D: I would propose looking at the history of the Substation in terms of three different decades. The first would be the nineties, defined by a strong, ground-up, DIY spirit, when the Sub was a space for people to encounter one another and for ideas to be negotiated. This was followed by the second decade, which was a time of institution-building, when it became clear that the earlier mode of operation was no longer sustainable and thus economic imperatives had to take over. I would say it became more of a space for presentation rather than process. And of course, it was also during this decade that the Garden was gone, which I think played a very big part in removing the community from the space. I remembered feeling very betrayed when I came back and found that the Garden was not there anymore. Most people felt the same. The third era would be now, I hope, when we see that things are beginning to change a little, although it remains to be seen what is the exact impact of these changes upon the Sub’s identity.
K: I have to take issue with the way you compartmentalised the history of the Sub, simply because we cannot be looking at the three decades so schematically in relation to each other. The nineties was a time of unprecedented growth and thus any period that followed it would naturally appear dull and uneventful. There is also the tendency to look at the past through a romanticised view. You mentioned the Garden. Truth be told, from what I’ve heard from Sasi, the Garden was actually underutilised when it was still around. You can count with one hand the number of events that took place there each month. We have to look at the history of the Sub in terms of the broader landscape that was evolving both because of and in spite of it. The Sub could maintain its identity as a locus of the arts community in the nineties because it was the only place where it could thrive. It was a time when the arts was still largely a fringe phenomenon and the Sub was this fringe. While I cannot say that the arts has become mainstream now, there has at least been an institutional normalisation of the arts which has farther led to its professionalisation as an industry. Now, even within the fringe, there is stratification between the so-called commercial and non-commercial artists and with the community itself fractured, it is only inevitable that the centre at which it gathers begins to vanish.
D: I’m not denying that external factors played a part, but internally, Sub as an institution had also changed after the nineties, no? There was a perception that Sub had become more serious, more academic…
F: But the Sub was already very academic from the start what, like the conferences, art vs art etc. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with it becoming more academic. The Sub needs to differentiate its identity. There is no obligation for it to be a community centre. Actually, from how I see it, a lot of the negativity surrounding the decade when Weng and Audrey were in charge was due to bad PR – the way decisions were made without consulting the community and how they were communicated. There was still a lot happening at the Sub at that time. It was still a lot about process.
P: I don’t think it was a matter of how many things were happening at the Sub. There were probably as many things happening in the two-thousands as in the nineties. The problem was that of curatorial dialogue. What is the discourse that is being generated by all these disparate activities? There were campaigns against everything from the death penalty to cat culling, while at the same time, you had people practising yoga and capoeira in the studios upstairs. The Sub just seemed to have lost its direction, as if it didn’t know where to go.
D: I think that was also the time when people were saying that the Sub was being hijacked by civil society.
K: I don’t agree that it was “hijacked”, because art and civil society have always been intertwined from the time of the Sub’s conception. I believe Pao Kun would have approved of the inclusion of civil society within the Sub’s programming, because he envisioned the Sub as the public space more than anything else. The operative word in “A Home for the Arts” is the word “Home”, which entails openness. The Sub needs to be open to the community and be shaped by its needs.
P: But was the Sub really conceived to have so nebulous an identity? One of the biggest misconceptions of the nineties was that it was all laissez-faire with no programming, as if it was really an empty space awaiting for artists to fill it. Not to say it wasn’t open to all forms of art and practices of course; but despite the porosity, there was a very strong curatorial programme running its core. Think New Criteria, Raw Theatre. Some of the works produced by these programmes defined the generation. The Artist-in-Residency initiative was also essential. Its successor, the Associate Artist Scheme, could never match up to its productivity.
J: Sorry if I’m deviating from the current discussion thread a little, since we have been harping on a lot about programming, but I think in talking about a space like the Substation, we too often forget the most important element – the physical space, the geography. The reason why Sub was able to function as a community centre was because it was literally the centre of a wider civic space. The National Library was nearby. There was S11, the kopitiam opposite and within the Sub, there was Fat Frog. The best part was that all these spaces seemed to spill over into one another. It was one continuous space. You didn’t know where you were stepping into because there were no demarcations. I think the loss of the National Library was the start of the decline. For one, Literature began to disappear from the Sub. All the book events that used to happen in the Garden – gone. The final straw was the loss of the eating places. Food and art has to come together and it has to be the right kind of food. Where can you go after you watch a performance at the Sub now? Timbre?
P: I think we need to stop thinking that removing Timbre would be the panacea to all our problems. Who is going to fill the Garden when we have it back? We have changed as a community. Amongst us, there is distrust and vanity at play. Artistic practice has become a largely become an individualistic pursuit. Nobody is interested in what each other are doing. I think the younger generation of artists are the best indicator of this. Do they even give a shit about our own history, our community?
K: I am wary about pursuing this line of argument though, because once again we are invoking the spectre of a quaint, communitarian past. I don’t think we have become more selfish, or at least not to the extent that it should be a cause for alarm. We are a much larger community now and thus it is inevitable that the sense of intimacy be lost. Besides, the more collectivist modes of art-making in the past emerged more from an economy of means than a communal ethos. We had to share and collaborate because resources were so sparse and there was only so much we could do if we were to operate individually.
F: Most of us also had more free time. Nothing much to do.
J: Yes, that was a factor too. Ideas need time to flourish. If it helps, I think we are beginning to understand again how important it is to give an artist time. The new Arts Creation Fund, for instance, is a good sign of that.
D: We also need to reclaim that sense of imagination. Isn’t that what we, as artists, are supposed to do – imagine?
K: Let us put our imaginations to work then. What do you imagine that the Sub can be in today’s ecology?
F: I think it needs to be the leader of the arts community. I don’t think a community can survive without leadership. It may not be official, but we already have people recognised in some ways as the ones taking the lead in the scene here. But they are all individuals and we cannot count upon them to be there all the time. But when an organisation takes the lead, there is continuity, because organisations have legacies that can be passed on even as the people leave.
P: For me, the Sub has to be a hotbed of discourse, simply because that is the best thing it is capable of doing and that there is no one institution fully committed to it at the moment. It is clear that the Sub has run its course as a physical space. There is no way it can compare to the bigger, glossier spaces out there. It must focus on artistic process and research.
J: If I have it my way, I will turn the entire Substation into a writer’s centre, simply because it makes economic sense. Writers, like all artists, need space. But all we don’t need a lot of space, just a small, no-frills room to call our own, which is readily available at the Sub. I would happily book a room at the Sub just to write.
D: For me, it’s very simple. It has to be about art – not just any art, but contemporary art practice.
K: That’s a very amorphous notion, D. But I’ll add to that another amorphous notion which we are all too familiar with; I think the Substation should continue to be a home for the arts.
Images courtesy of The Substation.