Why 2021 Art Fair is crucial
to Philippine art scene

It turns out to be the most comprehensive digital experience
for the Filipino arts community so far in this pandemic

'Family Portrait' by Ding Gerrous (All photos and videos from 2021 Art Fair Philippines)

Screenshot of Art Fair Philippines website (All photos and videos from 2021 Art Fair Philippines)

I never thought I’d see the day I’d “tour” art exhibits the morning I wake up, as I have my fresh coffee. But that’s exactly what I’ve been doing this week—a morning habit of logging on to 2021 Art Fair Philippines (AFP) to visit the galleries and to see the digital films, not as a collector or buyer, certainly not as connoisseur or art critic, but simply as a journalist curious to see how this biggest annual art event in the Philippines is adapting to the abnormal world that the pandemic has imposed on us. It ends May 15.

How valiant is AFP’s pivot to the virtual world? More important, how effective, how viable?

The success of Art Fair Philippines’ migration (full or not) to the digital platform is crucial to how the Philippine artscape will thrive in a pandemic that is not ending any time soon, at least not in the Philippines, obviously. It is an indicator of how our art scene could go beyond the lucrative art auctions that seem to be doing so well in this pandemic. How about the artists who are not in the auctions, how about the genres not picked up by the auctions?

For the past eight years, since it began in 2013, with a decent participation by galleries, Art Fair Philippines has been the must-see art event every year. The crowd and the buzz it generated got bigger each year, from the spenders to the pundits, from galleries here and abroad, from Japan to Europe. Just as important, it helped create the conversation about Philippine contemporary art—and its baby steps towards the global market.

Its vernissage was a much-awaited derby. As an Art Fair regular noted, “Most of the excitement happens weeks leading to AFP, when collectors race to bag works by highly coveted artists. And on opening day, keep an eye out for possible AFP surprises. Then not much after…”

Now, how do you do that in a quarantine, if not a lockdown? How do you bring all that action from the “carpark” (that was how AFP started at Ayala Center in Makati) to the website? How AFP builds its digital ecosystem could serve as template for the Philippine art industry, and even the country’s creatives sector in general.

To us, that is the more significant question—how much of the Philippine and global market could it bring to its digital platform—than the individual exhibits or the NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which have yet to gain a toehold in the country, even as the rest of the world sleeps and wakes up to NFT talk.

And it doesn’t help that AFP is doing it in a country with a laggard IT infrastructure, where the Internet habitually lags, and where a great portion of the AFP audience aren’t even digital natives. The pandemic pushed the Philippines off the cliff into the digital abyss—jump! No warm-up, no time for questions. That’s the environment AFP is in.

Going beyond art auction commerce, it is immersive

The Art Fair started with technical glitches, during the Preview, the most awaited section of AFP. After that, however, it was smooth sailing, and the 2021 AFP turned out to be the most comprehensive digital experience in the Philippine art scene so far in this pandemic. Going beyond art auction commerce, it is immersive—with videos to introduce each participating gallery, to let the artist explain his method and philosophy. It gives the artist the voice, quite literally. Silverlens even has video clips of its interns and other staff who work behind the scenes, talking about why they love their work.

You can log on to tours of galleries, sign up for daily lectures, or join scheduled tours of artist studios. I regret missing the tour of Alfredo Esquillo’s studio in Batangas. (Perhaps next year all this could be video on demand.)

The site is easy to navigate, its landing page showing instantly the breadth and scope of the event and the variety of activities the visitor can log on to.

It tries to be interactive since visitors can leave comments for the galleries and artists or click the message apps.

It is laudable that AFP goes beyond commerce and the endless zero digits of art auctions, into hopefully generating discussion about art—be it about the experimental young artists or NFT—to raise awareness and knowledge of the current scene. The 2021 AFP makes a good laboratory of how the Philippines can use digital technology to generate substantive content, to raise the art consciousness level of the market, and more important, to give Filipino artists a much needed digital platform like what the foreign artists have. It’s an opportunity to see how the event can go beyond and above the  sosyalan of the physical art fair.

‘We had to think ways to overcome the lack of personal interaction with the art that is a common criticism of OVRs (online viewing rooms)’

Lisa Periquet, who founded the Art Fair with Trickie Lopa and Dindin Araneta, tells what the three of them sought in the site: “Firstly we wanted the website to be user-friendly and easy to navigate. We also had to think ways to overcome the lack of personal interaction with the art that is a common criticism of OVRs (online viewing rooms).

“Thus, a main feature of each gallery page is an embedded video that gives depth and context to the art seen on the page. It could be anything, ranging from a background of the artist and his or her artistic process, what the curator of the show sought to bring out in the artist’s work or perhaps the gallery’s philosophy, anything that adds to the understanding of the art on offer.

“In addition, we provide a messaging portion on the gallery page where one could send an email or click on Viber, WhatsApp, and Messenger icons to message the gallery directly for inquiries.”

