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Archive, institution and self: speaking with Judy Freya Sibayan

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Judy Freya Sibayan, Moving House, Unpacking a Life of Critical Artmaking, 2018. Photo: Gillian Brown

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In 2018, Judy Freya Sibayan moved house. A conceptual artist engaged in the practice of performed institutional critique, she never had a studio, but still the move prompted a reckoning with a physical archive of a lifetime of art making. Sorting through records became a semi-performative autobiographical installation when Sibayan ‘moved in’ to Calle Wright, in Manila, Philippines. For three months she sorted in public, and it was in the middle of it that we met.

Sitting among the catalogue of Sibayan’s life was a crash course in her work unveiling and pushing at the power imbalances of the art world through exhibition making, performance and processes of ‘self-instituting’. She has been making this kind of work since her resignation as the Director of the erstwhile Contemporary Art Museum of the Philippines in 1989, a job she had taken on two years prior. She had an artistic practice, as well as a curatorial one, prior to this – her work was first documented in 1974. As a director, her inherent will to challenge did not sit easily with the populist tastes that swelled in the early post dictatorial era. She left the job to better serve her instincts, but her time served had clarified what it takes to build and sustain an institution.

A period of disillusionment with the art world engulfed Sibayan, and when she returned to making work seven years later, her first response to the ‘monolithic, oppressive, co-opting, confining, centralized, exclusionary and structuralising art institution’ was Scapular Nomad Gallery (first in 1994, then 1997-2002). For this, Sibayan staged 34 exhibitions of work by other artists, mounted on a scapular that she wore every day for five years. It was a very public project yet an intimate encounter for both gallery and visitor, carried out as it was in one person’s everyday life with her body as infrastructure. It was a direct answer to her questioning of purpose – the scapular as an item of clothing worn as a sign of faith and devotion as a statement of her inherent dedication to making art – and a riposte to the scales of economy, power and influence of large institutions.

The scapulars Sibayan sewed wore were there at Calle Wright. Other items gathered: her experimental e-autobiography, charting this process, printed in its entirety; another print out of a document detailing how to become a franchisee of the Museum of Mental Objects (MoMO); her shoes and clothes in a cupboard; a library of books; postcards from exhibitions she had visited; personal letters; pamphlets; a number of flat boxes containing copies of issues of le point d'ironie – artist pages edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist who asked Sibayan to give away in her part of the world; cutlery; a myriad of notes and scrap paper. What is collected, what is held on to, what is preserved: there is a politic to the stories we choose to compile. The work I experienced in 2018 (Moving House, Unpacking a Life of Critical Artmaking) was a retrospective in process, the result of which is safely stored in – lived in – Sibayan’s new home. There is a politic to who has – and needs – access to a collection or archive or document.

In carrying out institutional critique, collecting and archiving are ongoing as both concern and process for Sibayan. What follows is a document (rather than a transcript) of a conversation we had over Zoom in 2022, ostensibly about those ideas and their relationship to institution and self. As a record it relies on memory, video calls, imperfect transcribing software and editing by both parties. Like all items employed from an archive, it has been processed and contextualised.

Gillian Brown: When I first approached you, I asked to dive into a discussion about the Museum of Mental Objects (MoMO). But instead it could be good to chat about your practice more generally, as the process of archiving as a verb, as opposed to archive as a noun, feels so imperative to quite a few of your works?

Judy Freya Sibayan: I see. So you want me to talk about my practice of archiving, but not necessarily MoMO?

GB: Well, let’s begin by talking about MoMO and see where it leads us.

[The Museum of Mental Objects was instituted in 2002. Artists invited to exhibit install a work in the museum by whispering it in Sibayan’s ear – Sibayan is the institution. The institution can be invited to exhibit one or more works through telling. No opening or work can be documented in words, images or film. It has been expanded and franchised, like any major institution in the 21st century.]

JFS: Well, with MoMO, the only image allowed is its calling card. The archive that gets built around MoMO is just everything that others or I write about it that gets published, papers presented in conferences and all the drafts. These are the archival materials of MoMO. The other materials in my self-archive, because I'm a conceptual artist – I mean, you saw them right? [as part of Moving House…, 2018]

GB: Yes.

