From letters to video interviews, archives offer insights into artists

Arts groups and institutions are dusting off their archives and making them more accessible and engaging.

Bringing memories to life

Art archives tell tales about artists and the arts - tracking the development of the arts scene with the passing of time and revealing unexpected glimpses into the lives and labour that lie behind works.

They are no longer just sterile, claustrophobic rooms filled with row after row of ageing material.

In recent years, arts groups and institutions here have been looking at ways to dust off and breathe new life into history.

They are making their archiving and documentation more accessible and engaging: from hosting eye-catching online portals that let users rifle through material with a finger on the mouse to staging intimate performances that relive the experiences of pioneer artists.

Spurred by the growing yearning of artists and audiences to learn more about the arts scene in Singapore, arts groups and institutions are now looking to reach out to not just researchers and practitioners through their archives, but also to curious laymen.


Theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS) is all grown up. Next year, it hits the big 3-0 - bringing with it a tidal wave of its past.

Since 2012, it has been wading through tens of thousands of materials - from scripts and articles to videos of performances and rehearsals - in a massive undertaking to digitise everything from 1987 and put it online.

This, says its general manager Melissa Lim, is to preserve its archives for the future and to deal with space issues. Too much space in the company's modest office in Marine Parade Community Building is being taken up by hard-copy items deteriorating with age.

Next year, its archives will be preserved in pixels and bytes on a one-stop portal for the public.

The site will also contain commissioned articles written by arts practitioners and researchers studying TNS' works and methodology against a larger backdrop - for instance, industry development.

"We have no interest in creating an archive of relics," says Ms Lim, 39. "What we want to do is spark conversations about our work and grapple with our history, not only as a theatre company, but also as artists in Singapore in a specific socio-political climate."

Institutions and arts groups have been looking at ways to polish up their archives - for private use, research or public consumption - for reasons beyond nostalgia.

The value of archives, they say, lies beyond sheer sentiment. It is part revelation, part genesis: of new works or reinterpretations, of new meanings and shared memories.

For TNS, Ms Lim says: "I think we are looking to our past perhaps because we are asking questions about the nature of our work, the state of the arts ecology... And perhaps it's also because we want to look at how we can mature in the future. Looking at our archives and seeking external eyes can give us a new understanding of our history and impact too.

Centre 42 - a National Arts Council initiative run by an independent team of theatre practitioners - was set up in 2014 to document, promote and create writing for the Singapore stage. But documentation, in particular, thrums strongly in all its efforts - even its programmes to incubate new work.

“There’s a desire for people to have a proper record of Singapore theatre. And people – practitioners and their audiences – are interested in this because the scene has grown and the arts have become a part of life for more people,” says its marketing and communications manager Ma Yanling, 32.

“There’s also a feeling that Singapore theatre is more about producing and rushing out new works – but would they just disappear after they’re staged? We wanted to be able to take the burden of documenting the process of creation off the artists.”

With its Basement Workshop – an incubation programme for Singapore- based independent artists creating text-based works – Centre 42, headquartered in a striking blue house in Waterloo Street, offers artists a space to work in – and also chips in to help them document their works.

When performer Sharda Harrison developed her show Bi(cara) – part of the recently concluded M1 Singapore Fringe Festival – under this programme, the centre uploaded on its website video interviews of her thoughts on topics such as her research and the way her script evolved.

TheatreWorks, too, believes interviews conducted with creatives are an important aspect of archiving, says managing director Tay Tong, 52. These interviews are uploaded on its blog, an easy way to keep the material alive, he says.

It digitised close to 90 per cent of its material in 2010 – a hefty task for a company with 30 years of archival material – and is looking at uploading some of its current productions.

Archives can – through interviews, scribbled notes in the margins of scripts, or sketches that form the skeleton for what will become full-fledged paintings – help lift the veil that shrouds the process behind the final product.

Ms Farah Wardani, 40, assistant director for the Resource Centre at National Gallery Singapore, says: “Looking through the archives is like filling in pieces of a puzzle. You get to see the artists’ lives, understand what inspired them, see how they grew up.

“Some people say they don’t like art because it’s hard to understand. The archives can show the human side of art. It can be a step for them to come into the world of art.”

Among the centre’s archives are letters in beautiful Chinese calligraphy between Chinese painter Liu Haisu and pioneering Singapore artist Liu Kang – a tender look into their long friendship.

