An open letter to Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister, Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts (Singapore)

Dear Dr Yaacob Ibrahim,

The Venice Biennale is unequivocally the most highly visible and important international stage for contemporary artists at work today. Since 2001, the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been an important platform for Singaporean artists to introduce and share their diverse and multifaceted practices to the world. An opportunity to present their work in Venice has spurred our artists to challenge themselves into conceptualising, developing and executing artworks of enduring critical, historical and global significance.

We, the undersigned, are therefore writing to you to express our utter disappointment in the National Arts Council’s (NAC) decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and to formally request that this decision be reconsidered.

Each subsequent edition of the Singapore Pavilion has borne witness to ever greater sensibility and sophistication in the quality of works that our artists have produced. Also of significance and no less important is the way in which Singaporean curators have learned to navigate and negotiate the process of communicating the work to a wider audience. While we recognise that Singapore’s participation in Venice need not be the determination of artistic worth for Singaporean artists, the fact remains that it is one of the most important and invaluable channels through which Singaporean artists can connect with the international art world on our terms.

There are also other important issues at stake beyond that of artistic excellence. While a country’s participation in an international event like Venice need not and must not be reduced to a matter of cultural representation, the visibility of participation in such a significant international art event affords us an indispensable channel through which to negotiate issues of how we represent ourselves to the world – something vital to our on-going national conversation about the direction and development of Singaporean identity. Just as we cannot afford to be parochial in our economic development, so too must we not allow culture and community to be interpreted in narrow provincial terms that preclude the engagement of Singaporean art with global movements and discourses. Indeed, greater community involvement in the arts does not, should not – and need not – be at the expense of artistic excellence.

While we respect the NAC’s decision to “critically re-assess Singapore’s long-term participation at this event to ensure optimal benefits to visual arts development”, we are alarmed and perturbed by the sudden decision to withdraw from participation as a means of exercising this critical review. We seek to understand how the NAC arrived at this conclusion. The NAC has stated recently that it intends to pursue greater dialogue and engagement with artists, curators and the arts community in Singapore; this abrupt and unilateral decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 55th Venice Biennale is very much contrary to the spirit of consensus and engagement. It should be reconsidered.

