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“You like it?” — A review of “Manila Zoo” from two visits performed in Vienna TQW, 25th 26th March 2022. 

In short: Eisa Jocson and her team pinch the meaning of service work in a globalized world– in their rooms. 

We walked into the middle of a Zoom dance class, where five brown bodies on colorful yoga mats were at work. Other visitors came in alone, in a pair, or a group of more, filling the allocated seats. Chatters among the audience continued until the sound indicated a switch of a scene on the screen, and the talks soon dissipated. The set-up of the empty stage with only a standing screen didn’t communicate “live” firsthand, and thus it was not clear until later that this dance class on screen was the act of the night and not a recorded screensaver holding the space before the real thing began. 


Bodies, many of which were in protective gears, had no names indicated as it does in our usual zoom landscape. I couldn’t tell who Eisa Jocson was, as it was my first encounter with her piece. Torsos on the horizon connected with another across the thin black line dividing one screen from the next. One dancer (later introduced as Bunny Cadag) began their eloquent introduction of the zoo to the audience (also their camera), which zoomed in more and more as their speech continued. They said, “Remember, you are not allowed to touch the animals.” The lens zoomed further in until we were left with only a close-up of their teeth and braces. Occasional Siren broke in, but there was no indication of interference from third parties. The Siren passed the space where audiences and dancers did their due. The alarm, I guess, was to the now, where business was as usual. Performers performed, and audiences paid, sat, and witnessed. The performers started sobbing. Were they crying because the alarm failed to problematize the crisis that underlies this scenario; Were they grieving for the absence of disruption to the cage within which they present their capacity, knowledge, and control.


Shortly after the performers performed irritated animals, a slide indicating technical difficulty appeared. Under a beautiful photo of the performers on a beach, it said, "We are going through technical difficulties, please stay calm" This slide popped up later once again during the performance. I understood such insertion of a request to "stay calm" as black humor, as the piece staged hyperactivity of bodies that are forced (im)mobility as foreign workers. As spoken in the artist's talk after the premiere, the Philippines' model of government-driven export of labor force started in the 70s during the dictatorship of Marcos. The mobilization of the labor force simultaneously praised these workers as patriots.


As an audience member from South Korea, such practice is not unfamiliar. During the 70s under dictator Park’s regime, South Korea exported nurses to Germany and encouraged sex tourism within South Korea, in districts where only foreigners and the servicing women were allowed access. The South Korean female workers in care and sex were also encouraged by the governing officials who addressed their earning of foreign currency as industrial patriotism. After the rapid, 'unprecedented' economic development in the 80s, the position of South Korea reversed; South Korea is now one of the notorious countries that import foreign workers without providing basic work safety or adequate income, and Korean men today are amongst the global travelers who fly into the Philippines to pay for sex, learn English, or to meet their young potential brides who are expected to fill the empty space of care in the South Korean countryside.


Simultaneous role-playing took place as one of the performers, Russ Ligtas fluidly stopped playing "wild" and began his introduction of the 'animals' in the zoo. He did not need to tuck in the non-existent collared shirt to play this role. Everything happened "naturally." My eyes, bombarded by critical European writings, found Kafka's ape in this transition. In a friendly tone and manner, with a gentle smile, Ligtas introduced the performers in the following order: Bunny Cadag, a Songstress with a British and English accent, Joshua Serafin, who waited three years to get his visa to be back in Europe, Catherine Go, as a princess for rent, and Eisa Jocson, as Overseas Filipino Artist Worker. (OFAW) They showed their teeth and performed quote wild, unquote. After this act, the performers cheered and talked amongst themselves in Tagalog. Hints of Spanish and English words appeared in the dialogues, a "disembodied performance" in their tongue. They toasted water with each other over the zoom screen and took snacks, making fun of the ritualization of eating while sharing laughter. As a together-voyeur of private conversations, the non-Filipino audiences faced inaccessible privacy, where the authenticity of the act could only be assumed. 


One by one, the performers disappeared under the patterned umbrellas and tie-dyed cloth. When the performers reappeared again on the screen, they were in beachy outfits. Simultaneously, the frontal camera on stage filming the audience during the performance showed itself to its voyeurs for the first time, getting ready for the interactive Q&A session. The music of the numerous yet homogenous waiting rooms set the tone of a call center, where global clients wait to be connected to the poorly paid correspondents of multinational companies. The difference in the staged Q&A was that the connection was already there before the audience even noticed. It was not the clients but the correspondents who patiently waited for the other party to express themselves. There was a humor in the stark contrast between firmly seated tiny people and the easy, laid-back dancers, who were performing “a good time” while waiting for one of the audience members to separate from the pack and present oneself on the side of the stage.


