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Stories - issue #11

Emerging Islands

Earlier in 2022 Madeleine Bazil, editor of the Rhizome newsletter, caught up with Nicola Sebastian and David Loughran from Emerging Islands – a coastal-based organisation based on the island of Luzon, northern Philippines. Their activities explore engagements between artists and grassroots communities on issues relating to the natural world through their artist residency program, community programming, artist-led expeditions, and multidisciplinary storytelling.

Cover photograph from Archie Geotina's series Pearls, created in collaboration with Siargao surfer Ikit Agudo and photographer Bren Lopez, exhibited by Emerging Islands in Follow the Water.

Madeleine: Tell me a bit about Emerging Islands and its mission/ethos, and how the idea came about?

Nicola: As the world went into lockdown during the global pandemic, we found ourselves sheltering in San Juan, La Union – a small surf town on the island of Luzon, Northern Philippines. All of us are creative practitioners from different fields: the core group is David Loughran, an independent curator; Hannah Reyes Morales, a photographer; Samantha Turingan, a producer; and myself, a writer exploring the idea of “islandness.” I’m a surfer too, which is why I first visited and eventually moved to San Juan.

Hannah lost the mobility needed for her work as a photojournalist, so she and her husband Jon moved to San Juan to wait out the pandemic. Over the next few months, the place itself started to shape our thoughts – the changeable West Philippine Sea; the dusty, steaming roads; the pervasive, full-bodied quiet; the people going about their life in yet another provincial town, yet already touched by the booming developments of tourism (shut down, too, by the pandemic).

Both photographs are from the series Langit, Lupa, Impiyerno by Geric Cruz - from the Follow the Water exhibition.

Hannah and I are long-time friends and collaborators and, here in what we affectionately call Surf Town, we had the space and time to indulge in hours-long conversation. We pointed out to each other the patterns our ideas were beginning to take: we were hearing new questions, seeing new possibilities for sense-making, feeling as-yet-unknown things stirring within us. We met David and he had the same ideas, same questions, same stirrings. As for Sam, I remember bumping into her on the beach and us immediately jumping into an excited exchange, asking her a million questions about her experience running creative hubs. What can I say? It’s a small town. The synchronicities haven’t stopped since.

As the world machine ground to a standstill, we felt in our bones that this was exactly the time when the stories could not stop. We needed images, words, art to tell us how to make things mean again. We didn’t know what we were meant to hold onto, so we focused on holding space, trusting that what was needed would fill that space. Anyone who uses the term meaningfully knows how hard it is to actually do that, to be that receptive –it’s like trying to hold still in a current of moving water. We found that deeper kind of stillness, the kind that regenerates, here in Surf Town.

We also felt compelled to invite other Filipino artists to share this space with us. Taking our cues from the place [where] we had found a sanctuary in this time of uncertainty, we wondered, what if we could enable Filipino artists to think, create, and relate as an archipelago? The answer seemed comically obvious: to invite them to spend a month in Surf Town. Not sure entirely what we were doing, we booked some rooms at a huge discount in Flotsam and Jetsam, the now near-deserted hostel, and called it a residency.

‘Our approach is adaptive, amorphous, always chaotic, often thrilling and sometimes infuriating – but, well, that’s what it’s like here in the Philippines.’

— Nicola Sebastian

A quote from the Russian chemist Ilya Prigogine became our starting point and, for me personally, the starting point for a proposition of hope. “When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the system.”

“Shift the system.” No shift too small, but a shift certainly away from the consumptive centres towards the abundance of the island-peripheries, made toxic and stagnant by the economy of extraction. Our country’s Hail Mary industry has been our people: service abroad, whether in the person of the domestic worker, or in the voice of a call centre agent. The islands offered another way to think, relate, create, be, or at least a break from looking always in the same direction, with the same idioms and reference points.

Over the course of a year, we’ve managed to articulate our vision: we see every community as an island – scattered yet connected, belonging to a global archipelago. Our activities aim to explore engagements between artists and grassroots communities on issues relating to the natural world through our artist residency program, community programming, artist-led expeditions, and multidisciplinary storytelling. By holding space for island voices and narratives, we hope to foster greater awareness and solidarity around the issues that coastal communities face and the shared culture that they belong to, so that together we can begin to imagine the possibility of an interdependent world, a global archipelago.

What the Water Gave Us by Woong Soak Teng - from the Follow the Water exhibition.

Madeleine: Relatedly, I love the idea of an archipelagic framework - what does that methodology look like in practice for the organisation and/or the artists that you support?

