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Katawán, Satti

The body between: an interview/review

Keith Gallasch talks to Fatima Lasay

Katawán, Satti Katawán, Satti
Katawán, Satti is a MAAP commission, a large scale, visually and aurally rich and complex collaboration between Filipino and Myanmar artists curated and coordinated by Filipino artist and educator in digital media Fatima Lasay. I met Lasay shortly after the opening of Katawán, Satti to discuss her background and the evolution of the work, and to ask about the state of new media art in the Philippines and Mayanmar. Also included here are a detailed description of the work, my response to it and biographies of the artists.

Fatima Lasay

Lasay trained in industrial design at the University of the Philippines, part of the so-called "guinea pig batch", she said, the first group of students to take the course. And experimental it was, given the paucity of jobs in industrial design in the country, propelling graduates to work overseas.

Taking up stenotyping instead of computing and resisting the use of the camera, focusing on drawing instead, Lasay appeared least likely to develop into a new media artist and educator. After working in industrial design for 2 years and then writing travel news for 4 years (which took her around the Philippines), Lasay was invited to teach at the University of the Philippines where she set up the university's first computer arts elective. While disappointed it remained an elective, nonetheless she appreciated the freedom that the elective structure offered.

The course started with no equipment and then the minimum of equipment–one computer borrowed from administration shared between 20 students. Soon more machines came courtesy of alumni donations.

Lasay's own formative venture into art came in 1998 with a grant to digitally document Spanish Colonial religious images. She stayed 2 weeks in a convent, heavily guarded, she said, for its treasures. Such documentation, she explained, is important for the security of historically precious works. The outcome was a CD-ROM and she subsequently used some of the images in her work in prints and on the web.

Digital Media Festival

In 2000 Lasay set up the Digital Media Festival from within the Fine Arts Department and with assistance of her students and equipment sponsorship from Canon and HP. The first festival focused on local artists and methodologies. The second in 2003 introduced artists from other Asian countries including Singapore and Japan. This program made connections between new media and anthropology, archaeology and medicine through the university's faculties. Lasay pointed out that the artists involved did not necessarily have backgrounds in computing. In a country with few computer artists and new media curators, the pioneers had emerged from printmaking, including Alfredo Manrique who is one of the artists in Katawán, Satti.

While there is plenty of video and a growing body of sound art, Lasay feels that the venture into new media art is only just really beginning in the Philippines.

In 2003, with university support diminishing, Lasay created an interactive CD-ROM with her students on images from the American-Philippines war as the festival project. The work is built on and around a collection of some 400-500 cartoons and other images from newspapers and magazines from 1896 to 1902 which portrayed Filipinos from a deeply racist and imperialist perspective. Lasay described one such cartoon as "depicting US President McKinley bathing the 'baby' Philippines in the waters of civilisation."

With Lasay leaving the university to pursue a career as a freelance artist, the Digital Media Festival could well be finished unless someone is prepared to take it up.

Teaching media in Myanmar

If new media art is in its early days in the Philippines, its beginnings are very new in Myanmar. While email is relatively accessible, the web is not in that country, being very expensive to use.

Lasay was invited to Myanmar by NICA (Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts), an independent, not-for-profit, resource and development centre for the arts. NICA was established as recently as March 2003 and is located in Yangon. Its objectives are to support arts and cultural development within the country but also to generate access to and exchange between likeminded partners in other countries. The Founding Director was Jay Koh, now resident in Germany, and the Director for Programs is Chu Chu Yan.

The artists (Dewa, Khin Mya Zin, Khin Swe Win, Zeya, Lin Thu and Moozart) in the workshop, said Lasay, were already seriously interested in working with computers. She introduced them to the sorts of materials they could use and the changes computers could make to their art. In sound, she introduced the group to mini-disc, microphone deployment and editing and used recordings of various environments and interview formats to generate work. She was intrigued by the subtle sense of interrogation behind innocent, casual discussions of the single life, young people and hip hop, one's age and more serious subjects like lethal injection executions.