JFS: Right before we locked down in 2020 I performed the archive again, this time in a white cube because at Calle Wright, it was more like a house, right? You know, it had a kitchen. I served you coffee.

GB: You did.

JFS: And then I went to the white cube (Silverlens) because I wanted to perform the archive this time in a white cube as a laboratory where I can investigate how best to perform my archive as my other body. This time I was asking the hard questions about the performativity of archiving, how one performs an archive in terms of making it alive. To talk about it with visitors, for them to see my art and my life in terms of my archive as embodied self-representation, rather than just looking at the archive. And critiquing the gallery in terms of, if you install an archive in the gallery, is the archive dead?

GB: Did you think of it then as a public archive [accessible to visitors, rather than in a process of becoming]?

JFS: Is there another way of, in fact, approaching the archive this time? Not from above, from the institution, but rather from below, with the individual person making sense of the materiality of her own life and the material support of her art. Art making in terms of the telling of a life personally, intimately based on a self-archive rather than the institutional reading of an archive. If the artist was the one archiving, therefore, shouldn't she have developed her own system according to how she had made the art and how she had lived the art and how, in fact, she would have wanted her art to be seen, understood when the artist is dead? When I am dead?

In fact, before I performed the archive in the art gallery, I spent a year with an assistant making an inventory, of putting in order the materials that were not in order when you visited. I found the system. The way the archive is structured now is, essentially, materials from 1974 to 1993 are all about my first body of conceptual work organized according to a temporal chronology and then from 1994 to the present, are materials about my work of institutional critique organized according to relational chronology of parodies. Of course, these two groupings of materials inform each other.  

GB: I think you are tapping into the Derridean idea of the archive inherently drifting to disorder – well, he’s quite hard to avoid when talking about archives. To maintain relevance of each document in it, it must be tended to over and over. And that’s what I saw, at Calle Wright?

JFS: Yes, the archive requires work to keep things alive.

GB: Yes, because without that deliberate remaking, it’s kind of got its own impulse – its own will to grow, or to destruct. Over the course of your life, it’s the things that you've acquired as opposed to, maybe, consciously collected – or even remember!

JFS: I’m a pack rat. I don’t ever want to throw anything!… In my archive I even kept a rotting flower from a wedding? I think it was a rose. Why would I keep this together with an Andy Warhol flyer? They were equally valuable, I guess, in terms of the impulse to keep.

GB: I guess they’ve become signifiers for you?

JFS: Yes. The layered memories attached to each of those as opposed to the objects that you’re holding. Although I don’t even remember the wedding. But then the Andy Warhol document has more significance historically. So, there is a very personal history, and an art history, right?

GB: Kept in the same space.

JFS: That’s why I think it was urgent for me to create my own system of ordering my things because I would want to be read historically exactly the way I want to be represented. But of course, that’s very controlling, I guess, because when someone else comes in, they bring in their own perspective about art. I shouldn’t be afraid of that, so to speak.

GB: That’s what enlivens the archive, the recontextualization of its documents.

JFS: Yes. The letting the world, other worlds come in rather than being very strict about it. Rather than thinking that my world is a closed world and actually that’s what the writing of my autobiography as a hypertext was all about. [Sibayan's autobiography, The Hypertext of HerMe(s)]. By cross-referencing, by linking my autobiography to the Net, I constructed a self-in-writing as inter-textual and inter-subjective. So I contradict myself, I guess. In controlling the reading of my archive, to the extent of ordering it according to how I wish my art to be read when I’m gone.

GB: Moving along, I’d like to ask you about collecting versus archiving. I guess the reason I’m bringing up the idea of the archive being something different to the collection is that perhaps collecting is a more intentional act than amassing an archive. I think the impulse that propels somebody to collect is much more focused than that of an archive.

JFS: Yes, because the archive grows through the amassing of materials, the reading of the archive is a very paranoid activity; you’re reading the materials as signifiers and you’re supposed to connect and interpret the items to make meaning out of them. And that’s like, do you really see connections? You’re trying to read them as connected with each other. So, it’s really a paranoid activity.

Whereas collecting means you just want to collect specific things. Say for example when an institution collects specific art objects. The connections are obvious. In archives you can have different levels of structuring different materials, of layering them, reading and interpreting them.