To be different from previous years, 2021 AFP zeroed in on NFT from the crypto currency world that’s sucking us in without us being aware of it. At a recent dinner, I listened to the GenZ son of a friend trying to convince me that traditional banking system is “so yesterday” and that the world is going into crypto currency and its byproducts. And if that dinner chat wasn’t enough, some nights, I fall asleep with the Clubhouse (the audio chat app) turned on as “rooms” talk about—you guess it, NFTs, bitcoin, digital art, etc. I wake up, click on Clubhouse and other rooms are still at it, talking about NFT. (I heard about NFT initially and accidentally, thanks to BTS’ love of gaming.)

I never did understand it until I read up on it in the 2021 AFP—the crypto art world, why NFTs matter, digital assets, what NFTs are used for, digital memorabilia, among other topics.

The world is obsessing about NFT. And there’s no use bashing NFT or forcing it to fit our current mindset

The world is obsessing about NFT. And there’s no use bashing NFT or forcing it to fit our current mindset. The world that got sucked into an Industrial Revolution should no longer be shocked by a digital revolution. It doesn’t need our prior approval.

Periquet explains AFP’s focus on NFT: “Each edition of the Art Fair tends to have its own character. For 2021, we decided to highlight digital art forms as it was a digital, online fair. We gave that character its form by putting up a showcase of NFTs that was intended to introduce the concept to a wide audience—through talks by experts, panel discussions and even a virtual tour of a couple of NFT galleries, all by crypto natives based here or abroad.

“We included as well a panel on critical points of view on NFTs, to give a balanced approach.

“We also commissioned digital art by working with Daata, a platform for digital art based in the UK. There are some unique digital works with accompanying soundtracks that one could watch and stream on any device.”

You should watch the digital art in 2021 AFP—some way to chill.According to Periquet, the talks are getting good audience, as well.  “The take-up has been great—we are drawing twice to thrice the number of attendees that we used to get during the physical fair. I think it’s because it’s so easy to sign up and attend without leaving one’s home. For example, our recent panels on archiving Philippine photography, and the newly launched residencies program each drew well over a hundred attendees. We also have a very active social media program.”

Indeed you can lurk to your heart’s content: Ding Gerrous’ photography using large-format camera to generate an image on glass (Alaypalay); Tom Epperson’s abstract art/photography; Archivo 1984’s Finding Elena (a show on photos of the first Filipino movie star in Hollywood, dating back to 1920s); Justin Nuyda (Altro Mondo) explaining his fascination with butterflies, those “winged jewels”; Carlo Tanseco’s (Cube Gallery) surrender to art and the drone shot that captures his Siargao; a revisit to Avellana Art Gallery, that brings you up close with Renato Ong’s anthropomorphic creations; Leon Gallery’s comprehensive Geometric Abstract Art (from Bauhaus to Nena Saguil, Romulo Olazo).

The website also takes you to artists in Dumaguete (the tattoo artist/skateboarder Deadlocks), Cebu, Baguio, Tokyo—the digital platform breaks down boundaries, physical and mental. As one gallery video interview said, it “explores the fluid relationship between painting and video.”

However, the number of attendees to 2021 AFP pales in comparison with those of previous years, which numbered in the thousands. Periquet says, “We’re still sorting out the numbers, but they definitely won’t compare with the number of attendees we usually get in the physical fair. This is one of the challenges of the digital platform.”

How about sales? “It’s the usual mixed bag. We aren’t involved in gallery transactions, but we do get some feedback from them, and it’s been busy times for many.”

‘They are digital natives, while we three older co-founders are digital immigrants’

Periquet looks back on what putting up 2021 AFP entailed: “It was a huge job boosting the capabilities of the website to fulfill all our digital fair dreams. It entailed a lot of discussion with IT providers.  We also have a great team of young and capable Art Fair interns who have really helped contribute.  They naturally understand the digital space they grew up with. They are digital natives, while we three older co-founders are digital immigrants. We pooled our efforts and points of view to work out the fair’s structure in the virtual space.

“Honestly, the whole process of figuring out the digital fair has made us produce a template very different from the one we developed and were working with for the past eight years. It’s like going back to square one with a whole new set of challenges. I sometimes wonder where we get the wherewithal to do all this.

“Just thinking about all the work we did makes me want to go on a very long vacation.” (Unfortunately, a vacation, too, might have to be virtual.)

What shouldn’t be overlooked is that AFP now has residency programs for artists. It is explained in detail in the site.

The 2021 AFP is a major start for Philippine art’s migration to the digital platform, or semi-migration.

Perhaps to make it more immersive and interactive, AFP next year can set up live chats or chat rooms for visitors in real time—similar to what VLive or BTS’ Weverse has, where the celebrities do “chat” or messaging, in real time, with the sites’ visitors (a.k.a. fans), and where visitors  can chat among themselves. Filipinos are inherently interactive—they need to talk as they tour the galleries. They need to give their two cents’ worth, especially in a local art scene that is, to put it mildly, opinionated.

A live chat will restore, from the physical fair, what the digital world can’t miss out on: bitchiness.

Promotional trailer for ArtFairPH/Film x Daata (by Jacob Gryn / @jacobgryn on Instagram)

About author


After devoting more than 30 years to daily newspaper editing (as Lifestyle editor) and a decade to magazine publishing (as editorial director and general manager), she now wants to focus on writing—she hopes.

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