Sasi speaking at the conference.

The Substation celebrated its 25th Anniversary recently with a month of activities including The Substation Conference, which was entitled “What is Next? What was Now? 25 Years of The Substation”.

The brainchild of Kuo Pao Kun, The Substation’s mere existence is an ode to the vision of the public intellectual and the tremendous support he garnered. Someone pointed out that The Substation has existed for half of Singapore’s life as an independent country. To be sure, surviving in this country that is obsessed with economic success above everything else, is no mean feat. To survive as an independent arts centre, that is consistently open and embracing the alternative in Singapore, is next to impossible.

Many of us in the arts owe The Substation a debt of gratitude, whether we were directly nurtured or indirectly inspired. The Substation was our entry into the art world, we met others like us, we had our first shows there, we hung out there. Over the years, despite newer better arts spaces, we still look at The Substation with a special fondness (some call it love).

Over the years, The Substation has changed a lot physically. The Gallery has been modified twice, the Theatre seats and setup have been changed, the Garden has been rented out entirely to Timbre, the facade of the building has been painted blue then grey, the “Home for the Arts” has been dropped from its signboard, and its side walls are now filled with commissioned graffiti. I suppose one could consider these as mere “facelifts”, and not read too much into the changes. As long as The Substation remained independent and relevant – those are the main issues, right?

T Sasitharan mentioned in his speech during the conference that everyone had their own ideas and wishes of what The Substation was and should be. In his superbly written and read By Way of A Manifesto, which he penned when he stepped down as its Artistic Director in 2000, Sasi expounded on what he saw as The Substation’s “uniqueness”. He said,

“It is in this unsaid empathy, this embrace of the “alternative” (that which by its very nature can only live outside the box) informs and directs the seemingly amorphous, almost chaotic array of Substation activities. This is the invisible hand that brings structure and coherence to our work. This is the underlying logic that informs the methods of our madness. It is this inkling or instinct or glimmering for a particular way of being which is the most valuable aspect of the Substation. It is the heart of us; and it needs to be protected and cherished.”

Tania De Rozario also gave an impressive speech during the conference. Because she is boycotting NLB over their homophobic removal and pulping of And Tango Makes Three last year, her speech was delivered by her proxy Raksha Mahtani. In it, she spoke about how NLB has effectively invalidated her as a queer person, and in contrast, how she felt that The Substation has always held that space and “played a part in mediating difficult conversations”. She reflected on the current situation of the arts in Singapore and the relationship between artists, art spaces, society and the state.

It was a series of pertinent questions that she proceeded to ask that really struck many chords. I think everyone who is vaguely invested in the arts here really should think about these. I’m quoting all of her questions here:

“At what point does the integral purpose of the space collapse under the weight of this commercial viability? What rules or standards can we use to ascertain this? And once that integral purpose collapses, for what purpose does the organisation exist?”

“How, for example, do I, as a queer person see my role as an artist and writer, in a culture that allows its out-of- boundary markers to be dictated by conservative outcry? How do we who occupy marginal identities while contributing to cultural production in Singapore, navigate boundaries both seen and unseen? What obligations, if any, do artists have toward the state and its people, when it comes to transgressing these boundaries? How does a space like The Substation affect answers to these difficult questions?”

“What is the role of an artist who works on subject matter deemed ‘sensitive’, during this period of time in Singapore’s history? Is our role to agitate, and to flout these regulatory practices in spite of consequences? Or does it serve us better to adhere to these regulations in order to showcase the problems inherent to their processes? Alternatively, are there ways to showcase art (and I specifically say ‘showcase art’ rather than ‘make art’) that are completely free from these concerns, that can come about from neither adhering to these practices, nor consciously resisting them?”

“What is the role of a space like the Substation in this equation, with its history shared by art-makers as well as civil society? In what ways is socially conscious art-making compromised when artists engage with it via a state-sponsored platform? As artists, what strategies can we employ as a community to help keep spaces like The Substation sustainable? Will there ever be a day when The Substation will be able to run without state funding?”

“Given the financial burden of (legally) showcasing material that deals with ‘sensitive’ issues or themes, can we assume that only state institutions, commercial establishments and financially-endowed individuals have a legal right to contribute related content to our national narratives? If that is so, should we even care that our identities are erased from, or distorted within, these narratives? How does a lack of queer role models in our media affect the psychological well-being of young queers Singaporeans? How does our institutionalised invisibility in the mainstream media affect their views of themselves, and other people’s views of them? How can those of us who occupy space within marginalised communities employ our respective skills to reach out to those around us, without manufacturing new and equally harmful hegemonies?”

I’m sorry I cannot include the full texts for both Sasi’s and Tania’s speeches; the transcript of Tania’s speech is here and please contact Sasi directly if you want to know more about his. I’d like to end this post by adding three more observations and questions:

1. The conference was attended by less than 100 people, and only a handful of them are artists and people who are long-time supporters of The Substation. I wonder why the turnout was so bad, whether artists still found The Substation relevant, and whether there is still a healthy level of active support for the space.

2. KC Chew, Chairman of The Substation, mentioned that the Board serves to protect the independence, integrity and sustainability of the space. I wonder whether it is really possible to ensure all three values simultaneously, and when push comes to shove, which will come out on top. For example, as mentioned earlier, the Garden has been entirely rented out for several years. To ensure the sustainability of The Substation, have its independence and integrity been compromised? What are the considerations that took place and how was this decision made?

3. The Substation ran for 10 months without an Artistic Director. Is it not possible for it to really be community-run in the long-term, without an AD and even without a Board? I think it is important to rethink and evaluate how our art spaces have been run, especially one like The Substation which values diversity, inclusivity and the alternative.

The Substation Conference on its 25th Anniversary threw up a lot of questions. I hope we all take this opportunity to reflect on them before we rush on from Now to Next.