GB: That sounds like the archive is a place of possibility, whereas perhaps a collection’s meaning is more fixed, in terms of its or its objects’ significance?

JFS: Yes.

GB: There is a deliberate shape to a collection, in the way of you imposing a view or a particular angle as the collector.

JFS: That’s true. Yes, yes.

Judy Freya Sibayan, Totem to the Global Image Economy in Moving House, Unpacking a Life of Critical Artmaking, 2018. Photo: Gillian Brown

GB: So that brief mention of an institutional collection could lead us back to MoMO. I'm interested in how much control you can exert on that collection, because obviously it's subject to destruction by forgetting.

JFS: Yes, well, the fact is, 18 artists have installed works. I have lost eight works because basically I’m getting old and my promise, my vow to keep the integrity of MoMO intact is never to put in writing or document the works, for them to remain always as mental objects. This being the case, I’ve lost eight artworks and only retained 10.

In fact, the other thing is, MoMO is a very lazy museum in terms of collecting. One year there’s no one exhibiting. Sometimes there are two in a year. So franchising MoMO was the solution. Let others embody the Museum. Let others become MoMOs. Get instructions from a manual.  It’s like franchising the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim franchises, so MoMO can franchise too! It’s not a very controlling museum, in fact.

GB: When you institute a franchise, as opposed to a DIY MoMO [that follows the manual, rather than being ‘formally’ instituted by Sibayan] do you do a review of the collection that will be installed there?

JFS: MoMO once performed at the 2010 Just Madrid Art Fair. There were no funds for me to fly there so I instituted an artist-friend based in Madrid to be the first expansion of MoMO as MoMO West Wing to perform at the fair. Years later, I asked her, ‘Do you remember the works or the art?’ ‘No’, she told me, ‘I'm not supposed to write anything, so I've forgotten them all.’

GB: I suppose that's the nature of the museum…

JFS: DIY MoMO was born because I was invited to go to Halifax to workshop ten artists in Canada for the exhibition World Portable Gallery Convention but I became ill and wasn’t able to fly there. I still wanted to be present. So I created the DIY MoMO Manual for the artists to use so they can become, perform as new MoMOs during the event. The reason why MoMO keeps living on is because it exists in other places in other bodies beyond me.

GB: You – as the institution, as the archive and the collection, have an intent to remember, even if there’s the uncontrollable impulse to forget?

JFS: Yes, there’s an intent to remember, it’s creative, the intention of remembering. And that natural dis-remembering, or a very relaxed attitude towards art in terms of, it’s not that precious. The works in MoMO are not insured. The artists might still remember their work. But I might have lost them. So, is the work lost [if the artist still remembers it but MoMO has forgotten]? I say yes because the real work was installed in me.  

GB: Do you think you remember the ten works still in the original MoMO exactly as they were told?

JFS: There is some form of embellishment I guess, after all this time. But one work, which is so poetic, I think that’s the work that I remember as close to exactly as possible…

[At this point, Judy opens MoMO and exhibits a work, but following the Museum’s protocols, this work is not recorded. I’d like to hope that I hold the experience of this collected work exactly as described, but likely, I do not.]

GB: …that’s beautiful. That would be remarkably hard to forget.

JFS: I got it right away. I got it right away and have never forgotten it.

GB: Perhaps the fact that one work has imprinted on you particularly, is a reminder of how rare but powerful that kind of encounter in traditional institutional contexts is. I mean, the number of times we both must have visited a museum and looked at paintings, and I feel only few trigger this sort of truly transformational moment. They can imprint on you – I suppose in a way you take care of a work by keeping that impression of it.

JFS: Hmm. Yes, you’re right. It has to do with that.

GB: Obviously, the institutional aspect of collecting is something you address in much of your work. Considering the power of a collection and the use of art in that way. I guess I’m thinking here about the connection between MoMO, and your earlier work Scapular Gallery Nomad, which involved a more deliberate collecting as well as a public exhibition.

JFS: OK, so Scapular Gallery Nomad [SGN] exhibited other artist's work. I still have some of the works, but a few of the artists wanted theirs back. Most were very gracious about not ever getting them back. Actually, I have about ninety percent of the works still. But the interesting thing is that each of the works is surrounded by an archive. Each exhibition generated its own archive. So that each work for me now is not only an artwork, but surrounded by its archive as well. The archive of the Australian artist Adrian Jones for example or whoever else exhibited in SGN is assigned a folder in my self-archive.

