The Opening Response: Iris Ferrer, Kent Chan and Julian Abraham ‘Togar’

The Opening Response titles a special series of interviews with artists, curators, writers, composers, mediators, and space-makers around the world. Dialoguing within and around the thematics which have rapidly emerged as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we offer within this frame a differentiated, honest, and beautiful bid at understanding. Weekly, distinct doors are opened into the lives of the contributors; into their experiences dawning on pleasure, productivity, metaphysics, and paradigmatic shifts. Hopefully, these conversations can act as way-posts and lead to furthered empathy, unison, and co-creation. The Opening Response meets the need for weaving the autonomy of a web of conscious communications in times of extreme perplexity.

Iris Ferrer, Kent Chan and Julian Abraham ‘Togar’ speak candidly about their processes in making Love Songs for the Savages, an exhibition from de Appel Amsterdam that continues in the form of a radio feed. The interview is co-hosted by writer, curator and dramaturge Giulia Damiani.

Iris Ferrer (Philippines/Netherlands) is an independent cultural practitioner. She was recently part of the 2019–2020 de Appel Curatorial Program and is the 2020–2021 de Appel Curatorial Research Fellow. She has worked as a writer, researcher, project manager and curator across the field of contemporary visual arts and alongside platforms and collaborators in the Philippines and the region.

Kent Chan (Singapore/Netherlands) is an artist, curator and filmmaker. His practice revolves around our encounters with art, fiction and cinema forming a triumvirate of practices that remain porous in form, content and context. He holds a particular interest in the tropical imagination, the past and future relationships between heat and art, as well as contestations of modernist legacies and epistemologies. The works and practices of others often form the locus of his works, which have taken the form of film, text, conversations and exhibitions.

Julian Abraham ‘Togar (Medan, Indonesia/Netherlands) engages in extensive research resulting in analytically focused artworks that often combine installation, sound, music, programming and science. Most, if not all, of his transdisciplinary practice derives from rhythms and systems, which, depending on the context of engagement, may consist of preserving, initiating, intervening, supporting, negotiating, hacking or questioning. He is often considering how to function within surrounding realities and is constantly fascinated by the fact that even small interventions can bring forth changes geared towards the formation of new, sustainable support structures. Togar is currently a resident at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam.


Giulia Damiani / Josseline Black – Can you describe how the three of you met; the genesis of your collaborative exhibition at de appel Love songs for the savages and the process through which this collaboration unfolded?

Iris Ferrer – Kent and Togar were friends of friends from home, so I sort of stalked them already before meeting them in person; although, I only became friends with them here in the Netherlands. With regards to collaborations, I would thank Pampus (Kent’s residency and film where we were actors) for starting that possibility. Since I had the fellowship project lined up for me, paired with my already present respect for their practices, I figured it would be nice to share that opportunity with them as well.

Eventually, the project flowed through what we called “waves,” which are winks to the project’s focus on heat/warmth; Kent’s video, Heat Waves; Togar’s interest in sound and radio; and the internal intention to play with the usual inertia of the exhibition format as the project literally moved week per week—which thankfully de Appel allowed and supported despite its logistical complexities. What is equally interesting with “unfolding in waves” is its aftermath, where everything that happened is still quite difficult to grasp and articulate, where one just taps out and says “you had to be there”. Sure, the online radio waves continue to exist; but how does one speak of the countless meals, drinks and cigarettes shared? How does one encapsulate hours of conversations and the continuous attempts on grounding separate realities (SG/PH/ID) in one space (NL)? How does one capture a wave, and what happens to it once it passes?

Kent Chan – Yes, I knew Togar from before, but Iris was a friend of a friend from back home (Singapore) and so we met here (Netherlands). For a geopolitical region – Southeast Asia that has 655 million people, you’d think that there would be more of us here, but sadly that’s not the case. And as things always go back home, I invited them over for dinner once while I had my residency on Pampus Island, which led to us working together last year on my film. So, if I have to name any one thing as the starting point of the project, it’d be the process of having meals together (repeatedly).

Julian Abraham ‘Togar’ – We met each other around summer 2020. I’m not sure about how we ended up deciding to execute this project into how it ended up being, but it was only around March or April 2021 that things were set. So, I have to say that it was quite organic how things happened, which is something really difficult to put into words, and difficult to comprehend especially if it’s related to the agenda of the institution, we end up working with.

GD/JB – In this ‘choral’ exhibition you brought together heat waves in the ‘form’ of a hothouse, music, jam sessions, the online RAGADIGIOGO; performance sweat; and through stories and reflections on heat as the generative equatorial temperature in which to experience art-making, opposing the stereotypical assumption that such condition deadens the brain. What you presented together in the space seemed tentacular and in a state of fermentation. I looked up the etymology of the word ‘exhibition’, which can be traced to the expressions ‘hold out’, and ‘submit for consideration’. What would you say that your exhibition as a format put forward for consideration?

IF – For me, it was simply presenting our shared reality in our home countries: the overlapping sounds, the sweat, the heat, the hanging out etc. If the prompt was to claim a space for a certain period of time, as projects usually are, then it only made sense to present what we already knew.

KC – I think warmth, both literally and metaphorically, was really important to Iris. In a similar vein, I approach things through the lens of heat (in its abundance), which inevitably harks back to the tropical conditions back home — something that I would think is entirely appropriate to the process of engaging art even though it seems antithetical to most audiences in the West. That said, I really don’t like to see things in such oppositional terms, so alternatively I’d like to propose heat in relation to art as a process of fermentation. Heat is never static. It’s very much affective and hence serves as the magic sauce that allows for the welcome changes in the interaction between audience and art.

