Care Networks in Southeast AsiaBy Sara Rivera, 2020
I started writing this essay months ago when surprise and naive disbelief still surged through me. Back then it seemed that you couldn’t escape for a second the outrageous misfortune of watching this Covid-19 crisis unfold, without the same frustration as a bug stuck on its back, unable to get up. Days previously spent going about usual routines, without too much thought, were now repossessed with thick night breaths, sighs, and light clatter. For most struggling with what passes for life under contemporary society and capitalism, life became harder, but had to go on. As Walter Benjamin writes: »That things ›just go on‹ is the catastrophe.«
To write about the moment, this moment, requires the interrogation of the numerous conditions and contradictions that have led to it. One cannot begin to divorce one’s own anxious experience from the larger questions of what the moment means, and even more daunting—what the moment asks of you. I spent the last few months exchanging emails with various cultural actors from Southeast Asia: Alyana Cabral from the Philippines, Rully Shabara from Indonesia, Suiko Takahara from Malaysia, and Maneerut Singhanart from Thailand. We talked about the pandemic situation in their own parts of the world, the different ways it has affected their work as artists, the organised responses that exist in their communities, and what gives them the most hope.
Alyana Cabral, who is a musician (Teenage Granny), writer, and film score composer from Manila, had just recently returned home from an art residency in Indonesia. Before Covid-19 hit she »had been reestablishing connections and networks [in the Philippines], reassuming my roles in several projects, and making a lot of plans for the year ahead. I was going through an application for a scholarship in Indonesia as well, so I was already preparing to go back there, before finding out the program had been cancelled due to the pandemic.«
Working on various musical projects, Rully Shabara tells me about plans he had for the year 2020. »From January to early March, with my band Senyawa, we were intensely doing two consecutive independent tours in Indonesia to mark our 10th anniversary—a new chapter of our musical journey. Unfortunately we spent most of our band money on these tours right before the pandemic, and all of our plans that were supposed to be launched afterwards had to either be cancelled or postponed.«
Suiko Takahara, who started off as a bedroom singer-songwriter and is founder of Malaysian band The Venopian Solitude shares her own plans, describing what she had been doing before the pandemic broke: »We [my band] were holding our weekly practice sessions and prepping for upcoming shows throughout the year. We also had plans to release an EP and record during the fasting month, sometime around April or May.«
As for Maneerut Singhanart, who is a sound designer for live performances and founder of Ting A Tong Group: »I had planned many projects, music performances, a percussion workshop camp, and I was going to perform at Grasstraw Festival in Taiwan.«
Although artists and musicians have been facing precarity long before the pandemic, it remains undeniable, and demonstrated by recent data, how much this precarity is further underlined by the current health crisis. Most artists rely on live performances, tours, residencies, and grants to expand their knowledge, networks, and resources. With travel restrictions in place, social gatherings limited, and venues shut down, these opportunities are now slim to none.
Evidence points to the anticipated acceleration of the streaming and subscription economy, where musicians now more than ever are flocking to online platforms together with a shift in listener habits. This is limited to creatives that already have a significant online following and can afford to present creative work on the internet. Maneerut tells me: »I must learn about music technology more than [ever] before.«
In countries where there is a lack of arts funding and infrastructure, for example in the Philippines, artists and cultural producers are used to balancing (sometimes non music related) full-time jobs with their creative endeavours. Due to cancellations of live music and promotional events, other industry workers like sound engineers, roadies, concessionaires, etc., also have to create alternative income generating models. Those who are furloughed, fired, have had their salaries cut or work hours reduced to the occasional call-in, have resorted among others to online sales, logistical services, or food and beverage businesses in order to barely make ends meet. Alyana talks to me about starting to accept the fact that one cannot really sustain oneself with one’s art, especially now: »I’ve had to refocus my efforts on priorities that help me to survive, such as making and selling food, supporting the family, sending support to friends, and participating in collective work.«
When asked about major changes or adjustments that he had to deal with given the present situation, Rully Shabara says »Normally I sing, whether on stage or in studio, at least once a week. This has been the longest I have not touched a microphone. So I had to adjust by finding different forms of expression in writing or drawing.«
Suiko responds to this financial precarity by writing songs that thematise the pandemic: She has managed to write about 25 songs at an almost daily output during the lockdown: »17 of them were about the pandemic; be it about selfish joggers who refuse to stay indoors, or bread running out everywhere, or some government policies that were made without thorough process nor discussion. People were enjoying the songs because they encapsulate the online rage of the day.« She has even found a bit of financial support from the project: »I managed to get some income from the songs that I made—people are purchasing them on Bandcamp and supporting me on Patreon, but this can only get me so far. I am still thinking of better ways to utilise my skills in these trying times.« She adds that her own health and fatigue contributed to her writing less nowadays: »It had affected my mental health early on without my realising it. Processing the daily netizen rage and turning it into songs is exhausting.«
