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Emerging Islands


Words by Katrina Swee| Photography by Hannah Reyes Morales, Chong & Tarish Zamora

As the whole country slowed down, the surf town of San Juan in La Union grew quiet. The town’s charm once brought many with its convenience and waves. It’s just a highway away from the capital, but it feels so far once you’re in it: a place where time is told by the tide, where the water soothes and speaks to you; where contemplation occurs while hearing the insects call late into the night. Life is different here. 


With all that’s taken place as of late, it’s not unthinkable to want to leave and seek refuge in an environment like this—a change of pace and new surroundings, in the hopes of something new.  Nicola, a writer, and Hannah, a photographer, decided this was what was best for them. Two creatives wanting to explore unfamiliar territory while exploring within, with no thoughts in mind to return. Coincidentally, David, curator and founder of the art space and bar Limbo, did the same. When they gathered together, La Union became a place for shelter, a place to stimulate, a place to give to and in return, receive.


As they grew closer, the group realised they were like-minded individuals, posing life questions and seeking ways to keep creating during a daunting time. This synchronicity between them meant something. They weren’t sure what it was in the beginning but as they conversed, a thought kept recurring:


“If we need this, do others need it too?”


With that question in mind, they found others like them and sought to bring what they believed others might also need at this time; and the semi-nomadic art residency, Emerging Islands, was born. 


What does Emerging Islands envision for its participants and what problems is it trying to solve? What gap is it trying to fill?


Nicola: The idea is to hold a space for Filipino artists and creatives. We all found each other in the same place at the same time while sheltering here in La Union. The lockdown was very strict here and we didn’t see each other for months, but within our own bubbles, we were able to have some semblance or the space to think through things and have long, deep conversations into the night about the situation we were in. Of course it’s bigger than our country but also highlights the broken systems in our country that existed pre-pandemic.


We thought, well, we’re sheltering here and finding the space to keep doing the things that matter to us — create, converse, engage with places and people. What if we can offer even a bit of that to a few other people in a meaningful way? That made us realise that shelter is an active thing that you have to do.

David: The six of us came together and found ourselves in the same situation because we’re creative practitioners too: writers, curators… We wanted people to keep creating especially during a time when the stories can’t stop. We’re in a particular environment where honesty is really important these days and there’s a particular kind of honesty you can only really get from artists or creators of this kind.

Nicola: I do think that in terms of the problem we are trying to solve, [it is more like we are] providing a space to approach that problem from another angle and literally from another location. Arts always kind of questions business as usual.


How did you all find each other in La Union at the same time? When did this all happen?


David: We all met here. I met all of you here.


Hannah: I came with Nicola and the rest of us met there.


Nicola: We didn’t even know we were all here until later on when things eased up a little and we congregated in small groups.


So you guys became friends during the pandemic and decided to create the residency, amazing. 

Nicola: Yeah, so David is a curator and founder of Limbo, I’m a writer and Hannah is a photographer. There’s Matt San Pedro who founded Transit Records and Manila Community Radio. We have Sam who works with the UNDP as a consultant and also worked for GRID. Then there’s Danella who was involved in one of the first co-working establishments, Co-Lab, and is an artist herself. That’s all of us right?

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David: Yeah, there’s six of us.


Nicola: And the holy spirit, haha. We’re all from such different backgrounds so it’s kind of interesting.


How did this one vision and initial idea turn into something physical?


Nicola: It was actually taking advantage of an opportunity, a gap in business as usual. Obviously, that gap was devastating to the booming tourist industry here in La Union… It’s great that tourism developed here, since it allowed others to have an opportunity to move here to make a living, but it also skewed the conversations in La Union towards commercial and tourism.


I think with that gap, we can support the community by bringing in new people who would patronize the local establishments because a lot of the establishments here have been kept afloat by the kind of residents who live in La Union, whether new or old. 


Because Flotsam had shut down, they offered us rooms at a discounted long term rate and also gave us an open studio which we repurposed to be the shared studio space. It was a win-win. Everyone could have their own room and come here legitimately and that little gap allowed it to happen. We thought, we have to do it now because if things start up again, we’ll lose that opportunity to do something like this. When are we all going to be here again, right?


Hannah: It really took a lot of trust, and it was good that we had the right people there. It felt very organic to do something like this. We had to pull some people at the last minute. We were all learning on the job but we had the right people, trust, friendship and a similar vision and added little things individually to make sure that the vision came through. I was very skeptical from the start. It wasn’t like we [immediately] had our shit together.


Nicola: We argued a lot. We were basically debating about it into the night. We were very intentional about not calling it something. We called it a residency but we had this question mark around it, to offer it to be whatever it will be.

Hannah: We were trying to address a gap that we, as artists, could feel all the time, whether that was a gap in our sense of community with other artists, having enough spaces to show work or how accessible those spaces were for other people.


Nicola: When I say that gap has kind of formed our identity, that also has to do with archipelagic thinking, which became a framework for us. It’s about how to think with the archipelago and using the archipelago, not just as a site of exploration, but a means of exploring in itself. 


