lunes, 10 de noviembre de 2003


Illustrious company at Bellagio

By Alfred A. Yuson
The Philippine STAR 11/03/2003

Rarefied and remarkably stimulating has been the company I’ve been enjoying at Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. From my first day onwards, it’s been nothing less than dizzying cycles of striking up friendships and, sadly, bidding farewells to predecessors who had completed their four-week terms.

In any international company, of course I’d hit it off instantly with a Scotsman. And this idyllic sojourn at Villa Serbelloni has not been an exception.

Nicholas Wade, professor of visual psychology at the University of Dundee in Scotland (my favorite country next to my own), and Professor Hiroshi Ono of York University in Toronto are working together on a fascinating study titled "Direction and Distance: Defining the Historical Dimensions."

When I first asked Nick about his area of expertise, the reply had simply been: "Visual allusions." I was to learn that he has authored at least two books on the subject: Visual Allusions: Pictures of Perception and Psychologists in Word and Image.

He and Hiro have been working together for years. They’d usually come for lunch, an informal affair, in T-shirts they had designed and printed themselves, with chest imagery of the subjects of their research and study, such as Magritte’s famous pipe image, or Jung’s face super-imposed on the yin-yang symbol. For dinner Nick would wear the occasionally required tie, but his was one-of-a-kind, with an image he had constructed and printed himself.

They have also written several papers, a couple of which I found on the long table in the villa’s library, where all of us were expected to display our books and other produce. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Struggles with Representations of Reality, which they co-wrote with Linda Lillakas, here’s a quote:

"Virtual reality is concerned with creating an imitation of the visual world. The term is an oxymoron considered to be a modern engineering enterprise, made possible by the power of computers. The issues at the center of virtual reality, however, are not new, as they address some ancient questions of visual perceptions. One of these is the contrast between binocular and monocular vision, which the great scientist/engineer/artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) struggled with in his numerous notebooks."

The paper goes on to say that Da Vinci himself realized that "the perception of depth is incomplete in a painting, unlike that for a scene viewed with two eyes."

In their 45-minute presentation before the rest of the assembly, Hiro Ono showed slides and asked us to move our heads from side to side to prove a scientific point. This soon became a favorite injunction when we got mired in any point of contention. All the other fellow had to do was "move your head from side to side."

For his part, Nick projected a video of a waterfall in Scotland, and showed how arresting the action would cause the human eye to perceive the waters as flowing upwards, albeit momentarily.

Another subject of interest for Nick was the work of painter Patrick Hughes, whose use of reverse perspective on 3-D canvas constructs produced stunning visual conundrums of trompe l’oeil carried to a higher level.

Absolutely fascinating, at least for myself, was the professional engagement of this pair. Their company proved even more enlightening when we discovered a common interest. But naturally, our conversation over my first dinner drifted to single malt whisky, to my mind Scotland’s greatest contribution to the rest of the planet after Bell’s telephone, macadamized roads and Scotch tape.

It turned out that Nick and Hiro were members of a special international whisky club called Scotch Perspectives. Since I had brought along a 12-year-old Old Course Clubhouse single malt – something like a commemorative special to honor St. Andrews Links – which I had picked up at the NAIA Duty Free shop pre-departure, I was told I should be inducted in no time.

None of us had ever tasted from such a bottle. It was with rising anticipation then that we resolved to hold the induction that very night. Club rules stipulated that at least three members be present. Nick’s wife Christine, another member, was leaving the next day. It became imperative for me to join a club whose principles other than the pursuit of single malt whisky included an obsession with the absurd, as manifested by the way an inductee, other than offering a fresh new bottle after which he or she would then be telegraphically named, also had to declare an area of incompetence.

I offered to sing My Way. But musical deficiency had already been claimed by a predecessor. Okay, many other things I can’t do well, I acknowledged, or cannot to do at all. Such as? Well, such as, er, hmm, yes, making it to the ladies’ loo. Perfect, Nick proclaimed, a la Sean Connery in early Bond movies, or, say, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

"Your club name would then be ‘Old’ — after Old Course, of course — and we are marking you down, to acknowledge your area of incompetence, as Ladies’ Toilet Attendant."

