Questioning role of arts space

Alan Oei.
Alan Oei.

The Substation's artistic director Alan Oei may have ruffled some feathers since joining the independent arts centre last year, but he sees a silver lining to the kerfuffle.

His plans for the centre, which included introducing a year-long theme for its programmes and phasing out venue rental, had drawn ire from some members of the arts community.

To address public concerns about the proposed changes, the 39-year-old held a series of focus group discussions in March that culminated in a townhall session that month and an about-turn on matters such as venue rental.

He concedes that the community's strong sense of ownership of The Substation was something he "didn't grapple with as much" before he headed the centre. But he has since become conscious of it and the opportunities it presents.

"We ruffled a lot of feathers, but there was this bringing together of disparate people who hadn't come together in the same space for a long time to talk about what The Substation meant to them," he says. "I think there's exciting potential for us to find ways to keep this sense of community activated and to do something together."

Unwittingly, that first collaboration is the theme for the centre's programmes this year.

Previously focused on nostalgia, the theme will now be an interrogation of the independent arts centre and it will question, among other things, what an art space is for, what The Substation is for and what is its relationship to its stakeholders.

Explaining the change in theme, he says: "There are artists who disagree with the new direction and, for us, it's to find ways for these voices to exist through questioning ourselves."

He maintains that his vision for the arts centre remains unchanged from that of its founder, the late dramatist Kuo Pao Kun, with the centre serving as a space for artists as well as practitioners from other disciplines to come together and contribute to larger cultural and social issues and conversations.

"What we are is that plural voice that needs to be independent," he says, and plans for the centre were conceived with this in mind.

Its year-long theme, he stresses, is not about the centre driving artistic creation in a particular direction, but rather following the practice of artists and highlighting their work. The theme will apply to all the programmes it presents, except ad-hoc topical shows such as Each Blade Of Grass Each Shrub Each Tree (see main story) and venue-rental shows.

As for deciding to keep venue rental, he says: "I can better understand where people are coming from now. In Singapore, space is a premium and it's difficult to find."

He adds that he hopes such dialogue with the community will continue to help shape the centre.

"Each time we do a project, I'd be happy to hear from them what they think worked and didn't and, along the way, iterate together."

Huang Lijie

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Questioning role of arts space'. Print Edition | Subscribe