major factor for the latter’s receipt of the National Artist Award for Literature in 2006, a dismissal committed in an edition of his column for the national broadsheet The Philippine Star. In the reductionist analogical structure of the performance, a change in the manner of wrestling (artistic work) is expected to be generated by its commentary (critical work). Typically thought of as coming after the fact, criticism is privileged by the performance as a horizon that determines a priori how artistic work is generated.

For myself—a writer who self-identifies as an experimental poet invested not only in alternative means of composition & the modalities of articulating avant-garde practice but also how those alternative means & modalities necessarily implicate the social coordinates in w/c a work of literature is embedded—the interest in billing Criticism is Hard Work as an experiment in textual production lies along 2 formalist strains: the production of artistic work that doubles as critical work along the lines of institutional critique, & the positing of the very act of composition as performance.

Given the above considerations, the work has itself been designed to provoke criticism, if only to underscore the fact that criticism is, indeed, hard work, & that criticism provides a generative constraint for artistic production—a constraint whose shadow wld be cast over the artists’ future work, narrowing it to a further & clearer singularity. 

2. Realization

The 1st & only time the work was staged was in 2007, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, for Tupada Xing: Social Contract, a showcase of performances organized by the art collective Tupada. Unfortunately—in a case of sloppiness on behalf of the artists—none of the details mentioned in the 1st section of this essay was disclosed to the audience.

Also left undisclosed to the audience were the material circumstances of production: that the streetchildren performing were the same ones who had been found wrestling in Manila except those aged older than 12; that they were promised a payment of dinner—their choice between KFC & Jollibee—immediately after the performance; that CCP security had barred them from entering the performance premises, regardless of the fact that they were performers, till they were literally numbered—1 by 1, on their hands, w/ a felt-tip marker—by 1 of the guards at the entrance; that what all of them did as soon as entering the premises was take advantage of a clean toilet that had running water—a space we had difficulty wrenching them away from just minutes before the actual performance; &, most significantly, that permission for their involvement—all of them being minors—was secured only from the sole attending adult present when I 1st saw them wrestling on the street, whom I had assumed, admittedly haphazardly, was their guardian.

It has been raised by a handful of parties—most persistently by the visual artist Alwin Reamillo, most cogently by the critics Tessa Maria Guazon & Jaime Oscar Salazar—that Criticism is Hard Work unfairly takes advantage of the disadvantaged, & thus constitutes a case of child abuse. In fact, the performance itself had been interrupted by a member of the audience, a foreigner, who had instructed the children to direct their wrestling moves at him rather than each other, w/ cries of “Child abuse! Child abuse!” rising in the air. Lights in the area had also been shut off, inadvertently adding drama to the spectacle—a fight in the darkness lit only by flares of the occasional camera flash.

While I do not agree that the work qualifies as a criminal offense—many have invoked Republic Act No. 7610, the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, w/c defines “child abuse” as the maltreatment of a child, habitual or otherwise, including “any act by deeds or words which debases, degrades or demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of a child as a human being”—if only because no such maltreatment took place during the proceedings, let alone a deed that “demeans the intrinsic worth & dignity” of the children involved “as human beings,” I do not deny that the work is abusive.

The work, in fact, was composed to appear abusive, to embody abuse, to perform abuse. The work was designed to depict a fraught relationship between artistic production & critical production, a cycle of taking advantage in w/c constraint was a critical condition of artistic possibility, where the disadvantaged take advantage of being taken advantage of, if only to receive a modicum of attention at the expense of leaving themselves disadvantaged, of reinforcing their disadvantage.  The hard work of criticism—blunt, bare, brutal, & self-reflexive.

Many have also pointed out that maltreatment took the form of injury, of allowing injury to go unnoticed, untreated. I categorically deny any allegations of allowing injury to go unnoticed. At the end of the performance, the children were gathered & immediately, w/o hesitation, asked 2 questions: Whether anybody was hurt, & whether anybody had fun. All had said no to the former, & yes to the latter. That they had fun being taken advantage of was an irony—an ironic outcome of the experiment—that I had intended to keep to myself for future disclosure, that disclosure taking place at this moment. The question of whether they were hurt or not was repeated to them over dinner, a question they again responded to w/ a categorically stated no.

On numerous occasions, Reamillo—backed by an army of sympathizers who have articulated their support most overtly on Facebook, less overtly at public forums not necessarily about the performance, even less overtly behind institutional doors such as when Zicarelli was confronted w/ the demand to articulate some kind of apology in exchange for eligibility to receive the 13 Artists Award in 2012, cultural capital whose prestige according to many has been tarnished precisely because of this incident—has demanded, himself like a champion accumulating cultural capital by standing up for the rights of the disadvantaged, that Zicarelli & I apologize for the performance. Now, kindly allow me to indulge him—but I worry I can only indulge him to an extent that he is likely to find unacceptable. 

3. Apology

a)     I apologize for carrying out the performance in 2007 w/o any notes.

While fragmented exegeses about the work have appeared here & there, scattered in a handful of essays about different topics & a few discussion threads on Facebook, no comprehensive authorial statement whatsoever about the work has appeared till now, not only leaving the audience—who turn out mostly not even acquainted w/ WWF Royal Rumble w/c most middle-class boys of my age grew up watching on TV—in the conceptual dark of what the work is other than what they’ve witnessed (or in the case of even more, what they’ve not witnessed) but also leaving the work barred from receiving apt aesthetic consideration, abandoned as it has been in the hallowed halls of moral judgment—halls where it certainly ought to be as well, but not the only place for it to languish in.

b)     I apologize for failing to secure the legal documents necessary for involving the labor of minors in the performance.

