Explore reconfigured spaces at The Substation’s exhibition Discipline The City

Artist Debbie Ding under a trapdoor that leads to her work in the basement.
Artist Debbie Ding under a trapdoor that leads to her work in the basement.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The Substation's newest exhibition, Discipline The City, features reconfigured spaces that take visitors through rarely accessed areas of the venue, such as its basement, via a trapdoor in its theatre space.

Conventional openings, such as the door to its black box space, are sealed off.

Rooms are painted a blinding white, creating an effect of sensory deprivation.

The exhibition, as well as its related programmes, interrogates the relationship between a city's people and its architectural elements.

The three-month exhibition opens today and takes place in three "acts", with a roster of permanent and rotating Singapore and international artists, including visual and performance artists, punks and seniors.

Works in the show include Singapore visual artist Debbie Ding's permanent installation, A Brief History Of The Trap Door, which will allow visitors to explore the building's basement.


  • WHERE: The Substation, 45 Armenian Street

    WHEN: Act I: Today to Sept 24; Act II: Oct 4 to 22; Act III: Nov 1 to 26. Open from Wednesdays to Sundays, noon to 8pm; closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and during the dates between Acts

    ADMISSION: Free, but All Curators Are B____ guided tours are ticketed at $10 each

    INFO: disciplinethecity.sg

Home-grown artist Chen Sai Hua Kuan's all-white room in Something Nothing will have visitors feeling disoriented.

The work is part of the artist's exploration of articulating a space without the use of lines.

Discipline The City is also the name of the 2017 "cultural conversation" that drives the programmes of The Substation this year, says its artistic director Alan Oei.

"I want people to know that The Substation does not exist without artists.

"Our role is to connect artists to the public. We're trying to push a particular cultural conversation each year.

"These are real-life issues that affect all of us," says Oei, who has been artistic director since late 2015.

He adds that The Substation needs to "not just celebrate artists", but to also "generate larger conversations about things that are not just about the arts, but about Singapore and society at large".

He is the co-curator of the exhibition, along with designer Joshua Comaroff.

In his early days at the helm of the indie arts space, Oei courted controversy when he suggested to phase out venue rental and review its programming.

These days, he seems to favour a more consultative, democratic approach in his programming, with a dose of tongue-in-cheek irreverence.

For instance, the exhibition space will house Persuasive Design Agency, where members of the public can drop in to ask designers for help with design problems.

The temporary outfit is staffed by Comaroff and designers from Lekker Architects.

"People can interact with them at all times, but they might ignore you if they are busy," warns Oei with a smile.

And one community that he hopes to reconnect with are the punks in Singapore. The Substation in the past was an unofficial home for them to gather and hold gigs.

Each act in Discipline The City has a punk-in-residence component, where invited Singapore punks get about one month each to do anything they want within a small space in The Substation's gallery.

They also get $1,000 as a residency fee.

"That's in a way an acknowledgement from me that The Substation has never given punks the same kind of access that we give to artists.

"We give artists money for productions, but punks have never had that kind of direct support," says Oei.

There will also be a series of ticketed guided tours of the exhibition led by punks, titled All Curators Are B____. The name is a riff on a punk slogan known to express anti-police sentiments.

Some artists are choosing to look at architecture in more personal ways.

When Ding, 32, got married two years ago, she held her reception at The Substation and had been curious about the trapdoor located in its black box space.

"I'd thought about crawling in and out of it, but we didn't do it because it was quite complicated.

"But I've been thinking about this trapdoor and wanted to devise an experience around it," says Ding.

In October and November, as part of Acts II and III, performance artist Patricia Toh will present a series of "encounters" between the audience and artists in her piece, A Map Of Scars, Bruises And Broken Bones, which looks at the body as a map.

Toh, 36, wanted to "create little interactions that draw attention to the body as a kind of map", where things such as scars and bruises, both metaphorical and physical, "can be read and tell me something about your life", she says.

She adds: "There is the hard architectural aspect to this exhibition, but it is the people that make a place."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Down the trapdoor to explore The Substation'. Print Edition | Subscribe