»it’s corona time« – a playlist of songs written by Suiko Takahara
With the arrival of the pandemic, a moratorium on noise washed over the globe. It reminds me of an excerpt from a book I had been reading, cooped-up alone in my house with nowhere to go: »The world could not get this brittle, this severe and huge and silent, without its announcing something.« (Galatea 2.2 novel by Richard Powers). As attention to sound is something that Alyana, Rully, Suiko, and Maneerut all share, I ask them about the worldwide silence since orders to stay indoors have been implemented. »When I had the opportunity to buy groceries for my family (there was a point in Malaysia when only one family representative could go out at a time), it was very quiet on the road, and the normally bustling malls were quiet and dark except for the supermarkets.« Suiko says. »There was much more happening online; everyone was engaging with each other much more on social media because there’s nowhere else to go.«
Cabral is quick to point out: »I like to think of another form of non-silence, a loud noise that rises sharply from the silence of this pandemic. It may be inaudible to the human ear, but the ears of my subconscious hear it loud and clear: ›We are tired,‹ says the voice of the people.« In the Philippines, multiple protests have been staged as a response not only to the staggering negligence and incompetence of the government in addressing Covid-19, but also to the multiple human rights violations that precede and continue despite the health crisis. The people clamour for better policy response, demanding the redirection of the over-bloated intelligence fund squandered on militarization, and ill-timed and nugatory beautification projects, towards containing the virus and supporting health workers. The government has yet, if ever, to, create a strategy on mass testing in the Philippines. »Mass lockdown without mass testing is just mass imprisonment!« the population calls. »We are tired of this oppressive system,« Cabral continues. »I hear all of this beneath the silence, and I refuse to give in to this silence. While the government authors policies on silencing, and while the factories go quiet, the people go loud. And to battle the drilling machines, the mountains keep on humming.«
It is important to point out why mass protests persist despite the risk of infection. It has become apparent that the reality for people abandoned by governments and bone-tired by corporations, the violence of contemporary society outweighs the dangers of disease.
It is important to point out why mass protests persist despite the risk of infection. It has become apparent that the reality for people abandoned by governments and bone-tired by corporations, the violence of contemporary society outweighs the dangers of disease. How can we even begin talking about our healthy bodies without the tangle of capital and productivity intruding? Capitalism has long unmoored us from our bodies—assembling our bodies to maximize profit. Under the current health crisis, many people, especially from the segments of the population already neglected by the state and governments, have been coerced back to work in more than dubious conditions. With global debt rising, soaring above the ten-trillion mark in the Philippines, expect this precarity to worsen as the cheap labour force in the Southeast, including those in the creative field, will flock towards jobs provided by the region’s export-oriented economy.
When talking about how they think the current pandemic has been different from other global crises, most of the artists point out how the internet has changed the way we interact with each other. Suiko mentions how, this time, even our social lives are affected. She says »Families can't hug each other, final goodbyes are painful, on top of that, everyone is so close to drowning instead of keeping their lives afloat.« I asked Maneerut what surprised her the most about the current crisis. »That the pandemic is taking too long and the economy has collapsed around the world.« This feeling of indefiniteness—when will this end—and of panic force us to interrogate the systems that brought us to this point. Who do these systems benefit in the first place? It is easy to be caught up in the wishful thinking of going “back-to-normal” but for the already infirm and alienated, »normal« has never been truly kind. When we say the world is ending, we should also ask: ending for whom? Though some still maintain faith in the systems in place, a collective search for change echoes among most others.
There also seems to be a shift in the way we interact and exchange information during this pandemic as opposed to past pandemics. Rully says »This time, everybody on planet Earth is experiencing it together, and social media gives you access to more personal contact and information around the globe as well.« There is much to be said about how being relentlessly informed has dangerously reduced bodies to data.
Every day new cases of transmission and new deaths are reported, and many more remain unaccounted for. Thousands have lost their jobs, their homes, and loved ones in the face of this pandemic. As I am writing this, the Philippines has reached its projected number of more than 400,000 cases of Covid-19. This number will likely have risen more by the time this article is published. Understanding this pandemic means understanding data, what things cost, number of cases, number of deaths, unemployment rates, chances of survival, the epidemic curve. What remains more difficult to measure, and perhaps more important to consider, is what this crisis leaves and what it takes away. What it leaves (among others)—trauma, grief, dysmorphia, poverty, and in some cases (renewed) piety. When asked what gives her the most hope Maneerut remains firm: »Faith in God, this is the most hope for me.« If you ask what the crisis takes away—time, vigour, maybe piety too. The question becomes, what do we carry forward? The urge to (re)imagine, intelligence, and resistance. For Suiko, Alyana, and Rully: people give them the most hope. »There are lots of good people out there, I have seen them rise up and help others as soon as something bad happens« Rully points out.