1. Suzann Victor, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2001)
2. Heman Chong, Artist, Curator and Writer (Singapore Pavilion 2003)
3. Francis Ng, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2003)
4. Tang Da Wu, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
5. Vincent Leow, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
6. Zul Mahmod, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
7. Ming Wong, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2009)
8. Ho Tzu Nyen, Artist and Filmmaker (Singapore Pavilion 2011)
9. Lindy Poh, Curator of Singapore Pavilion 2007, Venice Biennale
10. Tang Fukuen, Curator of Singapore Pavilion 2009, Venice Biennale
11. Emi Eu, Director, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
12. Ong Keng Sen, Artistic Director, Theatreworks
13. Tay Tong, Managing Director, TheatreWorks
14. Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Artistic Director, The Substation
15. Chew Kheng Chuan,  Chairman, The Substation Limited.
16. Graham Berry, Board Member, The Substation
17. Sabapathy Thiagarajan, Lecturer, History of Art
18. Peter Schoppert, Member, International Association of Art Critcs (AICA); Member of the Board, The Substation
19. Joselina Cruz, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2008
20. Russell Storer, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2011
21. Trevor Smith, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2011
22. Rudy Tseng, Collector
23. T. Sasitharan, Director, Intercultural Theatre Institute
24. Chong Tze Chien, Company Director, The Finger Players
25. Sean Tobin, Head of Theatre, School of the Arts, Singapore
26. Tan Wee Lit, Head of Visual Arts, School of the Arts, Singapore
27. Jacquelyn Soo, Artist and Chairperson, Singapore Contemporary Young Artists (SCYA)
28. Woon Tai Ho, Founder & Creative Director, The Green Orange
29. Aun Koh, Co-founder, The Ate Group; formerly Deputy Director Visual and Literary Arts, National Arts Council Singapore
30. Lim Qinyi, Curator, Para/site
31. Karen Lim Li-Ching, Asst. Director (Curatorial), NUS Museum
32. Lonce Wyse, Director, IDMI Arts and Creativity Lab, National University of Singapore
33. Dr Charles Merewether, Curator and writer
34. Professor Tony Godfrey, Director, Equator Art Projects
35. Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-chief, Asymptote Journal
36. Suzzana Chew, Owner of
37. Amelia Abdullahsani, Gallery Owner, Lu Magnus
38. Valentine Willie, Gallery Owner, Valentine Willie Fine Art
39. Benjamin Hampe, Gallery Owner, Chan Hampe Galleries
40. Audrey Phng, Art Consultant, Asian Art Options
41. Wahyuni A. Hadi, Objectifs Centre for Photography & Filmmaking
42. Woon Tien Wei, Director, post-museum
43. Jennifer Teo, Director, post-museum
44. Amanda Heng Liang Ngim, Artist
45. Milenko Prvacki, Artist
46. Delia Prvacki, Artist
47. Ana Prvacki, Artist
48. Jimmy Ong, Artist
49. Michael Lee, Artist and Curator
50. Ang Song Ming, Artist
51. Charles Lim, Artist
52. Genevieve Chua, Artist
53. Ho Rui An, Artist and Writer
54. Alvin Pang, Writer
55. Choy Ka Fai , Artist
56. Robert Zhao Renhui, Artist
57. Donna Ong, Artist
58. Tan Kai Syng, Artist
59. John Clang, Artist
60. Erika Tan, Artist
61. Dana Lam, Artist
62. Tara Tan, Creative
63. Sherman Ong, Artist and Filmmaker (Singapore Pavilion 2009)
64. Tan Pin Pin, Filmmaker
65. Wee Li Lin, Filmmaker
66. Fran Borgia, Filmmaker
67. Jeremy Chua, filmmaker
68. Yeo Siew Hua, Filmmaker
69. Adelene Kwan, Producer
70. Sylvia Tan, Producer
71. Melanie Chua, Editor
72. Yuen Chee Wai, Musician
73. Susie Lingham, Writer and Artist
74. Alan Oei, Artist and Curator
75. Dr Lynn Lu, Artist and art educator
76. Tang Ling Nah, Artist, Curator and art Educator
77. Hazel Lim, Artist and art educator
78. Urich Lau, Artist and art educator
79. Debbie Ding, Artist, Archivist and Writer
80. Susie Wong, Artist
81. Vivian Lee, Artist
82. Yvonne Leow-Lee, Artist
83. Gilles Massot, Artist
84. Melinda Lauw, Artist
85. Jying Tan, Artist
86. Joel Ong, Artist
87. Lynette Tan, Artist
88. Brendan Goh, Artist
89. Tan Guo-Liang, Artist
90. Ang Song Nian, Artist
91. Kah Kit, Artist
92. Tay Bee Aye, Artist
93. Weixin Chong, Artist
94. Godwin Koay, Artist
95. Geralding Kang, artist
96. Samantha Tio, Artist
97. Cheong Sze-Yenn, Artist
98. Ho Zhen Ming, Artist
99. Kin Chui, Artist
100. Yen Phang, Artist
101. Regina De Rozario, Artist
102. Bruce Quek, Artist
103. Joshua Yang, Artist
104. Alecia Neo, Artist
105. Chan Sze-Wei, Artist
106. Vladimir Todorovic, Artist
107. Mike HJ Chang, Artist
108. George Wong Yung Choon, Artist
109. Liana Yang, Artist
110. Valerie Oliveiro, Artist
111. Kent Chan, Artist and Filmmaker
112. Daniel Kok Yik Leng, Choreographer and dancer
113. Joavien Ng, Choreographer and art educator
114. Lim How Ngean, Dramaturge
115. Lok Meng Chue, Theatre practitioner
116. Michelle Tan, Theatre practitioner
117. Jason Wee, Artist, Curator and Writer
118. Shubigi Rao, Visual artist and writer
119. Seah Sze Yunn, Artist and Designer
120. Jackson Tan, Artist and Designer
121. Sean Lee, Photographer
122. Jing Quek, Photographer
123. Ian Woo, Artist and Art Educator
124. Adeline Kueh, Artist and Art Educator
125. Jeremy Sharma, Artist and Art Educator
126. Betty Susiarjo, Art Educator
127. Karen Mitchell, Art Educator
128. Tan Peiling, Art Educator
129. Karen Yeh, Educator
130. Philip Holden, Educator
131. Shirley Soh, Art Educator
132. Ng Yun Sian, Educator
132. Dr C.J.W.-L. Wee, Academic
133. Dr Warren Liew, Academic
134. Dr Lilian Chee, Assistant Professor
135. Dr Margaret Tan, Fellow, Tembusu College, National University of Singapore
136. Jeremy Fernando, Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School
137. Jay Koh, Founding director, international Forum for InterMedia Art
138. Chu Chu Yuan, co-director, international Forum for InterMedia Art
139. Isabella Chen, Media Co-coordinator, United Nations
140. Jeremy Tiang
141. Jeannine Tang, Art historian, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College
142. Paul Khoo, Art Historian
143. Syed Muhd Hafiz Bin Syed Nasir, Curator and Writer
144. Joleen Loh, Curator and writer
145. Daniela Beltrani, Curator and artist
146. Eliza Tan, Curator
147. Josef Ng, Curator and Writer
148. Loredana Paracciani, Curator
149. Nurul Huda Binte Abdul Rashid, Assistant Curator, NUS Museum
150. Eva Ella McGovern, Curator, Valentine Willie Fine Art
151. Traslin Ong, Arts Administrator & Program curator
152. Ben Slater, Writer
153. Justin Zhuang, Writer
154. Teh Su Ching, Writer
155. Darryl Wee, Art Writer and Translator
156. Louis Ho, Writer and Critic
157. Raksha M., Writer and Editor
158. Joycelyn Ng, Producer and Writer
159. Yishan Lam, Design Researcher
160. Angelia Poon, Academic
161. Amanda Lee, Editor
162. Nazry Bahrawi, Critic
163. Apple Lee, Gallery manager, Valentine Willie Fine Art
164. Teng Yen Hui, Gallery assistant, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
165. Richard Lim, Registrar assistant, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
166. Mervyn Quek, Arts Manager, TheatreWorks
167. Hafiz Osman, Exhibition officer
168. Tan Li-Jen, Manager, Museum Programmes & Outreach, NUS Museum
169. Aishah Abu Bakar, Programming Manager, Moving Images, The Substation
170. Annabelle Felise Aw, Programme Manager, Visual Art, The Substation
171. Chelsea Chua, Marketing Manager, The Substation
172. Nur Khairiyah Bte Ramli, Programme Manager, The Substation
173. Chris Ong, Programme Manager, The Substation
174. Ann Mui Ling, Museum docent and art collector
175. Clifford D. Mallory
176. Kay Vasey
177. Jeremiah Choy
178. Meena Mylvaganam, Collector
179. Oon Shu An, Actor
180. Madelyn Yeo, Designer
181. Darel Seow, Illustrator
182. Jessica Anne Rahardjo, Arts Publications Executive
183. Tiara Johari, Arts Manager
184. Teresa Fu, Arts Manager
185. Nicole Ho, Arts manager
186. Low Zheng Yi, Admin Coordinator
187. Joyce Teo, Arts educator
188. Seah Tzi Yan, Arts organiser
189. Wirashery Fangiono, Arts freelancer
190. Jo-Anne Lee, Health Administrator
191. Jolovan Wham, Social Worker
192. Chris Williams, Manager
193. John Solomon, Graduate Student
194. Nigel Jon Sing, Student
195. Sarah Lee, Student
196. Au Yeong Yeen, Student
197. Kim Tay, Student
198. Wong Binghao, Student
199. Elvis Wang, Art Student
200. Ang Siew Ching, Student
201. Debrah Jiang, Student
202. Hajar Abdullah-Anjong, Student
203. Wesley Aroozoo, Student
204. Loe Chek Siang Kenneth
205. Joanna Ng Shuhui
206. Sarah Yap
207. Joscelin Chew
208. Justin Lebrun

Street vs. Art

Spray painting on road allegedly by street artist SKL0

Spray painting on road allegedly by street artist SKL0

Over the past few months, pedestrians in Singapore may have stumbled upon one or more curious round stickers pasted above buttons at traffic lights, featuring captions that include instructions to “PRESS TO TIME TRAVEL” and cheeky admonishments of “PRESS ONCE CAN ALREADY”. Most have responded in delight to the stickers, variously calling them “witty” and “thought-provoking”. The artist behind these interventions, who goes by the tag of SKL0, is apparently also responsible for spray-painting the words “MY GRANDFATHER ROAD” on several streets in Singapore. On 4 June 2012, the said artist was arrested on suspicions of vandalism. As reports of the arrest poured in, the reaction online was almost immediate, with netizens both within and outside the arts community responding with outrage at what was perceived as a draconian measure crushing a seemingly harmless act of creativity. A petition was launched within hours of the news and digital stickers in the style of SKL0’s creations were springing up by the dozens across social media, sporting messages that expressed solidarity with the young artist. Such a vehement reaction can be seen as just one of the many expressions of resentment against a technocratic state perceived to be governed by automaton-bureaucrats with no appreciation for humour or creativity. In the words of one netizen, “CREATIVITY SHOULDN’T BE PUNISHED!” Indeed, creativity is important for society, and so is wit, but amidst the clarion calls for “creativity”, “freedom”, “spontaneity” and “humour”, rearing its bloated, cumbersome head is another word that has not received an audience of such size for quite some time now: “art”.

