At the outdoor stage of The Esplanade Theatre, a skyscraper skyline sets the scene as an atmospheric soundtrack to dancing fountains wafts across Singapore’s answer to the Sydney Opera House. The Esplanade’s domed design is meant to represent microphones, but is more often likened to durians by the locals. Its acoustic structure however, is no joke. Sonically it is considered one of the top five concert venues in the world, and with all the other accoutrements of a modern multi-disciplinary arts venue in place, The Esplanade promises to satisfy all of Singapore’s cultural desires.
As this example suggests, at the high end of arts venues, Singapore isn’t short of options. International bands from America or the UK can play at The Esplanade, Star Vista or a host of outdoor venues; a jet-setting DJ could play at a large scale club like Zouk, while the Cirque du Soleil would feel right at home in the Festive Grand Theatre at Resorts World Sentosa.
These are the places you go to perform once you’ve made it. Surrounded by such wealth, a journalist on a Singapore Tourism Board junket might be wondering ’how did I get here?’, yet an aspiring Singaporean artist is more likely to be asking ’how do I get here?’
Turn Left for Classical Concert, Turn Right for Christmas Comedy
One of the Singapore’s best exports of recent years has been Syndicate. A collective of DJs and VJs, the group started organising underground events for the same reason everybody else does; bored with the scene, they decided to make their own. In the back of a taxi on the way to see a friend perform at a Jay-Z tribute night, Safua Johari — known by his DJ moniker Max Lane — is explaining how the group went from organising their own parties around town, to playing festivals in Europe and later performing alongside their heroes from the Brainfeeder collective in LA. Far from having a master plan, the group “didn’t actually have much expectation” when they started out says Safua. By concentrating on “putting [our] sets together, producing and playing music that we wanted to hear; putting up visuals that we wanted to see”, the group soon caught the attention of both the party and the arty crowds around the city.
Surprisingly, Singapore actually has quite a few moderate-sized venues willing to support young local artists. Syndicate received most of their support from Home Club, a decent-sized space on the river, while live bands are more likely to find a home on the top floor of BluJaz Cafe in the Arab Quarter of the city. Yet for all the opportunity, Safua is quick to note that it’s not easy.
“No-one gives you the breaks, you’ve got to make it for yourself,” he says. And while there is a generous smattering of small and medium venues for artists to play, there is of course the natural limitation of life on an island. “After a certain time it becomes a challenge to yourself,” he continues. “In a certain space there are only certain permutations that you can work with. So now we are trying to surprise ourselves, too.”
In an effort to continue to evolve and stay fresh, Syndicate have taken on a more experimental aspect than they started out with in 2010. This requires a different kind of venue and audience, both of which Syndicate found in Substation. Housed in a beautiful old electricity substation, it has been the city’s leading independent arts venue for over 20 years. One of the venue’s founding principles is now spray painted on the building’s walls: ‘The Substation should be anything anyone wants it to be, open and flexible enough to do things his or her own way.’ By renting out their theatres, classrooms, exhibition spaces and live music areas to creative Singaporeans, the organisation has probably done more than any other to foster multi-disciplinary arts in Singapore.
Like most arts organisations in Singapore, the Substation receives generous financial support from the government. Yet that support comes at a price. General Manager Emily Hoe explains how the organisation has “had our fair share of trouble that comes from trying to push the boundaries. Art has always been the medium whereby you’re trying to ask uncomfortable questions.”
One such question that baffled many was a performance art show in which a man cut his pubic hair while facing a wall in a disused shopping mall. The fallout left two artists banned from performing in public, funding was slashed and all future performances had to be officially sanctioned. While the funding has returned to previous levels, licences still have to be applied for. In the case of live music, that means handing over the details of all performers along with submitting lyrics for approval; a process which takes from six to eight weeks. Understandably, ‘spontaneous’ isn’t an adjective often applied to Singaporean arts.
When Emily is talking about the National Arts Council (NAC), the group who provide most of the arts funding, it’s hard not to start to see them as a sort of paternal figure. They provide much needed finance for independent arts, yet they also reprimand on occasions when art is deemed to have gone too far. Furthermore, they sometimes take a protective role, offering advanced warning and possible solutions when such an admonishing may be coming from another authority figure. Singapore is awash with arts policies, but perhaps not all have been so encouraging to the independent arts. While Emily acknowledges that overall “the developmental policies have been hugely helpful for us,” particularly in terms of funding, she reserves the caveat that the price of this funding is often high. Regulatory policies such as licensing stipulate “what we can and can’t do, and the conditions which come with the space.”
Why Innovate in Utopia?
Heavy handed regulation aside, Singapore’s art infrastructure and funding is, dare I say, utopian. With at least 10 art and design universities, venues, performance spaces and galleries of all shapes and sizes, and a plethora of capital, that would certainly seem to be the case. Yet as Arthur Bloch, the man behind Murphy’s Law, so eloquently observed, “every solution breeds new problems.”
Singapore’s problems lie just under the surface. What looks from the outside like a diverse, refined and dynamic art scene may not stand up to closer inspection. Joyce Toh, the Senior Curator of the Singapore Art Museum claims that Singaporean artists may even be over-trained. “They’re very knowledgeable about working in art-world systems,” she observes, “so they are able to make and produce art for those kinds of networks and structures,” with the result that their work “is missing that punch-to-the-gut kind of feel.”
In the world of music, the situation is similar. Timothy Chia, head of marketing and events at Singapore’s largest electronic music festival ZoukOut claims the scene is “not as dynamic as the west” because “in a sense, we are a bit more controlled, a bit more structured.”
But that’s a little unfair. For the criticisms above, the fertility of Singapore’s arts community is undoubtedly among the highest in the region. From running only a smattering of events at weekends during the 1990s, a casual glance at The Straits Times today sees the city awash with cultural events both foreign and homegrown. Innovative artists like Syndicate and independent promoters like Substation are proof that while the Singapore art scene doesn’t screw with the police, or rage against the machine, it can still kick out the jams.
Entertainment in the Lion City
Planning a trip to Singapore? To find out what’s going on in the island state, both mainstream and underground, check out the following websites:
The Substation Arts Centre
Singapore Art Museum
Time Out Singapore