9 Muses: Joyen Santos, Diwata of Darkness
9 MUSES // Created in collaboration with Jodinand Aguillon as part of his arts residency at Pineapple Lab and shot on location in Manila, PH. Inspired by the "Siyam na Diwata ng Sining/Nine Muses of the Arts" sculpture by Napoleon Abueva at UP Diliman and goddess/oracle cards, this series re-envisions modern Pilipina muses as "Diwata Cards" which can be pulled for words of advice for those seeking inspiration.
Joyen Santos - rope bondage artist, co-founder of the first burlesque troupe in the Philippines, and self-appointed Queen of the Manila Underworld - is a study in duality and balance. Blessed with a face and body that could easily be seen as mainstream "hot," she says that she tends to outcast herself on purpose because she doesn't care for societal norms. Even with her bright purple-magenta hair and her profession, which involves a lot of taking off her clothes in public, something about her is rather unassuming - like you can tell she doesn't do any of it for attention, but rather, because she just finds it beautiful.
Our interview actually happened on a moment's notice but was a perfect synchronicity, similar to the way Joyen talks about falling into her line of work - it happened easily, naturally, "by chance." Jodee introduced her to me as "the Muse of Darkness," and as someone who grew up being called bruha due to my goth aesthetic and rebellious demeanor, I was definitely super intrigued. My initial impressions of her were of her deep voice, quiet but commanding presence, and strong aura - she absolutely radiates the kind of confidence that comes with being deeply comfortable with oneself, inside and out. I witnessed her duality in action - she arrived smilingly in sweats - but once the hair and makeup came on she coolly stepped into her role as the face of the local BDSM scene, bullwhips and all. "I've got my kinks in private, and I may or may not be a top or a dominatrix in my private life,[laughs]but this was a persona...[that] emerged when it was convenient for the underworld to emerge. I'm very strict with separating personal and professional life. That's why I can survive and propagate, taking my clothes off, torturing people in public." Once we started chatting more, she revealed a wry sense of humor and speech often punctuated with laughter - not so intimidating after all, for a Diwata of Darkness.
Joyen specializes in shibari, a widely accepted term for artistic rope bondage that has its roots in the Dark Ages of Japan and takes its name from the Japanese word meaning “to tie” or “to bind,” and performance-style BDSM (the umbrella term for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism). As far as inspirations, she credits anime and artists such as Hajime Kinoko, who does performance-style shibari with colored rope; Garth Knight, who specializes in high-art shibari installations; and the infamous and controversial photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. In the four years she's been practicing, she has gained a steady following as a visible, open representative of the local BDSM community.
On the flip side of the coin, Joyen is also a burlesque pioneer as co-founder of the first troupe in the Philippines, Burlesque PH, along with Leslie Ferrer Espinosa. As she explains it to FHM Magazine: "Burlesque, in the most general sense, is a theatrical performance wherein the performer strips off his or her clothes - the main difference being that this performer empowers himself, and thereby empowers the audience." She dabbles in traditional burlesque (1920's style) and neoburlesque, which is everything that comes after, from modern striptease to lapdance with mermaids and unicorns. In addition to FHM, she has been a Playboy Playmate, and been featured in magazines like Preview and StyleBiblePH. As you can imagine, her growing fame brings its fair share of creeps, which she dismisses with an eye roll: "I just take it as a sign that my message is getting out there...But yeah, there are a lot of shitheads. Especially on Facebook. I've been asked everything so now I'm just like...ok, BLOCK."
In addition to rope bondage and burlesque performance, Joyen is also: an alternative model; an educator specializing in sex and gender; an audiovisual artist who has worked in music, film, and advertising; and has had success in the local music scene as the previous vocalist for classic rock band The Black Vomits. She graduated Cum Laude from UP Diliman with a BA in Film, and has also trained in both martial arts and shooting. "My mom is a shooter, so I guess that was something I inherited. In college, we would go to the range together and train with the PNP [Philippine National Police] and the Marines. It never became more than that back then, but I plan to rekindle old flames now that I know the direction of my life. Right now I am trying to perfect handling the knife, and then later on the gun and the sword. One of these days, I'll come up with a piece with me wielding a shotgun or a pair of katanas while on pointe shoes! For now though, I keep my blades around for safety and light edge play."