“But is it art?” was the question raised almost over a decade ago in light of the controversial 1993 performance by artist Josef Ng, in which the artist snipped off his pubic hair in protest of the police entrapment of gay men in Singapore. The question, asked then with raised eyebrows and looks of incredulity, at times disgust, has most fascinatingly resurfaced today in the paraphrased form of the indignant proclamation, “THIS IS ART”, uttered in a near-unequivocal chorus, no less. But while it would be most desirable to be able to read this as a sign of progress, of the public’s increased enlightenment towards the arts, the reality is far from the case, showing instead that artistic discourse in Singapore still builds itself upon an outmoded and essentialist rubric that draws arbitrary lines between art and non-art, or in this instance, between art and vandalism. Indeed as the debate rages on, the untenability of the argument reveals itself, with the slippages between the terms becoming too obvious to ignore.

Spray painting on wall allegedly by street artist SKL0

Spray painting on wall allegedly by street artist SKL0

For instance, a number of supporters point to how SKL0’s works are “aesthetically pleasing” and “not unsightly”, referring plausibly to their clean-cut aesthetics. But this argument ignores the fact that both historically and in contemporary times, much of street art has never aspired towards aesthetic appeal. Street art, having emerged from the sixties to seventies counterculture movements in New York, has for most part of history served as an instrument for political resistance, with imagery meant to provoke rather than “to bring a smile to one’s face”. The works produced in protest of the 2003 Iraq War and the wider War on Terror by street artists worldwide is an exemplar of this, and it bears mention that Singapore was in a small but significant way a part of this movement, with the garden wall of the Substation, an independent arts centre by Armenian Street, used as an “approved” graffiti wall. The messy scrawls of angst-ridden messages accompanied by strident anti-war motifs often seen in such instances of street art are a far cry from SKL0’s crisp aesthetics, thus rendering the criterion of visual appeal used to justify SKL0’s works as art spurious. In one notable instance, one particular netizen posted on Facebook a photograph of “MY GRANDFATHER BUILDING” sprayed in a noticeably hasty fashion across a wall, claiming that the police should be catching the person who did this instead, unbeknownst to the fact that the very same artist he was supporting, SKL0, is also behind this very work. Herein lies the absurdity: the method for discerning between art and vandalism rests solely upon the choice of font.

A stencil on concrete graffiti piece by the Buenos Aires-based Cam BsAs, created to mark George W. Bush’s visit to the city in 2006

A stencil on concrete graffiti piece by the Buenos Aires-based Cam BsAs, created to mark George W. Bush’s visit to the city in 2006

But why do all these slippages concerning the definition of art matter, some may ask, as long as the intention is to exonerate SKL0? But the fact is that such careless pitting of art against non-art serves not only to rouse the chagrin of art theory pedants, for it does ultimately exert a real-world impact upon the kind of art we are sanctioning as a society. The safeguarding and propagation of carefully defined notions of art would eventually serve only to protect some works under the privileged cover of “art” at the expense of others that fall outside the circumscribed boundaries. Already we are beginning to see such acts of exclusion happening. On 6 June 2012, posted on its Facebook page a photograph of “legalized graffiti” in Singapore, featuring a large and elaborately rendered male human figure spray-painted onto the walls of the former premises of cultural and social space, Post-Museum. The response by those who commented was lukewarm, with one netizen dismissing it as “nice but [lacking] the local connection”. He was rightly rebuked by another netizen: “if it doesn’t connect with you, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t connect with others”. One naturally wonders if the same statement cannot also be applied to SKL0’s creations. Granted, one can contend that SKL0’s works are widely popular, but surely mass appeal cannot be a definitive criterion for aesthetic judgement? Clearly, using an aesthetic argument to defend the works of SKL0’s is deeply problematic.

The last high-profile case of vandalism or, as some may say, street art, to happen in Singapore was the case of Swiss national Oliver Fricker in 2010, but as the incident involves the contentious issue of a foreign national acting on Singapore soil and the far more serious offence of trespass, it will be difficult to compare it to the case at hand. But slightly over a year before Fricker’s incident was the case of an unemployed, middle-aged Singaporean man by the name of Koh Chan Meng, who was caught red-handed scribbling “Hi Harry Lee. I love you.” on the wall of the Parliament House. On another occasion, Koh had also wrote “Go sue me Lee Kuan Yew Go Gavin Son” and “Shammugan can you play your own orgams” at the same site. From the outset, the acts committed by SKL0 and Koh cannot be more different. The former was a planned project with a thoughtfully designed aesthetic and identifiable by an icon equivalent to that of an artist’s signature and the latter, a putatively spontaneous act, performed by a man either out of vexation or lunacy.

Graffiti by Koh Chan Meng at Parliament House in 2009

Graffiti by Koh Chan Meng at Parliament House in 2009

As it seems, SKL0 is an artist and Koh, a vandal; one should be in a gallery, the other, a prison or an asylum. But are the distinctions really as stark as they appear? Sure, while Koh can hardly be called an artist and I suspect neither did he harbour any intention of being one, his “offence”, like that of SKL0, is in a way also an individual act of expression that has left its marks upon a public site. One of the arguments that has been tossed around lately defends SKL0’s works by claiming that they reflect our culture and society; can the same then not also be said about the scribbles of Koh, which however unthinkingly inscribed, reflect a prevailing sentiment of a certain underclass of Singaporeans saddled with financial and social woes? Can one go even further and claim that as a spontaneous act, Koh’s scribbles, as compared to the works of SKL0’s, bear even greater authenticity as expressions of a current social climate and as such, are more legitimate acts of intervention upon a public space? Granted, given that Koh was later ruled to be mentally unsound, one cannot take his acts so seriously, but scribbles like those of Koh are not uncommon. For instance, a friend once recounted to me how he found scrawled beneath the screen of a TVMobile television the words, “Stop Chinese Shows!!”. Acts like these cannot be written off simply as instances of mischief, but are instead, in their own small but pointed ways, forms of civil resistance that can only find expression through clandestine channels in an authoritarian society, away from the surveying gaze of the state.