Nicola: What does it mean to think, create, and relate as an archipelago?

While working on our individual jobs late one night, David and I doodled back and forth on some of my research notes. We were trying to make sense of the ideas, questions, and processes that were constellating around us. I drew four points connected to form a diamond; he turned it into a triangle with a circle in the middle. We immediately agreed, however, on the four aspects – they were interconnected, fluid yet important nodes in our co-creative strategy of inquiry. As we refined it, we realised it was part of every project we had already done; we just hadn’t known it yet. We had a framework, one that was archipelagic in its very structure. Every residency that we do constellates in the form of what we call an archipelagic inquiry. Now it’s hard for us not to see it everywhere.

Our approach begins and returns to community dialogue – taking our cues from identified leaders and stakeholders to determine the issues and stories we should pursue, what question to explore. In truth, community dialogue is a continuous, unfolding practice. We have formal occasions for public discussion, such as oral history interviews, knowledge exchange workshops, and online and in-person panels. But we also are in the process of deepening our long-term partnerships with various stakeholders and leaders in our communities, whom we closely collaborate with to refine our ideas and realise our projects.

From there we design a concept and curatorial program with various artistic, technical, and community collaborators. Our curatorial strategy is to create a storytelling prompt that will guide our artists and collaborators in their creative inquiry, and help us identify which aspects of the community and ecology need to be engaged with. In this way, we begin to connect our artists with the source material of the project. Activities in this stage include process explorations, grant writing, artist meetings, planning sessions and theoretical research.

Again, true to the fluid nature of archipelagic relations, the concept and creative process is iterative, evolving in the moment in the space of the residency, which is the heart of our organisation. This is where collaborators from various disciplines come to make art that responds to local contexts. Here also is where the archipelago truly asserts its relational powers on our artists as they immerse in our coastal community.

Finally, the storytelling output of our artists and collaborators are then shared publicly, in the form of community events, media about the artistic process itself, and impact measured by feedback from local and global communities, returning us once again to dialogue. Telling stories is central to what we do, and we take a special interest in documenting the creative process with the goal of sharing it with community members who typically have no access to artistic sense-making.

Photographs by Jomar Tingson (Plastic Passages Workshop participant) - from the Follow the Water exhibition.

More important than any one particular node of this framework are the connections made between them. Connections are at the heart of how we organise. By staging workshops, open studio events, consultations with community stakeholders and field expeditions with scientists, our artists explore earnestly out in the so-called edges and peripheries, where human and nonhuman communities tangle in unself-conscious ways, and where their truth-seeking and storytelling abilities are urgently needed.

Our approach is adaptive, amorphous, always chaotic, often thrilling and sometimes infuriating – but, well, that’s what it’s like here in the Philippines. Our framework is our attempt to design a methodology around the psycho-social, ecologically signifying relations of these islands: one that is responsive and fluid, hijacking whatever systems it touches towards the realisation of an artist’s intention. One that invites artists into a creative process that is embodied and in the moment. One that embraces decentralised collaboration as a vital catalyst in producing work that is truly transformative – “system-shifting.”.

‘All too often, we focus on individual responsibility when it comes to plastic pollution but, in truth, the presence of plastic in our environment is a community problem – one that can only be solved if everyone works together.’

— Nicola Sebastian

Madeleine: I’d love to hear about a couple of the current/recent projects at Emerging Islands: exhibitions, artists currently in residence, etc.

Nicola: Here are a couple important recent projects that illustrate our process of inquiry, and how it developed into the framework we use today.

Plastic Passages Collaboration and Workshop:

Living in Surf Town, it’s hard to ignore the sight of plastic debris littering our beaches after a heavy rain, tangled in our mangrove forests or else floating in the waves that we surf. The Philippines is the worst marine plastic polluter in the world, consuming a staggering 163 million pieces of plastic in a single day, much of it single-use, non-recyclable plastic sachets. This is according to a 2021 study, which also concluded that the river contributing the most plastic pollution to the world’s oceans is none other than our very own Pasig River. Scientists have even found microplastics in the bodies of our favourite fish, bangus and tilapia.

All too often, we focus on individual responsibility when it comes to plastic pollution but, in truth, the presence of plastic in our environment is a community problem – one that can only be solved if everyone works together. So, we at Emerging Islands asked ourselves: how can we respond to the problem of plastic while embodying the spirit of collaboration and community?

