Play, collaboration, critique: The genius of Ray Albano

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Albano is a curator, artist, and critic. He worked at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Art Museum in 1970 and was museum director until his death in 1985. His works, recently shown at the Art Fair Philippines 2019, are remarkable for their playfulness and precision. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Maybe the most fitting art form is ‘fiesta.’ (Isn’t this a form of ‘happening’ or ‘performance’?)” — Raymundo Albano, 1981.

Written in an essay about installation art and how critics of that time were failing to acknowledge it as a “new” kind of sculpture, Raymundo Albano might as well be speaking in the present, in the context of a local art fair on its 7th year — still riddled with complaints about overpriced tickets and increasing elitism.

Here, in four floors crammed with galleries and few curatorial projects, fueled by press releases about “celebrating Filipino art,” there is nothing above the din: the pomp, the pageantry, the designer clothes, the millionaire VIPs, the celebrity collectors, the Instagrammable art, the millennial foot traffic, the money changing hands.

It is not a fiesta in the folk-religious sense, not about a community’s annual coming together to pay tribute to a patron saint. It is instead a fiesta in the sense of a carnival, where the spectacle is not just the art but also the brazen display of wealth and privilege.

In the midst of all this: an iteration of the 1974 award-winning work by Albano. An unobtrusive space filled with sand, enclosed in walls packed with old exhibit posters. People are encouraged to walk through the veritable sandbox, to create prints in the sand, but few do so on VIP night.

You don’t walk in this while wearing your designer shoes.

AFP Ray Albano.jpg “Step On The Sand and Make Footprints” is an example of that playfulness, where in 1974, Albano sent instructions to the curator of the Tokyo International Biennial Exhibition of Prints, to create a small sandbox where spectators could make their own foot prints. Photo by JL JAVIER

Play and discipline

“Ray was a homo ludens,” curator Judy Freya Sibayan says. A friend and collaborator of Albano, it’s her collection of posters that is for sale on the outside walls of the space. “It was play, but it was also at the same time precise. Printing and design are precise activities. But Ray was really good with the play aspect of it.”

“Step On The Sand and Make Footprints” is an example of that playfulness, where in 1974, Albano sent instructions to the curator of the Tokyo International Biennial Exhibition of Prints, to create a small sandbox where spectators could make their own foot prints. The work was given an honorable mention, and was recreated at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), where Albano worked, the following year.

AFP Ray Albano.jpg “Step On The Sand and Make Footprints,” recreated for Art Fair Philippines Projects this year, is an unobtrusive space filled with sand, enclosed in walls packed with old exhibit posters. People are encouraged to walk through the veritable sandbox. Photo by JL JAVIER

For Sibayan, this project is an “interesting juxtaposition [because between] his sand installation and graphic design, Ray has a whole school of printing.”

It was at the CCP that Sibayan would get to know Albano, working as his curatorial assistant in 1976. Asked about that time: “We just played. We just had to do what needed to be done at that moment. We just did the work.” With Albano as boss, this meant doing everything and knowing the technical nature of the work. “I did everything and anything he wanted us to do: write, curate, go to the press, do the posters. It was pure trust. [So] you needed to know the technological part of it, the science of it. How things work. All the designers who work in the press, they all understood how things can be done.”

“The Ray Albano Graphic Design System” (1976), is a hilarious piece of creative non-fiction (before we even started using the term), about the techniques and principles Albano applies to his design work. It is also a display not just of his knowledge about the printing process, but more importantly, his sense of play despite the fixedness of the machines and processes. Excerpts are in order:

In the Layout

  • The “Chicken’s hitch” Principle. In life, there are always hitches. Nothing is perfect. Sometimes I tilt a word, or tear out or make smudges that will make one think I made a mistake.
  • “Centro-centro” system. When I don’t have much time or when I deal with formal things, all the texts are centered and anchored to the top and bottom. This, however is always overruled by the “Chicken’s hitch” principle.

35Photographs.jpg “The Ray Albano Graphic Design System” (1976), is a hilarious piece of creative non-fiction (before we even started using the term), about the techniques and principles Albano applies to his design work. Photo courtesy of ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

In Typography

  • “Advertising look.” Sometimes I think the worst thing that happened in the history of typography is the invention of Letraset. Advertising artists love the sleek look and tend to go crazy with the availability of new typefaces. Sleekness is suspect to me so I do not go for flashy types. (1976)

Asked about this “design system” in an interview that same year though, Albano turns serious: “It’s more of a working manner. I design by contemplating on the available materials and I proceed as I strip ‘til I print.” Impromptu and of-the-moment, but practical and deliberate. Sounds like some games people play, too.

