PSi #21 Fluid States Philippines, Postcards from Mindanao, by Philippines Correspondent Ella Parry-Davies

Postcards from Mindanao:

Wayfaring and displacement in archipelagic space


by Ella Parry-Davies


31 July 2015


PSi#21 Fluid States – Philippines - Sa Tagilid na Yuta: On Tilted Earth: Performance in Archipelagic Space


Indonesian performance artist Iwan Wijono’s video performance Nusantara Manuscript opens with etymology. Nusantara derives from the Sanskrit nuswa (the place that we inhabit) and antara (between), and encapsulates an enlivening both of a space and its ‘in between’. Nusantara is the Indonesian word for the Southeast Asian archipelago; but also refers to the space between the islands, as well as, in spiritual terms, the space between galaxies, dimensions and life-worlds (Wijono, 2015). The unification of these notions – the idea of inhabiting both a space and its ‘between-ness’ – becomes especially evocative when we think of the rhythms of archipelagic life, in which the sea, ostensibly the place between destinations, becomes a destination and a place of return in itself. Inhabitants of archipelagic space sometimes live on the sea – like the nomadic sea tribe the Badjao – and many frequently live by, from and with it. This emerged in our discussions with those we met in Mindanao: they fish, they dive for coins and pearls, they develop incredible resistance to the breathlessness of being under water. They make their living from the traffic of the port, trading Indonesian batik, and catching the sardines that swim past the south coast of this island at just the right size for canning, or the huge tuna that are sold as high-grade sashimi to Japan. The name of the RoRo project uses the phrase ‘On Tilted Earth’ to suggest the precarious condition of life in the Philippines: in Tagalog, Sa Tagilid na Yuta. But in the stressed third syllables of sa tagīlid na yutā, the rhythmic rocking sound of the phrase (at least for the non-Tagalog speaker) contains the memory and motion of the sea, even as it speaks of the land. The language of water seemed to permeate the ways in which we felt and spoke about our experiences. ‘Do you ever get the feeling that stories just pour out of people?’ Jazmin Llana asked me once. Our journey through Mindanao placed us in syncopated rhythms with these archipelagic lives, so that there became something especially relevant about the fact of travelling as a method of research, or as a way of thinking through the movement of the space. Memories of places we had left resurfaced as we heard similar stories of conflict and displacement again and again, and as our own transitions brushed against the migrations of the islanders. I was reminded of lunar cycles and eclipses, or the ways in which, driving along the coast as we so often did, we would be intermittently reunited with glimpses of the sea.

If the journey itself – rather than the bounded ‘site’ or ‘field’ of a research destination – is the way in which we begin to know, it can perhaps be characterized (or has been at least for me, on my own travels) by the pervasive feeling of not knowing. N. Catherine Hayles, paraphrasing “that well-known Zen poet Donald Rumsfeld,” writes of literature as a process of revelation by which “known unknowns” and “unknown knowns” become confounded. “Literature, that is, activates a recursive feedback loop between knowledge realized in the body through gesture, ritual, performance, posture, and enactment, and knowledge realized in the neocortex as conscious and explicit articulations” (Hayles, 2006: 5). Journeying, likewise – and sometimes very poignantly – activates this spark of confluence between the salience of embodiment and the iterations of conscious thought. But journeying also makes very palpable Rumsfeld’s last category, the “unknown unknowns”, which Hayles does not discuss: that which we do not even know that we do not know, or, as I understand it, the still un-thought questions for which we cannot yet even articulate the terms.

Partly, this was because our frames of reference – cultural, political and personal - constantly shifted around us as we moved through the island, meeting artists, activists, religious leaders, indigenous communities, elders, children and, above all, people who had themselves been displaced. Often, aside from the place-name and maybe its position on a map, many of us did not know where we were going in real terms, or what we would find there: to this extent, every journey for the first time is a journey into the unknown. Our questions, let alone answers, were impossible to pre-determine. Tim Ingold uses the term “wayfaring” to describe this way of knowing (or, as I largely felt, not-knowing), which “is itself a path of movement through the world: the wayfarer literally ‘knows as he goes’” (Ingold, 2007: 30). Ingold opposes wayfaring to “destination-oriented” transport that moves across space towards fixed points, between which the connectors are themselves irrelevant. Transport produces knowledge only at given sites of stasis, surveying the field as a “network”, as if from above. Wayfarers, however, create a “meshwork” of trails as they go “alongly”, gathering perceptions and understanding in perpetual processes of self-renewal: as he (or she) proceeds, writes Ingold, the wayfarer “has to sustain himself, both perceptually and materially, through an active engagement with the country that opens up along his path” (24-5). It is, of course, largely her or his quality of attention that distinguishes the wayfarer from the transported passenger: the response to the journey that I offer here is necessarily partial, limited to my own modes of perception and personal experiences.