Graffiti as seen on a TVMobile television

Graffiti as seen on a TVMobile television

Of the many proposals raised online in response to the episode of the “Sticker Lady”, some have called for “less restriction” to be imposed on street art, which in effect is calling for existing laws on vandalism to make an exceptional case for street art. However, if implemented, such a move would run against the very ethos of the medium itself. Street art, at least that particular strand that we are concerned with here, exists at the margins of society. Through their interventions upon a public space, street artists seek precisely to transgress established orders, either for the purposes of critique, or simply for the sheer kick of doing so. Should laws change and margins shift, street artists will too shift their location of operations, following wherever the margin goes. Street art like those by SKL0 can never exist within the law. To do so is to be simply absorbed into the kitschy fare that dominates much of legalised street art in Singapore, seen in the most cheesy manifestations in state-organised youth festivals and as marketing gimmicks undertaken by opportunistic corporations. As a matter of fact, most street artists around the world recognise the “barely legal” (to use to the title of the 2006 show by British graffiti artist, Banksy) nature of their practice and understand that the onus is upon them to cover their tracks to evade arrest or to work in legal grey areas, as artists who practise “reverse graffiti” do.

As such, if the law on vandalism really ought to be amended, it should be done to protect “vandals” like Koh instead who require such immunity more so than street artists who seek precisely to test the limits of the law. Street art claims the street as a site for art-making, but prior to the legitimisation of street art as a serious form of artistic practice, the street has always been, more generally speaking, a public platform for all forms of personal and cultural expression. In principle, the streets belong not just to artists, but to us all. Whether a piece of graffiti is “creative”, “witty” or “aesthetically pleasing” is besides the point, for the value of the streets as a shared public space is its ability to give visibility to any idea, opinion, sentiment and memory that is being suppressed by the powers that be, especially precious and necessary in a tightly controlled society like ours where most channels of public expression for the everyman – from print to televisual media – are blocked by the hand of the state, and the dominant socio-political climate is one of fear and self-censorship. Hence, street art like SKL0’s are important not because they are art, and certainly not because they “bring a smile to one’s face”, but because they reclaim the street as a site for everyday forms of civil resistance.

Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, also known as the King of Kowloon

Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, also known as the King of Kowloon

But ultimately, tinkering with legal apparatus is inadequate, serving only to draw even more arbitrary parameters, as if we don’t already have enough of that to deal with in existing statutes. How can one definitively distinguish between acts of civil resistance from those that are plainly a social menace – the familiar “O$P$” sprayed by loan sharks, for instance? Can the law possibly draw a clear line between acts of creativity or resistance and those of plain destruction?

Indeed, any attempt at “regulating” graffiti through legal means is bound to be tricky, for graffiti, or any created object or rendered mark, art or otherwise, can be said to possess a life of its own beyond its maker’s, thus rendering the central legal concept of intentionality inapplicable. For one, consider the example of Hong Kong’s Tsang Tsou-choi, otherwise known as the King of Kowloon, a garbageman-turned-vandal-turned-artist whose works have over time grown from being perceived as obnoxious acts of vandalism to being inducted into the canons of “outsider art”. It is important to note that Tsang’s works arose from what can only be described as megalomania; his graffiti, identifiable by their distinctive calligraphic style, are filled with messages that proclaim himself to be the “King of Kowloon”. Yet, over time, his obsessive markings have gained such a ubiquitous presence that they have become part of physical landscape and cultural imaginary of the city, and in 2003, the inclusion of Tsang in the Venice Biennale cemented his status as an art world legend. Evidently, when dealing with a figure like Tsang, any attempt at establishing a satisfactory legal definition of “creative” graffiti against “destructive” ones is completely frustrated.

“FREE STICKER LADY” digital sticker presently being disseminated through social media

“FREE STICKER LADY” digital sticker presently being disseminated through social media

Every society has its laws, but as restrictive as they must necessarily be, spaces for manoeuvre within the law do still exist. In other words, one does not need to change the law for society to recognise the value graffiti can hold for a city. Just like how some street artists circumvent existing laws by seeking alternative tactics of intervention that work not with the law but through it, the public should also find ways to support and embrace street art (and more generally, graffiti) beyond that of seeking legal recourse. In fact, such is the case for most cities with a thriving graffiti scene. In Melbourne, for instance, despite the fact that graffiti continues to be illegal, the city’s graffiti-filled laneways have been heavily promoted as tourist attractions, with calls also having been made to consider them for heritage protection. The current “micro-movement” of sorts of producing and disseminating stickers across social media calling to “FREE STICKER LADY” can also be considered a positive instance of this.

To end, perhaps it is important for me to state clearly my stand on the arrest of SKL0, should any misunderstandings arise. If all the information circulating presently is accurate, then yes, I believe that in the eyes of the law, SKL0 has committed a crime. But of course, as most will know either from experience or history, the law is not always an authority on matters of right and wrong, or in this case, on how we use and share our public space. I concur with the general opinion that leniency should be exercised in her sentencing and chances are that it probably would. (Claims that she faces the maximum three years imprisonment are, it must be said, wildly exaggerated. In fact, as of yesterday at least, SKL0 has not even been formally charged.)

But what is more important in the current debate is not how we need to “set art free”, but the more critical issue of how we need to set our streets free. The street is in way the physical counterpart to the Internet, and if the Internet in Singapore has been so hailed as the bastion of democratic expression, the same can be said also of our streets, for they are not just spaces for the traffic of branded cars and Chingay floats, but also nexuses where ideas, opinions, sentiments and memories of the everyday Singaporean converge and are exchanged.

This essay has been revised from an earlier version that was first published on 8 June 2012, the main revision being the addition of a new segment on Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi. The essay has also been published on New Asia Republic.


Frost Drawing for Kallang (2011), Gosia Wlodarczak, Performative drawing, pigment marker on glass

Frost Drawing for Kallang (2011), Gosia Wlodarczak, Performative drawing, pigment marker on glass

Space and process are the two curatorial strands running through the third Singapore Biennale. Conceived around the idea of “Open House” by artistic director Matthew Ngui and curators Russell Storer and Trevor Smith, the Biennale eschews an overtly issue-based approach in favour of probing the conditions that shape art-making, specifically how individual practices negotiate notions of space – both in terms of a physical locality and a contingent sphere of social relations. Underpinning the approach are two simultaneous acts of “opening”: the first referring to that of artistic practice, the second, to that of the city-space, through which the artist-outsider is invited to engage its peculiarities. In considering the albeit simplistic binary that contemporary biennales fall into – either esoteric in its city-specificity or overstretched in its pursuit of a global theme – this gesture of “opening” forms a middle ground, bringing together the local and the cosmopolitan.

