(Don’t) Panic: This online art exhibit records COVID-19 feelings through toilet paper

From left to right, works from artists Dana Bote, Francis Commeyne, Gerrie Fabonan <i>Photo: Paper Panic Project </i>
From left to right, works from artists Dana Bote, Francis Commeyne, Gerrie Fabonan Photo: Paper Panic Project

OK, so Filipinos aren’t big on toilet paper use in the crapper—we’re a bidet and tabo (water dipper) using nation. But this isn’t why online art exhibit Paper Panic Project, which started a few days before the Luzon-wide lockdown, decided to use it as a centerpiece in its ongoing exhibit.

“It’s an item that’s both common-use and personal,” the Quezon City-based artist, who founded and curates the page comprising works from hundreds of local artists, told Coconuts Manila via email chat. Though a fixture in the Philippine art scene, he told us he wishes to remain anonymous to “emphasize the collective spirit” of the project. 

Paper Panic now has over 200 entries as of posting and features a variety of works ranging from papier-mâché and soft sculptures, still and animated illustrations, videos and multimedia pieces, even the occasional crochet and embroidery (yes, still using toilet paper).

A general scan showing scrawled drawings of the president, calls for mass testing, cheeky boob-baring ladies practicing arm’s-length distancing, plus a fake receipt of hoarded grocery items printed on tissue paper show you that most art figured in the exhibit is politically charged, anxious, restless, and angry. Most of them.

“It is the expression of the times,” its curator told us. Coconuts Manila spoke at length with the artist behind Paper Panic about the project, as he shared his thoughts on the “me” vs “we” attitude, his daily routine while the city’s on lockdown, and the pandemic which has everyone on edge.

View this post on Instagram

By @neeleopalvarez #poeleenalvarez © 2020 by the artist

A post shared by Paper Panic (@paper_panic_project) on

Why toilet paper?

Tissue is a common household item that’s easy to find around the house, fragile and disposable, and at the same time utilitarian and personal.

I thought of collecting works on tissue/toilet paper as a record of the time, a kind of diary of what’s happening using visual language—drawings, illustrations, and videos during this pandemic. I started the project on March 11, a few days before the announcement of the Metro Manila-wide lockdown on the 15th. During that time, I already saw many people started to panic, which is why I named the project Paper Panic. 

How many artists have contributed so far, and is it just one work per artist? 

So far there are 200 plus works from artists, designers, illustrators from the Philippines and abroad. Some of them sent several works and making it as a series or an instant reaction or meme to what was happening. 

Were you surprised by how varied the works are, given the medium was just tissue? What was your brief for the artists when you asked them to participate in the project?

Yes, I am surprised that you can do so much with a single piece of toilet paper, or work around with the idea of tissue. A simple DM [direct message] was sent to some of my artist friends to make new works during the time of COVID-19 with no limitations. I told them it can be personal, social, humorous, and so on.

Any personal favorites so far or a work you wished you’d thought of yourself? 

Every work has its own energy and charm and using tissue as a base has its limits, but some artists go beyond [the medium] like this one video animation by Ramon Afable.

[Another is] a last outbound bus ticket before the lockdown, attached to tissue paper using hand sanitizer by Karize Michella Uy; a mini-zine by Juno Vizcarra; a bar chart of number of infected people in Japan using embroidery on tissue paper by Taku Hisamura; paper maché from tissue paper that talks about guns and bullets as forced containment by Jett Ilagan; and the call for mass testing by Lena Cobangbang and Lee Paje, plus a work in honor of the medical front liners made by Jose Luis Singson. 

How do you pick the artists? Are submissions encouraged, or are you picking works from a pool of people whose work you’re already familiar with? 

I initially sent direct messages to my artist friends if they wanted to contribute to the project. When the first few works were posted on Instagram, people started to share and follow the account.

From there it became a platform where other artists can show their visual of text-based narrative during the pandemic, an automatic response to be part of the collective narrative during this social distancing time. So yes, submissions are welcome.

Do you see the exhibit moving to a physical space in the future, or is an online exhibit intentional? 

The project is meant to be online, the presentation and the viewing in screens is the premise of the project as an act of connectedness even though we cannot be physically present together, and there is no intention of doing a physical exhibition.

It’s a depiction of the time we’re living in—lockdown, isolation, social distancing but we can still have collectivity in our minds. Temporariness is also part of the concept.

View this post on Instagram

By @fabo_drawing ©️ 2020 by the artist

A post shared by Paper Panic (@paper_panic_project) on

You wanted to be mentioned as an anonymous artist/curator. Why is it important for the focus to be on the collective?

I want the platform to be about solidarity. It’s important to have a voice and vision using art and creativity to archive the time. Although the works represent different ideas and expressions, the digital connectedness can be present in these trying times. The project tries to build engagements between the artists and its viewers—from being an individual to a collective spirit. 

Do you think that somehow mirrors these crazy times, that we should adopt a “we” vs. “me” attitude? 

To a point yes, an individual is made up of how we are related to society. We became who we are because of our relationship with others. It’s just in this time of crisis that we try to be more collective to support each other, especially the ones who need it most. 

View this post on Instagram

By @leepaje #leepaje © 2020 by the artist

A post shared by Paper Panic (@paper_panic_project) on

On a side note, how are you holding up with the city on lockdown? How do you personally keep sane and fend off the fear? 

My family and I live in Quezon City, which has the most number of positive [recorded] cases in the Philippines. I constantly keep up with the developments of COVID-19 on the internet and check on my parents in the province who are seniors, and friends through messenger.

Once in awhile I draw, read, cook, play with my son. I only go out to shop essentials in the nearby wet market and supermarket, and to catch the sun. 

On Paper Panic’s bio, the exhibit is described as “paper in the time of COVID-19”. What do you think art’s meant to do for people in these crazy times? Is there such a thing as a social responsibility—for artists to create something that’s meant to address the pandemic? 

The project is building and changing its own direction, role, and language since inception because of the [varying] submissions.

Art has the possibility to create something that cannot always be measured: change, discussions, and engagements. It is the expression of the times—fear, anger, anxiety, hope, grief, challenges, inspiration, frustrations, trust and so on–a complex composition of our life. 

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

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