            Can these experiences be, as the headline of the international PSi project claims, “performances of unknowing”? Can the archipelagic space we traversed be mapped onto the concept of “Fluid States”? The terms jar. In reality, and as became very evident at times, we were travelling across a pre-existing network of practitioners and institutions rather than forming a meshwork of our own. The “unknowing” offered by the PSi conceptual umbrella implies a prerequisite condition of knowledge there to be undone – and perhaps betrays, then, the cognitive capital that its community of scholars would endow itself with (before attempting to dissociate itself from). Greater than cognitive, in fact; this capital is garnered from the resources, platforms, technologies, connections and mobilities that prop up one of the field’s largest research networks, and allow the “oceanic metaphor” of PSi#21 to function as a performance of global devolution. In Mindanao, our journey was predominantly choreographed by universities which acted as homes for student and semi-professional theatre-making, as well as hubs for community and “outreach” projects. For us, the institutions were gateways into these projects, as well as places to eat, sleep and meet. Very often, the universities were also religious institutions, and (whether or not this was the case) the convergence of interests they held as sites of knowledge production, but also as landowners, cultural venues, employers, teachers, and providers of development initiatives and resources to “local communities” was significant. In granting visibility to chosen aspects of the cultural and political landscape, universities directed our lines both of movement and of perception along certain paths: in Mindanao, as in the macrocosm of the PSi#21 objective.

            Second, the “fluxes, flows and currents” emphasized by the Fluid States theme (as outlined on its webpage) are sympathetic to the archipelagic motions of the Philippines, but perhaps over-privilege the “deep and treacherous spaces that are in-between and in-motion and thus have the potential to problematize boundaries and remap relations and limits of un/knowing.” The “treacherous” instabilities and liminalities of and between states and nations are rarely cause for celebration – particularly for those caught up in the uncertainties, transitions, and violence of such shifts. Again, it is perhaps only from a condition of knowledge capital that we can perform “unknowing”; and only from states of security and safety that we can privilege volatility.

This contradiction was especially visible in Mindanao, since the overwhelming picture we met with was one of displacement. Mindanaoans have reclaimed a term – bakwit – to speak of evacuees and evacuations, and many of the stories I tell below are anchored in that experience (see also Jose Jowel Canuday, 2009). One of the first projects we visited was a women-friendly space in a “transitory site” in Zamboanga City, where 800 families were caught between emergency evacuation camps and “permanent shelters.” Their homes had been burnt down in a violent stand-off between sectarian political groups and the military in 2013: both sides would have various motives for starting the fire, but neither had admitted to it. In other sites, informal settlements had been destroyed by flash flooding or more fires – where unexpected questions such as “Who will profit from this land being cleared?” formed in our conversations. We met indigenous tribes who faced (or had been) forced from their gold-rich land by transnational mining corporations and corrupt legal battles over ancestral land rights; or who suffered from “bio-piracy”, in which pharmaceutical companies had patented their herbal medicines to sell back to them at a premium. Against this backdrop, the Bangsamoro Basic Law was being debated, which would establish a separately elected Muslim government in Mindanao. Born from calls to re-establish the rights of Muslim and indigenous people in Mindanao who had been displaced by Spanish and American colonialists and Christian settlers from other parts of the Philippines, the act would also produce multiple forms of displacement in a region which is no longer majority Islamic.

            The weighty assymetries between the types of travel I have alluded to here speak of vastly disparate economies of mobility. In responding to the RoRo journey with a set of seven ‘postcards’, I have attempted to engage with this via a form which I hope maintains some kind of fidelity to the experience of movement and displacement. Thought, if not actually written, on the road, the constraints of time and space to write on the back of a postcard are as much a premise to reflect on and gather an experience of journeying as they are a message sent ‘back home’. In bringing together image and text, the postcards represent an attempt to capture – or somehow make sense of – what Barthes called the studium and the punctum that we experience through imagery (Barthes, 2010). While my cursory, point-and-shoot photographs are symptomatic of the subordination of the future to the present (the desire to be present in the present overpowering the duty of documentation), the texts are more reflexive or performative, and aim to articulate on some level the personal experience of the encounters themselves, as well as the social and political forces at play in the scenes and lives represented.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland (2010). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography Pbk. ed. New York: Hill and Wang.