The approach reflects a point of maturation for the young Biennale which has previously adopted the vague themes of “Belief” and “Wonder”. The results, however, prove to be rather uneven, for there still remains an overriding tendency for the curatorial formula to defer to the ineluctable obligation to please. Spanning four venues – the National Museum of Singapore (NMS), the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the Old Kallang Airport and Marina Bay – the Biennale features an eclectic albeit modest range of works, of which the more successful are those that move beyond a mere staging of process towards an interpenetration of practice and site.

Exemplifying this is Thai artist Arin Rungjang’s Unequal Exchange/No Exchange Can Be Unequal, an installation at the Old Kallang Airport modeled after an IKEA showroom with an intriguing contract at work: on weekends, Thai migrant workers from the lower socio-economic stratum are invited to swap the urbane furniture with items brought from their homes. The acts of displacement the artist initiates, performed by a group of displaced individuals no less, become a sculptural gesture as the showroom transforms into a vault of personal artifacts over time. As the indexes of consumption are reclaimed by those toiling at the production end of the consumerist chain, we witness a temporal reconfiguration of social relations, a redressing of inequalities – the hallmark of social sculpture.

Nearby, we witness another act of displacement: in German Barn, artists Elmgreen and Dragset implant within the cavernous hangar a mock-Tudor barn – an icon of quaint rusticity incongruous to the metropolitan sprawl of Singapore. Inside, four shirtless boys sit upon haystacks in a display of homoeroticism and unproductive labour: spatial intervention becomes an institutional critique on the existing order.

Artists in the News (2011), Koh Nguang How, Installation with newspaper archive and on-going research

Artists in the News (2011), Koh Nguang How, Installation with newspaper archive and on-going research

Meanwhile, at SAM, local artist-archivist Koh Nguang How’s Artists in the News, an installation-archive of newspaper articles documenting twenty years of local art history, sees space and process fusing into a symbiotic union, for the word “archive” itself connotes both a place and an act. The artist replicates the configuration of his apartment where he stores his collection, through which he highlights how the act of archiving implicates space-based processes of placement and classification – both in terms of the personal space of memory and the public space of history.

Also notable are the works that take a broader outlook of “site”, figuring it not merely in terms of an specified locality, but as nodes within a larger network of shifting geographies and temporalities, with the artist assuming the role of the “nomad”. Taking the term from Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay, “Altermodern”, such artists operate practices that are “vehicular, exchange-based and translative”, transforming ideas and signs as they are being transported from one place to another.[1]

South Korean artist Kyungah Ham’s embroideries, for instance, offer a compelling example of the ways artistic process negotiates and circumvent cross-border geopolitical sensitivities. Her embroideries, some of which include images of nuclear explosions, are designed by the artist and handmade by artisans from North Korea – an arduous process involving the transportation of the designs and completed works in parts to avoid rousing the suspicions of the censorial regime. The resulting work is poignant but decidedly anti-auratic, its presence fragmented and thus all the more precious.

Devo partire. Domani (2010), Ming Wong, Five-channel video installation

Devo partire. Domani (2010), Ming Wong, Five-channel video installation

Apart from space and time, this nomadism of the artist can also occur between signs in a semiological system. A simultaneity of all three movements – spatial, temporal, semiological – can be seen in Ming Wong’s ambitiously conceived video installation, Devo Partire. Domani, a recreation of the Pasolini’s cult classic, Teorema. The work, in an act of deliberate miscasting, features the artist playing all of the characters of the film – a characteristic feature of Wong’s practice which often involves mining the archive of world cinema for images of alterity. Crucially, the reenactments here transcend parody and mere exposures of performativity; they constitute an opening of the structures of performance, cinema and by extension, identity. A crucial move here is the splitting of the video into five channels, each playing in a different room, thus spatialising the cinematic montage and demanding the viewer to reconstitute it temporally by way of his or her physical participation in the installation. The filmic encounter turns both processual and spatial.

However, the curatorial formula falters when the processual becomes processional – a tendency that is understandably difficult to circumvent given how the format of a Biennale naturally lends itself to the building of spectacles. Gosia Wlodarczak’s Frost Drawing for Kallang, for instance, marker drawings on the windows of the airport that trace the shifting vistas, forms pretty constellations that are unfortunately only mere illustrations of process. Similarly, Michael Lin’s What a Difference a Day Made, a recreation of a daily goods store, displayed along with the crates in which the wares were shipped to Singapore and video footage of a performer juggling the various wares, appears like a vacuous charade, with the power relations surrounding these commercial items failing to gain a tangible expression. Most conspicuous is Tatzu Nishi’s overhyped The Merlion Hotel, a luxurious hotel constructed around the emblematic Merlion sculpture. While compelling in its professed intent of collapsing public and private space, the work, like the monument that inspired it, ended up as a disingenuous tourist spectacle. But, as an afterthought: can this degeneration into kitsch possibly be construed as “process”?

White Discharge (Built-up objects #10) (2009), Teppei Kaneuji, Found objects, resin, glue

White Discharge (Built-up objects #10) (2009), Teppei Kaneuji, Found objects, resin, glue

The works at NMS bear the greatest disjuncture from the Biennale’s overall direction. Exhibited within a large, black and minimally partitioned gallery, they inhabit a nebulous void, decontextualised architecturally and curatorially and yoked into a bewildering concatenation. Shao Yinong and Mu Chen’s massive embroideries of obsolete currencies in Spring and Autumn (2004-2010), for one, appear too glossy under the theatrical setting. Compared to Ham’s more understated works, the political overtones here are significantly obscured by spectacle. Likewise, Teppei Kaneuji’s delicate figures in his White Discharge series, created first by amassing numerous consumer items, followed by their pseudo-taxonomic classification and abstraction with carefully dripped white resin, lose their complexity amidst the environmental pressure to see them plainly as visual curios. Outside, artist collective ruangrupa’s mini-exhibition, Singapore Fiction, which displays artifacts, images and anecdotes accumulated by the artists during their sojourn in Singapore, appears superficial in its methods. While entertaining, the postmodern hodgepodge it presents seems symptomatic of a half-hearted anthropological venture devoid of rigour.

The Biennale’s examination of space and process is certainly a worthy one, especially when seen against the contemporary surfeit of manufactured imagery, of which the truth of its production is often concealed by inscrutable veneers. One could only hope the endeavour was pursued with greater gumption, giving up some of the sheen to make room for works that are more inchoate, in which the negotiations between space and process are not expressed as mere postures, but actual dialogues that unfold in the encounter between art, spectator and site.

