From pole dancing to Disney princesses, the artist ‘hijacks’ modes of performance to show the power dynamics inherent in the way we move
Written for Frieze: https://www.frieze.com/article/eisa-jocson-knows-power-dance
BY YSABELLE CHEUNG IN FEATURES , PROFILES | 08 DEC 21
When I spoke to Eisa Jocson in late August, she was not in her hometown of Manila, but a greener place. From my computer screen, I could see the cantaloupe light of the outdoors; a dog yowled in the distance. As we talked, she occasionally referred back to her surroundings, mentioning how she taught a dance workshop at the beach nearby, or how much more ‘expanded’ – a term she uses often – her life experience was near the ocean and the forests.
Jocson had moved to a surf town north of metropolitan Manila, the world’s most densely populated city, as a temporary respite from the art world circuit, as well as from the anxiety of living through a pandemic in a failed political state. She emphatically described the decision as one of the ‘best in her life’. As an artist whose practice studies how bodies of colour move within and adapt to different socioeconomic contexts, this choice to de-situate herself seemed an act of resistance.
In order to untangle that thought, it is important to understand Jocson’s investigations into what she calls ‘movement languages’ – fluid physical and material vocabularies shared by specific communities. She describes her work as ‘a process of unlearning or re-habituating the body towards a new set of techniques’. Pole dancing is a movement language, she said, as is macho dancing, a highly coded display of erotic masculinity seen in Filipino gay bars. Ballet is another movement language, as well as the facade of eternal happiness performed in Disneyland parks. All of these forms – which have been learned and harnessed by Jocson in her practice – originated from specific socioeconomic contexts: strip clubs, royal courts and corporate boardrooms. In exploring their displacement and blurring their public and private articulations – viewers rarely see dancers warming up, for instance, or the fact that darker-skinned performers are typically selected for minor roles in Hong Kong Disneyland – Jocson reveals a process of unlearning not just one’s natural state of movement, but histories of colonization, economy and power.
Jocson made her first movement work in 2010. At that point in time, she was teaching pole dancing as a fitness regime, having recently completed a degree in visual arts at the University of the Philippines. She had also trained for seven years in classical ballet. The confluence of all these experiences metastasized in Stainless Borders: Deconstructing Architectures of Control, a performance in which she pole dances around flagpoles, gates, signposts and traffic signs. ‘I was thinking about the spatial appropriation of gendered pole dancing, from the red-light district, which was a private space, into the semi-private space of the fitness studio. I had this idea to push that further,’ she said. ‘Vertical fixtures control human movement – signs direct cars, flags organize identity around symbols – and by pushing pole dancing into the public sphere, I was challenging those disciplinary vertical fixtures.’ As Jocson arcs up and around a flagpole using only the suspension and flexibility of her own body, there is a physical and social precarity to her act of civil disobedience, measured by various factors: the architecture of the pole, the outdoor weather and responses by onlookers, which included passers-by and security guards. First developed in Manila, the work took on an additional dimension when performed in the predominantly white environments of Belgium’s Sint-Niklaas, where it formed part of the international arts festival Coup de Ville in 2010. As a brown Asian woman – a figure often stereotyped in popular culture as either a sex worker or domestic helper – Jocson deconstructed not just public designs, but also the psychological spaces in which hierarchies of race, class and power reign.
In her next work, Death of a Pole Dancer (2011), Jocson ritualized the typical warmup practices of a stripper in a sterile exhibition space. Wearing gloves, skimpy attire and patent-leather pole dance heels, she installs a pole in front of a seated audience, cleaning it with a rag and instructing a technician to adjust its position. When she is ready, she begins to ‘test’ the pole for its durability and sturdiness, violently shaking it and slamming her chest repeatedly against the metal bar. She slaps the floor while spinning; she hangs upside down using only the grip of her thighs, her arms and face limp, her expression blank. ‘It shifts into a performance about testing the strength of the body against the pole, testing the body’s perseverance against gravity,’ she explained. ‘The work contains the usual elements of pole dance composed with different kinds of movements that are normally behind the scenes.’ Using her body as a map, Jocson visibly traces the disconnect that occurs between fantasy and the people who perform it, and the viewers’ complicity in this severance.
For Macho Dancer (2013), a slow, low performance, Jocson had to unlearn femininity, which often translates as height and aerial movement. She had to figure out how to balance without a pole and crawl on the floor – a process that took her over a year. The effect is persuasive, to the point of it being jarring in its deconstructions. Jocson told me that curators and festival organizers often ask her to perform Death and Macho Dancer together, as if to demonstrate the performativity of gender. Whereas in Death Jocson wears the uniform of a stripper, for Macho Dancer she dons cowboy boots, a rosary necklace and a wifebeater, a visual recall to the Philippines’ history under Spanish and American rule, and the nation’s struggle for independence. By embodying the conflicting symbolisms of her home country’s past – masculinity and power in the Western cowboy figure, and monoculturalism in the Spanish influence of Christianity on the region – she leaves viewers with circuitous open-ended questions. What does it mean to embody masculinity? What does desire mean in the context of colonial trauma? How do religion, queerness and sensuality intersect? Instead of exorcizing precise answers out of these performances, Jocson makes her references deliberately ambiguous, revealing the complications of a postcolonial territory still grappling with its slippery identity.
