“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).

Starter Kit: Post-colonial Urban Public Transport Infrastructure as Sites of Repair and Resistance

Description

This starter kit will be useful to anyone who wants to think about theories of repair/maintenance/care/innovation alongside objects/things that undergo infrastructural/cultural transformation in the postcolonial setting.

There are several things in history for which repair practices have been forgotten or that need to be remembered and re-included into the epistemology of Repair, Maintenance, and Care. Steven J. Jackson, in his chapter titled ‘Rethinking Repair’, explores the Ship breaking industry of Bangladesh as captured in Edward Burtynsky’s photographs and makes a crucial observation: that ships are most often represented in their “moments of birth, or heights of strength and glory: the christening before the maiden voyage, rounding the cape, facing down the Spanish fleet, and so on” (226). Jackson through Burtynsky helps visualise the processes of dismantling ships post their glory days by asking the simple question: “But what happens (or happened) to these ships?” (226).

I find the question “what happened?” to be of great service to me in thinking about repair practices. The question helps think about events post-production and post-consumption and to simultaneously demonstrate care. I begin by wondering about the broad question: What happened to the machines that were instrumental to colonisation? This question leads me to think specifically about the WWII Willys MB jeeps and its transformation into the Filipino Jeepney.

Framing

Winner, Langdon. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus, vol. 109, no. 1, 1980, pp. 121–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20024652.

ARNOLD, DAVID, and ERICH DeWALD. “Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia: An Introduction.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1–17., https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/modern-asian-studies/article.

Foundations

Literature and Poetry 

Meñez, Herminia Quimpo. “The Art and Language of Manila’s Jeepney Drivers”. Explorations In Philippine Folklore. Quezon City: Ateneo de University Press, 1996.

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).

From the Abstract:

“In the early years of U.S. colonization, Filipino poets were forced to “borrow” a foreign tongue; today, fifty years after independence, they return the borrowed tongue with lyrical poems about migration, immigration, exile, nostalgia, desire, poverty, exploitation, racism, American culture, love, and invisibility.”

Photography, Art and Aesthetics

Claudio Sieber/Barcroft Media. “Farewell to jeepneys: Philippine transport changes gear – in pictures. The Guardian. May 2019.

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.

Repair, Maintenance, and Care Approaches

Jackson, Steven J. “Rethinking Repair.” In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, 221–40. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014.

Mattern, Shannon. “Maintenance and Care.” Places Journal, 2018, https://placesjournal.org/article/maintenance-and-care/.

Graham, Stephen, and Nigel Thrift. “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 24, no. 3, 2007, pp. 1–25.

The Maintainers. https://themaintainers.org/

Colonial and Neo-colonial Transport Infrastructure

Hyde, Charles K. Arsenal of Democracy : The American Automobile Industry in World War II. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2013. Print. Great Lakes Books.

Zwick, Austin. “Welcome to the Gig Economy: Neoliberal Industrial Relations and the Case of Uber.” GeoJournal, vol. 83, no. 4, 2018, pp. 679–691.

Waste

Ty, Michelle. “Trash and the Ends of Infrastructure.” MSF Modern Fiction Studies 61, no. 4 (2015): 606–30. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/605503.

GALLERY

Exhibit 1

Left: Willys MB Jeep, 1943, Wikimedia commons. Right: Sarao Jeepney, Philippines, 1973, Source: Wikimedia commons. Click and Drag the slider to see both images.

Exhibit 2

Street scene Manila, Philippines, October 10, 1949
Street scene Manila, Philippines, October 10, 1949
Crowded street with original Jeepneys and a taxicab.
This picture was dated the same day as pictures taken in Malate, Manila, Philippines.
 Photograph taken by a “Life” magazine photographer.
Photographer: Jack Birns
For personal non-commercial use only
This image is copyrighted by © Time Inc.
(Source Link) (Creative Commons License)
Tondo WWII clean up east of Tondo Church, Manila, Philippines, Feb. 28, 1945
Tondo WWII clean up east of Tondo Church, Manila, Philippines, Feb. 28, 1945
This picture was taken in the area of the intersection of today’s Juan Luna Street and P. Herrera Street looking west towards Santo Niño de Tondo Church.
 Note on the back of the picture: “Members of the 43rd Engineer Construction Battalion, clear debris from burned and shelled areas of Tondo, Manila in preparation of large medical supply dumps, Feb. 28, 1945”
 The Battle for Manila was still going on south of the Pasig River at this time.
 Signal Corps Photo. Photographer: Lieutenant Shepherd
US National Archives
(Source Link) (Creative Commons License)
Traffic along Quezon Blvd., Quiapo, Philippines, Oct. 10, 1949 (2)
Traffic along Quezon Blvd., Quiapo, Philippines, Oct. 10, 1949 (2)
Picture taken from the Quezon Boulevard walk over. Quiapo Church is on the left, Times Theater is on the right.
 Photograph taken by a “Life” magazine photographer.
Photographer: Jack Birns
For personal non-commercial use only
This image is copyrighted by © Time Inc.
(Source Link) (Creative Commons License)
LIFE Theater north of Quiapo Church along Quezon Blvd. Manila, Philippines, Oct. 1949
LIFE Theater north of Quiapo Church along Quezon Blvd. Manila, Philippines, Oct. 1949
Looking north. A very busy day in Quiapo, Manila. American WWII Jeeps converted to Jeepney passenger carriers.
 Photograph taken by a “Life” magazine photographer.
Photographer: Jack Birns
For personal non-commercial use only
This image is copyrighted by © Time Inc.
(Source Link) (Creative Commons License)
San Agustin Church, before and after, March 4, 1945 - Aug. 18, 2018
San Agustin Church, before and after, March 4, 1945 – Aug. 18, 2018
Rear corner of the San Agustin Church at General Luna & Sta. Potenciana Streets, Intramuros, Manila, Philippines. An American shell caused the large hole in the church during the WWII Battle for Manila, Feb. 1945.
(Source Link) (Creative Commons License)

Exhibit 3

Screenshot taken by author from Jeep website Source Link
Screenshot taken by author from Jeep website Source Link
Screenshot taken by author from Jeep website Source Link

Exhibit 4

A typical jeepney, which plies the Legazpi-Daraga route, waits for passengers in front of the LCC Supermarket along Penaranda Street, Legazpi City, Albay, Philippines.
Source Wikimedia Commons
Decorated Pakistani truck Source Wikimedia Commons
Tap Tap, Port au Prince, Haiti Source Wikimedia Commons
Tuk-Tuk, Herat, Afghanistan Source Wikimedia Commons

Exhibit 5

CNG scooters in Dhaka Source Wikimedia Commons
CNG-powered Autorickshaw in New Delhi Source Wikimedia Commons
Bajaj auto-rickshaw next to the Galle Fort in Sri Lanka Source Wikimedia Commons

Exhibit 6

Screenshot of Uber App Interface displaying Uber Autos, Kochi, Kerala, 2020 (Screenshot taken by author)
Screenshot of Uber App Interface displaying Uber Autos, Kochi, Kerala, 2020 (Screenshot taken by author)
Screenshot of Ola App Interface displaying Ola Autos, Kochi, Kerala, 2020 (Screenshot taken by author)
Screenshot of Ola App Interface displaying Ola Autos, Kochi, Kerala, 2020 (Screenshot taken by author)