The In­de­pen­dent

Mr. Alan Oei, Artis­tic Di­rec­tor of The Sub­sta­tion, is hop­ing for the day when his role as keeper of the flame for those on the fringe be­comes ir­rel­e­vant

Portfolio - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Lili Li

Mr. Alan Oei, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the highly re­garded arts venue The Sub­sta­tion, is hop­ing for the day when his role as keeper of the flame for those on the fringe be­comes ir­rel­e­vant

It’s pub­lic knowl­edge that Mr. Alan Oei, artis­tic di­rec­tor at The Sub­sta­tion, went through some rough times as he as­sumed of­fice in 2015. When he first shared his vi­sion for the arts venue in a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle, it was greeted with a strong and very vo­cal re­ac­tion. “I never ex­pected it to be any­thing but rough tran­si­tion if changes were to be made,” he tells Port­fo­lio, ad­ding that he doesn’t think about it any­more. “Those days are long gone; I’m much more in­ter­ested in our fu­ture.”

But Mr. Oei, a noted artist-cu­ra­tor, isn’t sim­ply be­ing philo­soph­i­cal about the way he chooses to re­mem­ber those times. In fact, by the way he sounds, he is be­ing truth­ful and prag­matic: “In a way, you ap­pre­ci­ate the anger and con­tro­versy gen­er­ated be­cause it tells you that The Sub­sta­tion is a spe­cial place. In Sin­ga­pore, where peo­ple tend to be apo­lit­i­cal and ap­a­thetic, this tells you how much The Sub­sta­tion isn’t just an in­sti­tu­tion, but a com­mu­nity.”

Mr. Oei wasn’t seek­ing a po­si­tion when he agreed to meet Mr. Chew Kheng Chuan, chair­man of The Sub­sta­tion, for lunch, although he was aware of an on­go­ing head-hunt for an artis­tic di­rec­tor. After the meet­ing, he kept his prom­ise to send Mr. Chew his thoughts on what should be done to run the arts venue. Those thoughts made up his plan of ac­tion for ef­fect­ing changes in The Sub­sta­tion when he even­tu­ally agreed to be­come its new artis­tic di­rec­tor.

“After about six months, most of the pub­lic rum­blings dis­ap­peared, although I’m sure pri­vately peo­ple con­tin­ued to be un­happy,” the Columbia Uni­ver­sity (BA Art His­tory) alum sur­mises. “The un­for­tu­nate thing for me is that after com­plain­ing so much, peo­ple just went away. I al­most wish they stayed to com­plain be­cause that would mean they con­tinue to en­gage with us, to want us to get bet­ter.”

We sat down with Mr. Oei to talk about the state of the state at The Sub­sta­tion, the land­mark projects he launched prior to his cur­rent post­ing, and whether or not the storm has passed over the much-loved arts venue.

Port­fo­lio: News re­ports men­tion that some mem­bers of the arts com­mu­nity were op­posed to some of the changes that you wanted to im­ple­ment (as the in­com­ing head of The Sub­sta­tion). To what in par­tic­u­lar were they ob­ject­ing?

There were two pri­mary ob­jec­tions. First, that The Sub­sta­tion would stop venue rental – this was a par­tic­u­lar sticky point be­cause space in Sin­ga­pore is so pre­cious and hard to come by. Sec­ond, that in­stead of our eclec­tic dis­ci­pline-based pro­gram­ming—that is, we had a film, vis­ual arts and theater pro­grams—that were run in­de­pen­dently of each other, we would col­lapse the bound­aries and each year’s pro­gram­ming would be based on a sin­gle theme and cul­tural ques­tion about Sin­ga­pore. Some of these pro­grams, such as the Mov­ing Im­ages film pro­gram, had be­come iconic and much-loved, so nat­u­rally peo­ple were up­set if these pro­grams were go­ing to be canned or sig­nif­i­cantly changed.

How did you sur­vive that pe­riod of dis­sent?

I don’t think of it as a pe­riod of dis­sent at all. Be­cause The Sub­sta­tion has been around for so long, in­vari­ably it stands for dif­fer­ent things with dif­fer­ent artists. We or­ga­nized shar­ing ses­sions that cul­mi­nated in a Town­hall; and all of these ses­sions were spa­ces for dis­sent, dis­agree­ment, but most im­por­tantly, they gave us a chance to talk face to face. I am very sym­pa­thetic to what The Sub­sta­tion means to dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties even if ul­ti­mately I dis­agree with how some artists want The Sub­sta­tion to stay the same.

In a nut­shell, what did you want to bring to The Sub­sta­tion? Do you think the ob­jec­tions lodged by some mem­bers of the arts com­mu­nity to your plan were jus­ti­fied? Was it a mat­ter of com­mu­ni­cat­ing or tim­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of the changes you wanted?

My vi­sion for The Sub­sta­tion is hardly orig­i­nal. If any­thing, it is a re­turn to its roots as a pub­lic, civic space to lead cul­tural con­ver­sa­tions through the arts. It has al­ways been a valu­able space where artists could do what­ever they wanted, and while that’s im­por­tant, it also meant we had in­creas­ingly iso­lated our­selves from the larger pub­lic. Re­mem­ber that in the past we were al­ways en­gaged with so­ci­ety.