Later, Jocson created the ironically titled Philippine Macho Academy (a play on the Philippine Military Academy), through which she teaches workshops to people of all genders. ‘It’s not about just creating this sexual macho aura,’ she said. ‘It is only through the body, and the initial awkwardness of learning, that you encounter this awareness of your own habits, your own condition, why your body moves a certain way.’ As a woman embodying masculinity, Jocson added, there is a socioeconomic power shift that occurs throughout the performance, and which carries through in real life. Walking home alone, Jocson told me, she would embody this learned masculinity if she sensed an immediate threat in
The fluidity and malleability of identity also inform Jocson’s The Filipino Superwoman Band (2019) and ‘Happyland’ series (2017–ongoing). Both explore different aspects of the Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) phenomenon, an unofficial government scheme through which the country has managed to sustain its economy through the mass export of labour. It is estimated that there are more than 10 million Filipino citizens abroad; personal remittances from OFWs account for almost 10 percent of GDP. In The Filipino Superwoman Band and ‘Happyland’, Jocson highlights these currencies of labour, sacrifice and submission to government instruction, yet the works are neither a criticism nor celebration of such realities. ‘They represent conflicting notions of desirability and affective labour,’ she said. ‘It’s a way of owning, of agency, but also through this language we really unpack or unravel in a complex way all our identity: this is where radical power can emerge.’
The Filipino Superwoman Band is an all-woman group that embodies the archetypal female OFW entertainer as seen in hotels, red-light district bars and on cruise ships. Jocson and her band travel and perform around the world, mirroring the migratory paths of similar groups; their signature song is ‘Superwoman’ (1988) by Karyn White, whose lyrics about an unappreciative lover also mirror the emotional and physical labour of domestic workers: ‘Early in the morning I put breakfast at your table / And make sure that your coffee has it’s sugar and cream’; ‘I’m not your superwoman / Boy, I am only human’. For the first work in her ‘Happyland’ series, Jocson dissects the social structures within Disneyland through their most valuable cultural assets: princesses. Princess (2017) sees her becoming the Snow White of Disney’s eponymous 1937 animation: a figure of purity and whiteness that Jocson ‘hijacks’ with her body. She performs Snow White’s routine song and dance with a male double, also shattering the gendered fantasy of a single ‘real’ princess. After several minutes of sighing, singing, tiptoeing and sweeping – acts that mimic Snow White’s on-screen gestures, as well as referring to the routines of Filipino domestic workers – the Snow Whites begin to apologize, reciting a speech that the character gives to forest animals in the original Disney film. ‘I’m awfully sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you, but you don’t know what I’ve been through,’ they repeat, each time their voices rising in volume until the final recitation is a scream. ‘What do you do when things go wrong?’
Princess, similar to Death, is a performance about voyeurism: first we are enthralled by the arcuated, docile gestures of the two princesses, then we are made aware of our problematic gaze through their persistent, automaton repetition. A fantasy can only be realized if it has an audience, Jocson reminds us, and often, it is that audience that ensures the survival of the person wearing the outfit, whether sex workers, migrant workers or Disneyland actors. ‘What do you do when things go wrong?’ could be considered a plea for empathy in situations where one’s options are severely limited. Survival and adaptation were the main themes in Jocson’s university thesis, ‘Ballet Philippines: Post-Disney Exodus’, which chronicled a mass artistic migration that occurred in 2006. ‘Most of the senior members of the Ballet Philippines, and other creative companies, left to work in Hong Kong Disneyland,’ she said. ‘There was so much heartache in the community. But at the same time, you cannot blame them, because in the Philippines, there are no opportunities left, and the finances are not sustainable.’
In the works Zoo and Manila Zoo (both 2021), shown respectively at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong and Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt, she takes these systems of labour further. In this continuation of her ‘Happyland’ series, Jocson and other performers embody the states of animals in enclosures, in reference to the rage felt by those trapped by ‘control mechanisms that have been imposed on bodies, whether human or animal’. At Tai Kwun, Jocson adapted to Hong Kong’s COVID-19 restrictions by installing a screen in the physical space and asking performers in Manila to livestream their movements. The performances would often last for hours, the screen eerily paralleling animal cages. Over time, the repetitious animal calls and scratchings became more distorted and hostile, especially if the performers felt unheard or unseen by visitors walking by in the exhibition space. ‘It’s meant to be chimeric,’ Jocson explained. ‘The strategy for this was to blur the vocabularies of animal and human vocalizations and entertainment with a machinic entity that goes into overdrive and becomes monstrous.’ Jocson’s political fury stemmed from the Filipino government’s mismanagement of the pandemic as well as its history of corruption, and seeps into other works. Jocson showed me a music video she completed earlier this year for the Seoul Mediacity Biennale, in which the Filipino Superwoman Band engages in K-pop choreographies, specifically the hyperfeminine, swishy performances of Blackpink. This is interspersed with acts of cleaning, wiping, swabbing and cooking – gendered domestic and essential labour that has been widely exploited by authoritarian regimes. As in Zoo, the women begin to revolt towards the second half of the video, glitching their bodily movements and lyrics. ‘Let’s kill this love / for these fascist leaders,’ they sing. With each act of assimilation, Jocson reminds us, there is also room for rebellion.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 223 with the headline ‘Eisa Jocson’
Main image: Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer, 2013, performance documentation, Body Politics Festival, Athens, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Onassis Stegi, Athens; photograph: © Elina Giounanli