Tears nearly flowed down my cheeks as I accepted the honor. We broke the bottle, with full Digicam documentation carried out by Hiro’s life partner Karen. I made a little speech, claiming exemption from Groucho Marx’s life principle declining membership in "any group that would have me." We toasted one another. And I knew my stay at the Bellagio Center was off to a splendid start.

Over lunch on my second day, I met a pleasantly droll magus, Charles Perrow, emeritus professor of sociology at Yale University, who was working on a manuscript, "Organizations and Disasters." Learning that I came from Manila, he let on that he had taken part in the US Army’s liberation effort in 1945, involving a march from Lingayen to Tarlac, thence the Open City where I was born. Present at my creation then was this fine gentleman, whom one wouldn’t think was a septuagenarian, so spry is he still, with a shock of gray curly locks that make him look like a senior version of Eliot Gould.

"Chick" Perrow’s presentation, as much as I could gather, was on the rise of the disaster index in America, thanks to increasing reliance on power grids and expanding bureaucracies. He advocated decentralization, citing terrorist groups as an effective organization because of their size and autonomy. He also held up the example of the Internet’s efficiency owing to the global multiplicity of service providers, and warned against possible mergers and monopolistic practices a la Bill Gates.

The questions posed during and after a presentation often led to more engrossing contours of thought, or details of concrete dissimulation. Chick Perrow, who would often challenge everyone to a game of tennis on the villa’s rubberized court, rattled off such impressive rational constructs when queried, so that I resolved to look up his books on the long table: Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies and Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism.

We joked over how Chick was an expert on disasters; his lovely wife Barbara confessed that this was what must have gotten them together, since she had been an organizational disaster before meeting him.

When no one else was listening, I suggested to Chick that he ought to visit Manila again sometime, as it was the capital of the most disaster-prone country in the contemporary world, per a respected global report. "Is that right?" he drawled. "Then perhaps I should."

The rest of the company proved no less engaging throughout my first week. This included, and here we seemed to be doubly blessed, at least for a weekend, the Rockefeller Foundation President, Gordon Conway, the first Brit to occupy the post.

Then there were the Ella Walker Distinguished Fellows who get to stay in the villa for as long as three months (oh, broken by trips everywhere): Alice Stone Ilchman, director of the Jeanette K. Watson Fellowships of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation based in New York, who is working on "Editing and Revising the Papers and Discussion from 2002 Bellagio Conference on ‘Strengthening Nationally and Internationally Competitive Scholarships’, to be published by Indiana University in 2004 as ‘The Lucky Few and the Worthy Many’"; and her husband Warren Ilchman, director of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, who’s working on "A study of origins, missions and evaluation of non-university-based centers for encouragement of scholarship and discussion, about issues of importance to disciplines, interdisciplinary fields and public affairs."

Paul Soros is the brother of the once-controversial George Soros, the genial Warren acknowledged over dinner. I brought up the matter of Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad’s public indictment of George Soros’ stock trading activities, among others. I can’t quite paraphrase the reply, but suffice it to say that Warren offered a satisfactory and witty explanation.

Warren turned 70 at Villa Serbelloni, for which milestone their brood also came to visit briefly. The family stayed at The Bristol, an independent two-story building that marked the start of the pedestrian walkway leading down to town.

Luis Camnitzer, professor emeritus at the Visual Arts College at Oldwestbury (SUNY), an Argentine artist based in New York, accompanied by his life partner Selby Hickey, was working on a manuscript, "Conceptualization and Resistance: Conceptualism in Latin American Art."

William Coble, lecturer at the University of Chicago, accompanied by his four-month-old wife Jenny, was working on music composition for piano, chamber orchestra and computer.

Katherine Fennelly, professor of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at University of Minnesota, was working on a manuscript, "Immigration, Race Relations and Turkey Production in the Rural Midwest."

Andrei Babenko, professor of Tomsk State University in Siberia, Russia, was working on a study, "Lifestyle of Indigenous People in Siberia: Social and Ecological Problems."

