The Living Library, PH
Words by Katrina Swee | Photography by Terence Angsioco
Slow-cooking her heirloom beans in silence, June gives slow living a new meaning. It’s been years since returning to her roots, accumulating knowledge from fellow Palaweños, and trying to preserve the communities’ traditions, all while caring deeply for the environment.
It wasn’t always this way. The artist, better known as ((( O ))) from The Sundrop Garden, was raised in Dallas until her high school years. She has since embraced the Philippines with open arms. A year turned into many with her currently residing here off-grid.
Living amongst the locals and nature, June used her time to explore and understand those who settled on these lands for generations, experiencing what many of us city folk don’t.
“Extreme,” she uses to describe herself.
From her sustainable lifestyle to years spent alongside the Babaylan community, June’s dedication to her passions became stronger and eventually materialized into The Living Library.
Gathering and celebrating local, fresh produce, coffee, nuts, beans, grains, and even seeds, the zero-waste community grocer allows others to see a part of who she is, her experiences, and what she cares about come to life.
A person who is fully living her truth, June hopes to teach us the importance of our home, its conservation, and the beauty of locally sourced goods.
There are a couple articles online regarding your background—growing up in the States, moving to the Philippines as a teen, getting into music, and deciding to live in Palawan permanently. How has going off-grid contributed to who you are today?
That’s a very hard question to answer. I can’t even begin. It’s fifteen years of changing my whole life. It’s everything that I am right now. I feel like I’ve become a more grounded person. I’ve been humbled by seeing how people live here and how they’re so happy with nothing. When I see people who acquire more things, they tend to not be as happy and as close with the people around them. I’ve met very happy people who make their lives out of their own hands, with their families every day, helping one another, harvesting food, or telling stories at night. These things have contributed to a deeper outlook on life. These are what I put in my art and everything that I do to support those kinds of people and that lifestyle.
How did you go from making music to creating The Living Library?
Being a musician is influential around the world. Having that power, I realized that I didn’t want to take it for granted so I left. I also realized the industry was very fabricated and all the things that people wanted, this ‘freedom,’ could be found here in the Philippines. I didn’t understand why Filipinos were looking outside for their dreams. That became the recurring message/theme throughout my music—trying to make Filipinos appreciate what they already have and also trying to understand, ‘Why do people think this way? Don’t they see the beauty of our country?’ That’s basically been my entire theory which eventually became The Living Library. Why I stopped doing music was because I wanted to find this truth before I continue to do music again and influence a whole generation. I wanted to make sure that what I was saying was something I was sure about and realized that music wasn’t enough. Art wasn’t enough to share the message because people could perceive art as entertainment.
It was a big step to share what was really on my mind for The Living Library and not decode it in music or art but by showing a pathway that’s practical for real change on the ground. Instead of people saying they want to be an artist, a singer, popular, or some shit like that, it’s more about the change you want to make in yourself, in the community, and be that artist as well. Adding that other element to a lifestyle, you know? A holistic lifestyle. Not just creating stuff but creating anything in a way that’s not detrimental but supportive to the environment. I chose to be extreme because, well, I’m an extreme person. I’m aware of that but it’s good to be that person because it balances out all the other extreme things going on in the world right now.
And just out of curiosity, when did you start this kind of lifestyle?
After experiencing Malasimbo Festival 2010 was when I really appreciated the Philippines. Every time I went back to America, I felt like there was something out of balance with the way people were seeing things and somehow, by trying to find my roots, it brought me into sustainability naturally. I took it deeper by wanting to go with the communities and learn about everything that they’re doing so this knowledge can be preserved. We’re so lucky to still have our ancestors living here in the Philippines, but these communities are slowly dying out because the younger generation’s leaving. It’s up to us to preserve that knowledge before the elders are gone. They’re like a whole library burning down. Each elder is full of knowledge and information that we need to hold onto. That’s the urgency of putting up The Living Library—making a strong statement on the island because I know a lot of people will be coming and that’s what’s kicking my butt to make it manifest so that people who come here have an outlet for collaboration between like-minded people.
