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Building a new vision of experimental art and The Substation: A chat with Festival Director John Tung

In preparing for this interview with independent curator and now Festival Director for the inaugural edition of Re-Connect/Centre/Converge: The Arts Festival by The Substation, John Tung, I sent an email to The Substation’s comms team to ask “if we could do something fun.” I thought I might follow Tung around for a typical working day, and see if hilarity might ensue.

It’s no surprise when Tung responds with an emphatic “Fun is my middle name!” and we quickly make plans for me to shadow him as he installs the works he’s curated at the (recently-ended) ART:DIS show at Objectifs – Centre for Photography & Film.

Curator John Tung, in an official photograph from The Substation

To art lovers in Singapore, Tung is a familiar face—lanky, affable and hirsute—he’s instantly recognisable, full of laughs, and has an easy smile for everyone.  There was in fact a period of time when he seemed to be in everything, everywhere all at once. Since leaving his position as an Assistant Curator at the Singapore Art Museum in 2020,  he’s been Festival Curator for the 7th and 8th editions of the Singapore International Photography Festival, Associate Curator for the Open House programme, For the House; Against the House, and the curator of the first exhibition to examine the significance of seminal Singapore artist initiative 5th Passage. His art projects leap out from behind the museum walls too, and some of us might remember 2022’s The Forest Institute, a massive longhouse-style art installation dedicated to secondary forest ecologies, as well as The Gathering: 岁宫 a pop-up Chinese garden-teahouse experience in Chinatown, Singapore. Earlier this year he won the prestigious IMPART Tan Boon Hui Curatorial Art Prize.

It’s been a whirlwind of activity and come September 2023, Tung takes on what might be his most challenging project yet—the role of Festival Director for Re-Connect/Centre/Converge: The Arts Festival. Formerly known as SeptFest, this much-beloved event commemorates the birthday of the much–beloved (and now much quieter) Substation. For a recap on what happened to The Substation, take a look here.

When I meet Tung at Objectifs for our interview, he’s dressed like Bob the Builder and has with him a full arsenal of power tools.

Curator John Tung, when I meet him for our interview

In the background, his pet bird Birb merrily squeaks away in their cage as Tung didn’t want to leave his beloved pet alone at home for too long.

Birb, holding court at the gallery.

The whole scene is far away from what a typical art curator’s set-up might look like, but as Tung explains, physical installation is a very important part of his own skillset.

“Some people do think that installing is the installer’s job but I’ve been working with artists to realise new commissions for about 10 years now,  since I started out,” he explains, “I do have to rein artists in and remind them that there are the laws of physics that we cannot defy, for example, if something really heavy needs to be suspended. I like to think of alternatives and solutions, and to provide options.”

He cites his love of DIY as something inherited from his mother and often brings his “ridiculous arsenal of equipment” with him when installing shows, so as to be able to assist clients with minimising costs where possible.

“I might not actually even end up opening some of the boxes during a typical installation,” he laughs “but if something goes awry…it’s insurance. Time is of the essence especially if a place is rented and you have, like, three days to install. If I didn’t bring a pair of scissors or pliers I’d end up walking to the hardware shop again and again and again and it’s a complete waste of time. (This way) I ensure that everything runs smoothly and that I have the right tools for any job.”

 Can Mr Fix-it fix The Substation?

The next question on my mind, however, is whether Tung has the right tools to take on SeptFest in its newest incarnation. A stalwart of the local arts scene for decades, SeptFest continued on in 2022 even in the aftermath of the closure of its physical building at Armenian Street. Led by then-Artistic Director Ezzam Rahman, the event saw a number of art exhibitions and performances spread out all over Singapore.

Traditionally, SeptFest has been The Substation’s month-long celebration of art, culture and community, held annually to mark the entity’s anniversary on 16 September and its change in name feels uncomfortable at first blush.

Tung himself is realistic but sanguine about the complex task at hand.

“It’s still going to be in September and regardless of its name change it’s still going to be the Arts Festival in September,” he reasons.

“It’s same-same but different. Different in the sense that it’s a different time and a different phase of the Substation’s history. But it’s a festival with the same kind of commitment to the arts and experimentation and the inter-disciplinary.”

“We need to acknowledge why there has been a change in the name [of SeptFest],  and we have to acknowledge that The Substation is just not going to be the same as what it was before, what we’ve known it as being for the past 30 years,” he continues.

“The (new) title recognises that The Substation is a bit of a lost wandering soul right now.”

Tung explains that while it made sense on one level to decentralise events because the Substation has no physical presence, one must also understand that decentralisation has been the predominant model in terms of festival and biennale-making for a long time, and for a very specific reason.

“Yes, you can say that decentralisation is about the creation of nodes and networking but one of the big motivating factors is [that of] enterprise—biennales are enterprises too, usually of the state. They are designed with tourism and the economy in mind,” he says.

“So, to split everything up means that visitors will have to utilise public transportation and support shops in the vicinities of all the different sites. But The Substation doesn’t have to do that. It doesn’t need to be supportive of all those things and I thought it was important that instead of people having to go to ten thousand different places and spending two to three days thinking about how the things in the exhibition actually connect, well, why can’t we just have everything under one roof?”

The Sub in a carpark?

The roof in question is going to be the sheltered carpark at Park Lane, a site that Tung explains will allow for the works to be housed together in one space so that visitors can clearly see the kinds of conversations that the works and artists are having with one another.

“It’s about people converging together in one place, and bringing people together again. In many ways it’s about The Substation doing placemaking in a time when it has no space of its own,” he shares.

