With love, Audrey Wong.
Apropos of the Sub’s big milestone – which, as JW remarks, means that the institution has now reached official adulthood – this piece by former NMP and ex-artistic co-director of the Sub, Audrey Wong, has been popping up with clockwork-like regularity on my Facebook feed.
It’s worth the read. Some of it is perhaps a little too personal for me – or I just happen to disagree – but there’s a bit in there about how Singaporeans tend to “unconsciously shackle our own imaginations.’
Truer words were never spoken.
The personal angle does provide a nice counterpoint to Pete Schoppert’s ST piece though.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SUBSTATION !
By Audrey Wong.
So I’ve finally read the article in The Straits Times about The Substation’s 21st anniversary (8 Sept 2011), and the headlines made me sigh – once more, yet another press article about whether The Substation is “relevant” today. The media keeps harping on that. I’m sure Adeline Chia (the reporter) did as much as she could, but I think that our national newspaper could do so much better and come up with more insightful editorial angles. Two other things struck me personally: one, Weng Choy was barely mentioned (not quoted even – perhaps he wasn’t available for an interview, but perhaps the national paper should really go for an in-depth perspective even if it took a little longer to get the story?); and two, my quote (taken from a 20-minute chat with Adeline) was about Timbre. Ha.
But back to the ‘relevance thing’. I’m not so interested in this – I’m really more interested in thinking about ‘what is the art that happens at The Substation and how and why this has connected with people all these years’. And thinking about that took me down the road of thinking about what’s now going on in Singapore’s arts development – not at the level of arts policy, but at the level of the everyday reality of the arts-goer and artists. One clear development that’s taken place since the 2000 Renaissance City Report and the opening of the Esplanade in 2002 was the increasing ‘mainstreaming’ of the arts in Singapore. Once the government said, ‘it’s a go!’ we steamed ahead, and in the top-down fashion of Singapore, it became a game of numbers and hype, in order to win approval – from policy-makers, influencers, the media, and ultimately the masses. The NAC, for instance, always issued a press release after the Singapore Arts Festival which focused on audience numbers and ticket sales, with hardly any discussion of the ‘artistic’ aspect of the festival. Such habits of thought and practice (of looking at numbers, and using numbers as a measure of how much an audience ‘took to’ the artistic work) have become second nature to many Singaporeans and affected how we accept, receive, and perceive the arts. The highly materialistic and results-focused society that’s Singapore has bred a consumerist mentality towards the arts. We’re susceptible to the next big spectacle, the next ‘new’ thing, hype. A lot of present-day culture, especially popular culture, is built on the ‘new’ and the newsworthy: just think of the emphasis in the movie industry and across all the media, of a movie’s opening weekend box office take. When one thinks about it rationally, what’s the actual purpose of this emphasis? It’s not really about whether a movie is good or not, or even whether it’s worth watching; it’s about driving even more ticket sales and grabbing media attention. It’s about pushing the sale of a commodity and driving consumption, and everyone’s bought into this game. But, as Weng Choy reminded us years ago, the ‘new’ had become normal business in contemporary arts in the 1990s. (“The Substation’s Place in Singapore Arts”, http://www.substation.org/about-us/artistic-mission). And sometimes, certain genres of art, artists, places, events, become media darlings because of the spectacle, the money it earns or other reasons, garner the lion’s share of media space and thus, the public mindshare.
What is it that drives people to seek out alternatives to mainstream entertainment? I think it’s something intangible that unfortunately, we don’t discuss a lot in the public sphere. Not in Singapore. But, artists and arts groups might see it through audience responses and feedback forms. What’s this intangible thing? At the risk of sounding overly romantic, it’s about any of these: it takes us out of our narrow banal everyday concerns and our selfish concerns; it provokes us to think about the world; and it just gets us beneath the surface of life and its glittering temptations. I was very moved when one of my students told me about what was recently, his first experience of ‘serious’ theatre in Singapore. He was someone who had always focused on bread-and-butter issues, but he attended the “Remembering William Teo” event at The Substation and subsequently went to see TheatreStrays’ performance, “What the Dog Knows”. He responded to the performance directly, emotionally and intellectually, and developed an interest in and admiration for William Teo and other practitioners who passionately dedicated themselves to the craft of theatre without consideration of material rewards. In short, it was a deeper experience of life.
