Light / Dark mode

Re-Connect/ Centre/ Converge: An Artist’s Perspective

Festival Director John Tung and a friend of Substation wiring new lights in the event space – not something you’d typically see in an art exhibition.

My preparations for the launch of the new Arts Festival by the Substation Re-Connect/Centre/Converge (formerly known as SeptFest), felt like an almost primal call to arms. 

In the face of mounting administrative challenges and funding difficulties, the artists, manager, festival director, curatorial assistants, designers and friends of the Substation had no choice but to pitch in for this year’s festival, in order to ready the exhibition space. People were wiring and installing electrical points and lights, crafting benches and even working to assemble a stage in the venue, which this year, was a multistorey carpark. Help also came in the form of the simple acts of moving, clearing and cleaning as we banded together to get the show on the road.

I should at this point, take a couple of steps back, and explain that I had been invited to present my work in The Substation’s Re-Connect/Centre/Converge in the beginning of the year. I had been approached to propose a commissioned work for the festival and everything appeared to be on track as we submitted our proposals in April. Progress seemed steady as we geared up for the production of our artworks.

However, a complication emerged. Both artists and the Festival Director John Tung found themselves caught in a bureaucratic web regarding the festival’s budget. Months passed, and there was no clarity on this crucial aspect of the event. Things came to a standstill, and we were unable to prepare for the festival until a solution was found.

August came and John successfully negotiated an agreement with The Substation, resulting in an 80% reduction in the festival’s budget, with him personally accepting a substantial pay cut in order to align with the new budgetary constraints. Some programs had to be removed, but finally, we were all back into a flurry of movement once again.

This was a positive sign, but the end of our troubles was not yet in sight. 

A new obstacle emerged in the form of an administrative nightmare which saw the curatorial team and artists having to take on further administrative groundwork which should have been handled by a separate set of dedicated staff. 

What’s become of The Sub? 

Facing setback after setback, a multitude of questions sprang into my mind.

Has the shadow of the past swallowed reality? This question, like a persistent refrain, played continuously through my mind. The Substation (affectionately known as “the Sub”), once a champion of the underground arts scene, now stood at a crossroads. Had it truly lost its dignity, its sense of purpose, its place in the ever-evolving landscape of the arts? And if it had, what path should we, as collective members of the creative industry, tread? Should we endeavour to breathe new life into its legacy, or should we consider just letting it rest in the annals of history?

This contemplation was not unique to The Substation alone and it resonated with my own experiences as a member of The Artists Village (TAV), Singapore’s first art colony, and a contemporary art group which was founded in 1988, just two years before The Substation. Both The Substation and TAV as well as their famous founders (Kuo Pao Kun and Tang Da Wu respectively), once occupied positions as stalwarts of the independent art scene. Over the years, both the Sub and TAV seemed to have fallen out of sync with the times. The parallels between these two entities felt ironic and bittersweet.

For the Sub, SeptFest its anchor arts event, had been rebranded this year as Re-Connect/Centre/Converge  in an attempt at renewal. In spite of the difficulties, the festival came together with aplomb, opening on 16 September at the Parklane Shopping Mall multistorey open-air carpark. The opening featured performances by former Artistic Director Ezzam Rahman and Adeline Kueh, amongst others.

Exhibition text on blue tarpaulin at the entrance of the festival. Image Courtesy of Nicole Phua
Exhibition text on blue tarpaulin at the entrance of the festival. Image Courtesy of Nicole Phua

Ezzam’s performance, Sometimes you make me feel that it is better if I am not here was a site-specific installation, activated by the artist through a performance where he reflected upon the absence, presence and repercussions of ended relationships. Relating his own body to the space it inhabits, the performance put viewers through an uncomfortable experience as the artist, dressed in pristine robes of white and surrounded by the stark whiteness of his installation, engaged in a performance where he pushed himself to gorge and knead 252 loaves of bread in the sweltering heat of the carpark. 

Commissioned artist, Ezzam Rahman activating his site specific installation through a performance
Commissioned artist, Ezzam Rahman activating his site specific installation through a performance

Evoking associations with the biblical notions of “The Last Supper”, where the act of breaking bread carries symbolic connotations of death, closure and mourning, Ezzam’s performance was difficult to watch. 