Although Joyen says that she doesn't perform with any deeper intentions than pure aesthetics and love of the artform, to me it seems like she's treading the deeper waters not just of kink and sexuality, but of the human mind and experience, and of Philippine society as a whole, as explored through sensual arts. She's smart and observant as hell, and has a lot to say about human motivations, the status of women as marginalized in society, and female empowerment. Going back to the idea of duality, we speak about power dynamics in BDSM and relationships, and the idea of being one way in public and the opposite in private. "It's actually really common; you have to rotate the power. You have to give, you have to take. Because it gets tiring if you're just on one side of the wheel, it has to turn. One way or another."
Read on to get acquainted with the two sides of the Queen of the Manila Underworld in our exclusive interview.
Hella Pinay: So why did Jodee call you the "Muse of Darkness"?
Joyen: He called me the "Muse of Darkness" because I specialize in performance-style BDSM. I tie people up and I hit them [cackles] for a living. I'm not a pro domme - I don't go around offering sessions, it's not my main source of income. Performance is my main source of income. It's fun, it's crazy. I wouldn't exchange it for the world.
How did you get into that?
Pure accident [laughs]. It was a pure accident. I'm a bit dense in a sense that I don't really....you can say that I sort of live under a rock. I don't really care much for all these societal norms and shit. I'm just into other things. I didn't know that rope bondage - what I specialize in as a dominatrix, Japanese-style rope bondage - I didn't know that it was taboo, because it's so beautiful to me. It started like, Oh wow, it's pretty.
Oh yeah there's that photographer....Nobu...
Nobuyoshi Araki. Although he's really a perverted old man. But his photos are iconic. And beautiful. Everything has a pulse, everything has a heartbeat. That was one of my biggest inspirations, but I got into it by accident. I was like, OK, I like Nobuyoshi Araki and I think I want to sort of emulate what he does, and then people started giving me strange looks around here. [laughs]
How long have you been doing rope bondage?
Performance-style BDSM, I think for 4 or 5 years. Although I am one of the younger practitioners in the country, most of them (the masters) have been practicing as long as I've been alive, but they do it in private and it's not performance-style. Performance-style BDSM in the Philippines is really really new. I mean, right now there are a couple of performers that I encourage to step up into the limelight, but it's still pretty new.
Is it big in other countries?
Yeah! There are play parties [social events with BDSM activities] and performances like Cirque du Soir (Circus of the Night) that incorporate BDSM acts and club parties, for example. Really fun. Here, not yet but, little by little.
What kind of venues did you start at?
Here. Pineapple Lab. When I was just starting out it was really hard for me to find venues because they would always have some judgement about what I do, they would think that it's sexual or over the top.
Cuz yeah, on paper this country is super Catholic, super conservative...
Which means we're the most perverted. [laughs] So the market is there, it's just tricky to enter. How I did it was through expats. Wonderful wonderful understanding expats who have seen everything or are open to seeing things. I started here [Pineapple Lab] and of course as we mentioned earlier, Filipinos are closet fans of this stuff, so slowly I started building a fan base. We're using this venue and you know, word gets around.
How are your performances set up?
I tie up mostly females. So I have a female model, I tie her up, that's it. So she's suspended. Sometimes I do wax play, candle wax or clothespins, or I hit her with whips or paddles - impact play. I ride her. All sorts of stuff. Sometimes I self-suspend with her, with rope. Compared to hook suspension [suspension from hooks that have been put through body piercings], what I do is a bit more zen. It takes a bit more time, and I guess if you were to take mental photos, it's more painterly because hook suspension is a bit more extreme. [Demonstrates violent hammering] pounding, pounding, there's a pounding feeling. Here it's more....it's like you're watching a painter paint. Like you're watching someone weave.
Has interest been building? What has the audience reception been like?
Definitely. I guess I just had to find the right place for it so it wouldn't be looked at erroneously. I want it to be seen as an artform first. I mean, it's a sensual artform, but first of all it has to be viewed as an artform. So I had to look for the perfect setting for that, to attract the perfect audience who would understand and who would spread the word about it rather than be ashamed to have been there. Once people see it their reactions are a mix of confusion [laughs], a bit of awe (as in they have no idea what just happened), and a lot of curiousity, as in they want to try it. A lot of people approach me afterwards like, Do you have classes? or Do you have private lessons? Because I wanna learn how to do that or I want my boyfriend to do that to me, stuff like that.