“Unless artists are capable of grappling with the full and unmitigated force of the complications of history, the dilemmas of modernity, the complexities of life as it is lived collectively by men, women and children, they will never be capable of making great art … There can be no great art, no living culture, without great lives, at least lives lived not just expansively but also more deeply.”
Living deeply, perhaps, is what attracts us to the arts. And maybe we Singaporeans could do with a reminder about this, every so often. Earlier this week, during consultations for first-year BA Arts Management students at LASALLE, one student told me that she enjoyed reading an article about how the media’s depiction of women affects social norms and influences the self-image of young women and girls. She had not seriously thought about these issues before, she said, and she was glad to have gone beyond the surface, and glad that it showed her truly what it meant “not to judge a book by its cover”.
Another aspect of living meaningfully has to be about making connections with our deeper selves, humanity, and others. I think of the artists who continue to gravitate towards The Substation even after 20 years. Although Keng Sen said in the Straits Times article that The Substation hadn’t maintained its relationships with artists who were there at the start in the 1990s, there are actually artists from the old days who continue to do work with The Substation … Effendy being one of them, some others being Lee Wen (who was an Associate Artist in the first decade of the 2000s) and Amanda Heng (who presented “I Remember” in 2005 for SeptFest and presented another in her “Let’s Walk” series with The Substation in 2009). As for why some artists stopped being / working at The Substation, well, I can offer three reasons: not enough space to accommodate all; some artists getting bigger and better stages, or their very own space; and – something else which we might call an artistic director’s prerogative, or an artistic direction. More recent artists who are “still there” include Raka Maitra, Sherman Ong, Daniel Kok, Elizabeth de Roza …and hopefully the newest ‘additions’ like Bani Haykal continue the relationship.
I’d venture to say that one aspect of this ‘relationship thing’ is that it’s not merely transactional. Many artists do not go to The Substation just to get something back; if anything, the “getting back” has to do with the artists’ work … the work of constantly making, trying, failing, reflecting, persisting … There was a conversation among the programming team a couple of years ago about the selection criteria for Open Call, which concluded with the thought that the artist(s) selected should not look upon the programme as simply a chance to get exhibition space or get funding. It was about a deeper engagement, with the work, with The Substation as a space, with the ideas, with the public.
Another aspect of the relationship, and perhaps this has to do with the value of an alternative space, I can only explain this way: some years ago, a theatre artist I met talked about the image of stray dogs and why they matter and where there can be space for them. That struck me. You never know how a stray dog might turn out. It’s a life after all, and life should matter. There will always be those who, by choice or circumstance, are left out of mainstream culture and arts, and society has to make spaces where they can be heard, where they can gather. They’re not lesser because they are strays; they might be more interesting.
Maybe what bugs me most about our consumerist mentality, is that we Singaporeans often unconsciously shackle our own imaginations. I’ve begun to understand this a little better, as I’ve met young people who have been trained to conform to the certainty of fixed structures, and habituated to repeating what the teacher wants. Unfortunately, as we train young people not to stray from a prescribed frame, we also train them in self-limitation. This isn’t about censorship; it’s really the shackles we ourselves put on our imaginations out of habit, we don’t permit ourselves to reflect deeply or to play.
“Expectations, memories, nostalgia, frustrations, a potential in real limitations. Our resources are very limited. And to a large degree, our imagination – the Substation’s , everybody’s — has been kind of battered, with the loss of the garden, funding, cultural policies… In a way our imagination becomes restricted, reduced. The challenge now is to recognize the physical limitations and really see how small the space is, and at the same time find the potential of that space that has not been tapped yet.” – Noor Effendy Ibrahim.
Ultimately, the arts can’t be a hegemonic thing, prescribed to us by the powers-that-be or those who just happen to have money and social influence. It’s about the “more” in all of us, perhaps it’s the “more” that keeps me awake at 2am typing this out after a 12-hour workday and a late night trip to the supermarket – because this matters to me, and I want to share it with others. Out of these little “more” moments that we carve out of our lives, perhaps, we find “the potential” of the untapped, the chink in the shutters of our minds.
Remarkably, I see that I’ve managed to write about The Substation without quoting Kuo Pao Kun! Perhaps that’s what he’d have wanted – if The Substation can go on without him, that’s probably proof enough that it’s needed?