The Singapore Biennale 2011 was held from 13 March to 15 May 2011.


[1] Nicolas Bourriaud, “Altermodern” in Altermodern: Tate Triennial 2009, ed. Nicolas Bourriaud (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), 23.

Several Memories Three

R: The idea was really to have someone who hasn’t really been personally involved in the history of the Substation at all. And coincidentally, I’m the same age as the Sub, so it’s like we have both been growing together, but on separate trajectories. In a way, I’m now trying to reconstruct all these memories for myself, to understand and negotiate the gaps between my generation and the one which came before it. Eventually what we are looking at is not a documentary or a strictly factual archive. We’re thinking of using these memories and impressions more as raw material to create a certain object, but I’m not sure what this object is going to be yet. At the moment, we are looking more at a book, and it’s probably going to be more experimental fiction than anything else.

S: So you have already been talking to the various practitioners and other stakeholders who have been involved in the Sub, I presume? Before we start, can you just let me understand what is the kind of angle you are taking for these interviews and why.

R: I’m really trying to keep it as open as possible. But I suppose ultimately we all don’t want this project to be about nostalgia – not that there is anything wrong with nostalgia per se, and I do think there is a place for nostalgia in society – but I think we really need to move beyond that for the purposes of this project. We are still very much looking into the past, but I’m more interested in using these memories for the purposes of pointing us towards the future, not just for the Substation, but also the larger arts community. So to begin, why don’t you start by telling me about your relationship with the Substation?

S: Before we do that though… this is really like me turning the tables, can you tell me what has your association with the Substation been like?

R: My association? Are you referring to my background?

S: No no, that’s for another occasion. I mean, has the Substation featured in any way at all in your thinking, your being, in your activities, your socio-cultural or personal identity, prior to taking on this project?

R: Hmm… Well, I’m 20. I just completed my NS. And before that I did art when I was studying in JC. I suppose when I was studying, because of schoolwork and all that, you know, I didn’t really have much of an awareness of what was happening in the arts community here. I didn’t really watch any shows whatsoever. Going out to watch a play or an exhibition was something I rarely did. I think it’s pretty much the same for most in my generation. I suppose it was only after I graduated that I found the time to do whatever I’m doing now and that was when I became more exposed to the Substation – not that I never knew about its existence before. I had heard about it, mentioned here and there, but it was probably existing more on the peripheries of my conception of the arts scene. In terms of a formal or a personal relationship, there hasn’t really been one. It’s just really more of a place to see shows and this project here is really my first time working with it. I do somewhat gather the same sentiment for the people I talk to: that the Sub no longer holds the same value for my generation as it did for those who were here during the nineties. So this gap is something I want to address in this project.

S: I see. So you want to think about why the Sub doesn’t hold what you think it held for others a decade earlier. Just on that matter, for someone like you, coming through the mainstreams of being Singaporean, which is the education system with of course, junior college as the culmination, and then the national service which was a political obligation you had to fulfil, I’m wondering if there is any sense of place, any at all, which figures prominently in your life. Is there a place that possess for you some form of significance or strong resonance?

R: So you’re asking me about my past?

S: Yes, your past twenty years. In terms of a place, I’m curious to know. A place. Does the idea of a place mean anything to you? In terms of location – not rootedness, but location, where certain things happen to you and you happen to that place, and there is a kind of deep empathy connecting you to it. Any, at all?

R: Primarily the places where I grew up then, I guess. My school would be one such place, since I was there during a significant and formative period of my life. But of course, I’m not sure if that would change in the future. The feeling may become stronger, but it may also diminish.

S: I’m asking you this because I have strange premonitions and prejudices about these things. Premonitions that have to do with, generally, an increasing sense of placelessness… and I feel that very strongly. If I were to like you, think of the place I was born, the school I went to, the community I grew up with, none of them exist anymore, physically. And if they exist, they exist somewhere else. It’s like River Valley Road School not being on River Valley Road anymore, which is about the severest form of dislocation you can think about, the whole geography screwed up in a way. And I was just wondering because I have only one son and he’s thirty-five years old and I have very little connection to people of your generation. So I just do not know what you all feel about this sense of floating placelessness. That’s what prompted me to ask if you have any thoughts about this place… but you have already answered that.

R: I suppose before this, it just didn’t strike me as a place – you know, a place, as opposed to a space, though it is, in a way, both a place and a space. I just didn’t feel as if there was something special going on in it.

S: And I’m wondering if there are any such places in Singapore at all – places that strike one, that tell you there is something special and amazing going on inside.

R: I think that’s because the idea of a physical space is progressively something that my generation and perhaps even other generations as well don’t feel that connected too, because space these days is becoming a virtual concept. A lot of our interactions happen over the Internet. Most of us connect more online than physically.

S: So there is not even bodily contact, or not as much?

R: I’m not saying that it’s good or bad, of course. It’s just a different mode of communication.

S: Yes, of course. No judgement. I’m just curious about the phenomenal aspect of it. How it works out… the shifts in terms of the relationships between people, between spaces and between people and spaces… the kind of sensibility that people have today… You’re right. It’s just a different world we live in today, isn’t it?

R: Yea, I guess.

S: Well, now that we’ve got that cleared, let’s get back. My relationship with the Substation. I’ll wait for you to prompt certain things, but if I can just kick off by saying that as far as I recall, my connections with the Substation was virtually from day one…

Images courtesy of The Substation.

Several Memories Two

P: The problem here is that people are unduly afraid of discourse. What we really need here is not to avoid discourse but to allow it to happen in a safe space, and the Sub provides this space. I can’t think of any other better place in which this can happen. It’s tragic that a country with so much potential is being stifled internally by its own irrational fears. When I first came, I must admit I was ambivalent about censorship. I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t have a stand. But after what I’ve been through and witnessed personally, I’ve come to realise the evils of censorship. People lose the courage to speak up. There are very few people in the next generation who have the courage to serve as an intellectual vanguard for the community. Self-censorship is prevalent. And what troubles me most is that while people recognise this, they don’t seem to see any problem with it. What do we stand to lose anyway even if we have to shut up a little? So what if we are censoring ourselves? We can continue living our lives. But the thing is this: self-censorship is not just a socio-political phenomenon that concerns only the academic attention of the liberal fringe. It is deeply personal, even existential. Something at the core of our humanity is lost when we choose to silence ourselves. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a voice?

