Revive the journal

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 2, 2013

A drought of sorts may have ended recently with Lasalle College of the Arts' launch of an annual contemporary art journal titled Issue.

The first 95-page volume, launched in February, brings together ruminations from 13 visual, theatre and film artists and critics here and elsewhere on the subject of land. Most of the essays are related to Singapore, though there are diverse pieces on Stone Age cave paintings and Australian aboriginal performances.

Copies are available for $10 at Lasalle's Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, a cluster of galleries open to the public. Later this month, it will be sold at BooksActually and Basheer bookstores. A second issue, on the theme of echoes and translation, is slated for publication in the last quarter of this year.

Lasalle's move into journal publication is significant because in the past decade, no serious magazine or journal on the visual or performing arts has been produced here with any kind of regularity, even as arts activities have more than doubled.

Yes, there has been ample coverage of the arts of the "fast food" variety - listings, features and reviews providing information and analysis in a timely and easily digestible manner.

Such coverage, of which this newspaper is a major contributor, may be intelligent but not necessarily intellectual, as one of its aims is consumption by the general public. But with the arts scene now a sprawling, incredibly diverse and multi- tentacled creature, there is also a need for more serious and specialist publications. These should not be driven by market forces such as advertising, and would be published less frequently to yield more rigorous and reflective criticism. At the same time, they need to appear regularly enough to build up a following.

It does not matter if only 300 people here read them, because these are the 300 who create art, shape policies on the arts and write about it. They need to be stimulated and challenged, and it is no longer enough for them to read respected regional bimonthlies such as the Hong Kong-published magazine ArtAsiaPacific or the Taiwan-produced Yishu - Journal Of Contemporary Chinese Art.

Then you may have another 300 or so readers overseas, interested in artistic developments here and in the region, whom a Singapore-based journal with a global outlook could reach. If the country wants to be taken seriously for original and meaningful art, then it needs dedicated publications where that art - and the wider society art responds to - is investigated, contested and reframed.

The arts community knows this and has long bemoaned the dearth of funds to sustain such periodicals. By the mid- 2000s, poor sales and lack of funding forced the closure of three that had been running for a few years: the Esplanade-produced monthly The Arts Magazine, arts journal focas and visual art quarterly Vehicle by the now-defunct artist collective Plastique Kinetic Worms.

The woes of focas were particularly instructive. Edited by artist and academic Lucy Davis, it was first published biannually by The Necessary Stage. But after three issues, the theatre company decided in 2002 that it did not have the financial means to support it.

Davis put out another three more issues on an ad hoc basis, relying initially on funding from the National Arts Council which ended in 2004. Donations from the community were required to put out the journal's last issue in 2007, which sold for $25. It took $20,000 to design and print 1,000 copies of the 400-page journal. Its contributors, including Davis, did so voluntarily and were not paid.

Back then the council, which had a change of top brass in 2003, said it stopped supporting focas because of "funding reprioritisation". Since then, the council has supported at least one serious arts publication, a visual arts broadsheet ARTicle produced by the Singapore section of the International Association of Art Critics. It appears irregularly - only three issues have been produced since 2007 according to its website - and is distributed free at selected galleries.

In general, however, given the council's much-publicised unwillingness to fund works that are counter-cultural and disparage the Government, no publication addressing the relationship between the arts and society with any kind of honesty can ever really rely on council funding in the long run.

I have always felt that universities and arts colleges are the logical birthplace for arts journals. They have more funds at their disposal than any arts group could ever hope to have, academics on their payroll who can drive these journals and arts programmes that have a natural synergy with journal content.

I remain hopeful that more tertiary institutions here will take that route. The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts currently publishes, three times a year, a Chinese- language arts magazine with mainly profiles of artists. It could reach out to more readers by making it a bilingual English-Chinese periodical and expanding coverage to have more essays.

Equally, though, arts practitioners and critics who believe in the need for serious writing on the visual and performing arts should band together and initiate low-cost publications online.

They can take their cue from the literary arts community, several members of which have kept home-grown literary journal QLRS running for over 10 years now. An online quarterly, it publishes a selection of poetry, short fiction and literary and cultural criticism. Contributors are not paid.

While the quality of the output is sometimes patchy, it has proved an invaluable platform for the growth of the literary scene. For one thing, it gives much-needed exposure to young and mid-career writers before they accumulate enough works to publish a collection of their own.

Enough of the grumbling and factionalism. If the arts community wants an arts journal, it has to start one, and rally around it.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 2, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to