52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG: Week 20 with Alan Oei

Cam Khalid
Written by
Cam Khalid

Welcome to Time Out Singapore's 52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG – our commitment to showing you the best of what's going on in the city this week. Every Monday, a guest writer who's "in" with the scene shares a recommendation on what to see, eat, do or buy in the city. This week, we chat with Alan Oei, the artistic director behind one of Singapore's coolest contemporary art spaces, The Substation.

Hi Alan! What gets you excited about Singapore?
There's always this air of possibility. We're like a crazy lab where things happen very fast by virtue of our size, but also by how powerful our state technocrats are in bending the city to its will. I always like this description by architect Rem Koolhas where he calls us a generic city that destroys all its history and particularities. We're like a ghost city that haunts the future of other cities hurtling towards this kind of capitalist-generic-banality. Then, you have the over-compensation and anxiety of our bureaucrats who try to defy that description. How this all plays out is pretty exciting to me.  

What sets the Substation apart from other art centres in the city?
We're really about the margins, the invisible, the counter-culture. We have always been a space where civil society and art meet. For me, The Substation is about finding interesting artists and academics who can show us new ways of thinking about larger cultural issues. Every year, we deal with a cultural question that has resonance beyond the arts. Last year was about the politics and control of space, this year we look at heritage as another form of control.

What kind of elements do you incorporate to the space in order to engage visitors to explore and express themselves unconventionally?
The building is a former power station, so it has a strange configuration and architectural leftovers – things that are hard to account for in an arts space. We always try to think of the building itself as a medium and a constantly evolving canvas. For Discipline the City in 2017, we blocked up a familiar passage, and made people enter through a side passage that was hastily hacked out. This year, we're opening up a SAD bar that's underground. If the building itself is unpredictable, then our programmes are even more so. I think this keeps audiences on edge and ready to engage us more purposefully.

Do you think there's more work to be done in terms of Singapore's art scene?
I think that institutions funded by the State are important, but the way the resources are allocated is very short-sighted. Without a truly thriving ecosystem of independent artists, it can become really very boring. Put it this way, we spend so much on media junkets, big openings, art fairs – how many people would really say we have an interesting scene as opposed to citing numbers and dollars? The fact is that Singapore has interesting things on, but they are often far too invisible and without sufficient resources.

Besides interactive artworks, workshops and live performances, what can visitors and contemporary art enthusiasts expect with this year's theme?
Well, madhouse parties for one. We have this new thing called SAD, which are expanded art events. In October, we're exploring the iconography of the Singapore Girl, including serious issues like representation and self-Orientalisation, but we want to do it in a fun way too. For example, there's speed-dating with SQ flight attendants, a chamber of trials where you can try out the mythical interviews they hold. Moreover, we're organising two competitions – instafilm and creative writing – for we want to know about other people's thoughts on heritage.

What are you looking forward to this week?
If only I could look into the future...

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