An art residency in a Filipino surftown is giving back to the community
BY Jean-Pierre Ditona
September 24, 2021

In San Juan, a surftown in the province of La Union, there were talks about new ways of engaging with the arts. Many conversations consisted of connecting one artist with another, creating an open environment where creative practices were fostered. It led some of its residents to ask, “How can we share this safe space with other artists?”

This thought led to the founding of Emerging Islands, a bi-annual artist residency in San Juan, whose first call for artists took place at the Flotsam and Jetsam Beach Hostel. Their inaugural line-up included the likes of music producer King Puentespina, also known as crwn; street artist and muralist Archie Oclos; artists Zeus Bascon, Veronica Lazo, and Cian Dayrit, and; writer Anna Canlas. The residency, established this year, resists profiting from the artists’ works. Rather, using the metaphor of the archipelago, Emerging Islands wants to connect with communities in and around their orbit. On the front page of their website is a quote from physicist Ilya Prigogine: “When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the system.”

Nicola Sebastian is a writer and one of the co-founders of Emerging Islands. To her, La Union was a breath of fresh air compared to the hustle and bustle of New York and Hong Kong, where she previously lived. Yet, she often laments on how not enough support is given to artists in the Philippines - particularly when it comes to fostering a healthy cultural infrastructure, or providing funding that’s focused on the artistic process, rather than an artist’s output.

“In New York, if you wanted to join a community, you just needed to show up to an open mic. We need more spaces like that.” she says. Emerging Islands is a testament against the idea that an artistic career is not a viable one – a frustration facing many artists living in the city, who are either making below the monthly living wage or freelancing tirelessly on multiple jobs at one time. 

“How can we open up opportunities for our community of artists?” says Hannah Reyes Morales, photojournalist and co-founder of Emerging Islands. The number of artistic voices in the country are proliferating, she says, yet there are very few spaces where both the art and livelihood of artists can thrive. Outside of the city, there are a handful of spaces which not only develop the practices of artists, but also add new creative energy to the communities they situate.

For example, Elmo’s House, an artist residency in Batan, Aklan, acts as an intermediary between the town and participating artists, initiating conversations on contemporary art through community outreach programmes with local government units. There’s also Bellas Artes Projects in Bagac, Bataan, which pairs artists with local craftspeople to learn Filipino artisan techniques. Emerging Islands is the latest to be added to the Philippines’ repertoire of few but dedicated artist spaces where participants can conduct valuable research and share knowledge with the local community. 

The output created from Emerging Islands’ inaugural residency is promising. Canlas spent her time wandering the Urbiztondo coastline, chatting up locals while intently taking notes on her iPhone – all of which contributed to the creation of her La Union travelogue called And Things Are Mostly Ghosts. For Bascon, his residency culminated into an exhibition titled “A Butterfly is Patient”, consisting of mixed media works narrating the “story of a queer body unfolding from its interior world.” 

Puentespina found refuge in La Union by migrating his home studio from Manila, whose original plan was to finish his second solo album. However, after numerous conversations along the way, a seed was planted to record an EP with Rowdy Prosper, later titled Salooobin. While they only recorded a few demos during the residency and plan to finish the EP later this year, they performed to a small, socially distanced group of people in The Shrine of Satisfaction at the Great Northwest – the latter of which has become a meeting point for the creative transients of La Union. Indeed, by opening up its doors to artists, Emerging Islands is not only providing value to La Union by decentralizing art out of big cities, but they are also advocates for the artistic process, recognising that there is not one linear way to create and make an impact. 

When asked about how the residency can evolve further, Morales and Sebastian were on equal footing. As part of Art Fair Philippines’ initiative to support artist residencies across the Philippines, Emerging Islands is scheduled to host the second edition of their residency with Jao San Pedro  – a textile artist concerned with the non-binary body - during the tailend of the year. 

But what they strive for at Emerging Islands could happen anywhere, they say – whether in a sleepy town close to a bustling city or in your own backyard. Rather than simply making memories, Morales and Sebastian envision a world where artists can contribute to the health and welfare of their communities. In doing so, Morales and Sebastian advocate a still-frequently-contested idea – that art is for everyone, never exclusive to one place.

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