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Online Migration and Ground Connection: Collective Survival for Artists in the Time of COVID-19
Published November 20, 2020

By JK Anicoche

Radical shift. The inevitable has come. It took a pandemic to dismantle systems and reveal our incapacities as human beings under a capitalist mode of production; here the human race is crumbling after building economies instead of nourishing ecologies, tucked in the safety of individuality packed as commodities. The artist as a social being starts to examine the arts in its direct connection and disconnect to society and environment. Artists and art laborers especially from the performing arts and “live” arts in the Philippines and in many parts of the world have been left with almost no institutional support, now that institutions also fail to earn from commercial exchanges with paying audiences. Artists working in development sectors and in remote communities could not rely on any law or policy that will help them in times of disaster. Heightened by incompetent government response in which we always respond to, a wide range of art and cultural practices were left vulnerable with so much uncertainty on when this pandemic will ever end.

Disaster management 101. Working in disaster areas both natural and man-made for the past few years, I have learned that the basic needs must be provided right away to the vulnerable: food, shelter, safety, cash-flow. Right after lockdowns around the world were announced, the massive cancellation of performances, workshops, events and many other arts and culture engagements left a lot of art and culture-makers in a state of immediate panic. We are in the business and practice of creating conditions and rituals for coming together in dedicated time and dedicated spaces. The imagination of many is that it will only last for one month from March to April (peak season for paid engagements) but the damage clearly extends beyond the rainy seasons of June and July, and until the world a has mass-produced vaccine, so we can invite audiences to gather in shared spaces once again, and we can allow community rituals and fiestas to proceed.

In times of uncertainty, create a community — virtually or on ground. Everyone is online which means everyone is working and helping from home. With no set policies for art workers unions and no set guidelines for many art organisation for having a disaster fund, art workers have responded quickly to help our fellow makers in need.

Data-gathering for informed lobbying and call for support. Various Ad-hoc initiatives were built such as Creative Aid PH (Laura Cabochan, Sipat Lawin Komunidad, Nayong Pilipino Foundation, Concerned Artists of the Philippines which was the first group to gather data on losses and grievances of artists. It later created a signature-campaign to pressure the National Commission for Culture and The Arts (NCCA) to create rapid relief funds and reallocate fund for disaster response after not having any action after more than a month since lockdown. The NCCA came up with guidelines after that.

Community conversations as psycho-social support. Komunidad X, Sipat Lawin Inc.’s new anti-disciplinary collective working with art and social workers started livestreaming online with Keep In Touch and Community Kumustahan and Kuwentuhan, coming up with various episodes featuring different topics concerning artists and cultural workers: from mental wellness, to ways to protest from home, and dealing with family during the pandemic. This serves as an online exchange specific to the needs and issues of the sector. For this initiative, Komunidad X brought in more people with knowledge on technology, virtual audience management and social media management to help the collective migrate online.

Capacity-building for online migration. This 2020, I was slated to be the new festival director of a 15 year old festival for new plays at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) , Virgin Labfest (VLF). It became the last festival standing of the CCP as all other festivals this year were cancelled, following directive from the government that all programs in all agencies shall be focused to COVID-19 response. VLF migrated online to provide wellness and livelihood support to theater-makers who are part of the festival. I needed to quickly create a virtual tech support team to guide everyone — from management to directors to actors and all staff — as we take this new stage with no precedent for possible ways of making. Since we are pioneering new ways of telling necessary stories as VLF is a festival that was purely generated online — from the call for submissions, to auditions, to performance and talkback. Thus we need to capacitate ourselves and build confidence in everyone as we discover new things slowly but surely while failing fast and learning faster. It is interesting to note that capacities built are now freely shared among a lot of people creating an open source of resources.

Collaboration across borders. Sipat Lawin’s Komunidad X was invited by the Singapore-based company Dramabox to to take part in the Scenes 2020 Festival for performances involving communities. The festival has migrated online slated this September, investigating possible ways of co-creation beyond the virtual medium. I am also co-facilitating this year’s APAF Lab (Asian Performing Arts Farm) which was originally scheduled to be held in October in Indonesia and Japan. The situation opened possibilities for broader reach and participation and we are now faced new questions of audienceship and hyperlocal and global participation. Who are we speaking to? How can we anchor so much contexts to be shared by people from different cultures? What do we need to change in mode of production of art to make it truly an essential need? We continue.

Peak and death of virtuality. It is good to note that the collaborations are done online but the human beings collaborating are still on the ground. It is important to reflect eventually how our online exchanges can directly affect and change our on-the-ground realities. In cosmopolitan cities, sometimes it is easier to connect online with people you haven’t met than bridge a connection to your next door neighbor. As we are slowly accepting the fact that the crisis will last for a conservative projection of 18 months, or until there is vaccine or mass-produced cure, the virtual stage becomes a platform for creation and presentation. People call the conditions as the “new normal” in performing arts; I call it continuing evolution and mutation. I personally think that this is the peak of use of technology to connect across archipelagos and across nations as it is the practical tool to use for now. In a post-COVID-19 world, it will still be in our nature as human beings to find better ways to connect not just with each other but with the world at large and take greater better care of the ground: our environment and our world where we shall all once again gather and be connected — in shared space and shared time.

This article was originally published in The Japan Foundation Manila Suki Magazine.