The Substation’s latest show, Discipline the City is a tour de force in urban explorations and uncomfortable relationships with authorities and cities. It’s an odd choice for the name of an exhibition and in adhering to the theme, we thought it might be appropriate to approach this article with a similar level of structure and order.

After all, how can a city be “disciplined”? Isn’t that something for small children?

What does “discipline” even mean?

This being Singapore, where better to look for meaning than in guidelines laid down by the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) – the government body whose mission is to “mould the future of the nation by moulding the people (emphasis added), who will determine the future of the nation”.

According to the MOE website “effective discipline is based on a consistent philosophy,” and has the following hallmarks:

  • The goal of discipline is to teach students how to develop self-discipline.
  • Discipline is a learning process to develop students’ thinking and moral faculties.
  • Leadership is the key success factor for effective school discipline.
  • A whole-school, multi-faceted approach is required

In the spirit of discipline and structure, we propose to look at Discipline the City through the above framework, with case studies for the illustration of ideas put forth.

Are we all in agreement?

No?

Well, too bad – let the disciplining begin!

Rule 1: The goal of discipline is to teach students how to develop self-discipline (again, emphasis added)

Discipline the City makes the observation that “cities mirror us” and questions what happens when our “city becomes over-regulated and over-designed?” Is there still room for people outside of the mainstream, or does the city “tend towards some vague notion of a model citizen?” To what extent do these restrictions create self-perpetuating limitations on the population?

Case Study #1: The Punk Museum, A Manifesto for Space

With an open call for punks to reclaim the spatial confines of the Substation, artistic director Alan Oei has created a multi-layered commentary on a group of people whose natural habitat lies within the outer limits of society. The Substation has both welcomed and rejected punks at different points in time, and in this latest outing, offers them a space for experimentation and usage however they please, together with a display of various punk paraphernalia.

Punk “artefacts” on display

Another section of the exhibition involves a revolving door of punk performers, who take turns to inhabit a space at monthly intervals, in all their pierced and inked-up glory. Anjingsial for example, the present punk in residence, is described as an “angry, dazed and confused individual with no formal art education”, who is not even considered as an artist.

Anjingsial, in residence till 24 September (Image credit: Substation)

Artwork by the current punk-in-residence

October 2017 sees the introduction of a punk family — Amin and Mimie — a husband and wife pair with 4 little punk children. One looks at the punks through a glass shopfront of sorts, surveilling their every move in this free space for experimentation. Throw into the mix the fact that these folks who earn amounts “below the supposed median income,” were paid for their residencies, and an uncomfortable narrative unfolds. It’s The Truman Show meets Big Brother, with an added dash of slum tourism, just for a good measure.

Artistic director Alan Oei, by the “shopfront,” through which punks may be observed

To be sure, this free space for punk experimentation is not without its own rules. The punks slot neatly into the wider thematic framework of the exhibition just as much as they are permitted to wildly experiment. And of course, all wild experimentation takes place within a bright yellow pre-allocated space with the instruction that illegal activities are permitted. The punks have obviously been given a choice, work within the rules or forfeit the chance to be seen and recognised by society – in other words: You know the rules. Now self-regulate or be thrown out.

The goal of discipline is to teach students how to develop self-discipline?

Seems like the same applies to the inhabitants of cities as well.

Rule 2: Discipline is a learning process to develop students’ thinking and moral faculties.

As it turns out, urban planners have ingenious ways of making cities inherently inhospitable. For a crash course in how this is done, check out Taiwanese artist Tsui Kuang – Yu’s video works on the absurd little details that can be found in urban spaces.

Case Study 2: Tsui Kuang – Yu

In pseudo-documentary Invisible City: Liverpool for example, bumps which are placed on the ground in Liverpool to prevent homeless people from sleeping rough, are parodied as Asian-inspired foot massage paraphernalia. City design is exposed here as a deliberate cruelty – the presumption being that the need to present a clean and uncluttered space for upstanding taxpayers, trumps the needs of those from the lower (or indeed, non-existent) income groups.

In Eighteen Copper Guardians: The Penetration, The Perception, The Spontaneous, Tsui references a story of how Shaolin monks wishing to leave a temple, are required to defeat “18 guardians” who are each imbued with supernatural powers. Tsui then tries to recreate these powers and apply them in an urban environment. One soon sees that these attempts are futile and that “supernatural powers have no currency in the contemporary”. For example, in the video on the power of perception, everyday objects are hurled at the back of the artist’s head, as he tries to guess what the object of assault is:

(Image credit : The Substation)

The objects hit Tsui with hard thunks that are as blackly humourous as they are violent. Tsui’s cities are harsh and unyielding places, and lead us to question whether bureaucratic city plans should be purely utilitarian or if they should make room to accommodate kindness and basic human decency. Is there even space for the subjective vagaries of morality, within disciplinary frameworks which promote uniform and regularised behaviour?

