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Discipline in the City

The following reflection was originally published on the now-defunct

The Substation’s current show, Discipline the City, is less of an exhibition than a festival of art. Panel discussions, workshops competitions and happenings act less like accompanying events than the show itself. In fact, the main gallery places less focus on ‘artwork’ and more attention on ‘memorabilia’, objects of defunct social spaces and documentation of previous communal gatherings.

Of course, The Substation had never been exclusively for the visual arts. Conceived as Singapore’s first independent art centre in 1990, this 27-year-old institution is a communal space for arts practitioners of all specialisations to gather and to build the local arts scene. There is a theatre for amateur plays, a room for experimental musicians to strum their chords and space for other kinds of performers to, as the layperson would say, ‘do their thing’. At The Substation, artists took off their chains, if only for awhile, and are not answering to the mass audience. It did not matter if what they were doing was not (yet) comprehensible to the whole wide world. They have an audience in The Substation: themselves, their craft and their peers. Visual artists were just one of the many groups that made The Substation their home.

In that sense, Discipline the City‘s multi-disciplinary offerings is a fairly accurate celebration of the diverse art groups that are invested in The Substation. The exhibition in the gallery is not really an art exhibition, though art and artists do make an appearance, but more like a revelation of the groups, groupings and activities that have been part of the support system for local artists. While The Substation may have been the first independent home for the local art community, several more have popped up over the years: Blackhole 212 and Independent Archive (IA) are two of the spaces featured in the gallery space. Places like Blackhole 212 are now closed but the relationships that it gave birth still lives, giving the group a nomadic life. Looking through the exhibits, including the actual rental agreement for the Blackhole 212 space, gives an idea of what it means to be an artist outside of the white cube and the kind of ways at which an artist might navigate daily life. Seen together, the exhibition suggests that there are similarities between artists across all specialisations. The underlying implication is, of course, that The Substation brings together these similarities and allows all artists to connect.

Even the making of Discipline the City makes an appearance. In a corner at the front of the gallery, there is a narrative of how this show came about, originating in the ‘fall’ of The Substation a few years ago, when it lost its director for a year, to the reaction to its new artistic director Alan Oei (spoiler: Alan had announced plans to ‘reclaim’ The Substation from the community. Artists would not longer be able to exhibit in the gallery without his team’s prior curatorial approval), to his very public apology and retraction. This finally leads to this show where co-curators Alan and Joshua Comaroff tackled the challenging problem of interacting with the artistic community en masse: artists, writers, musicians, dancers, punks and many more. Reading through the negotiations between The Substation’s management and everyone else through images, newspaper articles and Facebook comment feeds is strangely exciting, as it climaxes in a victory for the keyboard warrior, a triumph for the digitally active millennial who made a difference in Singapore’s artistic community. Which, as a visitor to this show, you already know.

Despite its reification into a white cube gallery space, made extra white by Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Something Nothing, the story of Discipline the City does not end in the exhibition. Notice the provisionality of the folder for the material on Discipline the City, always ready to accept new pages into its story. This show is something of an organism that continues to grow throughout its life, while it remains in the public eye. Today, some works from the exhibition will be removed to accommodate others. This will happen again on 1 November. Punk tours, mentioned in the material, are ongoing, being documented and archived. Workshops and lectures happen on a monthly basis until December 2017. And it is this provocation toward the continually morphing story of The Substation is possibly the greatest strength of the show.

The Substation has been the incubator for artistic personalities over the last generation. While it seems unclear if it would continue to do so, what this show does indicate is that the incubation was never conducted by the brick-and-mortar Substation. That is done by the people who adopt the space as their own. And so long as there are still people need and are willing to give to The Substation, it would morph and be what the community needs it to be. So stop expecting. Instead, we should start giving.

Discipline the City

Exhibition runs 23 August to 26 November 2017. Find out about other programmes at*

* is now defunct. A version of the site is available via the wayback machine here.