By Nabilah Said
Against the backdrop of a battle of words, an impossibility is happening. SeptFest, one of The Substation’s most enduring annual programmes, is taking place this month, in March, six months too late. This, of course, is because of COVID restrictions last year, but it also feels strangely early, unseasonal – like when it snows in places that shouldn’t have snow – and a bit like time travelling. In a way, The Substation has always been an anomaly, ahead of its time and yet also a vestige of the past.
While attending several of the festival’s programmes – which feature young, emerging artists as well as more established ones – it was common to hear a refrain along the lines of “this is why we need The Substation”. Such sentiment is tinged with regret, as after 30 years, The Substation is slated to close down after the government announced its plans to take over custodianship of the building on 45 Armenian Street from July 2021 onwards.
For now, artists and arts lovers have been thronging the building to attend SeptFest (within pandemic limits), hoping to avail themselves of the last sprigs of that famed Substation spirit. The opening performance on 4 March, Tea Leaves Glowing In The Wind, paired father-son duo, Tang Da Wu and Zai Tang.
Moving unhurriedly, the 78-year-old performance artist appeared to defy the passage of time as he precariously balanced pieces of wood shorn off from part of a tree stump placed in front of the facade of the former power station. Occasionally, he would stop to sip from a cup of coffee, poured from a yellow and red thermos. Meanwhile, his son Zai’s electronic soundscape with echoes of crickets and discordant notes provided an eerie reminder of urban development.
The performance was billed as “a proposal for a performance of multiple possibilities”. Some saw in it a commentary on labour and productivity, others were reminded of the trees that used to be in the Substation Garden. The performance seemed to encapsulate the entire history of The Substation, from its early days under Kuo Pao Kun’s leadership and the legions of artists it has supported over the years, including Tang’s own seminal The Artists Village, to the young artists and groups who have formed more recent relationships with the space.
This isn’t the only intergenerational programme in the festival. In fact, SeptFest will close with an epic 3-hour performance/tour titled The Last Chapter, which unites eight artists of different generations as they each offer a different way to say goodbye to The Substation, leading audiences through its various spaces. This will take place from 25 to 27 March, though tickets are sold out.
The Substation’s programme managers Karine Tan and Uzair Daud say that it was not a conscious decision to programme intergenerational artists in this edition of SeptFest, which looks to be its last. Instead, this emerged organically, as the established artists themselves were keen to work with their younger counterparts.
“I believe that’s the spirit of The Substation since Kuo Pao Kun’s days—the spirit to nurture, to encourage exploration and collaborations across disciplines regardless of age and abilities, and the openness to learn from one another,” says Karine.
She shares that they were looking to programme works that respond to the overall festival theme of “In The Margins”. For example, Week 1 was more about the self (“the relationship with ourselves through identity, loneliness, desire”), while Week 2 and 3 looked at communities in the margins (“by looking at issues surrounding racism, social mobility, sexuality, and displacement of histories” – like in Brown Is Haram and Alternative Lessons for Women, which we previously wrote about).
The Substation Gallery is currently home to the Migrant Workers Community Museum, which brings together objects, artworks and stories that tell us about the history of migration to Singapore and the experiences of migrant worker communities here. Assemblages comprising thin mattresses and lungis draped over spartan bunk beds, various domestic implements, and artworks with messages such as “Freedom to Change Employer”, create a sobering narrative one seldom sees in art spaces in Singapore. The museum is curated by Rubel Fazely, Yulia Endang, May Thu Zin, Nina Rotelo, Yu Ming and Zhou Zhi Wei, alongside facilitators Alfian Sa’at, Vithya Subramaniam and Zulkhairi Zulkiflee. It opens till 28 March and is free. There is also a discussion happening on Sunday, 28 March, with its curators and facilitators.
In the subterranean basement, the SAD Bar turns into the IsLand Bar from 25 to 27 March, with different artists hosting immersive experiences over cocktails, as they individually examine different aspects of island histories and realities. For example, artist-researcher Zarina Muhammad conjures up images of spectres, talismans and “trees older than our buildings”, while dance artist Norhaizad Adam hosts a silent karaoke session in honour of The Substation.