I wish, however, to underscore that I am also well aware that such documents diminish none of the abusive aspect of the performance, & that securing those documents only further emphasizes the abuse by giving it institutional sanction. The documents, nevertheless, wld give myself & Zicarelli a kind of shield from potential legal action against us, the threat of w/c has been sporadically brought up, w/c also by mentioning here I am unintentionally courting.

But it needs to be mentioned that there is space, if only theoretically, to consider the transaction between ourselves as artists & the minors as performers in the light of gift-exchange: recognizing in each other a form of non-monetary capital each party desired in the other—the artists, the performers’ commonplace activity of wrestling; the performers, the artists’ access to an institutional site of spectacle & material facilities—may we perhaps approach the performance, tho inadvertently so, as a platform for examining the kind of economy at work in transactions w/in spheres of art activity that are yet to be fully professionalized, or at least disavow a more codified professionalization?

The question, however, begs for a work different from the performance being discussed—w/c leads to the 3rd apology.

c)     Lastly, & most importantly, I apologize for the work’s lack of singularity—w/c is foremost a compositional, therefore an aesthetic, fault of Criticism is Hard Work.

While the performance features the artists inhabiting the role of commentators inhabiting the roles of critics, it ignores the subjectivity that artists primarily inhabit: that of artists.

The fraught object of investigation—the relationship between artistic work & critical work—demanded a less fraught method of investigation, one that should have been of radical transparency. & by sidestepping our subject positions as artists, Zicarelli & I consequently sidestepped strongly social aspects of the work that on their own demanded attention & focused unpacking—beginning w/ the economic nature of our transactions w/ the performers.

After all, giving them workshops for the construction of decorative handicrafts made from, say, recycled plastic wld be no less abusive than displacing their wrestling games from the streets into a gallery context: Both equally make the children labor for cultural capital to be gained not by them but by the artists who have instrumentalized their labor. The only question left—one simultaneously of ethics & aesthetics—is how much self-aware transparency regarding these dynamics the artists exhibit, call attention to, & ultimately make a work out of, or even downplay, obfuscate, if not downright refuse to acknowledge. 

4. Forward

These notes have been put together 6 years after the fact, the 2007 performance per se & the occasion of this writing sandwiching 6 years worth of sporadic discourse generated by a number of invested parties—some of it to my knowledge, some of it not—tho much of it I find productive only, at least in my point of view, insofar as having egged me into articulating this rather belated statement.

It begs to be flagged that I am only half the partnership to author Criticism is Hard Work, a work that is split in terms of the traditions that frame it: From my end the work is framed by literary history; from Zicarelli’s end the work is framed by art history. The distinction, as well as the uneasy juxtaposition of both histories, is itself framed by a history of interdisciplinary practice whose examples abound in discourses relating to the historical avant-garde, not to mention that literary history—especially the strain of it that’s bound up w/ the historical avant-garde—itself intertwines largely w/ art history, an intertwining characterized by relentless, if not wholly unavoidable, compartmentalization. Despite shared histories, literature stands as a field of praxis & therefore as an institution distinct from art.

My having articulated, in this essay & elsewhere, that the performance is an experiment in textual production, clearly defines the work as a work of literature, despite its having been presented w/in a performance art platform—a situation that is symptomatic of the conditions of presentation, hence of visibility & accessibility, literary institutions possess for the kind of literary praxis I have been engaged in since then. Despite this frame, however, nothing prevents Zicarelli from framing the work w/in the traditions he more consciously works in & straddles. Just as disparate objects may inhabit the same history, a sole object may also inhabit disparate histories. Such is the problematic simultaneity always confronted in/by a work of collaboration.

In fact, this problematic simultaneity is underscored by the apology Zicarelli himself expressed in 2012 in a string of correspondences between himself & CCP vice-president/artistic director Chris Millado, where the former concedes that the streetchildren indeed “transgress[ed] our precautions”—a claim that I do not make, tho certainly a claim that conveniently corroborates what Reamillo et al articulate on behalf of the minors who were allegedly injured. Hopefully this seemingly contingent & minute difference gives audiences a critical peer into the systemic differences between the visual art economy & the literary economy: in the former, there is a prize & subsequently a livelihood to be damaged or diminished, if not lost; in the latter, because much of literary production is of little or even no financial value, or at least much of the capital to be gleaned from it remains symbolic, no livelihood is put on the line, & my refusal to pander to CCP’s institutional demands for the sake of a prize, not that there was a prize in store for me in relation to w/c CCP cld make demands, is of no material consequence to me—that is, unless this essay lands me in jail. This difference in economy, however, is a matter that neither the performance nor this essay has sought to address, & must therefore be left its own avenue for extrapolation.

Despite its many problems, most notably aesthetic, Criticism is Hard Work remains a watershed work in this part of the world towards the emergence of conceptual writing, that strain of writing I now consciously align myself w/. This essay & the performance it speaks of sandwich not only 6 years worth of discourse about it, as already mentioned above, but also 6 years worth of literary production from my end—from the public deletion of a slow accumulation of text that constitutes that lack that is s&wich & the assemblage of self-referential blurbs that became Circuit, to the work of radical textual performativity that is Poem of Diminishing Poeticity. Looking back, one may well even propose that Criticism is Hard Work is foundational to & prototypical of current conceptual writing taking place in the Philippines.