ESCAPE OR ADVANCE: THE POLITICS OF INDEPENDENT ART SPACES IN SINGAPORE
IN SOUTHEAST ASIAN countries that declared independence after the Second World War, it is not uncommon for the government to take charge of national literary and artistic development. Whether they are living under a concentration of soft authoritarianism or in an oligarchy, for artists working in Southeast Asia to maintain their creative independence amid the tangle of economics, bureaucracy, globalization, nationalism, and identity often involves some unavoidably political choices.
In the case of Singapore, the struggle between independent artistic expression and the articulation of Singapore as a nation could be traced to the anti-leftist purge of 1976, when a large number of writers, artists, and intellectuals were arrested and jailed under the auspices of the Internal Security Act, among them Kuo Pao Kun, who would later found Substation.1In spite of this, in 2000 the Singapore government’s Ministry of Communications Information and the Arts (MICA) published a policy paper titled Renaissance City Report: Reviving Singapore’s Culture and the Arts. It had generous financial backing and brought resources together to clearly define the arts as building block of national consciousness. It is hard to believe that the Singapore Censorship Committee and the Renaissance City Report both came under the administrative and executive control of MICA. However, MICA underwent reorganization in 2012 and moved the National Arts Council, which oversees culture and the arts, to the Ministry of Community Development Youth and Sports. This demonstrates the government’s intention to make more use of the arts, not less, as a tool.
Singapore art critic Lee Weng-Choy wrote in his blog for the Guggenheim, “Publics, Intellectuals, and Singapore:” “Rather than thinking of the public as the general populace, which is too often conjured in Singapore (and elsewhere) as anti-intellectual, I would argue for thinking of publics as space—open and varied space in which one may listen to individual and independent voices speak freely, voices that are not only diverse but also disparate.” Perhaps the independent platforms for art discussed below, which define themselves differently, can to some extent provide strategies for escaping or advancing. While preserving independent expression in art, they seek another possibility to reconstruct existing civil society.
In 1988, Tang Da Wu set up a studio on a farm in the Lorong Gambas district of northern Singapore. This was the start of The Artists Village. Tang soon invited young local artists to come and use the space and in 1989 they held their first open studio exhibition. The dozens of artists who took part in the exhibition formally organized as an artists’ collective and called themselves The Artists Village (TAV). Among this initial group were Tang Da Wu, Amanda Heng, Vincent Leow, Lee Wen, and Kwok Kian Woon. According to Okwui Enwezor’s schematization of types of artist collectives, TAV comes close to the flexibility and informal organizational structure of his “networked collaboration,” emphasizing project collaboration rather than a permanent creative alliance. To this day TAV is the most influential discursive force in the history of the development of contemporary art in Singapore.
Compared to TAV, which was formed by practitioners gathered in the physical space or “locale” of a kampong (Malay village), in 1990 5th Passage Artists Ltd, led at the start by Susie Lingham and Suzanne Victor, became the first art space that did not need to rely on government subsidy to operate. It held a series of interdisciplinary discussions and activities relating to experimental art practice. Although it came to an unfortunate halt following the Artists’ General Assembly incident of 1993-94 (in the wake of which the Singapore government refused to issue permits for performance art for almost ten years), the meteoric existence of 5th Passage Artists Ltd highlights the need for any alternative spaces to hold discussion and debate for the art community while fostering interdisciplinary and multimedia work.
In 2003, in line with demands for space to be both independent and artistic, two second generation TAV artists—Woon Tien Wei, who had studied at Goldsmiths in the 1990s, and Jennifer Teo, who had worked at the first contemporary experimental art space in Singapore, Substation—formed the P-10 curatorial team with three other artists, continuing the cooperative model of an artists’ collective, renting a private space and holding a series of lectures, exhibitions, and performances. In 2007, the pair opened the Post-Museum in a 1920s building on Rowell Road in Little India. In order to avoid the influence of government support, they financed operations by renting out the space, fundraising, and selling artworks and other items. Jennifer Teo stressed that it was “an art space and a community center. And of course, it must have an eating and drinking place as well, so as to further attract artists and the public.” The emphasis on public activities was a reaction to the government’s neglect (in their Renaissance City plan) of community-led cultural development activities. In 2011 the physical space in Rowell Road closed down for financial reasons, but the Post-Museum continued its involvement with spaces for public discourse.
Grey Projects, which artist and curator Jason Wee has run since about 2009, and the Independent Archive and Resource Centre, founded by artist Lee Wen in 2012, both provide a different perspective in response to the sense of independence in the context of Singapore.
Grey Projects began in Jason Wee’s own living room, when at the invitation of Vehicle (a Plastique Kinetic Worms publication) he had returned to Singapore for an exchange residency program. When the project came to an end, Wee decided to start an exhibition program in his home. His aim was to provide a space where artists could have mutual dialogue and interaction, to seek opportunities for interdisciplinary and cross- collaboration. This interdisciplinary spirit was reflected in the plan to actively connect international artists in exchange programs and also in Pulp, the independent yearbook publishing imprint established by Grey Projects and in the “8.8.80” project. Grey Projects is currently located above a shop house in Tiong Bahru, where it settled in 2010. Since, it has already adapted the space into a multi-purpose area for artists to meet, including a library, exhibition space, and studios for resident artists and the publics that Grey Projects intends to formulate.
The Independent Archive and Resource Centre (IARC) was a longheld vision of Lee Wen, also the initiator of the performance art event “Future of Imagination” and a member of many performance art collectives. Lee Wen had long wished to create a resource center to document happenings of ephemeral nature, an idea that finally got off the ground in 2012 when Lee Wen held a solo exhibition at Singapore Art Museum, formally established on Aliwal Street. The IARC archive not only preserves materials previously gathered by Lee—it will grow through future activity and workshops as well.