Jessie Christine Gruman, president, Center for the Advancement of Health based in Washington DC, was working on a manuscript, "Capturing the Value of Health Research," while her husband, Richard Sloane, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University, was working on a study, "Blind Faith: Evidence, Anecdote and Advocacy." His presentation was held before my arrival, but I understood that it was critical of the use of religious practices in the conduct of healing.

Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean poet/artist based in New York, was working together with her life partner Cesar Paternosto, an artist, on a book of poetry and painting, Kelllccani Sitowa.

I also missed out on Cecilia’s and Cesar’s presentation, as well as those delivered by Independent Artist Gina Ferrari (on a video work on the Contadina or peasants of Northern Italy), and fiction writer Dael Orlandersmith of New York, who was working on a novel, Lone Dancer Underground.

The pleasure of interaction with these fellow residents, at least for a week, may not have been enough to appreciate their work better, so that it was with a certain pang of regret that we said goodbyes as another batch came to take their places at Villa Serbelloni.

With this batch came my own spouse, who arrived to join me after a week. There went my own novel-in-progress, at least for the first few days, when I had to introduce her to the innumerable paths and walks around the villa. These all seemed to lead uphill to the Castle’s Keep, the ruins of a fortress-lookout on the highest vantage point of the promontory that is Bellagio, established by the Celts long before the Christian era. It soon became my life partner’s favorite spot for sketching, whether in splendorous sun or the occasional steady drizzles that kept me indoors, at work.

But there was market day in Como on the first Saturday we were together, and Butch and Beng Dalisay had alerted us on the positive aspects of this tiangge. True enough, we came away with three large bags of purchases. And there was Varenna just across the lake, a 15-minute ferryboat ride, as well as other equally picturesque villages that could be done on a day trip. Beyond these loomed the rugged mountains of the Italian pre-Alps, now snow-capped to signal the imminent end of autumn.

Those who came to join us on Week 2 included Jamil Mahuad, former President of Ecuador, who would work on two writing projects: "Adventures in Fixing the World" and "Resolving an Ancient Conflict: Peru and Ecuador." He quickly recounted how he had met former President FVR at Harvard, where he currently enjoys a fellowship.

A young chap is Daniel Link, professor and writer from Buenos Aires, Argentina, working on a writing project: La Anxiedad, Novela Trash (Anxiety: Trash Novel). Daniel is also a poet. With him is life partner Sebastian Freire, a photographer, who would be pursuing his own project, "San Sebastiano: An Iconography."

Then there’s Louis Hock, professor of the Visual Arts Department of the UCal in San Diego, who would be working on a conceptual video installation billed as "Sicily." He’s a former colleague of Vince Rafael at the La Jolla campus, before Vince moved over to UWash in Seattle. Louis gave an engrossing presentation involving video and slides that detailed personal statements on the trans-border relations between the USA and Mexico.

Nights after dinner when we made our way to the Music Room for grappa, brandy or amaretto (or upon my spouse’s arrival, reinforcement in the form of a single-malt bottle of Laphroaig, so that she herself was inducted into Nick’s, Hiro’s and my club, as "Lap"), Louis and I would step out into a balcony to share my pack of Camels unfiltered. At times the winds would force us to take quick drags and cut our conversation short. We’d hurry back to join the company of Extraordinary Ladies and Gentlemen enjoying the post-prandial drinks.

On the eve of Halloween we were joined by a score of conferees on a five-day discussion on "The Influence of Cooperative Bacteria on Animal Host Biology." We quickly learned in their company that good bacteria outnumbered bad bacteria at roughly nine to one, but that the minority, as in certain global situations, often proved persnickety and troublesome.

But then someone from Latin America brought in a guitar, so that the room soon rang with songs led by Cielito Lindo — A ya yay! — and it was another happy night for the villa savants. By the by, as of this writing we’re anticipating another ritual on the morrow, when Halloween would be celebrated with the staging of what looks to be a psycho-drama billed as "Murder in the Villa."

Whether we get out of that alive should be no capital matter. We have lived, and continue to live, a most fulfilling experience thus far at Villa Serbelloni.

As Alice Ilchman remarked in a post-dinner speech, most everyone who comes to Bellagio does so with keen expectations, having been briefed by friends, travel books or tourist brochures. But that we all soon find out that "It’s better than what you heard."


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