But watch we did. 

Because, all things considered, this was the spirit of The Substation, one that continued to live on through the people it had touched. Personally, I witnessed it first-hand on site when all participants pulled together to fix the numerous problems which plagued the festival.  Together, we toiled tirelessly under the sweltering tropical sun, sweat and dirt becoming badges of honour as we transformed a carpark into a working exhibition space.

Festival Artist, Hong Shu-Ying and Company Manager, Yvonne Bernadette installing tension poles in the carpark. Image Courtesy of Kim Whye Kee
Festival Artist, Hong Shu-Ying and Company Manager, Yvonne Bernadette installing tension poles in the carpark. Image Courtesy of Kim Whye Kee.

One particularly memorable incident involved the relocation of my own work Centre Piss which was composed of a ladder and chandelier. After installation, John had noticed that the legs of the ladders supporting the artwork were not securely locked, causing the ladder to slowly slide open. As we both worked to secure the ladder and adjust the placement of the artwork, it became clear that the chandelier needed to be transferred to another ladder to resolve the issues. Without any prompting, fellow artists and friends immediately sprang into action. We all held onto my delicate yet weighty chandelier while John and fellow exhibiting artist Kim Whye Kee stood atop the ladders to make the necessary adjustments.

Artists, friends and the Festival Director himself holding my artwork together for installation. Image courtesy of Ng Wei Xuan
Artists, friends and the Festival Director himself holding my artwork together for installation. Image courtesy of Ng Wei Xuan


Image of the completed site specific installation of Centre Piss.
Image of the completed site specific installation of Centre Piss.

Amidst the hustle and bustle, there were moments of respite when conversations inevitably turned to the future of The Substation. Would it continue on its current path or would it inevitably shut down? This was a topic that evoked a range of emotions—wry smiles, furrowed brows, and sighs of contemplation.

Double, double, toil and trouble

The discourse surrounding The Sub’s future and its role in Singapore’s ever-changing arts ecosystem is undeniably complex, often provoking polarised opinions. Some yearn for the nostalgia of the old Substation and what it symbolised, while others contemplate the possibility of permanently closing it. Amidst these discussions, there’s also recognition of the growth of newer independent art spaces in the local scene such as starch, The Fluxus House and Islands just to name a few. These spaces operate autonomously, and seem free from traditional funding constraints. This expansion has raised significant questions: Where can The Substation carve out its unique niche? Should version 2.0 be a sincere homage to The Substation’s legacy as an arts bastion, or would this simply create a poor imitation of past triumphs?

These questions persisted, and the irony was not lost on me as I had grappled with similar issues when curating Epilogue for TAV in 2022. Closure presents an appealing option, signifying a graceful retirement, acknowledgment of historical significance, and preservation of an art space’s legacy without risking a potentially-damaging attempt at revival. Without proper governance and direction, ham-fisted attempts at the recreation of former glories are doomed to failure and run the risk of being irrelevant. Conversely, the concept of rebirth is equally compelling, serving as a testament to artistic resilience in Singapore. It suggests that we can adapt to contemporary challenges in sustaining the arts, redefine our role where needed, and remain a vital force in the community regardless of the passage of time. 

In my view, the maintenance of the status quo for the Sub, as observed through this latest festival as a case study, is increasingly untenable. I saw instances of poor governance and a clear lack of direction within the entity. The arts scene has evolved, with new collectives and art spaces offering fresh perspectives and opportunities. Stagnation and irrelevance loom if we cling to our past without adapting to the present.

Artworks by  Festival Artists: Ezzam Rahman, Amelia Lim and Hong Shu-Ying. Image Courtesy of Nicole Phua
Artworks by  Festival Artists: Ezzam Rahman, Amelia Lim and Hong Shu-Ying. Image Courtesy of Nicole Phua

Lessons from TAV 

Perhaps some of the insights I derived from my experience with TAV as a member and curator could find relevance here. A unanimous consensus on the importance of proper governance, transparency, and active engagement amongst members and the larger community were key takeaways for TAV. TAV’s members collectively opted to regroup and explore new directions, unburdened by the weight of our legacy. The current members made a deliberate choice to rebrand and we proactively declined opportunities that did not align with the direction of “letting go of the past.” It was a journey into uncertainty, but as members, we possessed the authority and agency to shape the group’s destiny, and we were resolute in making decisions as a united team.