David: A model by which you can move and partake in the world.


Nicola: Yeah, a way of making meaning in a sense and one of the key characteristics of an archipelago… Just think about what an archipelago is. What makes it an archipelago is the space between the islands. It’s not any one island — it’s not Luzon, it’s not Mindanao or Boracay. It’s all the islands together. What we've been gesturing around is the interconnectivity. The connections we’ve been making between ourselves and also with other people was so much of what has been making Emerging Islands what it is and it’s still unfolding.


David: We started with it as an intention as well, an intention that fit right in for what we were trying to do. Working in a place like this you can’t be here telling honest stories about the place without considering the environment.


Hannah: To tag on to that, we call it a residency but when we often think of residencies, particularly in the West, we associate it with a beautiful space or house. While we have that too, one of the ways that I’ve helped myself understand Emerging Islands is by tacking on semi-nomadic residency to my thinking. People who are semi-nomadic or nomadic help us. It’s just that they move around. It became a strength for us that we didn’t have a brick-and-mortar space.

And despite La Union being the place for the residency because you guys happened to be there at the same time, why is this particular surf town meaningful to you?


David: There was room to explore storytelling here because the people we were meeting here were the same. They’re storytellers too. It had that kind of spirit going around. Even La Union in itself has a new spirit. It has to do with it being a new place carved out of three provinces, Ilocos, Pangasinan, and Cordilleras, so there’s something about it that feels decentralized in a way. 


Nicola: It's no man’s land.


David: I feel places like this carry out particular inventions. They’re more active when it comes to self-determination. They self-determine their community and the people who move around or move through here have very concrete opinions about how they want to shape this world but how they want to protect this world at the same time.


Nicola: Now that you said that, I’m realizing that La Union is a weird paradox because it’s just a couple kilometres away, squeezed onto the side of a national highway. If you asked people from La Union about San Juan before it became popular, they’d say, “oh, that’s where they’d throw the dead bodies.” There was nothing here. It started developing because there was surf. It’s a no man’s land but it also developed an intentionality. 


These kinds of start-up, decentralized communities tend to be different but I think what grounds them is the fact that the place has its own heritage and rhythms. There are townspeople living here. It’s not like it’s an island paradise in the middle of nowhere. There’s a heritage, history, and people who go about their day who don’t go to the ocean or surf.


You were part of a talk recently at the Art Fair PH with four other residencies, and residencies aren’t very popular here in the Philippines. What made you, as a collective, decide to open a residency in a country where it is uncommon?


David: I think you can consider these little endeavours, as however temporary as they may be, as seeds. There’s not enough cultural infrastructure and that’s kind of what we mean by making space for ourselves to be part of that gestation process and really light a fire in these communities. Maybe it will get picked up and become institutionalized. I think it’s important to look around and see where we should have an art centre or gallery. In a lot of other countries, there’s art everywhere. There’s a real issue of things being really centralized and that’s something a lot of people feel, not just us. The other residencies feel the same way. They know our usual centres are failing us; everything is there and it’s buckling under its weight. At a time when people can’t produce, it’s suddenly not at optimal levels. It needs to dissipate and disperse.

Leaving Manila to take part in a residency like yours makes me wonder how significant the role of “place” is and whether it would gain traction in other regions around the Philippines, especially ones not by the beach. How do you think our mountain and forest regions would affect one’s creative outcome because of the subdued, inland environment? What is it about these kinds of environments that foster creativity?


Nicola: It’s interesting because some of us surf. Hannah got into surfing when she moved here and you were saying that the place exhibits an influence on you and you get in touch with your body. There’s a lot of embodiment going on. There’s an invitation or draw to the outside. The environment in the Philippines imposes itself on us everywhere. If it’s not an ocean, it’s a forest. I think you can’t help but have to go along with the presence of the place itself. 


I think it also has something to do with thinking with the archipelago. It’s about understanding what it means to be in the Philippines from the non-dominant markers and narratives which are more urban centric and more about trying to explore, absorb and express a provincial or coastal way of life. What does that look like? What does it feel like?

I think it’s important to say that it’s not a beach getaway. We’re living in small homes that we’re renting for very little throughout the neighbourhood. 


David: I think from the get go, we knew that building on the image of the archipelago is really a means to understand oneself. It was the way to understand who we are as people and as Filipinos. I think it concatenates naturally with the environment because we have a warped reality in which we’re all living on islands, thousands of them, but we don’t really identify as island people. We’re not island people. People spend inordinate amounts of money just to go and be in nature. We’re vastly disconnected from it and so to be reconnected with it and imagining the archipelago involves place and the outside world that way.


Hannah: Sixty percent of the country is living on the coast. It’s also about examining what dominant narratives are being told and how we can remove ourselves from that singular context. 


Nicola: What disconnected us from that to begin with? What turned us away from the sea? 


Hannah: I bookmarked that because I think that’s our perspective since we grew up in Manila. I’m sure a vast amount of Filipinos would disagree. It’s just about who dictates where arts and culture takes place.

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