What to say when you have nothing to say?

On being first or right.

Cultural Learnings is an editorial platform curated by Sai Villafuerte. You can support it by subscribing to this newsletter, sharing it with your friends, emailing your thoughts, or answering this survey. Cultural Learnings is on Manila Community Radio every Wednesday, 17:00 - 18:00 GMT+8. You can access the radio archive here.


A photo I took a few months ago. Frankly, I don’t have the words to tell you how this got here.

This idea of “slow journalism” has boggled my mind for months and I spend a lot of time these days envisioning whether its principles are viable for anyone whose profession depends on the creation of novel information.

I was recently appointed associate editor for a media platform, which requires me to write several “aggregate articles” by taking information from the web – whether from a news story or a press release – and paraphrasing it to fit the publication’s point of view. This type of “aggregate content” normally doesn’t require original reporting or collecting first-hand information. Other than providing readers news stories that might be relevant to them, its purpose is to populate one’s platform with more content, giving the impression there is more going on in the world than there actually is.

Don’t get me wrong, many platforms do this all the time – even prestigious publications like The New York Times. In fact, aggregating information is a long-tested technique to earn revenue from advertising – one of the most lucrative ways of keeping journalism alive. Yet, I’m forced to reconcile this practice with my own writing; how I develop stories using information that is not readily available, taking weeks or months to produce. I’m reminded of the days I worked at publications with daily segments and how editors struggled to make do with a “slow news day.” I think about staff writers who write two news articles for a story that might go two ways; those hoping to spend more time engrossed in a story they are genuinely interested in but, instead, are chained to their desks, writing several articles a day to fill an already saturated stream of information.

This illustrates the problem with journalism today which, for years now, has put precedence on being first than being right.  This conundrum is evident in other fields too. Recently, I’ve been helping an artist produce his first series of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and it was baffling to learn how many NFT pieces out there, a lot of which are mediocre at best, are produced to capitalise on a trend rather than meaningfully engaging with a promising medium. In case you haven’t heard: Beeple, whose work has an alarming number of racist, sexist, and homophobic references, sold an NFT during a Christie’s auction last March for $69 million, making it the third most expensive artwork by a living artist next to David Hockney and Jeff Koons. This is ridiculous to me. I understand it’s human nature to be first and be first quickly, but this is clearly terrible for us.

An image of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold for $69 million at Christie’s last March.

I must admit, I came into writing this today having nothing to genuinely say. My usual process of producing a newsletter is to spend a day researching on a proposed question and making attempts to answer it. This time, as an experiment, I pushed myself to come up with something, anything, much in the same way I find stories for aggregate content. Most of the time, the newsletter never arrives at a concrete answer, but at least it took you somewhere.


Let the words do the talking

Here’s a link to a radio show from a few weeks ago where I mixed music selected entirely by friends. My birthday is on May 26, and I’d love it if you left me an audio message for an upcoming edition of “Friends of Cultural Learnings” later this month. It doesn’t matter if you’re just saying hi or recording the sounds outside your window – it would be nice to hear from you! Next Wednesday, May 12, I’m putting together a Breaking Bad OST special, so stay tuned 👨‍🔬⚗💣💎

I love this profile piece of Hans Ulrich-Obrist on The New Yorker, exploring “the art of conversation.” Obrist is the artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery in London. “He looks for work that responds to the current moment or anticipates the moment after this one—Obrist is obsessed with the not-yet-done. His favorite question is ‘Do you have any unfinished or unrealized projects?’”

This article from Vice illustrates why NFTs aren’t anything new.

A few weeks ago, I conducted a workshop on Cultural Writing & Journalism. Swipe left to hear an excerpt from that afternoon:

A post shared by @nudefloor

For me, Substack signaled an opportunity for writers to carve out their own path away from traditional publications, which are shrinking in size, budget, and capabilities. I found this piece by Anna Wiener helpful in balancing out my point of view, suggesting how, unlike the blogs of the noughts, visibility for writers on Substack are still “beholden to the logic of social media-algorithms … ‘playing the game of the platforms.’”

This interview with Grayson Perry, one of Britian’s most influential artists, is incredibly inspiring:

“I’m not interested in people who want to be artists, I’m interested in people who want to make art. I don’t like the idea that there’s a role out there already made for you. No, the role you end up with comes from the things you want to make; that’s how you find your place in the world. There isn’t a predetermined hole in the world out there for you as “an artist”, you have to make the world fit around you.”

One of my favourite images (which I took) is part of a group exhibition in Manila. You can purchase it online here.

A post shared by @sai.versailles

These photos from Krisztian Eder’s latest zine, April Breeze, featuring images of a girl he recently fell in love with, are so beautifully tender.

Image by Krisztian Eder. ‘April Breeze’, a limited edition zine containing a sequence of 22 photographs, is available to purchase here.


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