Protest in the Time of Post-Truth

by Katrina Stuart Santiago

Mural by Renz Lee.

▶︎ This is the necessary context of Green Go Home as it happens in the Philippines at this historical juncture.


A time when the state of discourse in the country is one that disengages from what we’ve always held to be true and just (if not dear) and tends to insist that history is relative and everything is mere opinion. When the State assesses issues and policies based on simplistic dichotomies. When members of the intellectual elite believe they hold a moral high ground, their politics beyond reproach, theirs the acceptable manner of protest. When avowed members of the Left fall into the trap of dismissing protests not theirs, as if they are the yardstick against which all protest actions must be measured.


When we have a President who, faced with the possibility of a huge protest against his drug war policy decides to declare A National Day of Protest, suspending government work and classes in the metro, an act that not only spun protest to make him – its object – a hero, but which also effectively dissolves protest’s potency as an act that demands a sacrifice of its participants and actors.


A common history

Green Go Home, this exhibit’s title, is also the collaborative project of Tomas Vu and Rirkrit Tiravanija, a site-specific “social sculpture” of pop culture and current event images on newsprint that are pasted onto the walls of an art space, seeking to highlight the “subtext of U.S. interventions and colonialist attitudes” towards its neighbors, which is “an antagonism that has cost many lives and much strife” (Vargas Museum website, 2017). This project spins off the origins of the phrase “green go home” from which comes the term “gringo” – origins which even these collaborators admit is “part myth, part folklore” (NFGaleria Catalogue, 2015).

The more dominant version of the roots of the phrase is the Mexican-American war, where green referred to the uniform of American troops, and the phrase was protest slogan calling on them to go home. Other versions of the story date back to 1786, where a Castilian dictionary uses it to describe foreigners, and 1846, when Roman Catholic Americans and Irish and German immigrants sent by America to participate in the Mexican-American War switched sides upon realizing that they were fighting for a protestant nation; about this they sung “Green Grow the Rushes, O.” In Brazil, it is said to come from green and go, a critique of foreign exploitation of natural resources (2015).

Regardless of origin story, Green Go Home as a critique of US intervention, attitude, perspective on its neighbors stands, and it is what’s at the heart of this Vu-Tiravanija project. Brought to the Philippines, there is very little here that is unfamiliar: where it is the US that dominates our notion of the global, and where our own history as post-colony practically serves the US its right to superiority on a silver platter, the grid of images here can but resonate.


The challenge of the local

With the Philippines as neighbor (and post-colonized), the Vu-Tiravanija walls here are an amalgamation of global images (some of decadence, others of familiar iconic moments) interspersed with photos of Ninoy Aquino, Jaime Cardinal Sin, Gloria Diaz, and Manny Pacquiao. These are layered with framed newspaper headlines about the Duterte government, over which are slogans: WE DON’T MIX or ­THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY IS NUMBERED or INFAMOUS PRODUCT OF WESTERN CULTURE.


According to the collaborators, this grid “reinforces the layers of interpretation, readings, and misunderstandings,” and these walls are “meant to be wall(s) of resisters, and of resistance.” The latter is painfully, highly arguable, but the former is precisely what allows for these arguments to be had, and thank heavens for that conversation. Because the iconic moments they chose for the Philippines can only coalesce with the present state of affairs, which necessarily renders these more complex: Pacquiao is not just boxing icon, but also Senator; Diaz not just Miss Universe, but also with a misbehaving daughter as IT girl; Ninoy is tainted by the foibles of his son and daughter, one former President, another a celebrity.


But also: a missed opportunity. In the Philippines, we know of Gringo to be about rebellion, i.e., the rebel soldier who rose to iconic status during the EDSA Revolution 1986, who would become Senator (for three terms now), and who, (even when embroiled in controversy) is able to maintain an image of control and discipline, a voice of reason because sold as the rare lone wolf. To a generation of Filipinos who grew up post-EDSA, Gringo was no foreigner; he was rebel soldier.


That would’ve been a great tangent Green Go Home could go on as project, given its site, and necessarily historical, specificity.


The diversity of protest

But this exhibit has more going for it than just the work that carries its title. Happening with live drawing projects, which is reminiscent of street art as protest, the decisions made about which protests to speak of is a critical one. After all, at a time when government supporters imagine themselves to be protesting against those who are critical of the State, how does one begin to value, speak of, discuss protest?

Green Go Home points us in the right direction: choose based on relevance, but also sadly in this country, longevity.


The fight for public transport (Renz Lee), overseas Filipino workers’ rights (Gabby Nazareno), LGBT rights (Jo Tanierla), public healthcare (Buen Abrigo), and land rights (Iggy Rodriguez), are long-drawn out protests that continue to resonate. The protest of People Surge in Tacloban against government’s failure to address their needs post-Haiyan in 2014 (Mike Adrao), and that of the people of Marawi who were thrust into a war by the current government and left with the repercussions of Martial Law and a destroyed city in 2017 (Archie Oclos), while more specific, also but echo protest actions borne of government incompetence and lack of vision.

Interestingly enough it is in this museum space that one is reminded of graffiti’s transience and impermanence, as these seven works will fall victim to erasure one’s the next exhibit’s ready to be mounted. At a time when street art has gained currency and has been coopted and defanged by capital, this reminder could only be ironic. It is also no surprise that even as the traces of protest via street art might be erased, the issues that give birth to protest itself do not.

The exhibit as protest

Alongside these works is a project that seeks to plot a history of protest in the Philippines, currently starting with the May 1 1903 protest of the Union Obrera Democratica de Filipinas (UODF) calling for an eight-hour work day, and ending with the August 21 2017 protest against the war on drugs prompted by the death of Kian de los Santos. While still flimsy at best, this project rightfully anchors protest upon critical, important issues as premised on basic rights and justice within specific historical junctures – a statement in itself against the notion of post-truth and this state of all-opinion.


To some extent, it is this grounding that became most necessary for Green Go Home to work in this context, given the current milieu and crises, and especially the state of discourse and control. If only to remind us that the potency of protest lies in its participants’ awareness of what is just and fair, if only to highlight the value of people coming together on a common, relevant cause, if only to tell us that we should continue interrogating even our own sense of where protest lies and what it means, then this exhibit can already declare itself a success.


And at a time when no truth seems to hold for nation, this exhibit built on protest as so anchored on well-chosen issues, histories, and acts of resistance, could declare itself a protest action in and by itself. That would be Green Go Home’s more remarkable feat. ***


Sources:

NF Galeria Website. Green Go Home Dossier. PDF file. 2015.

-----. “Green Go Home.” Sept 10 to Nov 17 2015.

The Pitch Project Website. Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu, ‘Green Go Home.’ 2014.

Tomas Vu Website. “Green Go Home I: Sourch Material.” 2013-15.

Vargas Museum Website. About Green Go Home exhibit. 2017.


Katrina Stuart Santiago is an arts and culture critic, writing at katrinasantiago.com. This piece was previously published in Art+ Magazine, December 2017.

EMAIL: gaslightph@gmail.com.

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