Canuday, Jose Jowel (2009). Bakwit: The Power of the Displaced. Manila: Ateneo de Manila Press.

Hayles, N. Catherine (2006). ‘Revealing and Transforming: How literature revalues computational practice’ in Performance Research 11.4, pp.5-16.

Ingold, Tim (2007). Lines: A Brief History. London: Routledge.

Wijono, Iwan (2015). Nusantara Manuscript, video performance installation presented at Secret Archipelago exhibition, Palais de Tokyo, Paris.


Ms Young shows us a mat woven by one of her neighbours in a “transitory site” in the city of Zamboanga, where 800 families have been temporarily housed. The women’s homes were caught in a siege formed by armed clashes between the military and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which lasted for three weeks in 2013 and has resulted in almost three years of displacement for these evacuees – or the bakwit, as they are known: our contact here tells us 120,000 people were displaced in this incident. We meet in a women-friendly space in which a program for leadership skills has been set up by the Ateneo de Zamboanga university. For community artist Rosalie Zerrudo, one of our team of travellers, the mat became symbolic of both the adversity and the resilience of the women we met: the indigenous craft of weaving brought them together in their cultural diversity, but the physical hardship of mat-making, for the fingers and the back, attested to the difficulties of incorporating the religious and cultural differences in Mindanao into a communal social fabric. When we left the transitory site, Jazmin was frustrated with the lack of basic material resources. “If there is a physicalisation of liminality, that was it,” she tells me. “It’s in the name: ‘transitory site’. Transitory site.”

The next day, we visited ‘Ground Zero’ of the siege. Wooden houses had been burnt away, leaving a swathe of bare concrete stilts rising from the water. The mud was strewn with rubbish. In our conversations, there was a tangible yearning for the familiar rhythms of the sea, and a deep frustration at the waste created by the experience of displacement and the “permanent shelters” being built here, which in many ways (such as the new sewage system) were impractical for the terrain and the community. We met a small boat fishing for sea urchins and sea grapes. The fishermen and women now lived on the transitory site we’d been to the day before: they told us of diving for pearls, and I remembered Ms Young gleefully telling us stories of her youth diving for coins thrown by tourists as their boats came in. Returning to ‘Ground Zero’ to fish, then taking the catches to Zamboanga market, is costly in both time and gasoline money. The large neighbourhood had, before the siege, been relatively self-sufficient, but was forced to operate now across new geographies of trade and community. Hearing it so often, I learnt my first new word in Tagalog – malayo – meaning ‘far away’.

Police share in a lunch at the house of Bae Labi Sonita Ryde, who has been recently enthroned as a ‘Princess’ of the Subanen indigenous people thanks to the work she has done in mediating between religious factions and the military, and campaigning for indigenous rights. In Buug, security and militarisation is high in the face of recurrent ambush and kidnap – both the Princess and our group (particularly myself, as the only non-Filipino) are potential targets, and we are escorted from an army checkpoint to her house by military personnel. In the garden where we eat, we are surrounded by the artefacts, crafts and dances of the Subanen people, but inside the house I notice cut-glass decanters and ornate strawberry tea-sets. Princess Sonita tells me that her late husband was an English serviceman, and that she spent twenty years living in a cul-de-sac near Wensleydale in the North of England. I’m stunned by the strange geopolitical palimpsest of my own militarised presence here and have the uncomfortable feeling that my nationality is acting independently of myself. Upstairs, a table is set for high tea: my Filipino friends jokingly ask me to pose for a photo. I don’t know the cutlery rules but Joana has been to catering school and explains what to do.