With support from the British Council, we tracked the movement of plastic along La Union’s waterways and collaborated with the artist Mandy Barker for her new work, entitled “IP Sea KISS, part of a larger body of work about marine plastic debris. She wanted to focus on plastic sachets: single-use and non-recyclable, they are a strategic exploitation by multinational companies of the short-term purchasing habits of the poorest in the Philippines, and ironically inspired by the organically sustainable tingi system practiced by sari-sari stores.

Then, we designed an intensive, week-long photography workshop comprised of eight students of diverse backgrounds from around the Philippines: photojournalists, a university professor, conceptual photographers and even a science researcher. The workshop, headed by photographers Mandy Barker and Hannah Reyes Morales, was our way of expanding our conversation with other storytellers so we can go beyond the cliched understanding of an issue like plastic pollution. We wanted to capture a deeper, more holistic picture of the daily life and culture of our coastal communities.

Butanding by Hannah Reyes Morales - from the Follow the Water exhibition.

Over the next seven days of our program, we discovered that the workshop was becoming an exchange of insights that went far beyond our initial question. Though our students approached their stories in different ways, and refracted the singular experience of living on these islands: surrounded and inundated by water, reckoning with a twice-colonised past, and caught in the climate struggle between the global north and south, which as we know is drowning in irony and inequality, both. In other words, the Plastic Passages workshop became a conversation about what it means to call the Philippine islands home.

In responding to the plastic clogging our canals, leaking into our rivers, filling up our lakes, and spilling out to our seas, an even more essential, more complete picture dawned upon our senses: the bodies of water that are all around us, shaping life in the Philippine archipelago. Our relationship with these waters tells a most fundamental story about our community, its place in the greater ecology of these lands, and the future of our island nation.

From the SOUP image series by Mandy Barker - as seen in the Follow the Water exhibition.

As the students’ stories expanded our attention and deepened our conversation, we felt it only right to place their photography within a more holistic celebration of our coasts, islands, and waters. We wanted to quite literally “follow the water,” allowing the rivers, lakes, and seas to reconnect us to our own communities, and not stopping there, to bring us beyond geopolitical borders towards a shared south-east Asian ecological sensibility, one shaped by the incredible biological and cultural diversity of the region. And so, the Plastic Passages workshop brought us to Follow the Water, a public, outdoor photography exhibit that we staged on right on the beach of Surf Town.

“I always wanted to see more of the photography that changed the way I see the world in public spaces here at home,” shares Hannah in a Facebook post about the exhibit. She took the lead in curating and gathering photography stories from some of the South-east Asian photographers that helped her see the waters that surround us in a different light. The exhibit was all the things we’d spent countless sleepless nights talking about. It was all the things we wanted for the Philippines, for ourselves – stories that spoke to us, because they listened to us, emerging from our very midst.

Photographs from the The Banda Journal series by Muhammad Fadli - as seen in the Follow the Water exhibition.

A Fold in the Horizon

David: Artist in residence Jao San Pedro, a multidisciplinary designer and conceptual artist, staged community-driven collaborations in our town of San Juan, La Union, to answer the question: how is transgendering a process and how might its essence exist in all of us? If Jao, as an artist, contends that transgendering is fundamental to her work as a way of being, seeing, and creating, how might her process reveal her nature?

During one of our exploratory trips around La Union, we became acquainted with the Sericulture Research and Development Institute, a silkworm loom tucked inside the tree-lined campus of DMMMSU, La Union’s top university. Unbeknownst to many people, beautiful silk was being made here, with the silkworms grown, fed, and harvested by the institute with the help of a close-knit network of farming communities.

Our collaborative investigation into transgendering found its conceptual bearings in the lifecycle of the silkworm itself. The multi-stage moulting of the silkworm, recounted to us by the institute’s technical officer Maricris Ulat on the five fingers of her left hand, appealed to Jao intuitively. The creature’s life informed the shape and tenor of both her process and interactions with our community. Although she denied herself the title of “weaver” (perhaps out of respect for the august weavers she met at the institute, and the silkworm’s own autogenic weaving process), she invariably wove a tapestry of interactions to stage what has been one of our most collaborative projects to date at Emerging Islands. These involved herself; the institute; five movement artists – Mia Cabalfin, Abee Manotoc, Adam Klecheski, Reef Ligayu and JB Estrada; music producer King Puentespina; and film director, Simon Te.

From the Guardians of the Marsh series by Gab Mejia - as seen in the Follow the Water exhibition.

