“Incarnation of scrap”: Vehicular Art and Infrastructural Poetry as Sites of Repair and Resistance (Part II)

The ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ have gained cultural capital in present-day tech-societies while ‘repair’ and ‘maintenance’ are not associated with the same cultural allure. This post explores the role poetry and art plays in aiding, reinforcing, or reiterating repair, maintenance, and care practices. The representation of innovativeness and creativity as a part of repair practices is crucial as there is a cultural tendency to locate innovation at the stages of product design, manufacturing, and production. This tendency, aggravated by those with a vested interest in the product, is increasingly problematic as it relies on the location of repair practice as an after thought rather than perceiving both the concepts of repair and innovation as simultaneous and interlinked. Steven J. Jackson in his essay ‘Re-thinking Repair’ notes: 

“dominant productivity imaginings of technology locate innovation, […] at the top of some change or process, while repair lies somewhere else: lower, later, or after innovation in process and worth.” He goes on to note that “The remarkable qualities and energies that innovation names and unleashes — creativity, invention, imagination, and artfulness — are […] distributed more broadly […] than our dominant discourses of innovation and the systems of economic, professional, and social value built around them are keen to acknowledge.”

Steven J. Jackson, ‘Rethinking Repair’, 227

This post identifies and highlights a poem (Gemino H. Abad’s ‘Jeepney’) that features ‘repair’ as a central theme in an attempt to aid in directing and re-directing our attention away from buzzwords like ‘innovation’ that put the new and novel on a pedestal. It attempts to turn our view toward increasing the cultural value of repair practices by recognising and seeing innovation in repair through poetry. Abad’s poem helps crystallise the object in descriptive language that pays specific attention to its identity as ‘repaired’ and ‘re-paired’ as discussed in the previous post.

Consider honestly

this piece of storm

in our city’s entrails.

Incarnation of scrap,

what genius of salvage!

what art or craft, what cunning.

Its crib now molds our space,

its lusty gewgaws our sight.

Gemino H. Abad, Jeepney, Stanza I

While the descriptive language used around the Willlys MB jeep on the Jeep website evidenced the object’s valorised and nationalised identity, the representation of the Jeepney by Filipino poet and scholar Gemino Abad on the other hand, does not hold space for similar ideals of nationalism and grandeur. Instead, the poem does the opposite: by using the words “Incarnation of scrap”, Abad actively emphasises the vehicle’s precarious position in contemporary society. Abad’s poem showcases the recognition of the jeepney as an object that is ‘innovative’ by the simple recognition of the ingenuity in the repaired object: “what genius of salvage!”, “what art or craft, what cunning”. 

The jeepney takes on a metaphorical (by way of its representation in cultural reproductions like poetry) and literal (by way of the vehicular art) role as a symbol of resistance. The words “Its crib now molds our space, its lusty gewgaws our sight” acts an indicator of the jeepney’s capacity to occupy space and force people to direct their gaze and confront the object. But can the material transformation of public space as in the case of street art or vehicular art, be perceived as repair? Thinking again of ‘repair’ as ‘re-pair’ or re-pairing (pairing something with something) as a process which detaches something from its past life and purpose and re-introduces it to serve a new function (as in the case of recycling, up cycling, re-invention, upgrading, or other craft traditions), in this conceptualisation of repair, I attempt to include art in public spaces as serving a renewed purpose either in the form of visual stimulation or subversive communication. Street art canvases, tend to be, primarily ‘public’ property wherein questions of ownership become complex. This is often why street art exists in a constant tension with legality as it lies at the definitional borders along with the term ‘vandalism’ or ‘destruction of public property’. In the case of vehicular art it can, like street art, provide a canvas for marginalised voices, thoughts, and imagination in urban spaces and also be subject to government regulations. Below are descriptions of jeepney art:

“The body of each jeepney tells a story. An image of a cruise ship might represent overseas Filipino workers, who represent one in five of the world’s seamen. Pastoral scenes, beaches or mountains may signify the owner’s family heritage. Airbrushed basketball players and cartoons also make regular appearances.”