Do you teach?
I teach workshops, both public and private. But my public workshops are strictly 10 slots because it's hard for me to monitor people if there are too many. There's a lot of safety stuff involved. They might end up killing each other. It always happens that you suspend one person and then everyone wants to go up [laughs] so I'm like aggghhhh with it [makes hurried knotting motions]
Does doing the suspension take a long time?
Yeah. When you do rope it takes a long time, my performances last maybe an hour in general. Just making the harnesses first, and then they go up in the air...
Is the suspension painful?
Yeah, sometimes. That's part of it. Some people use it for enjoyment, some people like to test themselves. Some of my models are dancers so they like to challenge themselves physically, they see it as a workout. Like rope yoga! [laughs] So it's different for everyone. But there is a level of discomfort.
What kinds of costumes do you use in your performances?
It depends on the person being tied up. Nude is the easiest because you don't have to work with any article of clothing getting in the way or slipping. I have had themed shows like Dia de Los Muertos or Marionettes where they're painted with body paint. It depends. I can do from completely nude to in heavy gowns. It depends on the concept.
How did you learn? How did you connect to people in the scene?
There's a local scene. There has been since before I was a part of it. I got my first few lessons in safety there, which was all-encompassing for any kind of BDSM activities.
They usually pop up in the art scene. For example, I discovered rope because it popped up randomly at a sketching session, so it was sort of like detective work - I just followed the lead, because sometimes some of them want to be found anyway. So you uncover these secret societies and then....I'm here now [smiles] like whatttttt??
What draws you to this artform particularly? Do you enjoy working with sort of subversive arts or challenging people's ideas about sexuality, art, beauty, etc?
You know people could like...ascribe a number of meanings to what I do. I've been called that, you know...subversive, or feminist or whatever, but to me, if you were to ask me directly, I think the artforms chose me rather than the other way around. I don't know, I guess it's a number of things that influenced my aesthetic. I just so happen to be fond of darkness as an aesthetic, it just so happens that I'm hiyang [suited, agreeable] to the dark side, ganoon? When I try to do something in that genre, I just propagate. I don't know. It just so happens...there's no like deep meaning for me, it's more of the artform, the aesthetic. I'm just here, and it works. And I'm happy, they're happy, so it works!
How did you and Leslie [Ferrer Espinosa] link up and start Burlesque PH?
We met when we were trying to make the first burlesque show in the country without any expectations. Again, by accident, burlesque ended up successful. More successful than we thought it would be. We were just making that show for fun. So burlesque actually just happened for the first time here [in the Philippines] in January of last year. Very very recent. Leslie and I met there. Kasi it was just like a group of friends, and it was like, Let's make a burlesque show, there's none here, here's the venue, here are interested performers, we can practice for free every week...and word got around and somebody knew Leslie, and then she popped in one day and we were like Wow, she's really good! And we've been in a creative partnership since then. She's the artistic side, she has all of the hair, makeup, wardrobe, dance in control, and then I'm more of the business side of it. It just worked. Again, by accident. [laughs]
But that means you're on the right path then right?
Exactly! That's why I use the term hiyang to describe it. I'm just hiyang to darkness [laughs] - it just happened, I didn't plan anything, I didn't believe in some great cause, it just fell into place.
How often do you perform? Is there a regular place people can see you at?
Not yet, we're looking at that for maybe next year. Now we're just popping up everywhere in Makati and The Fort. But yeah, we're taking things slow right now, just seeing which things we should develop. It's a really young business, so we're still a bit in the birthing pains part of the game.
So the reaction's been generally positive?
Yeah! Again, surprisingly. [laughs] But guys, its raunchy, why do you like it?? I thought you were Catholics!!
It's like tapping into an underside of Philippine culture.
That's what I call it, the Manila Underworld. And I recently got into this sort of egomaniac phase - I call myself "The Queen of the Underworld." I claimed that recently. That's why I guess Jodee calls me the Muse of Darkness; I'm vicious, but I'm trying.
If someone pulled your Diwata Card for advice or inspiration, what would you want to share?