Art is al­ways po­lit­i­cal be­cause it is ul­ti­mately about what makes us hu­man—and that’s po­lit­i­cal. It’s about power re­la­tions, rules, laws, ethics. We were one of the pre­cious few spa­ces in the early years to sup­port coun­ter­cul­ture, civil so­ci­ety, LGBT or hu­man rights – all that’s our DNA. So for­get about themes or venue ren­tals, those were means to an end, the ends that we want to achieve is for us to re­turn to our orig­i­nal vi­sion and mean­ing.

Did the ob­jec­tions change your orig­i­nal vi­sion for The Sub­sta­tion? What changes did you make fol­low­ing the ob­jec­tion?

Although I feel there are many other spa­ces now avail­able for rental, we de­cided ul­ti­mately not to can­cel venue rental and con­tinue to al­low oth­ers to use the space for their own events and pro­grams. That was the one con­ces­sion; every­thing else we needed to go ahead. So pro­gram­ming changed, staff changed, even the build­ing space has been sig­nif­i­cantly changed.

How are things at The Sub­sta­tion the mo­ment? What are some of the key changes to the run­ning of the venue and its pro­grams? What is your state of mind re­gard­ing The Sub­sta­tion and your po­si­tion in it? What are you proud­est of?

The way we de­scribe The Sub­sta­tion is that it’s an in­de­pen­dent arts cen­ter. The word in­de­pen­dent is ul­tra-im­por­tant. We think of it as the Tenth Per­son of Sin­ga­pore. If nine peo­ple agree on some­thing, it’s our eth­i­cal duty to dis­agree.

Sin­ga­pore is the kind of space where if you’re not part of the main­stream, it’s a re­ally dif­fi­cult ex­is­tence. This is a long-winded way re­ally of say­ing that The Sub­sta­tion, be­cause of its vi­sion, is al­ways go­ing to be in a dif­fi­cult po­si­tion. We’re pre­pared for fail­ure if peo­ple de­fine it ac­cord­ing to your usual yard­sticks of pub­lic­ity, num­ber of vis­i­tors, and in­ter­na­tional ac­claim. But it’s been around for 28 years. That’s 28 years of go­ing against the norm and sup­port­ing those on the mar­gins. That’s suc­cess that’s not about per­sonal suc­cess. It’s about me learn­ing to grow into the role of what The Sub­sta­tion needs as an in­sti­tu­tion that makes a dif­fer­ence.

What are the rev­enue streams of The Sub­sta­tions, and of these, what con­trib­utes most to the vi­a­bil­ity of the venue? How is The Sub­sta­tion mon­e­tized?

This is a cute ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion. Can we take gov­ern­ment fund­ing and still call our­selves in­de­pen­dent? I think we can as long as we re­mem­ber that we serve the pub­lic and not our­selves or the gov­ern­ment. A third of our rev­enue comes from the gov­ern­ment, another third from venue rental, and the last third is al­ways a chal­lenge: Tick­ets, fundrais­ing, spon­sor­ships, good­will.

How else are you in­tro­duc­ing in­no­va­tions to The Sub­sta­tion – in terms of run­ning the house and its pro­grams?

Mov­ing to an an­nual theme and cul­tural ques­tion is sig­nif­i­cant for me – it means that we think larger than the arts. We work with cul­tural ques­tions that have sig­nif­i­cance not only for artists but for all Sin­ga­pore­ans.

For ex­am­ple, last year was about Dis­ci­pline the City, about how ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign is co-opted to con­trol and or­ga­nize space, es­pe­cially through de­fen­sive ar­chi­tec­ture. This year our theme is about another form of con­trol through her­itage and his­tory. Our de­press­ing theme is “Cities change. Peo­ple die. Every­thing you know goes away.” We live in a city that is con­stantly eras­ing it­self. We’re not so in­ter­ested in what we should save, but why the deepseated anx­i­ety and nos­tal­gia per­me­ates our ur­ban lives.

What does The Sub­sta­tion mean to you per­son­ally? What else do you think The Sub­sta­tion can be?

It’s na­tional ser­vice. It’s in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing and thank­less, but there’s a space for fail­ure, as Kuo Pao Kun, our leg­endary founder says. Things are cycli­cal, and if we fail, maybe some­where down the line, other peo­ple find a bet­ter way to do it. I hope that even­tu­ally Sin­ga­pore can be more open and in­clu­sive; the en­tire Sin­ga­pore should be a home for the arts, that’s our tagline. No­tice that it’s ‘a’, not ‘the’.

In such a so­ci­ety, we wouldn’t even need The Sub­sta­tion any­more. I hope for the day when The Sub­sta­tion isn’t a stop-gap mea­sure for the fringe and mar­gins, and per­haps we can be com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant in a Sin­ga­pore that loves and cher­ishes hu­man­ity and the arts.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore

© PressReader. All rights reserved.