Its Georgette Chen collection, meanwhile, is made up of 976 letters – in languages including English and French – and close to 4,000 of the painter’s personal and professional items, including her diaries, certificates and even her car keys.


Archival material is being moulded and resurrected in various forms: stage performances, hefty books and – the most common and natural move these days – digital resources, easily accessible for the casual consumer of the arts.

The National Gallery’s Resource Centre has a physical archive with folders of 162 artists from Singapore and 134 from the rest of South-east Asia, while its digital archive consists of more than 25,000 files on artists in Singapore and more than 10,000 on those from other parts of South-east Asia.

The centre is working to create a more interactive online resource where the public can download and view archival material easily in the next few years – part of its long-term goals.
The public can easily head to library@esplanade, the National Library Board’s one-stop physical resource on the performing arts.

The board also has online archives, such as MusicSG, a collection of published Singapore musical works which includes recordings, lyrics and scores.

National performing arts centre The Esplanade, which has been making and keeping records of performances and installations held there since it opened in 2002, has brought part of its archives out into the public eye.

It is also exploring how archived materials can be better accessed for research and education, says the centre’s assistant chief executive officer Yvonne Tham, 41.

Some steps have been taken in that direction. When the centre was refurbished last year, two spaces were created to showcase some of the content it has archived – at Jendela Visual Arts Space, visitors can browse catalogues and brochures of past exhibitions and public art works at the Esplanade, while an installation at the Concourse, called Passages, outlines the Esplanade’s development.

And though the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts has the Tanoto Foundation Centre for South-east Asian Arts – a 35 sq m room filled with more than 10,000 items such as books and postcards from as far back as the 1940s – it has also answered the siren call of the Web.

The centre’s online counterpart is TFCSEA@Nafa, a database of digital resources. Individuals can sign up as online members for $100 a year. More than 140,000 items have been digitised from mid-2009 to early last year, says its senior director of student services Carol Sim, 50.

Nafa has also been approaching artists and arts groups for agreements to donate information resources for digitisation. As of Sept 30 last year, close to 200 artists and arts groups have signed these agreements.

While Centre 42 has met the demand for digital resources straight on – it has an online catalogue of books on Singapore theatre, Book Den, and The Repository, which houses over 1,500 artefacts from theatre history here, including programmes from groups such as the defunct spell#7 – it has also revived archival material by other means, such as performance.

One is The Vault, a presentation platform that sees contemporary artists revisiting and reinterpreting old works and the legacies of veterans. Performances are recorded and made available online.


But the costs and process of archiving are daunting – especially for smaller organisations and arts groups who have a passion for preserving history, but are not equipped for the mammoth task.

For some, such as artist-archivist Koh Nguang How, whose Singapore Art Archive Project is made up of almost a million items, it is a matter of space (see other story).

Others are figuring out technical details on their own.

TNS’ Ms Lim says the company has been trying to digitise its archives in-house, but would appreciate some professional help.

And the cost is daunting too. The set-up costs for TNS’ project are expected to hit at least $80,000, and maintaining the archive could add up to $15,000 a year.

Time and equipment are an issue too. TheatreWorks’ Mr Tay says archiving a production would need a minimum of two cameras shooting at least three sessions. Then there are long days at the editing table, piecing the footage together and syncing the sound.

The Theatre Practice, which has about 50years of material, has been digitising its archives for the past three to four years, but it has been a slow process.

Its artistic director Kuo Jian Hong recalls how hard drive crashes had occasionally wiped out part of the archives.And with leaps in technology – from VHS to Blu-ray – file sizes are growing.

“In the past, wow, 1TB storage? That’s so big! But now, even 5TB is not enough,” she says with a laugh.

“A lot of companies are like us, still struggling to figure out how to make it work. It has to be economically viable and we have to retain the integrity of our files. We also need manpower to keep them in order. It’s not just about keeping videos and papers, but the context too: details of the recording, the background on how it came about.”

The Theatre Practice’s archive is only for private use; Ms Kuo, 48, says it cannot cope with making the archive public yet.

Still, the archive is a way for the company to find footing as it pursues new projects.

“It’s a foundation for more development and it gives context to why some works were done, the socio-historical background and personal motivations at the time,” she says.

“If you don’t archive these things – especially for theatre, which happens on stage, then they are gone – it’s going to be almost like just hearsay. When you archive these things, you can study, build on them and continue to grow. They can ground you. They can inspire you. Or else it’s almost like wasted effort.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2016, with the headline 'New wave of the old'. Print Edition | Subscribe