It's really cool because I recently had a tarot reading and my main card was the most violent card in the deck, the Ten of Swords. I always get The Devil too. There's that egomaniac side of me, either that or The Devil. It's the violent side of it. On the deeper side of things, the Ten of Swords was explained to me in a way that the Ten Swords are ten voices, ten distractions you have to remove in order to become the ultimate you, something like that. Things that are holding you back. And in the background it's like the darkest of dark of the darkest of nights. You can't even see the dawn. It symbolizes the pain of removing those distractions so you can be your ultimate self. That's the Ten of Swords as was explained to me, and I believe that is comparable to the Manila Underworld. For Manila or for the Philippines to stop being its hypocritical self, to truly know itself, it has to know its dark side. It's my favorite card as of the moment. It's not as cool as like, the Priestess or Temperance but...it's the most violent card in the deck, and I think it suits me and my work. It's not always pretty for everyone, it's not always nice to look at, it's not always about happy things. But it exists. And it contributes a lot to why we're like this [motions around] during the day.
Do you feel like you learn a lot about people and psychology through your work?
Oh yeah, definitely. It's highly psychological. Domination is highly psychological. Teasing in burlesque is highly psychological. You don't have to actually give that thing, let's say sex, diba, for it to be a pleasurable experience. That is the line that we are in....sexy workers, as I like to call it. We're not sex workers, per se, we're sexy workers. You sort of get that gratification and you get paid for it so...yeah.
What has been the traditional view of strippers or sex workers here [in the Philippines]? Do you feel like you're fighting against those stigmas as well?
In a way, yeah. Because there have been films indirectly about burlesque, but it's really about stripping. Burlesk Queen was a movie that came out here [in the late 1970's] that featured strippers and how they were just forced into this line of work and all that. There is that side. So that is the automatic mental image for anyone who hears "I'm a burlesque performer" diba for the average Filipino, that's the first thing they think about. But you [can] choose your audience, the right people who will understand what it is, and they'll spread your message. That's one thing. The other is that you find some way to invite them. And [there's] almost 100% conversion rate, that get converted to advocates or fans. Because they understand that it's not "Burlesk Queen." It's not just stripping. It's actually really a lot of fun to watch, a lot of fun to perform for the performer and a lot of fun to watch for the audience.
Do you get a lot of women being like, Wow this is amazing, I really wanna learn this?
70-80% of our audience is women! Initially they think like, they should hide their husbands or their boyfriends or it's a guy thing but at the end of performances, the guys don't really like it. I think that they find it hard to separate sex from sexy. So when they see something like that it's uncomfortable for them, especially when the performer is empowered. Because the power is taken from them. The performer is looking at them, it's not the other way around. And the women love it because we're always marginalized [laughs] and they're like, I wanna do that! I wanna be empowered and showing all of my flaws and shit. So yeah - moms, normal people, all kinds of women, all walks of life. Anyone. Anyone who just needs to be empowered, which is like, every woman in the Philippines. [laughs]
What do your parents think?
I'm openly practicing, which means everyone knows. I don't operate under a psuedonym, I can't. I'm bad at keeping secrets, so my parents were some of the first few people to know. And they're two of my first-ever producers. Because I did the bondage thing as a class activity [cackles] in college. I did it as my fine arts piece. Fine arts was my elective, I majored in film. So they had to accept it, [laughs] and last month we had the shows at the CCP, the Cultural Center of the Philippines- that was with Jodee, Fringe Manila - so my parents were there, they've been there throughout all of this underworld, darkness thingy. So yeah, they get it. Well, they don't completely understand it because you know how parents are diba but they're just like OK! Whatever makes you happy! Of course they were resistant at first, as traditional Filipino parents, but if they see na i'm not hurting anyone (nonconsentually) [laughs] and it makes me happy and I'm earning from it, it's...fine.
What's this event you have coming up in May in New York?
In May, that's burlesque naman, it's the New York Asian Burlesque Extravaganza. I was challenged by Calamity Chang, one of the performers/producers who's been around for the longest time, to do a rope/burlesque fusion act that's never been seen before. [widens her eyes] I have no idea what I'm gonna do but it's gotta kick ass so...[laughs] so basically two of my sides are gonna happen there.