W: It’s interesting that you speak of self-censorship as an existential issue, because that would necessarily mean that whatever that’s causing it cannot be entirely institutional. It runs much deeper than that. We cannot simply just put the blame on the government. In any case, I do think the NAC and the government as a whole are changing their tone. There is a marked difference in the way it chooses to address artists or the citizens in general. In the past, it used to be the artists kowtowing to the NAC. Now, it’s more about engagement and discussion. Sure, things are not perfect yet, but our institutions are clearly adjusting themselves. The problem now really lies with us. I know because I’ve spent time in places like Vietnam, Malaysia and so on. Just look at Vietnam: Communist government. Strict censorship regime. But the people are so much more energised, courageous and creative. But us? We are too affluent, complacent. Perhaps we are not really crippled by fear, but apathy. The only one crippled by fear is the government. The rest of us just don’t really care.

P: But that in a way can too be attributed to the institutional apparatus. We are not evolving because we took the easy route to progress. We were made to follow a highly planned trajectory, based on rigid controls, fixed routes and tested formula. We did not grow naturally as a people.

Y: For me, I think culture does play a big part in the way we approach the arts and discourse. I’m talking more about cultural baggage here. You can see this in the different ways the media from different languages approach the arts. In my view, the position of the English media in the past decade has remained unchanged: that contemporary art is something that can’t be understood, and thus there is a need to keep questioning, to keep justifying its practice. There is really close to nothing when it comes to developing a discourse. Instead, they focus more on spectacles and shows with a human focus. It’s mostly an editorial thing, of course, for we know that our journalists are much more intelligent than the words that get printed under their names. The Chinese papers, on the other hand, are much better when it comes to arts reportage. They can understand and talk about the issues and the reviews are very heartfelt. My personal theory is this: that the Chinese come from a historical tradition in which culture was really the cornerstone of society. Think about the Chinese literati of the 60s. They were the agents for social change. Because of this legacy, there is a natural inclination for the Chinese papers to defend culture. For the English papers, there may be some vestigial anxieties about this colonial language, the sense that we are using a language that is being transplanted form elsewhere… as if we don’t have a culture to call our own.

W: Yes, speaking of the media in Singapore, whatever happened to it? I don’t think the English media was always like that. We had people like Hannah Pandian, Sasi, Susie Wong who were writing really deep, relevant stuff. Who’s filling their shoes now that they’ve left? In talking about discourse, we cannot ignore the role of the press. The press is important because it is the only constant over the decades. It chronicles the scene from its early days and provides continuity and memory. It is the best space that can help sustain discourse.

O: We have to be cautious when examining the relationship between the media and the state though, because it never really is about one genuflecting to the other. Sometimes the state takes the cue from the media. The Josef Ng incident is a case in point. Its scandalisation by the media made it necessary for a policy decision to be made. This also means there is a vicious circular loop in place, an endless mirroring between the the media and the state in all facets, which is anathema to what a functional artistic discourse should be. The entire institutional climate needs a paradigm shift. I’m really not optimistic about the general direction of things even now. Everywhere there is still the same philistine attitudes and media anxieties over art, the same default mistrust of artists. It’s all tied to the larger authoritarian culture…

T: Sorry to interject but I have to point out the elephant in the room. Everyone is criticising the government for this and that, but all of you seem to have forgotten that you are also receiving support from them. So what relationship are we maintaining exactly?

P: No, I don’t think any of us has forgotten that. We recognise that and that’s why there is so much frustration. In a place where the entire private sector also sings the same tune as the state, there really is little space left for us to manoeuvre. But that said, I don’t think we should be taking an antagonistic stance any longer. As W mentioned, perhaps the NAC is really willing to engage and discuss, and it’s only right that we partake in the dialogue. In fact, if anything, we must be the ones initiating the dialogue.

T: This goes beyond it being about us versus the NAC. It’s also about us versus us. You say they are willing to engage and discuss, but they are not doing so with everyone. It still has an agenda and will work only with those who can help fulfil its agenda. This has created a divide within the scene and the worse thing is that we have internalised it. Look at theatre. It was one of the art forms that benefitted most from the professionalisation of the scene. Like with the Esplanade, the theatre people opposed it first, but now they are all working with it. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. We should work with government, but we must also remember those who are falling through the cracks. Currently what I see is a bo chap attitude towards each other, or worse, antagonism. There are some artists thinking, why are all these political artists making life so difficult for all of us? Why must they do all this childish things like stripping naked and creating trouble? By that, you know I’m talking about performance art. I think there is also a class divide at work. The theatre people look at us and think we are just bad actors putting up bad performances.

O: Is there really a need to disparage theatre like that? I understand your concerns about the inequalities, but you speak as if we are fraternising with the enemy! Remember that it was theatre which first gave visibility to the fact of homosexuality. Without it, I don’t think we would even be discussing 337A today. Theatre was and is still the space to discharge social ideas. It’s unfortunate that we have developed a perception that theatre has gone all glossy and commercial because of its professionalisation, when it still is very much about the issues, about filling in the gaps of public discourse. We are all working towards the same aspirations. In fact, I find that there is too much theatre dabbling in political issues – bad theatre, in fact, for I don’t think theatre is actually the best medium for going into party politics.

W: Can we please don’t go into a petty argument pitting one art form against another?

O: Yes, I would gladly not want to myself. I think moping about the state of the arts is at times really just an excuse to cover up for the poor quality of the art here. Why do we have no great works of art here? Because the environment pampers us too much. And because our brightest people are doing law and medicine, instead of art. It can be as simple as that. Sometimes we just have to take an austere, uncompromising view: just focus on being great artist. With that, every other thing becomes immaterial. If you are good, you can thrive.

Images courtesy of The Substation.

Several Memories One

D: I would propose looking at the history of the Substation in terms of three different decades. The first would be the nineties, defined by a strong, ground-up, DIY spirit, when the Sub was a space for people to encounter one another and for ideas to be negotiated. This was followed by the second decade, which was a time of institution-building, when it became clear that the earlier mode of operation was no longer sustainable and thus economic imperatives had to take over. I would say it became more of a space for presentation rather than process. And of course, it was also during this decade that the Garden was gone, which I think played a very big part in removing the community from the space. I remembered feeling very betrayed when I came back and found that the Garden was not there anymore. Most people felt the same. The third era would be now, I hope, when we see that things are beginning to change a little, although it remains to be seen what is the exact impact of these changes upon the Sub’s identity.

K: I have to take issue with the way you compartmentalised the history of the Sub, simply because we cannot be looking at the three decades so schematically in relation to each other. The nineties was a time of unprecedented growth and thus any period that followed it would naturally appear dull and uneventful. There is also the tendency to look at the past through a romanticised view. You mentioned the Garden. Truth be told, from what I’ve heard from Sasi, the Garden was actually underutilised when it was still around. You can count with one hand the number of events that took place there each month. We have to look at the history of the Sub in terms of the broader landscape that was evolving both because of and in spite of it. The Sub could maintain its identity as a locus of the arts community in the nineties because it was the only place where it could thrive. It was a time when the arts was still largely a fringe phenomenon and the Sub was this fringe. While I cannot say that the arts has become mainstream now, there has at least been an institutional normalisation of the arts which has farther led to its professionalisation as an industry. Now, even within the fringe, there is stratification between the so-called commercial and non-commercial artists and with the community itself fractured, it is only inevitable that the centre at which it gathers begins to vanish.

D: I’m not denying that external factors played a part, but internally, Sub as an institution had also changed after the nineties, no? There was a perception that Sub had become more serious, more academic…

F: But the Sub was already very academic from the start what, like the conferences, art vs art etc. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with it becoming more academic. The Sub needs to differentiate its identity. There is no obligation for it to be a community centre. Actually, from how I see it, a lot of the negativity surrounding the decade when Weng and Audrey were in charge was due to bad PR – the way decisions were made without consulting the community and how they were communicated. There was still a lot happening at the Sub at that time. It was still a lot about process.

P: I don’t think it was a matter of how many things were happening at the Sub. There were probably as many things happening in the two-thousands as in the nineties. The problem was that of curatorial dialogue. What is the discourse that is being generated by all these disparate activities? There were campaigns against everything from the death penalty to cat culling, while at the same time, you had people practising yoga and capoeira in the studios upstairs. The Sub just seemed to have lost its direction, as if it didn’t know where to go.

D: I think that was also the time when people were saying that the Sub was being hijacked by civil society.

K: I don’t agree that it was “hijacked”, because art and civil society have always been intertwined from the time of the Sub’s conception. I believe Pao Kun would have approved of the inclusion of civil society within the Sub’s programming, because he envisioned the Sub as the public space more than anything else. The operative word in “A Home for the Arts” is the word “Home”, which entails openness. The Sub needs to be open to the community and be shaped by its needs.

P: But was the Sub really conceived to have so nebulous an identity? One of the biggest misconceptions of the nineties was that it was all laissez-faire with no programming, as if it was really an empty space awaiting for artists to fill it. Not to say it wasn’t open to all forms of art and practices of course; but despite the porosity, there was a very strong curatorial programme running its core. Think New Criteria, Raw Theatre. Some of the works produced by these programmes defined the generation. The Artist-in-Residency initiative was also essential. Its successor, the Associate Artist Scheme, could never match up to its productivity.

J: Sorry if I’m deviating from the current discussion thread a little, since we have been harping on a lot about programming, but I think in talking about a space like the Substation, we too often forget the most important element – the physical space, the geography. The reason why Sub was able to function as a community centre was because it was literally the centre of a wider civic space. The National Library was nearby. There was S11, the kopitiam opposite and within the Sub, there was Fat Frog. The best part was that all these spaces seemed to spill over into one another. It was one continuous space. You didn’t know where you were stepping into because there were no demarcations. I think the loss of the National Library was the start of the decline. For one, Literature began to disappear from the Sub. All the book events that used to happen in the Garden – gone. The final straw was the loss of the eating places. Food and art has to come together and it has to be the right kind of food. Where can you go after you watch a performance at the Sub now? Timbre?

P: I think we need to stop thinking that removing Timbre would be the panacea to all our problems. Who is going to fill the Garden when we have it back? We have changed as a community. Amongst us, there is distrust and vanity at play. Artistic practice has become a largely become an individualistic pursuit. Nobody is interested in what each other are doing. I think the younger generation of artists are the best indicator of this. Do they even give a shit about our own history, our community?

K: I am wary about pursuing this line of argument though, because once again we are invoking the spectre of a quaint, communitarian past. I don’t think we have become more selfish, or at least not to the extent that it should be a cause for alarm. We are a much larger community now and thus it is inevitable that the sense of intimacy be lost. Besides, the more collectivist modes of art-making in the past emerged more from an economy of means than a communal ethos. We had to share and collaborate because resources were so sparse and there was only so much we could do if we were to operate individually.

F: Most of us also had more free time. Nothing much to do.

J: Yes, that was a factor too. Ideas need time to flourish. If it helps, I think we are beginning to understand again how important it is to give an artist time. The new Arts Creation Fund, for instance, is a good sign of that.

D: We also need to reclaim that sense of imagination. Isn’t that what we, as artists, are supposed to do – imagine?

K: Let us put our imaginations to work then. What do you imagine that the Sub can be in today’s ecology?

F: I think it needs to be the leader of the arts community. I don’t think a community can survive without leadership. It may not be official, but we already have people recognised in some ways as the ones taking the lead in the scene here. But they are all individuals and we cannot count upon them to be there all the time. But when an organisation takes the lead, there is continuity, because organisations have legacies that can be passed on even as the people leave.

P: For me, the Sub has to be a hotbed of discourse, simply because that is the best thing it is capable of doing and that there is no one institution fully committed to it at the moment. It is clear that the Sub has run its course as a physical space. There is no way it can compare to the bigger, glossier spaces out there. It must focus on artistic process and research.

J: If I have it my way, I will turn the entire Substation into a writer’s centre, simply because it makes economic sense. Writers, like all artists, need space. But all we don’t need a lot of space, just a small, no-frills room to call our own, which is readily available at the Sub. I would happily book a room at the Sub just to write.

D: For me, it’s very simple. It has to be about art – not just any art, but contemporary art practice.

K: That’s a very amorphous notion, D. But I’ll add to that another amorphous notion which we are all too familiar with; I think the Substation should continue to be a home for the arts.

Images courtesy of The Substation.

The Fifth Memory

Members of the Memory Society in action

Members of the Memory Society in action

Seven Cardinal Notions of the Memory Society

1. The body is the world of pure reality, unlike the mind, which is the world of apparitions.
2. One must only use the body to remember feelings, not sights and sounds, for the latter belong to the world of the mind.
3. When remembering, one must keep the body in motion, for a body which is still cannot remember.
4. The body remembers through repetition: the more one repeats the motions, the more deeply the body remembers.
5. One must not use words to help in the remembering, for words belong to the world of the mind and would not be understood by the body.
6. When connecting, one must listen to the body of the other.
7. One must not ask the body questions, for the body is not the mind and cannot provide answers.

Image courtesy of The Substation.