How did The Living Library happen?
That’s just me being alone for so long with my thoughts and trying to figure out for the past seven years how to make something tangible out of all the things that were my deepest thoughts into one space, in a way people can understand and apply to their own lives. It was a long process of brainstorming and since I started talking openly about it, I feel like it’s impacted the community here in Palawan. I think sharing those ideas, whether it’s through music or casual conversation, has opened up a lot of avenues for communities to be built in the past few years.
You do have quite a variety of local products in The Living Library. I’m interested in knowing more about the communities and people you’ve worked with to source them.
To be honest, there weren’t that many people at all—it’s been me and a friend who has been going off into the communities for some years. He’s been doing his own research for a long time and is part of the Babaylan community. While I’ve been here, I haven’t been social at all. I was either with the communities or my Babaylan mentors but now that the library has manifested, it’s given me a platform to share with people that, ‘Hey, this is what I actually care about and I don’t really want to talk about anything else but this.’ When it came to constructing the place, I asked friends for carpenters and gave them my design. It was really a labor of love and a lot of time, effort, and sleepless nights. When it came to putting the store together, there wasn’t a community because I don’t think anyone would understand it unless it existed. It just took a long time to translate these ideas into something understandable. I’m still trying to figure that out. I think people are starting to understand and I’m happy to have control over it because, in the beginning, people would come in and have their own interpretation. I realized as an artist, I really have to do some things alone because I have an extreme viewpoint of the world and it’s important to stay pure to the vision. Seeing it manifest really helps to show the whole art piece for example.
It’s like an extension of yourself.
It is, yeah. I wish it were a foundation because it’s basically a charity right now, coming from my music profits.
Through this whole process, what have been your most fulfilling moments?
Making the library was making a space so even just getting a chair inside was fulfilling. Every little thing—putting the jars in, designing, and seeing it existing. It was more about designing the space so people could experience it the way that I hope they would.
There’s a silent zone inside. Binaural beats are playing to give intention to the food. It’s a sacred place and what I like to do at music events is curate an experience where you don’t explain it with words and make people go through it. The library starts off with the sari-sari store and then the dining area where you can talk. Then you pass through the dirty kitchen and go inside where no one speaks. You can read books there and look at the variety of diverse life sources from Palawan.
And you just opened the carinderia right?
Yeah. The reason why we don’t want to share about Palawan is because of my past six years of experience of seeing Palawan getting destroyed by people, whether they’re good-intentioned or not. I’m generally scared of people but am trying to open up because the library exists. What I really want to do is help the locals. The carinderia was made for the tricycle drivers passing by or the locals living in the neighborhood. It’s so fulfilling to see them come in and be curious about what we have. It’s what they’re used to eating except it’s with ingredients they don’t know about and are healthier. They can try it because it’s affordable and it’s not intimidating because it’s not fancy. We also have native medicinal plants inside and that in itself is a statement. The library adds a new perspective for people.
I also interviewed Karla Delgado recently. She briefly spoke about you and a future collaboration. Are you open to sharing what it is?
I love her! We’re collaborating in however way we want. There’s nothing really set in stone but she’s definitely a great friend to me. She’s an amazing being. She actually came in here when I was really tired after two years of working on this place and she said, ‘I think you should open it.’ One week later, I did a soft opening, and less than a year later, it officially opened. She’s a big part of what got me back up again. I just got burnt out at so many points. We met because of my vinyl launch in Manila which was themed around the native plants and heirloom seeds. I know that people don’t understand what the hell I’m talking about but I knew it was going to make a difference. Since then, I’ve noticed changes in people and how they see art, music and connecting that with sustainability. I’ve seen differences in how people make those connections now. She was there and did a talk on seed-saving. We’ve been hanging out ever since.
