Perspectives: The Substation

In December last year, it was announced that Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts centre, The Substation, would be embarking on a new artistic direction. Its newly appointed artistic director, Alan Oei, plans to unveil The Substation as a “research and developmental space” whilst embarking on an ambitious year-long programme that will be focused on one big theme or idea.

One particular proposal for the centre that stood out is the eventual abandonment of allowing the centre’s performing spaces to be rented out. In an article by Today, Alan Oei mentioned that “While there is a value for having a cheap venue space where artists can come freely and experiment, I don’t think that’s The Substation’s role,”  before adding that the public perception of the performing arts venue is muddled in the sense that people are not making the distinction on whether a particular exhibition or show is organised by The Substation or by others using the space.

We reached out to Shaiful Risan – the head of Prohibited Projects as well as regular gig organiser who often uses The Substation as a performing space for local and overseas bands – to give his thoughts on this particular direction The Substation is heading to:

I’ll be touching specifically on the importance of independent spaces within the relativity of Singapore’s social infrastructure.


I am a huge enthusiast of independent spaces and am a strong advocate for its existence within subcultural aspects of Singapore; whether or not you are an artist, a musician, a dramatist or one of those art rebel types that cannot be categorized.


Specifically touching on gigs and live music (or noise) I believe that there is a dearth in such spaces in Singapore. Factors like cost and location are a problem, and the social narratives make it near impossible for independent spaces to survive.


For example, Singapore is anti-noise (please don’t start on Noise Singapore and such false bourgeois projects, they are not ‘noise’ nor are they truly alternative although I wouldn’t dismiss such projects entirely).


Singapore is anti-art.


Singapore just doesn’t have enough space for original works and crafts.


Singapore is gentrified to a point where something truly original is a rarity.


As such there aren’t enough physical spaces to let the fun and noisy stuff happen.


And when they do they get shut down so fast, mainly due to complications from circumstances.


We have a few places but they all don’t last too long (cost, neighbours that don’t necessarily get along, legally inept, etc) like the old CRAWLSPACE, BLACKHOLE212, and recently LITHE PARALOGUE and PINK NOIZE.


There are other spaces like Independent Archive which are more scholarly / workshop-esque and aren’t suitable for shows.


There are fully functioning music studios like L Cube but that’s what they are; music studios. Not community spaces.


There are also spaces like Goodman Arts Centre and Aliwal Arts Centre, great physical spaces on their own but work on very different mechanisms and are sub-corporate, making personal relationships very difficult.


Whilst having a sub-corporate modus operandi makes the space sustainable, there is also however a sharp disconnect with anyone that isn’t a direct hirer or affiliated artist.


That leaves us with the iconic contemporary space, THE SUBSTATION.


The SUBSTATION is by far the longest lasting truly independent space run on proper staffing and accounting.


It is perfect for Singapore, or rather it is CRUCIAL.


It is in some ways a proper space with a strong interpersonal touch, a very ‘real’ aura within it even when our playground the Garden is now home to Timbre, an exclusive bar that plays top 40 music to crappy yuppie types and doesn’t give a shit about the real deal that goes on on the streets or even within its same premises.


A ton of art projects have been hosted at The Substation Theater and Gallery as well as events and gigs across all sounds and forms.


Its strength is in its strategic location and its openness to discourse, whether or not you would like to vent an artistic frustration or you just needed another hour to run your show.


It has brought people together, and it has been doing so for 26 years.


It must remain open for as long as there is breath running through the social fabric of Singapore’s alternative community.


My point thus far is simple.


The noisy people are part of society. They too need a playground.


This place must provide us one. If they cannot provide us one, then they should leave us alone when we build one.


And we the noisy people should always take it upon ourselves to ensure it stays this way.


It is only correct if we choose to move forward as an “inclusive society”, no?


Punk Person

The Substation has been a wonderful avenue for aspiring local artists to showcase their works to the masses ever since its inception in 1990 by the late Kuo Pao Kun. From a strict “performance spaces” point of view, taking this avenue away will not only add to the fact that affordable performance spaces in Singapore are sorely lacking, it will also take away a space that has garnered an enduring following with a sizeable passionate group of artistic individuals and collective.

Perspectives pieces are opinion pieces on the local or regional creative scene. Views expressed by contributing writers are solely theirs.

You can reach out to Shaiful Risan at [email protected].


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