GB: SGN was more physical, not just in terms of the work it exhibited, but in the demands on you, as the institution, wasn’t it?

JFS: Yes, I am the body again, wearing the scapular, and at the same time, taking all the roles of running a gallery. And five years later, it had exhausted me. And I felt tired even if other artists still wanted to exhibit. You know, I can no longer do SGN because I designed and sewed all the little scapulars. I designed all the catalogues, I did all the press work, I did everything that a gallery does. I did it all in a small scale. But still, you know, it was all just me. So MoMO was born because of that. This time as MoMO I don’t have to do much. I didn’t make anything except the Museum’s calling card. That was it. No preparation whatsoever. Oh, and you can even lose the work, and there are no repercussions. No stress at all. It doesn’t take much energy to be MoMO. So when I got sick and I couldn’t fly to Canada to workshop ten artists to become new MoMOs, I thought ‘OK, there’s a way to go about this again. Even if I can’t be there, how can the artists still become museums?’  The idea for a manual, a do-it-yourself MoMO manual came to mind.

GB: So the body is still critical to the work’s sustainability, but this time with more concern to longevity?

JFS: Precisely. Ever since then, everything I do in art is about self-care. Taking care of my health is more important than anything else. Even my writing is all about caring for my own representation of the self. But it’s not about ego. Certainly the running, the curating of SGN for five years with great care was not all about me. In terms of longevity, most of my performed critiques are long durational. MoMO is a performance for life made possible only by it being embodied by me and by others. And SGN was five years.

GB: Perhaps it was about access and permission. It was about policing who had access because the gallery was on your body. People had access to you all the time. What I find impressive, then, is that you had the prescience to close SGN precisely when you needed to.

JFS: Yes, yes. It has to do with the energy required to make art. How to be true to what I can only afford to give. I can only make art within the scale of my everyday life resources and energies.

GB: I think I understand what you are talking about as labour? And the labour behind conceptual practice not something that's always valued in the art world, or certainly the world at large.

JFS: Yes, that’s why I love the conceptual work of Maria Eichhorn, where she had a gallery in London closed with the staff not going to work but were still paid their salaries the whole duration of the “exhibition” of a closed gallery. I love this kind of work. I mean, I understand the amount of work given for art to exist, for an object that's installed on the gallery wall or space, for it to exist as art, it’s not just the labour of the artist, it includes the work of those who create belief about the artwork as having great value – the curators, critics, dealers, collectors; the work of the gallery staff, of the one who cleans the space, of the clerk. For taking care of these objects as valuable.

GB: So we’ve just spoken about care. Why care for something? In the case of MoMO, and really, all your work, it seems like it is care against capital. Because, we’re talking about labour, the labour of exhibiting or maintaining a collection or archive.  Your work cares for connection or a meaning, rather than or even explicitly against, capital value. How easily can a practice with those kinds of concerns exist within white cube institutions?

JFS: The reason I left the white cube is that it totally bored me, making art for it no longer engaged me. Galleries must sell, they have to sell to maintain the gallery. It’s exhausting to play the game. I couldn’t do it. I am so in awe of those who can play the game. Because they have the energy, and they have the need. Well, they’re just producing for the commercial art world, for the capitalist system. But I don’t know if they are contributing to the production of critical art. For the longest time, nobody knew I was living here [in Manila]. People would ask, ‘so where do you live now?’ I left the art world here, and the little that I did was done abroad. But never here. Yes, they hardly saw me here, and I didn’t make art here. Everybody thought I stopped making art. So when I did Calle Wright, the archive was the evidence that I had been making art all this time, that I did not stop making art. What engaged me was the critique of the institution of art. SGN was a critique of the white cube. And with MoMO, I am depleting the artwork of all of its commodifiable value.

[Our conversation takes in some recent experience working with commercial galleries and the differing attitudes of ‘selling’ artists, which eventually brings us to the transactional nature of collecting.]

GB: Jumping back to you as MoMO, when you are installing a new work, what do you consider that act to be, acquiring or accepting?