Collaboration and practice

It is in this sense that this space for “Step On The Sand and Make Footprints,” easily overpowered by the glittery and massive works surrounding it, might also arguably be the most important one in this fair. It stands for Albano’s creativity, and is a fitting introduction to his work, but also, and maybe more importantly, it is a display of a particular moment in the history of printmaking and graphic design in the country. The time before computers and high-technology, but also that time when creative work was collaborative and generous.

“Ray had his paintings and other works, but buong-buo ‘yan lahat: artist, graphic designer, curator, writer, critic. He also had Samahan Sa Dulo, which was a theater group,” Sibayan recalls of those years. “At the time, everybody did everything, and we did it together.”

Albano sintra 1 48 x 30 (1).jpg “Ray was a homo ludens,” curator Judy Freya Sibayan says. A friend and collaborator of Albano, it’s her collection of posters that is for sale on the outside walls of the space of the Art Fair Philippines display. “It was play, but it was also at the same time precise. Printing and design are precise activities. But Ray was really good with the play aspect of it.” Photo courtesy of ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

She speaks of Albano and Roberto Chabet in the same breath, both people she had worked with, and treated as teachers. “You had Bobby then you had Ray. Your experience is complete with that combination. How can you go back to painting, or to sculpture, when you have these two teachers in your life?”

And these teachers were not one to preach. “They just practiced. We didn’t see it as preaching, we just saw it as practice, practice, practice. All that Ray did was practice. He showed that you can be the graphic designer, the curator, the writer, the critic. And so I never questioned it for myself either. It wasn’t really mentorship. It was simply learning the right way to do things. Then it resonated, and we had an affinity for what he was doing.”

Asked about how different those times were for artmaking and creativity, Sibayan says: “It’s so bureaucratic now. Then, it was free reign. That’s why all these things were being produced.” There was a generosity to this kind of artmaking, where the collective is rule, not exception. “Ideas with Ray were a dime a dozen. And wala siyang kaswapangan. Ownership of ideas? Wala siyang gano’n.”

55_Thirteen Artists 1978 (1).jpg Asked about this “design system,” Albano turns serious: “It’s more of a working manner. I design by contemplating on the available materials and I proceed as I strip ‘til I print.” Photo courtesy of ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

It’s a generosity that might have spilled over to the kind of values he brought to the task of heading the visual arts division of the Cultural Center, refusing to be limited by notions of aesthetic and craft. Albano, circa 1973: “Yes, I have been accused of being snobbish and of preferring the avant-garde. But there is no truth to this; I have exhibited everybody, not only those who have the craft but also those who have ideas.”

CCP and the dictatorship

A dark cloud that hangs quite heavily on Philippine cultural history is the martial law era. What is written is primarily about the use of cultural institutions as government propaganda arm, and few people demand that the analysis be complicated. One hazards an educated guess that what might be more productive at this point is not simply to pin down who worked for the oppressive regime, but what kind of cultural work they were actually doing.

Asked if it was playfulness that allowed for Albano his freedoms in that context, Sibayan provides an honest portrayal of that time. “It was a conflicted situation. CCP was Marcos territory. Supposedly where the avant garde was birthed, and in a way that’s an oxymoron: how can you say you’re doing the avant garde when you’re in an institution that’s run by that government?”

She continues: “Because he was good friends with Tita King (Lucrecia Kasilag), Ray was allowed to do everything he wanted to do. On the condition that every time Imelda had, say Goya prints, eh ‘di open ‘yung gallery for Goya prints kasi a-appear si Imelda. But everything else, kung anong gusto mong gawin, gawin mo. He had freedom naman. And that freedom was also ours.”

Sibayan admits to being in a bubble. “Maybe because we were innocent? And we weren’t really politicized. It was also a certain blindness. When we’re asked: what are you doing? Well, this is a museum, and we’re doing contemporary art. There was a great amount of disconnect there.”

Yet she talks about say, a 1978 exhibit at the Post Office garden, when she and Albano installed 20 12 x 12 mirrors where the workers were cleaning the park. It was called “Sept 21: Thanksgiving Reflection Day.” By the end of the project, all the mirrors had been stolen.