With web design Lasay's approach was based on accessibility, focusing on html, information design and visual style and themes with the group creating a design document and then an interactive design for a gallery. They then made a web art exhibition using rollovers with a binary dynamic–a set of contrasts pulled from clippings about, among other things, age and status, and birth and death notices in newspapers.

Lasay also taught her group how to make CD-ROMs as an alternative art space given. She also encouraged the use of VCDs of which she said there are plenty of players in Myanmar, not to mention regional Philippines.

Making Katawán, Satti

Katawán, Satti includes Filipino artists Tad Ermitaño and Jing Garcia from the group Children of Cathode Ray. They have worked for 15 years in experimental sound and the underground video scene and collaborated on the sound score for this show. Alfredo Manrique, a famous Filipino social realist, is a painter and printmaker who presented his first exhibition of computer prints in 1998. Than Htike Aung and Khin Zaw Latt from Myanmar contributed sound scores as did the group of 7 Myanmar artists whom Lasay had recently tutored.

Among the sound scores (2 play from high above the gallery space, and 2 diagonally opposite from the floor) is a recording of monks chanting a prayer–"well done…, well done…" with dogs barking. Lasay laughed as she explained that when the monks ring a bell every day at 11am all the dogs in the area begin to howl.

Lasay told me that the images projected during Katawán, Satti have been collected from the internet by Alfredo Manrique. They include flowers, the female body, especially the genitals, photographs of American serviceman working at a US airbase in the company of Filipino women, and the region around the base. The photographs appear to range in age from black and white shots in taken in the 1950s to later ones in colour. Side by side with the flowers, the richly coloured and textured images of labia also appear like flowers and fruit and are collaged and kaleidoscoped into very different shapes. Framed versions of the kaleidoscopic images hang on the outside wall of the gallery.

The collaging process is not so much within the images but in their rapid cross-fading juxtaposition on 6 4-metre-long strips of white material (each about a half metre wide) hanging from bamboo bars high above the viewer in the centre of the gallery space. The strip screens can be viewed from both sides so that the 2 projectors placed diagonally opposite each other throw images that are broken by the distance between the strips and by images appearing from behind. The work therefore constantly demands new responses as it loops through images and an asynchronous set of sound scores. The viewer circles the visual installation while being surrounded by a wider circle of sound.

This large, pulsing and demanding work suggests a correlation between the beauties of flowers and bodies, and how they can be multiplied and transformed into even further images of beauty. On the other hand they show the vulnerability of such beauty to political power and sexual exploitation. Lasay explained that the buildings and highways around the base were built as a direct result of the sex trade economy. The kaleidoscopic images made from the women's bodies, she said, suggest the giant lanterns to be found in the province around the base, extending the ambiguity of imagery. In another connection with tradition she notes in her catalogue essay that "Manrique's images recall the prehistoric incisions of pudenda on boulders near the village of Alab in the Mountain province."

The challenge for Lasay and the artists was how to present and integrate the components of this collaborative work. Cone shapes with the sound coming from inside were considered, but a limited budget led to a decision to hang strips of material purchased in Myanmar from bamboo bars used to dry laundry outside the windows of tall Singapore residential buildings.

For Lasay this design also connoted the plight of Filipino maids working in Singapore–the mysterious deaths of those who perhaps had been forced to clean the outside of windows or had suicided in despair at the lives they were living.

I asked Lasay if she felt like a curator or a contributing artist on Katawán, Satti. Definitely an artist she replied, given her involvement in bringing together the work of the various artists and being part of the decision-making about how to present the whole work.

Experiencing Katawán, Satti

Katawán, Satti is a complex and sensuous work. On a crowded, buzzing opening night it only began to make sense as the audience emptied out of the gallery, leaving just few of us to really hear the sound and to let it rub against the images and around its varied selves. The sound conjured streets and temples, chatter and prayer, and, at its most moving, in a long quiet organ-like ostinato that, with my eyes closed, became deeply meditative or grimly elegaic when the eyes opened to the images of generations of Filipino women in the arms of American service men.