He’s clear though that his approach this year offers an alternative presentation and is not at all an indictment or criticism of 2022’s SeptFest uproot | rootless which was run by former Artistic Director and friend Ezzam Rahman. It also saw Tung’s own involvement as curator of Across Narrow Waters, a presentation put on by Anthony Chin and Andrea Danker

“I’m very close to Ezzam,” he says, ”we talk a lot, even now. We’re always talking and discussing things and he’s always there to offer a listening ear.”

While the full list of artists has not yet been disclosed, Tung reveals that Dennis Tan, the artist behind Many Waters to Cross at the Singapore Biennale 2019 will be one of the artists invited to contribute a “significant architectural intervention” into the carpark, building most of the infrastructure which will support the performances in the festival.

He’s also excited about the fact that this will be the first time that audiences will be able to watch or experience programming that is actually within the exhibition premises.

Experimentation and accessibility in the arts

Tung’s energy and commitment to the spirit of experimentation are evident as we talk, and he doesn’t hold back when the conversation shifts to more difficult topics such as censorship and why contemporary art struggles so much with fundraising. The latter in particular was identified as a key issue in The Substation’s troubles. He’s adamant that the alternative and the experimental should be made accessible to the wider population.

“I believe that alternative and experimental voices are important but I also believe that if you want your voice to have an impact, it cannot just be about you doing things that you like without giving people an entry point to your work. You can’t just do [whatever you like] and then when people don’t understand it or you get a bad review, say ‘you don’t understand it, I’m just too advanced and cutting edge for you,’” he sighs.

“No matter how good your work is, it can still be incomprehensible so I hope I can make these voices  accessible—with a mix of young and older artists—so that anybody can come and watch and get the sense that placemaking is important.”

He’s also clear that the idea of accessibility in the arts is something that needs to be finessed and contextualised and that the insertion of art into the ‘everyday’ is not at all a straightforward exercise.

He explains, “We talk about art being in the everyday but how is it really changing our everyday experiences? Our everyday is rainy, humid, hot, sweaty, sticky, dirty—we are tired. Art is a valuable escape for us, to be able to disappear into a museum for some quiet and serenity, a moment of reflection.”

He questions the idea of using outdoor spaces for art in the “blazing heat” in Singapore, and wonders whether such spaces are used because they are “truly cool and happening” or because we don’t have the alternatives of more purpose-built spaces.

“We’re not like Europe where we have purpose-built museums and then when people [put up] say, an exhibition under a bridge, it’s very sexy and alternative. Here, every single space is just the alternative. Even the Singapore Art Museum is ‘alternative’, it’s a warehouse! People should be cognisant of that,” he exclaims.

Don’t give money to the arts?

The jacket worn by artist Tang Da Wu in his 1995 performance Don’t Give Money to the Arts

Tung is brave about putting forth potentially unpopular views about the arts in Singapore.

As with many local art-world conversations, our chat veers into the question of government funding (and its accompanying restrictions) and whether it supports or stymies artistic production. Tung is firm in his view that “in Singapore, we are very spoilt by the National Arts Council, which is incredibly supportive.”

“Unless you are a racist, a homophobe, or somebody who shouldn’t be a part of society really, these [restrictions and out-of-bounds markers] would not apply to you.”

“For everything else,” he continues, “people always assume that the ‘alternative’ is something that is angry with the state or against the state, but I don’t think that is necessarily true. To the people who say they can never get funding, and there are so many boundaries—I would say, ‘you are an artist!’ You are given say, three things that you maybe should not talk about, but you have an infinite number of other things to talk about. You can think of a creative way to express your opinion which is perhaps not in line with the state’s narrative. And if you cannot find a solution to that, it’s not a problem of state funding anymore, it is your problem as a creative.”

Of arts donations and designer bags 

We discuss whether better private patronage is perhaps the solution to the tensions between state funding and artistic production and I ask Tung to tell me why someone should be incentivised to make a donation to The Substation instead of say, buying a new Chanel handbag?

Buy this or help fund The Substation? Image by Mona Siswanto from Unsplash

“Well, I’m not going to stop anybody from buying a Chanel handbag!” Tung laughs

“The ultimate question is whether you think The Substation has something to offer! As time goes by and more information is released about the Festival, my hope is that it’s seen as something more persuasive, that The Substation is still very committed to supporting experimentation,” he continues.

“People who believe that experimentation is necessary for development should definitely support that cause. People who love Chanel handbags are also chasing the next season’s bags. Louis Vuitton puts Yayoi Kusama polka dots on handbags—that’s something that’s able to come about only because of experimentation. I hope people start to see that if you don’t have experimentation, or the space for it, a lot of the other places where we go to, to find arts and culture—well, those things are going to dry up and stagnate as well!”

As we wrap up our conversation, I realise that I have not in fact effectively shadowed Tung at all, and that our chat has been composed of me uselessly tailing him while trying not to get in his way as he talks to deliverymen and methodically hammers and drills at things to be fixed. The interview has been intense, but Tung remains single-minded throughout in completing the heavy-duty installation tasks at hand. SeptFest and The Substation, though—can he fix them? It’s perhaps a bit too early to tell, but the fierce hands-on energy and can-do spirit that Tung brings to the table leave me filled with excitement and hope for this coming September.


If you’re inspired to find out more about The Substation and to support them (instead of Chanel), click here. The Sub needs to raise $60,000 to fund the inaugural edition of Re-Connect/Centre/Converge: The Arts Festival by The Substation. 

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