When contrasted with the current craze over NFTs and its multi-million dollar transactions in the commercial art world, what’s happening at The Substation highlights the intangible value of art when divorced from the market, and brings its impact on knowledge- and resource sharing, community building and social relevance into sharp focus. SeptFest programming, and The Substation in general, can be seen as an attempt to inject humanity into the heart of our metropolis. Whether this resuscitation effort comes too late, remains to be seen.
Cross-disciplinary artist Lim Chin Huat, who is the curator and performer of The Last Chapter, hopes that the show can “reintroduce The Substation to the public one more time”. He fondly recalls how his foray into performance – he started out as a visual artist – took place at The Substation in 1990, after being invited by director Goh Boon Teck to be part of a Toy Factory show. Since then, he has continued to create work at The Substation, including directing his first ever show and doing his first full-length dance production there.
He says: “During the ’90s, this was my playground. I didn’t even care about ‘am I an artist?’, I was just here to play, create and share. I would come every week to go to the cafe and get to know new friends. There was lots of interaction, exchanges. Something could just be shaped through a conversation.”
While artists and arts lovers in Singapore have been lamenting its impending loss, there is a segment of younger artists who don’t quite have a deep history with The Substation. Through second-hand stories, selected programmes and its occasional participation in bigger public festivals in Singapore, they have come to understand its importance within Singapore’s art history, but many also fear that they have missed its heyday.
Regina Toon, one of the artists involved in The Last Chapter, feels a little pressure in closing the festival when she – who was born in the ‘90s – doesn’t have a strong connection to The Substation in the same way her fellow performers do. While they’ve waxed lyrical over the Substation Garden and its various cafes throughout the years (from Mrs Wong’s cafe to Fat Frog), she’s only known it as Timbre.
“Honestly, I don’t have much memory (of The Substation). The first memory I have is from 2013, during the Night Festival, when everyone was just hanging outside, when there was still a road here. But of course I hear a lot of stories from people who’ve grown with the place, who witnessed it from the beginning. And I realise that this space shifts according to generations, according to what it is for different people,” she says.
Karine also remembers stepping foot in The Substation to watch a concert by a local band “at a self-organised gig by a mutual friend”. The most vivid memory for her as a member of staff is The Rejects exhibition in 2019, which celebrated rejected art projects, in the style of the 1863 Salon des Refusés in Paris.
She says: “The gallery was packed to the point where it was hard to move around the space. Everyone loved the cheeky concept, but I think it encapsulates the inclusivity of The Substation – where no one is left out and all art is welcome. So many people loved it that they kept asking when we were bringing it back!”
Chin Huat remains upbeat about The Substation’s evolving identity over the years, saying that each artistic director has opened the door to new possibilities, such as the introduction of genres like alternative music and film. He also believes that the impact of The Substation shouldn’t just come in the form of the memories of older artists.
“It’s also important to hear voices from different generations. Otherwise, we’d only hear the seniors, and then it becomes nostalgic only. We don’t want that. Because (the younger artists) are our future, our hope. We want to pass this down and see where they are headed towards, and see how they react and respond to this,” he says.
Even as SeptFest ends on a note of farewell, the future of The Substation is not quite clear.
Members of the arts community have self-organised, gathering signatures for a statement of clarification directed at the NAC that calls for more clarity and dialogue. At the same time, The Substation’s Board has announced a call for proposals for a possible continuation of The Substation, even though it has no plans to reverse its decision to close the company.
Karine shares that SeptFest has enjoyed great support, with many people coming down to say goodbye and offer words of motivation and thanks to its staff. While she too is mourning the loss of The Substation, she sees this as a chance for the community to do some soul-searching.
“I’m curious to find out what exactly does the next generation of artists and our arts community need and in what form does it take? Is it a physical space? The skillsets of an art enabler? Or leadership in the arts community? I think as a community, we may have to figure that out before we think about how the legacy of The Substation can continue to live on,” she says.
Regina too harbours some hope for the future. “Some people are angry, some people are bitter. I feel that all emotions are valid. I just hope that these feelings will fuel some new things. That people will say, ok, let’s do something since they are taking this away from us. I hope something comes up.”
SeptFest 2021 takes place at the Substation from now till 28 March 2021. Tickets to The Last Chapter are sold out. Find out more about the other programmes here.
This article is sponsored by The Substation.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.