Link to Quote

“Even if money is tight, few jeepney drivers will skimp on their elaborate name plates. Displayed at the front of the vehicles, they serve as a dedication to children, astrological signs and overseas countries where relatives live or work.”

Link to Quote

Here, I am interested in how the visual art of the jeepney subverts the various cultural and infrastructural hegemonies be it colonial, neo-colonial, neo-imperial, technological, digital, corporate institutionalism or government power. The culture of automobile-art itself is not unique to the Philippines which shares this tradition with many other countries also recovering from a colonial history. As Swati Chattopadhyay points out:

“jeepneys in Manila, long-distance trucks in Rawalpindi and Buenos Aires, buses in Port-auPrince and Calcutta, and baby-taxis in Dhaka – are exceptional for the labor and artistic skill employed in enriching the experience of the automobile in daily life”.

Chattopadhyay, Swati. “The Art of Auto-Mobility: Vehicular Art and the Space of Resistance in Calcutta.” pg. 107
Decorated Pakistani truck Source Wikimedia Commons

She also observes how

“socio-economic and expressive concerns that animate the production of vehicular art in the Philippines, Pakistan, Argentina, Haiti, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and India are quite different from automobile culture in the USA or Europe.”

Chattopadhyay, Swati. “The Art of Auto-Mobility: Vehicular Art and the Space of Resistance in Calcutta.” pg. 107
Tap Tap, Port au Prince, Haiti Source Wikimedia Commons
Tuk-Tuk, Herat, Afghanistan Source Wikimedia Commons

In Chattopadhyay’s exploration of vehicular art in the city of Calcutta, she notes how the body of the vehicle becomes a site of resistance which extends its subversive communication in the public spaces that it occupies: garages, bus stops, repair shops, bus termini, food stalls and worker’s unions (121). In the case of the jeepney, the body of the vehicle is seen representing an individualised story unique to the owner or/and driver. Its vibrant colours and visuals actively subvert the monotone colour scheme of other private road transport that is symbolic of capitalist mass production and government regulation. This subversion becomes pertinent and relevant as power becomes a matter of contention especially with the involvement of government actors influenced by the western technological and cultural hegemony. Despite the vital role jeepneys play in the transportation system, there has been efforts by the government to phaseout the jeepney in the name of ‘modernity’ (#NoToTheJeepneyPhaseout).

Besides the subversive visual element, I am also interested in the sounds that the vehicle produces as aiding in its resistance against ‘modernity’ as defined by state power. For example, in the last stanza of ‘jeepney’, Gemino Abad invites the reader to listen with him to the sounds of the jeepney.

Nights I lie awake, I hear
a far-off tectonic rumble.
Is it a figment of desolation
from that reliquary of havoc,
or, out of its dusty hardihood,
that obduracy of mere survival,
a slow hoard of thunder
from underground spirit of endurance?

Gemino H. Abad, Jeepney

The imagery of sound in the words “tectonic rumble” and “hoard of thunder” play a simultaneous role in referencing the sound of past wars wherein the jeepney serves as a vital link as well as the sound of ruin and of brokenness. I read these sounds again as resisting the ‘smooth’ and new engines. There exists a tension in the last lines which is presents a conflict about the object’s status as one that is broken and destroyed or perhaps also one that symbolises courage, survival, and resistance.

References:

  1. Jackson, Steven J. “Rethinking Repair.” In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, 221–40. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014.
  2. Claudio Sieber/Barcroft Media. “Farewell to jeepneys: Philippine transport changes gear – in pictures. The Guardian. May 2019.
  3. Chattopadhyay, Swati. “The Art of Auto-Mobility: Vehicular Art and the Space of Resistance in Calcutta.” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 14, no. 1, Mar. 2009, pp. 107–139.
  4. Gemino H. Abad. “Jeepney”. Carbó, Nick. Returning a Borrowed Tongue: Poems by Filipino And Filipino American Writers. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press , 1995. (link to poem).