In Ozamis, we attend a conference called ‘Theatre and Spirituality in Mindanao’, led by Felimon Blanco and Fe Remotigue. The conference focusses on three practitioners of community theatre who were particularly active – under extremely harsh conditions – in the period of martial law in the 1970s. Three younger researcher-practitioners (Denise Aguilar, Erolle Linus Miranda and Karlwinn Paitan) have been invited to interview the theatre-makers, and they present their findings at the conference. The research project has been defined by a certain ethos: “As far as possible, do not discuss but present.” As a result, the presentations are participatory and deeply affective, using dance and improvisation workshops to reproduce the techniques and experiences offered by the community theatre leaders. But the ethos, and the presentations, also risk circumventing critical thinking around the teachings of these leaders, their selection as under the rubric of ‘theatre and spirituality in Mindanao,’ and the axioms (such as the definition of ‘spirituality’ itself) performed by the research project. All three leaders (Father Dong Galenzoga, Father Larry Helar and Brother Karl Gaspar) are also Catholic priests, a fact which could be addressed more cautiously in view of the cultural diversity of community theatre in Mindanao.

This drum-maker lives in a village in the Bukidnon region, in which the first School of Living Traditions has been set up by the community elder Datu Vic. The School is designed to preserve the crafts and practices of his indigenous group the Tala’andig, not as ‘museum pieces’, but as dynamic working elements of contemporary life. Children attend the School every day from the ages of three to seven, before going to the State elementary school, learning weaving, dancing, chanting, drumming and oral history. Datu Vic speaks bitterly about the colonisation of the bodies and belief systems of his indigenous group. Without leaving their land, the tribe have nevertheless been displaced from their relation to it through religious missionaries, bio-piracy, and corrupt legal battles over land rights. Resilience, he tells us, can only begin with recourse to indigenous self-awareness, ritual, and cultural mechanisms of resolution. ‘Spirituality’, and its evacuation from the bodies of its practitioners, is the most elusive element to reanimate, he tells us. When I ask him about cultural memory, he immediately speaks of survival, but not in the terms I was expecting. He rejects the idea of memory, stressing that living practice and consciousness are more vital. “When you use your eyes, you don’t have to memorise.”

Forty-eight families from the B’laan tribe have made their homes on the margins of this rubbish tip in General Santos city. Displaced from their ancestral land, they move with the dumpsite, following its slim bounty, from which they might make $3 a day scavenging. In the face of this sheer dearth of resources, an elderly woman offers me an ornamental comb (su hai) she has made, with brightly coloured strings of tiny beads that fall behind my ears. In the afternoon, we see a play called Dula Ta (Let’s Play), in which a wandering, traumatised ex-soldier, his shoes tied together with plastic bags from the trash, plays with two fatherless children in a no-man’s-land intermittently pelted with gunfire. The performance itself feels displaced, camped out in a local gymnasium against a scenery of cardboard boxes, like so many images of the bakwit. But the title also bluntly casts the war in Mindanao as a game for those profiteering from the corruption and chaos fostered by perpetual conflict and evacuations. After the performance, the organizer of the event quotes passages from both the Bible and the Qur’an. “All people are as equal as the teeth of a comb,” he pronounces. When I stand up, overwhelmed by the inequalities resonating through this one day, my beaded comb has made a pattern of tiny dents in the grip of my palms.

Noah is a child in the Badjao indigenous community, who live in Davao City, although they are originally from Zamboanga. Noah is one of the best storytellers amongst his friends, and he improvised a song for us, which rhymed, but in a language we could not understand. The Badjao are traditionally sea-dwellers and make their living from fishing, but in Zamboanga they were victims of pirates who would steal their catches, their engines and sometimes even their boats. In 1993 they began to move, family by family, to Davao. Mastalbari Edjie Adjari’s family was the first to move: back then he was ten years old. He misses the sparkling clear sea of Zamboanga, he told me, which he could slip into so easily. It is our last day in Mindanao. With vivid déjà-vu I listen to his stories of diving for coins as tourists came in on the boats, and my mind sails back to a transitory site in Zamboanga… Here, the sea is dirty and far from the village, and the rubbish washes downstream from the town faster than they can clear it away. When the flash flood hit Davao four years ago, it was bodies that they cleared from the river’s mouth.


Copyright –  Ella Parry-Davis  (2015) “Postcards from Mindanao: Wayfaring and displacement in archipelagic space”, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available

Tags: Class Labor Economy and Performance  Community and Performance  Daily Life Daily Rituals and Performance   Disaster Recovery Resilience and Performance  Environment Ecology and Performance  History Tradition and Performance  Indigeneity and Performance  Performance Studies in Asia  Performance Studies in the Pacific  

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