The Substation has a public-facing community-based persona and enjoys the goodwill and support of its community. This means however, that it also carries a significant responsibility to uphold that trust. That trust is built on the belief that The Sub will act in the best interests of the community it serves. When former Artistic Director, Ezzam Rahman took the helm shortly after The Sub lost its permanent home at Armenian Street, he embarked on a period of experimentation and transformation. During this phase, multiple presentations and initiatives were launched to explore new directions and test the waters for The Sub’s future without a physical space. Serving as an incubator for itself, The Sub sought to discover sustainable models for its own existence and engagement. Artists and the wider community jumped aboard the projects, helping to manage, curate and present works from different perspectives. It seemed like an innovative and sincere way forward. 

Septfest 2022 (which we now know was the last such Festival bearing the historic name so closely associated with the Sub) was entitled uproot| rootless and consisted of a series of multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary events and performances, which took place over a few different locations. 

As preparations for Re-Connect/Centre/Converge commenced this year, a palpable shift could be felt in the organisation’s dynamics, as the festival transformed back into a single physical show at a fixed location. The festival’s very name, once an homage to the anniversary of the founding of the Sub on September 16, was no more. 

This creative turn prompted my curiosity to deepen, as I found myself thinking more and more about the future of The Sub. 

The way forward – a poetic journey through orchestral scores?

In a way, festival artist Hong Shu-ying and collaborator Ng Wei Xuan’s audio visual installation in Re-Connect/Centre/Converge offered a layer of metaphorical insight into my reflections on The Substation’s journey and its future.

Shu Ying’s audio-visual installation, 尘惦 (chén diàn) found on paper, made in minds, draws inspiration from Chinese orchestral scores and Liu Tianhua’s 空山鸟语 (Birdsongs in the Vacant Valley). This work is based on the repeated acts of photocopying of musical scores by musicians which results in marks and distortions being left on the scores as more and more copies are made over time. The notations left by previous performers and the dissonance resulting from the acts of repeated photocopying tell a story of shared experiences, the passing down of knowledge, and the evolution of artistic forms.

尘惦 (chén diàn) found on paper, made in minds. Image Courtesy of the artist.
尘惦 (chén diàn) found on paper, made in minds. Image Courtesy of the artist.

In this context, Shu-Ying’s work becomes a powerful metaphor for The Substation’s own journey. The scores represent the institution’s rich history and legacy—a legacy that is built on collaboration, experimentation, and the exchange of ideas. The acts of repeated photocopying in Shu-Ying’s art could be seen as a symbol of the Sub’s enduring appeal to its community, with generations of artists moving through its ranks and drawing from its depths of creative energy and inspiration. 

However, just as Shu-Ying’s work acknowledges the dissonance and ugly dark marks resulting from repeated acts of photocopying (which are of course in themselves illegal acts of copyright infringement), The Sub has encountered its own fair share of discord and challenges.

In my view, the institution can draw on its history of collaboration and shared experiences to navigate its current issues. By fostering open dialogue among stakeholders, including artists, staff, patrons, and the wider community, The Substation could try to  harmonise its dissonant elements and find a path forward.

Just as Shu-Ying’s work takes inspiration from a messy past while creating something new and interesting, I believe it is possible for The Sub to honour its history while evolving to meet the demands of the present and future.

As I contemplated the path forward for The Sub and its potential revitalisation or transformation, one undeniable truth became clear: the spirit of an institution lives on not in physical buildings, but through the people it has touched. 

It is a spirit of resilience, adaptability, and creative energy that continues to propel us forward. The road ahead may be uncertain, but it is one that we artists walk together, carrying the legacy of The Substation into an ever-evolving future.


Re-Connect/Centre/Converge: The Arts Festival by The Substation runs at Level 8 Parklane Shopping Mall till 30 September. More details can be found here.

Support our work on Patreon