Yet Albano himself, in a 1976 essay on the CCP’s Thirteen Artist Awards, said: “Not that commercialism should be outlawed outright. Still, it can get into the way, and the young artist tends to welcome this. But in the midst of socio-economic forces the artist may make hasty decisions and set convictions aside, like a jacket on a summer day. The Thirteen Artists program acknowledges genuine insights of artists whose ‘critical decisions’ are about to be made.”

And in the same essay: “Any artist today working on art modes such as still life, Madonna-and-child, landscapes, views, nudes, and brushstroke abstract compositions can be accused of indulging in uncalled-for-hand-calisthenics and therefore remains doing exercises. The need to separate genuine ideas from nonsense is apparent.”

None of this sounds removed, or disconnected, from the state of the nation in the hands of the conjugal dictatorship, at all.

AFP Ray Albano.jpg Albano, circa 1973: “Yes, I have been accused of being snobbish and of preferring the avant-garde. But there is no truth to this; I have exhibited everybody, not only those who have the craft but also those who have ideas.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Beginnings and endings

Albano seems like the perfect entry point into a more complex discussion about the martial law years and the cultural sector, if only because the renewed interest in him and now available materials on him and by him reveal a clear predisposition to talk about artistic work as cultural labor — one that is informed by capital, limited by the State, and yet was still about the art. There is little romanticizing in the writings of Albano. In a 1976 interview, he is asked about how he became a poster designer.

“It’s like asking how I got to be a museum director. That’s a good question. I had a different concept of my work at the CCP but when the work came, it was not really disappointing but it was different,” Albano explained. “One day, we discovered we were paying too much for our posters and I volunteered to design a poster and print it myself.”

The practicality of these decisions, the almost commonsensical responses to questions, is what might appeal to a generation that’s exhausted from the pretension and pageantry that surrounds art institutions and events today. And it is in that context, too, that this Albano space is valuable: it is simple but powerful, of the past but in the present, historically critical and culturally important.

For Sibayan, this particular project is an homage to Albano. “Curatorship, I learned from Ray. And my work is precisely about what I learned from him: taking control of the whole institution of art. Because that’s the only way you can have agency, in terms of what you mean, what you want to do. It’s a critique of the whole system,” she says.

“You’re in the art world, you can critique it. You have to question where you are in the scheme of things. These are commodities, and who can afford them? Only the rich, to again strengthen their power, because wealth is power. Where else will they place their money but in paintings worth ₱130 million? So it’s not innocent, and you have to question where you are.”

49_Second Annual for the Visual Arts (1).jpg Albano on his foray into graphic design: “One day, we discovered we were paying too much for our posters and I volunteered to design a poster and print it myself.” Photo courtesy of ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

In 1976, Albano was already on point and (self-)critical about the art scene. “Any art opening alive with some extra activity is a happening (oh yes, Professor [Jose] Maceda also had a musical happening) especially when the gallery dealer-managers, or curators (can they be called hospitality girls, too?) arrange some fashion show or jazz music to enhance the evening. The next morning’s papers would come up with a column or short article reviewing the exhibits — this can pass for criticism.”

In 1979: “We are all victims of local art proliferating with ‘playful’ gestures, ‘pleasant’ effects, ‘decorative’ motifs, ‘native’ themes, ‘inspired’ expressiveness, ‘saleable’ subject matter, ‘impeccable’ craftsmanship, pinaghirapan method of art-making, ‘never-done-before’ techniques, etc. — all of which strive to look like, rather than reveal the meaning of, ART.”

In the script for the “Three Kings” performance of Huge Bartolome, Sibayan, and Albano, the latter wrote: “Ngunit ang masama na naman sa ating/nalalaman ay ang external things/palagi ang mahalaga.”

And in the “Sound Bags” script for the same trio’s performance:

Relax.

This performance is

in connection with

the Thirteen Artists 1978

exhibition

“The name of the game

is gimmickry.”

 

There Albano goes again, talking about the 2019 Art Fair.

 

***

All quotes from Raymundo Albano from “Raymundo Albano Texts” by the Vargas Museum and the Philippine Contemporary Art Network, 2017.

ERRATUM: In an earlier version of this article, the title of Ray Albano's installation was called “Step On The Sand and Make Imprints” and has already been corrected to “Step On The Sand and Make Footprints.” We apologize for the oversight.