GD Does Love songs for the savages speak to the need of shifting how exhibitions can be oriented, critiquing the consumption of objects and practices in a Western context?

KC – Not quite for me, I guess. I think heat for me is a different mode of doing things in that it’s an option, which doesn’t necessitate that how things work in the Western context needs to shift. Admittedly, I’m also wary of how shifts in the West often stems from the appropriation of others. It doesn’t so much “shift” as it “cannibalizes”. So, in that sense, I’m for promiscuity rather than marriages between contexts.

GD/JB – Can you tell us of a sound, gesture or object that can encapsulate something crucial in your practices?

JTA – Listening has been an integral part of my understanding of the world. It is an active position (listening), more so to listen to different forms of sounds from all over the world is a luxury. I’d like to keep exploring how one can sustain listening as a practice, and hopefully, somehow contribute back to the practice of listening to itself through different conversations, meditations, songs, texts, jammings, making playlists, transmissions, and potentially from other activities that are not yet explored. This project is also one step towards escaping the idea of the echo chamber. So ultimately, I think it’s still continuing and contributing to listening as a practice in itself.

GD/JB Correspondence through writing seems to have been a channel and a mode for imagining the content of this exhibition but also a space for story-telling. How has the valuation of memory and autobiography played into building a shared narrative? Is there a shared narrative?

IF – Personally, I don’t think the goal was ever to find a singular shared narrative. We shared some things coming from the same geographic region and being located here now, but what was more fruitful for me was to learn from the differences especially in conversations with them (both individually and as a group).

KC – It felt to me that the show worked on multiple “channels” — whether it was the music, radio, video and/or performance that were happening at the same time. So, there was a lot of conscious overlapping that was perhaps more so a shared frequency. This shared frequency resonated with the boisterousness of back home, which I think the distance from is something that’s been hanging heavily over our heads in the past year.

JTA – As I mentioned above, the project grew organically. I think acknowledging that the project can grow organically means there are a lot of shared aspects at play. For example, how can this project be experienced in 4 different waves? Who is doing what? For whom are we doing it? What do waves require for them to continue moving? I have to thank Iris and Kent for holding the fort before I can fully merge into the project, this sensibility can only happen because we acknowledge each other’s narratives in the first place.

GD/JB – What are some of the challenges that you navigated in the choice and use of the title Love songs for the savages?

IF – I’m not sure if there were any real challenges, aside from the pronunciation of the Tagalog version (Kundiman para sa mga salbahe). I also remember having a discussion with de appel while preparing the communications materials whether it would be smarter to use the Tagalog version, the English version, or both. There was a play on words with the Tagalog title, explained further in the press release, which made it complicated to translate to English and even more complicated into Dutch. Since there were deliberate efforts from everyone involved to identify with the ground we stood on and its communities, we never had one language alone—always a combination. Interestingly, we could not translate the title into Dutch, which in itself remains significant.

KC – I remembered we also had discussions regarding the main image (MIT Image) used for the show and how it would be perceived. Whether it simply reinforced the negative connotations of “savages” or if we could reclaim it by using it in the context of the show. That’s probably a discussion that ran parallel to the use of the title. That said, I think we decided that we had enough history and context on our side to own it.

JTA – I like the title; I think it’s like a riddle. The savages here can be seen as anyone, as the idea of a savage, most of the time, points to someone who is not familiar with the space or one who has been living in the space for a long time but is perceived as someone who is not yet known. But a savage is someone who knows the spaces in and out as if they are part of the spaces. Then how can one write a love song if one does not know the spaces fully? How can we quantify this? It’s like a paradox.

GD/JBThe online RAGADIGIOGO, continues beyond the closure of the exhibition, how is establishing this continuum important? Why did you choose radio as a format?

JTA – The seeds of the Ragadigiogo have nothing to do with the way the project happened. It was meant to be its own space with its own organization, purpose and life. The project helped foster the growth of Ragadigiogo faster than anticipated, not only through the availability of the resources but also through the shared narratives on how to continue to converse and keep the conversations alive.

IF – In addition to what Togar said, there is something about the radio format that allows for multiple presences, such that is not stuck in one space or time. Hence, we figured it would be a good medium to keep contact with our communities back home and also create new connections from here.

Josseline Black-Barnett is a contemporary curator, writer, and researcher. She holds an M.A. in time-based media from the Kunst Universität Linz and a B.A. in Anthropology (specialization Cotsen Institute of Archaeology) from the University of California Los Angeles. She operated for five years as in-house curator of the international artistic residency program at the Atelierhaus Salzamt (Austria) wherein she had the privilege of working closely with a number of brilliant artists. Included in her duties within the institution she allocated and directed the Salzamt hosting of the E.U. CreArt mobility for artists program. As a writer, she has reviewed exhibitions and co-edited texts for Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, Portugal, Madre Museum Naples, the Museums Quartier Vienna, MUMOK, Guimarães Gallery, Gallery Michaela Stock. She is regular theoretical contributor to the Contemporary Art Magazine Droste Effect. In addition, she has published with Interartive Malta, OnMaps Tirana, Albania, and L.A.C.E (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). In tandem to her curatorial practice and writing, she has for the past decade used choreography as a research tool inquiring into the ontology of the performing body with a focus on embodied cartographies of public memory and space. She has held research residencies at the East Ugandan Arts Trust, the Centrum Kultury w Lublinie, the University of Arts Tirana Albania, and the Upper Austrian Architectural Forum. It is her privilege to continue developing her approach to curatorship which derives from an anthropological reading of art production and an ethnological dialectic in working with cultural content generated by art makers. Currently, she is developing the methodology which supports the foundation of a performance-based trans-disciplinary platform for a spectral critique on art production.

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