This section of the exhibition also got us noticing little details in and around Singapore. For example: check out the extra prickly bits in-between the spikes of the railings adjacent to Parliament House:

A closer look

A nifty design detail? Or a nasty sharp surprise for anyone who attempts to scale the fence? In way, it’s an evolution of defensive architecture, with the already – inhospitable spikes augmented over time to inflict yet more pain on potential intruders!

Rule 3: Leadership is the key success factor for effective school discipline.

Will we always head down the correct path, if we follow the right leader?

Case Study 3: Debbie Ding and A Brief History of the Trapdoor

In this multi-sensory installation work that requires one to climb down a steep ladder through a trapdoor to reach the bowels of the Substation, Ding asks us to “close our eyes and follow the rope”.

Going down the rabbit hole…

The (very Instagrammable) instructions

In “following the rope”, one is instantly plunged into pitch blackness, moving uncertainly in and against giant foamy blocks, to emerge into a bizarre techno-rave type room full of digitally manipulated gifs. Ding muses that gifs “encapsulate only a single moment, going nowhere, but yet people love (them)”.

A psychedelic assault to the senses

Follow the artist/ leader in Ding’s work, do as you’re told, trust blindly – and what do you end up with? Sweat, fear, discomfort and disorientation.

Rule 4: A whole-school, multi-faceted approach is required.

What happens when a space envelops you so fully that you lose all sense of who and where you are? What if you find yourself in a space that you can’t even photograph, because it can only be experienced, and not represented in any material way? The MOE incidentally, also exhorts that “effective discipline requires collaboration among stakeholders.” This idea of an all-consuming, almost -suffocating acceptance of disciplinary norms was well-manifested in Sai Hua Kuan’s Something Nothing.

 Case Study 4: Sai Hua Kuan and Something Nothing.

The work is a room which is best described as the anti – Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room. Step in and you’ll feel and see nothing but a stark whiteness that the artist has managed to achieve by creating a curved room with no lines for any light to bounce off. It feels a bit like being buried alive in whiteness. It’s light yet stifling all at the same time (although to be frank other less morbid attendees found the experience to be “calm” and “freeing”).

The defiant rejection of all things populist is made startlingly clear with this work, as there’s simply nothing to photograph while inside it. It’s an excellent illustration of Oei’s comment that he “didn’t want this show to be Instagrammable at all.”

Our best attempt at photography

The Substation has always occupied a unique niche in Singapore’s art ecosystem. Founded in 1990 by Kuo Pao Kun, it is a space on the fringes of the art community – a community which has itself been on the fringes of the busy, financial hub that Singapore has become.

With the opening of the Esplanade, the National Gallery Singapore, the gallery clusters in Gillman Barracks and the recently – announced multimillion-dollar renovations to the Singapore Art Museum – it’s clear that the mainstream behemoths of the arts in Singapore are only set to get bigger and badder. Within such circumstances, it seems logical that tensions between the periphery and centre, should heighten further . And yet, as a matter of existential logic, peripheries only come into being because of the presence of a centre. Arguably, no institution in Singapore illustrates this paradox as well as the Substation; which in spite of its alternative fringe appeal, is itself a partly government–funded entity.

How then should we view its commentary on discipline and uncomfortable urban interactions? There are no easy answers  – whether it’s cities or school children, “discipline” is a complicated concept. Our takeaway from the exhibition was that there always seems to be some kind of trade-off when order is imposed. We loved that the show made us think deeply about these different kinds of compromises; without being preachy or prescriptive in its suggestions.

Discipline the City runs till 26 November 2017, with new works on rotation on 4 October and 1 November.

P/s: Ladies, avoid wearing skirts, dresses and heels if you’d like to enjoy a full experience of the show. Be prepared to climb!

P/p/s: As a bonus, look out for accompanying materials Spectacular Liberal Exception by Ho Rui An, A Public Square by Adeline Chia and Jurong, My Love by Dan Koh. At $10 apiece, the essays chronicle the writers’ impressions of different public spaces of Singapore. We especially liked Jurong, My Love – which is possibly the most tragi-comic love letter to a residential district, that we’ve ever read. Here’s an excerpt: