Losing Ground in Singapore’s State-Curated Digital Age

A crowded live gig at The Substation, Singapore, in the 1990s. Courtesy of The Substation.

The Substation, a leading arts center in Singapore, announced its permanent closure in March after its thirty-year stint as an independent home for the arts. Triggered by the pandemic year, other arts spaces such as DECK (an art photography center), Centre 42 (a theater space), The Necessary Stage (another theater center), and Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Arts (NTU-CCA) also announced that they are losing their physical spaces. Meanwhile, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) was closed for renovations. The arts community immediately voiced its disappointment, organizing online discussions about the closures through video town hall meetings and social media threads. The issue became a community force, and eventually, the decision to close The Substation was overturned.

The rough circumstances of a global lockdown have made the sequential closing of art spaces seem even more erratic, and arts communities across Singapore have rallied to protect what they see as essential to civic welfare. It’s seldom that community-initiated discourses occur outside the city’s top-down programming by institutions, state councils, or authorities. Recent events surrounding the Substation both demonstrate the problems faced by art spaces in Singapore and the importance of interdisciplinary participation in shaping its cultural industry.

The Substation, Singapore. Courtesy of The Substation.

As its name suggests, The Substation building operated as a power substation until the 1920s to ‘70s. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) launched conservation plans in the 1980s which protected built heritage in the central district. Around the same period, the Singapore government was interested in riding the Asian art wave and invested in the art workforce, hoping that doing so would encourage the culture industry to grow alongside Singapore’s manufacturing sector. The Substation was founded in 1990 and took over the restored building. It had been one of the longest-standing arts incubation spaces in Singapore that provided an independent stage for both emerging and established artists. The arts center not only served as a steppingstone for art practitioners who went on to represent Singapore in international arts biennales and festivals, it was also a safe space for experimental artmaking and community building. During its earlier days, artists known in the Asian circuit such as the late performance artist Lee Wen­­ were among the familiar faces at the space. Lee spent eight hours a day in the gallery during his 1993 exhibition, performing rituals as the Yellow Man, with his body, exposed but for a pair of briefs, painted completely yellow­­. Photographer John Clang­­ – whose 2007 White Book installation included a single book of photographs on a white table, inside a white cube lit with zig-zag fluorescent lights – credited his early roots to The Substation. During this time, the institution’s watershed infrastructure stimulated ideas for later state institutions such as SAM, which opened in 1996, and its Singapore Biennale, and the National Gallery of Singapore (NGS), which officially opened in 2015 after a decade of planning and renovations. Like The Substation, SAM and NGS both occupied restored buildings within the same district; SAM is housed in a Catholic church built in 1833 that was converted to St Joseph’s Institution (STI boys’ school) completed in 1867 while NGS is housed in restored colonial buildings formerly the city hall and supreme court which were constructed in the 1920s to 1930s.

Lee Wen, “Journey of a yellow man no.3: Desire,” The Substation, Singapore, 21-25 July 1993. Image courtesy the artist.

Though its website stated that it was an independent home for the arts, The Substation had, in fact, been renting its state-owned heritage building at a subsidized rate since its inception. The arts center was listed as a non-profit private company and registered as a charity. It also had been receiving major grants from the National Arts Council (NAC). In 2017, the NAC informed the arts center that its building was scheduled for a renovation in 2021. In July 2020, newspapers reported that many important arts centers were losing their arts housing, including The Substation. After its renovation it will only be able to retain a third of its former space, and the rest will be rented out to other arts groups. NAC made this decision, citing financial instability.

On the surface, this arrangement appeared ideal for arts practitioners in general, as other arts groups would be able to share studio spaces. However, members of the arts community had already witnessed what restructured arts centers could become under NAC’s centralized purview. To manage Singapore’s land scarcity, civic plans such as the Arts Housing Scheme were launched by the NAC to align with the URA’s strategies for effective land use. Old buildings in the central district were restored and renovated to maximize their hybrid potential as both commercial and heritage sites. Under this scheme, the arts groups that were displaced from the Stamford Art Centre (SAC) when it was renovated in 2017 could not return to their units because the rental fees had doubled in rates. There were new contracts that stipulated the leases must be renewed every few months. This was not ideal for spaces that needed a stable studio to hold their rehearsals, stage their performances, store their bulky stage sets and props – or to set up heavy machinery and equipment for offset printing, ceramic firing, metal and wood processing, etcetera. It was also not ideal for the audience’s sense of place.

Understanding the instability of art spaces in Singapore is crucial to realizing their value. In 2020 alone, more than five arts centers had to surrender their arts housing, yet this was not a new problem. In 2012, the prolific curator Ute Meta Bauer was invited by the NAC and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to establish the Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU-CCA). Singapore wanted to position itself as a global arts hub and Bauer became the channel for international artists like Joan Jonas to show there. However, on NTU-CCA had to leave its exhibition space in 2021 – well before it had a chance to develop its global audience. The arts center was based at Gillman Barracks, a state-owned army encampment converted to an arts compound just on the outskirts of the central district, and not the most accessible for visitors who mainly used public transport. Many galleries had also left the compound in the last five years due to low sales and visitorship. NTU-CCA’s closure was just one more example of a prevailing instability.

CCA – Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore. Photographer: See Toh Jia Yao (Gel). © See Toh Jia Yao (Gel).

Archival press document from “the-singapore-lgbt-encyclopaedia”: b.link/qpcezg.

Even in the 1990s, independent art spaces such as The Artist Village (TAV), 5th Passage, and Plastique Kinetic Worms found it hard to maintain their spaces for different reasons – sky-high rental rates and state to list a few. Performance art was banned in Singapore for ten years after a 1994 show at 5th Passage where, protesting police entrapment of homosexuals (in a country that still criminalizes same-sex activities), artist Josef Ng bared his posterior and trimmed his pubic hair while facing a wall. He was charged and fined by the Singapore police for indecency.

Censorship and its compounding challenges have inspired arts institutions like DECK to move online. Others have been forced to continue their arts programs without a physical space after they had to shut down their original housing. Despite no longer having a ‘village’ or museum, however, institutions like TAV and the Post-Museum continue to participate in important arts events locally and overseas. But after the announcement that Substation would shut down, the arts community was quick to voice their disappointment online. Members of the arts community created a Facebook group (“Substation Futures”) to discuss the value of the arts center. Effendy, a theater practitioner, mourned “Farewell my home… I have loved you, but it will never be enough.” Someone posted “the Substation has outlived its purpose,” positing that as an incubation space, the quality of Substation’s arts programs was outdated and substandard compared to larger and newer state institutions with heavier budgets such as the Esplanade and the Arts House. But others challenged this opinion, like writer Li Shan Chan, who argued that “the Substation symbolizes independence of thinking and art-making in a society where censorship and losing state funding are real fears.” This online community was populated by the young and old, by enthusiastic practitioners and outsiders, alike, and coming from different professions. They all voiced their concern.

The Facebook group became a public archive. Members posted old photographs of arts gatherings, concerts, and exhibitions in the 1990s, a period still considered to be the arts center’s heyday before the increase in state censorships. The members shared personal anecdotes of their experiences as artists or visitors. They also shared photographs of catalogues and brochures, news articles, and social media posts from outside the group. New models for operational structures and fundraising projects were proposed as a bid to keep the place alive. Loki, a member of the punk community, stated, “If we don’t keep the space, I’m afraid art will slowly disappear.” This surge of digital support was even more noteworthy, given the struggle of spaces like the Substation to stay relevant in a competitive digital age subsumed by the global lockdown.

Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Arts (NTU-CCA).

The pandemic upended the cultural sector’s everyday operations. With no revenue from sales of artworks or tickets, arts spaces around the world turned to digital solutions to help them survive. Some digitization services, such as archiving to structure digital presence, must be outsourced to costly digital professionals. Many smaller arts spaces did not have access to these services, making it even harder for them mitigate the risks of the 2020 lockdowns. (Even more prominent entities like The Substation only started digitizing in 2020 and the NTU-CCA only completed their website and digital archive this year.) SAM and NGS recently combined their online database to share resources. Smaller arts companies in Singapore can apply for digitization funding from the NAC. But these incentives are limited to whitelisted, or pre-approved, programs. In a tech-for-tech’s sake cultural industry such as this, traditional practitioners and audiences who do not conform to being digital-first will be ostracized.

The state is adamant about utilizing the relationship of arts, nationhood, and the tourism economy to support the master narrative of Singapore as a global arts hub. For instance, the NAC’s approach to digital-first community building aligns with Singapore’s Smart Nation ideals. The brand of a smart city necessitates a lean interface, where cultural heritage does not operate by itself but is tethered to the hub-spoke model of the country’s economic performance. This desired narrative affects who the NAC funds – those considered problematic, such as queer spaces or artists involved in political activism, are often precluded. On the other hand, the Substation had always provided a safe space for queer practitioners and had welcomed political arts projects.

In March 2021, an open letter addressed to the NAC and signed by more than 500 arts practitioners was published in the local newspapers. The NAC asked them not to publish the letter, but the authors were uncompromising. This statement from the arts community challenged the NAC’s own statement, which claimed that the Substation was mismanaged and financially unstable. Unlike bigger institutions like SAM, NGS, NTU-CCA, and Esplanade, which have the financial capacity to host blockbuster mega-exhibitions with international artists such as Yayoi Kusama, The Substation was focused on local incubation. As the spring and summer wore on, more people made their grievances over the loss of The Substation heard. Artist Akai Chew created an Instagram handle, “Here, 45 Armenian Street,” posting memories submitted by different individuals. The many independent efforts like this confirmed that local arts communities see the merit in having alternative spaces that hold holistic criticality even if they contradict the NAC’s one-dimensional ideals. In late September, after many months of silence from the NAC and The Substation, its board announced that a new director, the artist and educator Ezzam Rahman, would helm the arts center through its spatial limbo.

Though The Substation’s future is still uncertain, this episode demonstrates that members of the public do have their own collective authority over the survival of their cultural institutions. The lack of elbow room was made tighter by the pandemic and the ensuing government decisions in a small nation-state such as Singapore. But the pandemic also underscored how isolated communities can preside over their own placemaking.

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