In terms of collaboration, we’re still trying to figure out what it could be but her natural talent is connecting people and I’m anti-social. She’s a natural, social butterfly and it’s going to help the part of the library which wishes to solidify the directory into something that can be shared with people who are coming in. These are the organic farms, the sustainable organizations, the arts community, and conservationists you can connect with in one place. That’s what I hope to make easier for people. Having someone like Karla will really help me personally open up to a variety of people and also feel safe knowing that I’m not the only one making those connections.
There is definitely a community here that believes in creating a better, healthier and sustainable future. How do you personally think we’re doing in terms of sustainability?
I’m not sure. I think people want to make that change and people are doing it step by step. I think we’re in a good position. Of course, there are equally fucked up things that are doing the extreme opposite so I think we need to work together and faster. I think the whole generation is waking up.
You asked earlier what communities I was working with. We’re currently open to working with other people since it’s established and the values are clear as a community grocery. Those who have the same values can share their products at the library to sell. We’re currently collaborating with indigenous people who are growing their own food, so they borrow seeds from us to grow organically. It’s fulfilling to know that these people are continuing their traditions. Seeing people’s reactions to the library makes me grateful that they’re open to receiving it.
It looks amazing. I actually tried to find it before visiting because I wasn’t sure if it was based in El Nido or Puerto and realized I wouldn’t be in the same place.
We’re actually opening one in El Nido. Did you know?
No! When will it be open?
In a few days in Kalye Artisano haha. It will be in a little kubo in the center. It’s more of a sari-sari store than a grocery and will be focused on teas and herbs. I’m super excited. It tends to need a bit more research. That’s where a lot of time and energy is going because people don’t know about it here. It’s not Google-able, it’s rare, and makes me think, how do you support the diversity of these undiscovered things without exploiting them at the same time?
So it took a lot of research to know what to put in the store and you currently sell medicinal plants, herbs, and heirloom beans. Are there other products we don’t know about?
We have an amazing collection of books that are very specific, all themed around the Philippines, and full of information. In terms of food, you’ve basically said all of it other than nuts and seeds. Since medicinal plants are considered sacred, we’re not selling them. That’s another thing—to gather all of that and in the end, realize it’s not good to share them. It can be tiring. It’s great that we now know what they are but I won’t share it if it means it can be exploited. There will be a time but the first phase is to get everyone on the same level.
Are there any other Filipinos who or businesses here that you admire or would like to mention?
To be honest, there are many businesses I could name but I’m feeling very grateful for the people the library is working with. There are a lot of people here such as Koberwitz 1924 who focus on heirloom seeds and seed-saving. It’s part of the Waldorf School and they specialize in homeopathic medicine. There’s Byanyas, which is a foundation that was established two years ago but has been in the works for years. They’re working with the community that the founder grew up with as a kid. He found a way to support them by hiring them to garden the right way and continue their traditional practices. We’re very lucky here because we have a community of Babaylans and people who are still authentically living in their communities. There are still some virgin forests here as well and it’s incredible. The opportunity we have here to build from the ground up allows us to build something raw and create the foundation for what may come in the future. I see something very positive about being here at this moment.
I really admire the Rurungan Foundation we are also collaborating with. They help communities continue their livelihood and lifestyles of weaving baskets and clothes. They plant, dye, weave, and sew everything themselves within their community. There are the different Babaylan communities and the people, of course. I don’t really look at businesses because I don’t resonate with a lot of the ones I come across which satisfy my extreme ideals. I’m picky.
I’m coming from an artistic perspective and it just happens that I have to be a business in order to be legal. Music has really been how I survived while being off-grid. It’s given me a space to think about all these crazy things and find a system for them.
I’ve been blessed to have all that time on my hands to make this space. Now I get to share it with people and have conversations like this with you and people coming in to visit. I’m super happy about it. You should come and visit!