First, the movement artists were made to wear a costume fashioned out of silk procured from the sericulture centre, a deceptively plain garb with infinite permutations, allowing the wearer to become whatever in the moment of wearing. Jao also used audio gathered from the institute and composed into a score by producer King Puentespina aka crwn, to encode into the experiment the sounds of the silkworm’s life. Their munching on mulberry leaves, the industrial blares of threading machines, and the rhythmic pattering of the bamboo handloom [brought] everyone closer to the silkworm’s anima and exterior world. Before each movement artist began their performance, she gave them a prompt to propel them towards gesture. She knew it had to be one that meant something [to] her and the silkworm. In one of her trips to the Sericulture Institute, she had chanced upon the word “moult” and immediately understood that she, too, was moulting the very things that kept her from shining her light on the rest of the world.

In truth, each step undertaken by Jao prior to that culminating night was a way to bring everyone together in a process of collective moulting. Like the talk we staged early on in her residency about transgendering vis-à-vis her life and work, which saw many in the audience humbled yet honoured by her experiences. The most important thing for Jao at any point in her residency was to be seen and understood. Even introductions to her collaborators were painful, earnest efforts to become visible, like a snake shedding its skin to reveal something raw and fresh. “Imagine meeting someone, and wanting to earn their trust and understanding by having to recount your entire life and your painful experiences. That’s my life,” she told us. But she did all that with her chin up, perhaps because the community earned her trust, but more likely because that is what an artist is meant to do, anyway. To break free towards enlightenment, by asking and living the hard questions.

‘This night reminded us of what it means to live and breathe alongside artists. We weren’t spectators in the transformations that occurred on this night. We were fully in it.’

— David Loughran

On that final night, she turned the entire Emerging Islands house into a cocoon. Lights [were] dimmed, windows and pathways curtained with black, the entire experience of a home [was] condensed into a singular moment of existence, simulating a lonely soul slowly moulting to better attune herself to the rhythms of the world. We saw clearly how more than a month of hard work with other artists and community members could unfold into this beautiful moment. All of us banded together to not only support Jao, but to impel ourselves towards her interior world, witnessing the body of her anima, so that we ourselves could find the answers to our collective questions. This night reminded us of what it means to live and breathe alongside artists. We weren’t spectators in the transformations that occurred on this night. We were fully in it.

A recording of San Pedro’s final Emerging Islands art piece can be seen here.

From the series Mekong, Mother of Rivers by Huiying Ore - as seen in the Follow the Water exhibition.

Madeleine: Im curious to hear how the organisation relates to the word ‘culture’, or how any of the artists working at Emerging Islands are relating to it in their practice.

Nicola: We always associate the human with the word “culture” but, for me, the word always makes me think of another word: “ecology” – the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their environment. Like a relational forcefield or delicate root system, the word traces the ways we are rooted to place through our relations. Although, to continue the metaphor, these same networks allow us to raise our branches into the atmosphere.

Culture and ecology may not be the same thing exactly, but they are symbiotic, intermingled as ideas, like a forest of trees and fungi. “Culture”, for me, is the way that intention shapes this root and branch system. It doesn’t control or encompass ecology, just like mycorrhizal fungi networks are one means of connecting a forest, but not the only one – there is the air, the water, the light, the critters. Ecology still transcends culture, in that sense. But culture is the pattern that attention and intention imprint on a place and its enfolded ecosystem, tending and shaping and cultivating this root system of relations, helping it to take hold of a place like a forest clings to and gives shape to the mountain.

‘Holding space allows us to listen more deeply, and gaze at our environment with open minds.’

— Nicola Sebastian

To continue this thinking, I suppose the cultural intention of this organisation is the archipelago, with the primary metaphor being our islands’ relationship to the ocean and to each other. But the vessels themselves are empty: we depend on the intentions of the artist, community, and ecosystem to fill them. Perhaps for Jao San Pedro, our Art Fair Philippines artist-in-residence, culture may be the grid that restricts us, but it is also the sericulture she collaborated with, where silkworms moult in order to evolve. It is also the transgendering process, which allows trans men and women to make themselves more seen, more safe/free. Meanwhile, our current artist in residence, Joar Songcuya, spent thirteen years on the open seas, working as a nautical engineer on cargo ships straight out of college, in order to send his younger siblings to school. Here, he is focusing his time on turning his experience into a story, bringing to light the unseen culture of Filipino seafarers – its freedoms, dangers and costs.

Culture also comes with certain postures, more or less motivated by the idea of correctness. Chaotic and corrupt the Philippines as a society may be, there are resilient, deeply rooted systems of stewardship, for humans and nonhumans, both. But to find the Indigenous knowledge systems and practices of our island communities, we need to know where to look and know how to recognise and respond to them when we do find them. Holding space allows us to listen more deeply, and gaze at our environment with open minds.

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