The art of gathering: the pandemic and Filipino creative communities online

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Like a network of underwater roots, grounding yourself in a community nourishes both you and everyone else in the stream. Photo courtesy of SEA LIT CIRCLE

It is 9:00 p.m. on a Friday. I look into the green light of my webcam to wave at the writers on the other side of the screen. Some of us are students, some freelancers and nine-to-fivers. Only a few months ago, we were strangers. Now we are riding the same internet waves to gush over stories.

A sight like this would’ve confounded a past version of me. An English teacher told me once, when I was young and impressionable: “Artists are like loners. Writing is supposed to be lonely,” and I carried it with me for the rest of my life like a creed.

The following years only seemed to prove me right. There was an ivory gate between me and the creative life I desired. The passcode: a writing degree, deep pockets to pay for said degree, an artist friend or 20, and an undeniable body of work I could pass to say: look — I’m one of you! But I was missing a few pieces. After several rejections from literary groups and publications in college, I was too afraid to try again.

The truth was: I was intoxicated by my own loneliness. The belief that writing was meant to be a solitary one — like many other creative pursuits — protected me. I remember watching peers who were into sports and dance coming out of club rooms, their shoulders bumping, the joy over something shared. But that was their path. This was mine: me, my blank spiral notebook, and the invisible story taking shape behind my eyes.

So how was it that, when the world shut down, I found myself stumbling into community for the very first time?

Granted, I didn’t expect to find it at 25 over a Discord voice call, of all things. It’s not just me, either. More and more creatives are uncovering this new digital landscape, learning to commune in ways no one could have thought possible.

Born during the pandemic, SEA Lit Circle is a community that facilitates discussions between Southeast Asian writers and readers. Founders Stephanie Shi and Rafael Mirafuente created it as a response to how crucial resources, support systems, and conversations surrounding literature were "hard to find outside university."

A Q&A with "The Quiet Ones" author Glenn Diaz hosted by SEA Lit Circle. Photo courtesy of SEA LIT CIRCLE

The cliquish nature of formal establishments in the country isn’t new. By bypassing these barriers, the group hopes to nurture a community grounded in accessibility and respect, welcome to anyone who celebrates literature — regardless of your accolades.

Page Sniffers, a community that was revived at the start of 2021, hosts gatherings around what many would consider a solitary hobby: reading.

“When you read a really good book or a really bad one, you want to talk about it!” shares founding members Gabbie Lombos and Nikki Solinap. “People just needed a space for that. We’re very happy that Page Sniffers can be that space.”

Despite my introversion, the forced two-year isolation was enough to crack my shell. My creative practice was withering, to the tune of Mitski wailing “nobody, nobody…”

After all, what was the point of creating if there was no one around to witness it?

Page Sniffers is an online reading community that started in 2021. Photo courtesy of PAGE SNIFFERS

“The journey that creatives embark on is inherently introspective, and therefore often very lonely,” shares Shi. “Expressing ourselves usually risks being ostracized or judged. And if that’s not all, social media heightens that anxiety. It’s in this context that the importance of community cannot be overstated enough.”

Of course creatives, who draw from everyday life as fuel, would feel the separation twofold. But pushed against a wall, we innovate. I imagine ants, gathering together in the underground, building our hex-shaped houses, unseen.

But the instantaneousness and geo-agnostic quality of online gatherings by no means make them any “easier” than IRL ones. Clearly, only those privileged with internet access and a quiet enough room to take these calls can make it work. You’re WFH? I can already hear the lackluster cheers from having to attend yet another fatiguing Zoom get-together. And sharing your darlings never gets any easier, does it?

When I found out I was selected to attend the virtual 21st UST National Writer’s Workshop, I was overjoyed. But after three weeks of losing people to Zoom glitches and power blackouts, plus the heightened self-awareness that comes with having your own face stare back at you for hours — I knew what we'd lost. In another universe, we were taking long midnight walks, sharing laughs over coffee, scribbling notes in the margins of each others’ packets.

Instead, like many of us stranded in remote worlds, the gathering ended when the call did.

Despite it all, there is much to gain. For Paolo Herras, founder of Komiket, a group that was originally positioned in 2015 as a comics art market, the pandemic allowed them a timely transformation.

READ: Creators’ roundtable: How to make it in komiks

“When we started, nobody was calling the komiks sector a community. Komiks events were deadlines for creators to finish their work and exhibit to sell,” he shares.

But in 2020, they started exploring how to offer different virtual workshops. They hosted technical classes and even seminars on safe spaces. But most notable was the group’s evolution through their online Philippine International Comics Festival (PICOF). By designing communities to mix, the massive event thrust Filipino komiks into a global audience. They encouraged adapting komiks into games with the Game Development Association of the Philippines and co-creating romance comics with the RomanceClass community. “Now, more people know about us. And that's another step towards raising the value of our work and growing readership.”

Komiket was originally positioned in 2015 as a physical comics art market. Photo courtesy of PAOLO HERRAS

Stories like these give me reason to believe that these pandemic gatherings aren’t a stopover for the “real thing,” but the logical evolution to what the future of creative gatherings can look like. But why gather in the first place? Many reasons.

Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Emergent Strategy writes: “How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental injustice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, militarization, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

In a culture that celebrates the lone creative wolf, mythologizing success achieved by one’s individual hustle, community might just be the antidote. We rely on our creatives to magnify the story of our times. Can a recluse do that? To not only seek out community, but insist on it, is how we’ll survive a time intent on keeping our creative movements feeble and fragmented.

“If we are to succeed, we have to care for each other,” shares Herras. This was the principle that allowed them to grow into the biggest komiks art market in the Philippines. Realizing they were the first buyers of each other's works, and that they could continue supporting one another even after the events were through, they continued designing gatherings based on an ethos of collaboration and accessibility. “The future of community building is co-creating healthier creative environments for creators to thrive in.”

Like a network of underwater roots, grounding yourself in a community nourishes both you and everyone else in the stream.

Speaking as a designer, Solinap of Page Sniffers says: “In a country where the design community is fairly young and brimming with potential, having a space to gather, share knowledge and experiences, and support each other can help us imagine and shape what our community can and should be like. On an individual level, being part of a community has sparked a lot of creative and personal growth in me — it’s made me a better designer and a better human.”

To gather is our right, and in today’s context, it can be a revolutionary act. Don’t underestimate your influence. Like a network of underwater roots, grounding yourself in a community nourishes both you and everyone else in the stream.

So, to anyone still looking for their tribe: no, the search doesn’t get any less daunting. But there has never been a better time or reason to gather — especially now, as lockdown restrictions slowly ease and hybrid gatherings become more possible.

Lucky for us, the internet is huge; there is a slice of community ready to welcome creatives of all shapes — if you only wade into the water.