THE performances held during the Sunday pedestrianization of Session Road reveal at least two motivations: one is for economic gain and the other is for creative expression. Both are being sought for regulation or the drawing of “guidelines” by the city government in view of, among others, unfair market competition since the venue is also seen as being used to sell consumer products; also, the performances themselves are being turned into organized, profit-seeking ventures, thus it needs to be controlled.
We have already known since last month that the initial step in the regulatory process is to have the performers register before the City Tourism Office. This is accordingly done to establish a validated list of performers whose acts have been, in the words of the city government, “curated.” In deciding to engage in this selection procedure, the city hopes to establish a semblance of order in this enterprise making it less crowded, as well as to preclude the possibility of abuse from opportunists on the part of performers, their performances, the entrepreneurs, and their merchandise.
Also, part of the intent to keep order in the activities is to obtain what they hope to be better quality entertainment. This is the tradeoff in this bilateral pact established by the performers with the city government through the City Tourism Office. The counterweight to the privilege of being on the list of accredited performers is, of course, the obligation to “always be conscious that the activity caters to family-friendly entertainment and amusement.”
That said, if the space is indeed family-friendly as billed, why should we then be wary of (again to quote the city government) “harassment of buskers by promenaders” which is one of the reasons why there was a need to draw guidelines to begin with. And that indeed is the irony of this enterprise. Definitions can be set on the types and categories of entertainment that can be set for the audience, but as to the type and category of visitors that abound, Baguio remains to be an open city.
As an outcome of accreditation, performers will now be issued identification tags. We can imagine that if you forgot your tag at home, you can’t perform. Or, if you’re an artist but not accredited by the city, you have no right to perform in that space. Implied is the idea that if you are a proud owner of an identification tag, it means you have understood the rules and more importantly, you have to be subsumed by them.
The rules’ range of particulars mandates a maximum number of participants, an assigned area of performance, and crowd management. However, the establishment is also emphatic about directing the content of performances which critics have adjudged to be tantamount to censorship. These are to disallow “portrayals that negatively question or express opinions about social and political issues,” and in visual art, to forbid “expression of political views and portrayals that negatively question or express opinions about social and political issues, “or to not allow “real firearms or their replicas in the exact likeness” as props.
“Tagging” and “accreditation” make it convenient for authorities to adopt a system of surveillance. It provides them with favorable conditions to enforce compliance and to penalize violators. I am not about to score the establishment for being reactionary or that they suffer from the lack of a progressive mindset because it is almost expected that the politics of the establishment is to always toe the line.
I am going to say, however, that if enforcement of these rules requires the deployment of culture police, then we (and they) might as well make sense of the rules that are being enforced. For instance, while we have been made to accept that street performances in Baguio are all subsumed under the blanket term “busking,” the latter term is a mere strand of a variety of performances that take place simultaneously along Session Road on a Sunday.
Busking is playing music on the street for voluntary donations. This is to mean that rules apply differently to buskers as much as it affects the so-called cosplayers in some varying sense. Thus, if a musician covers the work of an artist whose lyrics are political and revolutionary, does this reflect the personal politics of the busker? Similarly, visual depictions are interpretive, meaning that they are meant to provoke a mixed bag of responses from the viewers. In other words, a culture police can never unilaterally declare a depiction to be “negative” or some other similar sweeping judgments, because these can always be discursively challenged.
I suppose it is important again to consider the economic dimension of this Sunday extravaganza along Session Road. Economics and creativity collide in one short stretch of road and, without minimizing the conditions and references that drive their individual performances, all of their acts – busking, cosplay, chalk art – are all framed in the context of popular culture. Yes, to be fair, the city allows these performers to benefit from their acts, and of course, popular depictions invite popular patronage; and there lies the economic motivation of this whole enterprise.
The culture police have less to worry about. Even the cosplayers with their depictions of comic book characters with their exaggerated weapons will not foster a culture of violence for if we reckon from the American gun culture phenomenon, it is easy access to guns, and not depictions of toy guns that drive mass shooting incidents in America.
However, it is also the expectation that popular culture will also spawn counter-culture and even subculture. Thus, politics and ideology will never be eliminated in art even if a brigade of culture police is deployed.