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Repurposing Manila’s ‘forgotten’ landmarks into art venues through London Biennale

In Photo: Old Escolta Street

THE Metropolitan Theatre is just one of the many architectural marvels that once stood tall and mighty at the heart of Old Manila. Nowadays, to see it through eyes unknowing of its extensive history, one will merely see a debilitated and wornout edifice looking sorry amid the commercial infrastructure surrounding the area.

Old First United Building
Old First United Building

The once glorious destination for art and culture in the country now stands battered and wounded—but healing—in the busy corner of Padre Burgos.

“A ghastly shell of its former self,” a perhaps seemingly appropriate description for the structure, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) has taken it under its wing for a comprehensive restoration program.

Now, the Metropolitan Theatre is ready to

reclaim its place as catalyst of cultural renaissance,

as the NCCA temporarily suspended renovation efforts and opened the Met’s doors for local and international artists to share their craft to the community and the public.

1932 picture of the Metropolitan Theatre
1932 picture of the Metropolitan Theatre

Evoking its original purpose as a cultural

center, the Met, along with several neglected historical sites in Manila, such as the Escolta Street in Binondo, will be home to the 2016 London Biennale Pollination Manila.

Themed “Synchronisations Syncopations,” the Manila leg of the biennale will play host to a series of exhibitions, live performances, symposiums and a workshop that will be showcased in various spots in the metropolis from September 15 until October 17. The event is free and open to the public.

The wordplay of the theme is a derivative of the view that while “synchronisation” represents the harmonious interconnectedness between art forms, the “syncopations”, or alterations of what is commonly perceived, gives it a new and diverse meaning through different art landscapes, like multimedia, soft sculpture, architecture and the like.

Taking inspiration from the original international art exhibition founded by Filipino conceptual artist David Medalla and Australian artist-curator Adam Nankervis, the Manila “pollination” of the London Biennale correspondingly advocates the expansion of borders of community and art relations by “encouraging a more intimate dialogue between the artists and the audiences.”

“I thought it was time to create a viable and memorable platform for the world’s ‘marginal artists’, and that, initially, was the inspiration for the London Biennale, a biennale that would be open to every artist regardless of age, sex, ethnic origin and artistic language or style,” Medalla said.

The London Biennale Pollination Manila (LBPM), likewise, strives to reawaken awareness and appreciation for historically significant “forgotten spaces” through creative exchanges among artists, heritage conservationists, academic communities and the public. “It [the Manila theme for the London Biennale] brings in the modern to infuse new life into the old structures,” artist and organizer Steph Pallalos explained.

To kick-start the opening of the monthlong cultural fête, the NCCA will present a variety of performances and live spectacles that will be showcased on September 15 on Escolta Street.

Included in the roster of activities for the first day of the LBPM are a traveling mini art fair by the Windang Aesthetics Labor Army (WALA); a video projection of “Re-framed” with Filipino artists Gian Cruz and Claire Villacorta; a guerrilla-mapping projection (or visio-architectural representation) on the First United Building, titled Lucid Abyss of Immmanence, will be executed  by Derek Tumala and Jose Tong; a Skype videoconference with London Biennale founders Medalla and Nankervis; and a Viva Manila party for creative/artists at the First United.

The following day, September 16, a roundtable on “Modes of Engagement in Biennials” will take place at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

A printmaking and monotype workshop, meanwhile, will be hosted by the Association of PinoyPrintMakers (another partner of the NCCA in the LBPM) at Tanghalang Francisco Balagtas at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex, also on September 16. The “XRoads: Built Heritage and Contemporary Art” symposium will be led by Arch. Gerard Lico and NCCA Chairman Felipe de Leon on September 17 at the Metropolitan Theatre. According to the NCCA, questions like, “How does cultural heritage serve as core marker for identity constructs?” as well as “Where and how does contemporary art figure in the repurposing of heritage structures?” will be addressed at the conference.

Taking place on September 30 is a forum on “Truth Games: Art as Curated Confessions” at the Bulwagan ng Dangal in UP Diliman.

Concurrent collateral events, such as the original Tony Twig classic of “There, Not There on the Way,” at the Galleria Duemila in Pasay, will be staged from September 3 to 30. Various installations will also be featured in particular spaces at the Panpisco and First United buildings in Escolta, the ‘’historic east-west street” situated in the old downtown business heritage district of Binondo.

“The artists very much believes in the project, and they’re very willing to perform and show their works even in dark and ‘forgotten’ venues,” Josephine Turalba, project director of the London Biennale Manila, said during the launch of the interactive exhibit at the Metropolitan Theater.

Turalba was joined by Lico, consulting architect of the Met, who gave a few updates on the NCCA’s ongoing restoration works and future plans for the reconstruction of the theater. An exclusive tour of the area was also provided by Timothy Ong, conservation research assistant of the Rehabilitation and Conservation of the Met program.

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