As for the work's meanings as embodied in this interplay of 2 very different cultures and the shifting semantics of Katawán (body in Filipino) and Satti (power or force in Myanmar), you are best referred to Lasay's catalogue essay. For someone unfamiliar with Buddhist Mayanmar's sense of space and being as realised in sound art, and the fecund imagery and overt politics of the Filipino component, Katawán, Satti requires learning as well as openness. The work represents a starting point for a dialogue between distinctive cultures.

Katawán, Satti is an enveloping and rewarding experience, one that constantly pushes you off-centre as you piece together fragmented and transformed images and histories and respond to the complex interplay of body and force. At its most difficult, the competition between the sound scores can bewilder (I would like to hear them on a CD apart from the show at some other time). The chance juxtaposition of sound and image yields surprising and sometimes moving moments and long passages but can also feel un-worked out, too chancey to match or challenge or dialogue with what we are seeing. The number of sound sources and the density and uniform pacing of the projected imagery suggest a sometimes sparer approach with greater rhythmic variation might be more engrossing given the ample distancing effects. But these are minor complaints. Katawán, Satti's haunting visual and aural imagery and its insistent pulse is still with me, even though I am well outside this significant dialogue between Myanmar and Filipino artists.


Tad Ermitaño (b. 1964) holds a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the University of the Philippines and studied film/video making at the Mowelfund Film Institute. He currently produces video for projection in a variety of stage/concert contexts, including several productions of Ballet-Philippines. His single-channel works have been screened at the Yamagata International Film Festival and the Hamburg Short Film Festival. The focus of his work has since expanded to the use of computers and other technologies in performance and installation contexts.

Jing Garcia (b. 1965) trained as a journalist and started early in his career by writing reviews of vinyl records released by a variety of local and international music artists in the early 80s. With his exposure to the underground music circle of Manila, he went into music production and earned a number of Gold and Platinum awards as well as several citations including three nominations from Awit Awards as Producer back in the mid-90s. Today, Jing Garcia is a weekly I.T. Columnist for the Manila Standard, PULP, a popular music and lifestyle magazine, and a regular contributor for Speed: High-performance Technology Magazine. Jing Garcia also runs his own experimental project studio effort under the name Dominguez-Shimata.Colony.

Khin Zaw Latt (b. 1980) holds a degree in Painting from the University of Culture in Myanmar, and has exhibited in Yangon, Myanmar and in Hong Kong. He won Second Prize at Myanmar Youth Drawing Contest in 2001 and Honourary Mention at Myanmar Contemporary Art Awards in 2004. Khin Zaw Latt participates actively in programs of the Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts, Yangon (NICA), and was a participant in the the International Symposium "Collaboration, Networking and Resource Sharing: Myanmar" organized by Myanmar artists with the International Forum for the Inter-Media Arts (IFIMA).

Alfredo Manrique (b. 1949) was among the first social realists in the Philippines to consider art as social and political commentary in response to severe economic and social inequality particularly after the imposition of Martial Law in 1972. As painter and printmaker, Manrique uses the human body as landscape for the expression of historical struggle. In the late 80s he shifted to the digital medium. Manrique has served as director of Cyberspace, Inc., and MIS and system integration consultant for both the Manila Standard and the UNDP-PSDN (Philippine Sustainable Development Network).

Fatima Lasay (b. 1969) is an artist, independent curator and educator of digital media. Her work emphasizes a cultural (re)definition of the practice and theory of art and technologies within the context of post-development and neocolonialism. She obtained her degrees in Industrial Design and Master of Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines where she served as senior lecturer (1996-2000) and assistant professor (2001-2004) and also developed its first digital media art elective courses. Fatima is currently a member of the editorial board of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac, and member of International Steering Committee and Chairperson of Committee on Education for Pacific Rim New Media Summit/ISEA 2006 Conference.

Katawán, Satti, The Art Gallery, National Institute of Education, MAAP in Singapore, Oct 22-Nov 24

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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