Farewell, The Substation: Chicken Soup for The Fringe Soul

The Substation
The Substation

Updated 10 Feb 2021

Wait, before you panic…

The Substation is not gone forever. Where it will be gone from, however, is the iconic location that it has held for the past 30 years, at 45 Armenian Street. The location is being taken back by the National Arts Council (NAC) for renovation, after which, it will be turned into a new centre for multiple arts groups.

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The Substation

Almost anyone who has been mystified by the intriguing local arts centre would also have felt a strong attachment to its venue, which lent somewhat of a charisma to the premise. For years now, The Substation has stood its ground as a location that gives voices to more ā€˜fringeā€™ artforms in Singapore.

The site is also a spot intrinsically tied to Singaporeā€™s indie music history, with hours-long gigs at a time. Patrons of local music who enjoy punk or hardcore music will likely know the nooks and crannies around 45 Armenian Street, perhaps even thinking of it as their second home.

Ginette Chittick of local shoegaze group Astreal, said in a 2019 interview that ā€œWe would all congregate for gigs at The Substation, which was the main place for gigs at the timeā€¦ If you managed to play one there, it would be considered a really big dealā€.

The Substation will vacate its building in late-July, and is reportedly in talks with NAC on where it will be for the next two years. Goodman Arts Centre and Aliwal Arts Centre are two possibilities, according to The Substationā€™s general manager Loh Aik Khoon. However, it is also considering other locations.

The Substation was a home even for Rejects.

Much like how The Substation gave a home to punk music, which was known to be bold, wayward, and less restricted, the venue also gave a chance to local artists who strayed from the norm. In August 2019, the centre organised the ā€œRejectsā€ exhibition, which featured art from an open call for artists whose work had been rejected from prize ceremonies or shows.

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The Substation

The Rejects exhibition was inspired by Salon des RefusĆ©s, an exhibition of works that had been rejected by the authorising Paris Salon in 1863. All applicants to The Substationā€™s exhibition were accepted, and priced by the artists themselves, with 100% of proceeds going to the creator. From a painting by Alan Oie, a three-time reject of UOB’s Painting of The Year, to an obscure local superhero comic book Crimson Star, there was no telling what to expect.

ā€œIf youā€™ve ever had so-called ‘friends’ mock or scorn you at school, you have felt the cruel stinger of BUTTHURT. And if youā€™ve ever ridden the MELANCHOLIC waves of a love lost, youā€™ll have understood the essence of what it is to be human,ā€ The Substation wrote about The Rejects on their website.

To allow its patrons to delve into the explorative aspects of being human by using a lesser seen side of art ā€“ it was the sort of legacy that The Substation had set out to achieve, and succeeded at.

ā€œAt the end of July, The Substation will be no more, and what was plainly obvious would disappear. It will be the end of an era,ā€ wrote Raka Maitra, Co-Artistic Director of The Substation.

The centre was a first for Singapore, founded in 1990 by Kuo Pao Kun. The theatre giant and Cultural Medallion winner had created the countryā€™s first independent contemporary arts centre, and as it took shape, it saw various changes to its offerings and arrangement. As it stands today, the Substation has a gallery, studio, and a black box.

The current arrangement came after some ā€œcontroversialā€ changes that the venue had made in 2016, with the arrival of a new artistic director, Alan Oei. Some arts practitioners argued that The Substation was straying from its roots as a space for ā€œedgyā€ expression. However, many recognised it as a way to make the centre more financially viable and to ensure its survival. The centre even held a public session to discuss Oeiā€™s proposal to the Substation board, titled ā€œThe Substation hasnā€™t changed. Everything has.ā€

Catch SeptFest 2021, for what might be The Substationā€™s last big hurrah… for now.

While The Substation may yet reclaim its spot at 45 Armenian Street after NACā€™s renovations are complete, itā€™s unclear in ā€œwhat form and shapeā€. A Straits Times report said that NAC would ask other arts spaces about sharing the 45 Armenian Street building with The Substation.

Prior to news of the building being turned into a shared arts space, Loh had said ā€œWe donā€™t know if we will have the whole building for us to manage and to work with all the artists or if it will be a shared working space with other arts groups.ā€

ā€œWeā€™re not sure what plans NAC has at this point.ā€

While we can only wait for news about The Substation with our fingers crossed, we can join The Substation for SeptFest in March 2021. The centreā€™s month-long celebration of art, culture, and community, SeptFest, is typically held annually in September. However, the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in a change in schedule.

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The Substation

The Substation has promised a ā€œSeptFest like no otherā€ to mark the end of its era, and says that its ā€œcommitment to the presentation and development of new experimental work is undiminished.ā€

SeptFest 2021: In The Margins will take place between 4ā€“28 March 2021, and will coincide with the centreā€™s 30th anniversary.

ā€œI dedicate this SeptFest not only to the rich and diverse talents we have amongst us but also as our fond farewell gift to Singapore, as we bring you stories from the fringe and the margins,ā€ wrote Maitra.

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