JFS: You know, it’s very strange that I’ve never thanked anyone once they’ve installed their work. This has always surprised me, and I wondered why I never thanked them.

GB: Is it because you don’t see yourself as receiver? That in that moment, it is the labour of installing?

JFS: Yes, I guess because at the moment of installing a work, I am embodying the institution, not necessarily an individual within it.

GB: The institution as a third party.

JFS: Yes.

GB: So, going back to inadvertently acquiring or consciously collecting…

JFS: So the artworks exhibited SGN, the objects are still with me.  But I don’t own them. I’m turning 69 this June and it’s time to travel light. It’s time to let them go. Or return them. Or sell them on behalf of the artists.

GB: Well, going back to some archival theory, and the idea that an archive requires a location, which now is your home, but it requires a guardian as well, which is, again, labour. Interestingly here we’re using the word ‘guardian’ as opposed to owner. Which I think implies access? Whereas when I think about a collection, I think more specifically about either the owner or collector or curator, and that almost feels more like a sort of elitism that doesn't exist in that idea of the archive/guardian.

JFS: I am all four – the archivist, curator, owner and guardian of my self-archive which I will most likely eventually donate to an institution on the condition that it will be accessed, open to researchers. Three years ago, an institution was interested in acquiring it as just an archive. If and when this happens, the institution I guess will become its owner, and the archive will no longer be considered as part of an artwork. But while I am still alive, I intend to continue performing it as an artwork. For now, by calling it The Judy Freya Sibayan Self-Archive, by self-instituting it as such, I have full control over it.

GB: We’re diving into the politics of ownership here. So, do you think there's a politics behind your archive or collection? That aspect of collecting is quite inherently political. I mean, if you’re collecting to display, if you're collecting for an institution, you’re definitely trying to tell a story within that framework, the framework of the institution, whether that’s the story of time or location, and politics get woven into that.

JFS: I don’t usually define my work as political but a good friend believes that SGN and MoMO, to her, are my most political works yet because they have to do with self-governing, of who has access to institutional resources and whose and what kinds of ideas and values I am producing, valorizing, advancing or reproducing. My works are self-reflexive modes of problematizing, of critiquing ourselves as part of the institution – of speaking truth to power.

GB: This makes me think of a quote from Simon Sheikh, that you reference in your writing, too, that’s the idea that it's ‘not about changing institutions, it is changing the way you institute’.

JFS: Yes!

[This prompted us to discuss to new attempts to change the dynamics of institutions, initially by way of example at the hands of specific artists, and then to the challenges of understanding the processes of collecting contemporary work]

GB: I suppose the challenge of working with, or attempting to collect, contemporary art; you are still in the process of understanding.

JFS: In 2002, I read a paper on and did a performance of MoMO in a conference organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. One of its curators gave a talk about their practice in mounting major exhibitions. One thing he said struck me. That one of their key policies is that they only collect and exhibit art that they fully understand. Meaning, before they can mount an exhibition, the art must have already been fully documented. That it must have the value of it already being circulated everywhere, being collected by everybody. Which means they are never the ones discovering new art.

Since MoMO is a ludic parody of MoMA, pun intended, I liked this policy and decided MoMO will also have it as its own policy. MoMO only exhibits works that it understands. It only understands Filipino, English, Ilocano and Spanish. Thus, it failed to install a work whispered to me in Mandarin during my performance at the conference.

[We began to drift over topics here, eventually discussing Judy’s contribution to the 2019 Singapore Biennale, a work that almost didn’t eventuate. Originally proposing an archive of materials on all the biennale artists, a potentially unruly one that was to be built by visitors of the biennale, in the end, she settled for a small archive of the emails between her and the curator assigned to her. Reflecting on that archive, itself a document of another, we found an ideal ending].

JFS: This thread of emails showed the evolution of the work as a result of my response to institutional limitations and constraints. Titled The Other Biennale Archive, Archiving Biennale Artists Collectively, Openly Evolving to DUMP (Detritus, Unused Materials, Past/Present): An Unrealized Project, as a critique of the institutions of archiving and biennales, the work actually arrived at a beautiful place.

GB: Context shapes things, without our pushing, sometimes.

JFS: Yes. I’ll just be open.