The failure of governments to address the pandemic has spurred mutual aid initiatives all over the world. I ask about local initiatives that exist in each of the artists’ countries, and which instances of cooperative care and social solidarity stand out to them. »Since day one local initiatives worked much more effectively than any corporate or government sponsored programs. Indonesians are blessed with an instinctive survivor’s attitude. To survive means to understand how the grassroot system works and that local values have been the way to go all along. That should be the model for future responses.« Rully says. Supporting that statement, Alyana emphasizes how community healthcare efforts, local initiatives, and social solidarity work is real frontliner work »even though most of this work takes place unseen behind the government’s inutile care programmes.«
More often than not, conversations that surround »care« remain conservative. Care is framed as a private affair rather than a matter of cooperative action and responsibility. In the time of a global pandemic, this has dangerously opened doors for neoliberal approaches and policies that seek to minimize public health bureaucrats’ liability, assigning the task of care and crisis management to the vulnerable public.
»Social distancing must be balanced with social solidarity, just simply being there for each other as much as we can as a community«
H2O Media’s »History changes. Heroes stay.« Stay at home ad for bed and sofa brand Sherlock.
Rully Shabara shares how he has personally responded to the crisis in Indonesia »I started my own initiative in April, called #FeedYourNeighbours, where I draw sketches of people for free. In return they need to feed their neighbours or people around them who are impacted financially. So far I have made over 200 drawings and have inspired a few other illustrators to use similar methods. Also, together with other artists in Yogyakarta, we started a program called #Sama2Makan where we gathered data on local creative workers who lost their sources of income due to the pandemic, and then delivered meals twice a day to each of them and their families. Another program by #Sama2Makan also includes weekly promotion of local small culinary businesses.«
»With my band Senyawa, we have an ongoing initiative called: Design Your Own Senyawa Merch, where we allow any independent collectives to design, produce, and distribute their own version of Senyawa merchandise. They can use the money from that to donate to other initiatives and use some of the money to fund their collective’s programmes.«
Alyana Cabral, who is a member of SAKA (Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo), an artist alliance in the Philippines advocating for genuine agrarian reform and rural development, conducts work on the ground to provide relief to communities hit hard by the crisis. »I am also involved in several fundraising initiatives such as online concerts where I get to perform and support the campaigns, and call for donations.« SAKA, in all its relief operations and solidarity programs, never abandons the call for food security in the Philippines, which would only be made possible by way of a genuine land reform programme. How can a population that’s starved keep itself healthy? The fight after all, needs hale and hearty fighters.
Alyana tells me how seeing social movements strengthen in different parts of the world gives her faith by »seeing that love still exists in its many forms. Getting a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, but more importantly, seeing that there are so many of us helping each other find our way into that light.« I replay these exchanges in my head, reciting them like poems of solidarity. All these conversations end the same way, carrying the same willful and steady optimism.
Community work defends us and repairs us.
Community work is a practice in production that forwards self-sustainability and collective reinforcement. Efforts in imagining an endless spring of generosity and solidarity shared amongst the vulnerable, sick, exploited, and discriminated against are abundant. Together, communities are building comradeship towards a network of caring and being cared for. Community work defends us and repairs us.
In her book, On Immunity, Eula Biss writes: »Perhaps we should call [the social body] a wilderness. Or perhaps community is sufficient. However we choose to think of the social body, we are each other’s environment. Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.« It is, at the end of the day, not about what you can’t do, it’s about what we can do together.
One day I make time and help go to the market to prepare for the next community kitchen. I spend the next two hours knife in hand. Around me are other women, poets, dancers, artists, who chop garlic and peel onions with me. We listen to music, and talk about not wanting to be sick for our families, for ourselves, for the two hundred families we seek to feed the next day. Artists and cultural workers find themselves in the thick of collective action—more than just anticipating the future, they participate in building this future that empowers and equips everyone, including themselves, to create, experiment, and express the collective ideals of peoples that struggle together. Often I imagine standing behind a long line of people who are exhausted and who have cared for the exhausted, thinking »I am not alone,« and I raise my fist. Together we will struggle to move history, to endure and ultimately outlive not just those who profit from our exhaustion but also exhaustion itself.