The dynamic during the performative Q&A on the first and second days was quite different. On the first day, the distance between the audience and the performers was kept a tight rope, as the performers politely rejected the audience’s attempts to relate. It seems important to mention that the questioning audience was not only white but also persons of color. The performers answered the questions in a friendly manner but also in a way that made clear that they were not your friend. Most of the questions were redirected several times to another colleague before the audience faced a non-answer in many cases. On the second day, a new dynamic occurred as a brown woman from the audience got up and asked for the performers to sing along with the audience. “You say Manila, we say Zoo”; Although the call center format was still present, the stark tension from the day before was broken. I can only make wild guesses here, but it seemed that the performers iked her proposal to sing along.


I didn't volunteer to speak to the performers. What was there to ask in this setting? It didn't feel right. I didn't want to bring in inter-Asian dialogue in Europe in front of a dominantly white audience. Although the stage framework offered a positional division between performers and their audiences, it could never be an uncolored interaction between the audience and performers, as it always is in life. I wanted the occasion to be a chance for the white audience to be confronted with themselves and their part in this art/work, not mine. Would it be really necessary to tell the Europeans that there is no such thing as Asia, here and after? That ‘we’ are Asians because we are in Europe, only because of your eyes? With proximity, one can not blow off stark differences in positions of individual countries, each with complicated histories of domination, relations, and interlinked economic exploitations within itself and the world. I had no mouth as an interactive audience in the "Manila Zoo," because I only have one. 


During the Q&A on the second day, one white audience asked: “You ask us what you can do for us, but I want to ask what we can do for you.” It’s a nice gesture, but perhaps this question needs more time to sink in– through research and work– before presenting itself as a question.

But maybe not, as the interactive performance would not have been made if there had been no exposure from the audience’s side. As the Q&A session ended, the performers asked the audience to imagine themselves in their shoes; If you were Filipino and had to leave home and family to work in a foreign country for opportunities, what you would do if quality education remained inaccessible. Suppose the son of the ex-dictator is running for the upcoming presidential election in your country as an influential candidate.


Made and shown during the lockdowns, "Manila Zoo" presents dancers performing caged on their zoom screens. They laugh crazily. They play "wild," "tamed," "interactive," "friendly," and neglect. The viewers have no way but to follow the fast-paced transition of different roles played by these artist-workers catering to the international dance audience. Considering the extensive functions service personnel are asked to cater to in the global exchange, schizophrenia in the piece is not just an exaggeration. Catherine Go bursts rage disguised in work, delivering friendliness, approachability, and availability in a scream. 


"At your service!!!!" 



The double voice from a brown female body confronts the global audience with the discomfort of facing their complicity in the perversion of the contemporary. The repetition sounded much like a flip of a pornographic cliché, where the dude asks a non-question to whoever's body he is inserting himself into. "You like it, huh? You like it?" 


Repetition of smiles, wild and tamed acts, crying, laughing, and a look of disgust fill the space, inside the seemingly endlessly multiplying screens. The piece ended with a pseudo-porn aesthetic with performers dripping body liquids, followed by their gaze situated in a small block amongst the seated audience. The sexual dimension of their work, being fetishized, gazed upon, and asked for accessibility while not being granted accessibility, turns to the viewer. How different is their work from other forms of paid exploitation where sexualized and fetishized bodies work on the border of privacy and intimacy? Moreover, where is your part? 


Close to the end, the performers went back and undid their settings, rolled up the yoga mats, and started getting ready to go elsewhere where the camera didn’t reach. To which home would we go back to after being unlocked? The performers were already packing, but the audience remained seated. “Manila Zoo” holds the place of exchange on unlevel ground, be it the exchange of interaction, attention, or an encounter, by throwing brown bodies in/at work in front of the seated audience. Jocson reminds us of the racialized global economy behind the gaze and those gazed upon, incorporating the stage dynamic and virtual connectivity as artistic material.

As much as I hope the piece reaches a wider audience, I wonder what the repetitions of the piece entail for the performers. Although I can only fathom from a distance, the performers' fluency and knowledge from the repetitive exercise are theirs, their bodies’.

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