Alan’s New Artistic Direction at The Substation

by Dominic Teo
December 11, 2015 by Dominic Teo

Alan’s New Artistic Direction at The Substation

The Substation is one of Singapore’s most exciting and vibrant spaces for independent local music and arts which makes their earlier announcement of Alan Oei being the new Artistic Director an incredibly exciting one. The Substation is without a doubt one of the most important places for the Arts in Singapore with many now veteran musicians and artists getting their first start there thus the artistic direction of The Substation will have significant ripple effects. Interestingly, Alan Oei’s appointment comes 10 months after the previous director, Noor Effendy Ibrahim stepped down which meant that the search was both extensive and meticulous. Additionally, he will be only the 5th Artistic Director in the establishment’s 25 year history so you know that most likely he will be at the helm for many years to come. Thus, we are incredibly excited to present to you guys an interview we had with Alan Oei along with The Substation’s newly announced artistic direction!

Substation New AD - Alan Oei [Photo credit - The Substation] 1

The Substation has always been proud of its independent roots, providing a vibrant and safe space for exploration and experimentation. Alan possesses a deep conviction for the need for The Substation to continue doing what it has been doing for the past 25 years. This is clear in how he defines his role, “for a curator or an artistic director, what counts is not great big ideas, but ethics, integrity and willingness to follow and challenge artists. Artists are the ones who will show all of us something different; we are only translators and editors to make it more coherent to the public.” However, he also acknowledged the difficulties that The Substation faces where it’s not guaranteed that they “can provide a space against the creeping institutionalisation of the arts.” His worry arises from the fact that there is “too much curation, too much external demands, too much corporatisation. Our state, our institutions are treating artists as content producers, rather than enabling their practice.” This isn’t a sentiment that is held only be Alan but rather a growing number of artists in Singapore. Just take a look at the news where poet Jee Leong Koh recently rejected state funding with the National Arts Council (NAC) and called on other artists to follow suit in “reconsidering engagement with the state and its arts funding.”

While it is clear that he wants “to protect The Substation’s legacy as an open and plural space,” the more difficult question is how. This is where it gets to be really interesting. Alan is unsure whether the strategy of the past, “we felt that meant allowing artists to do whatever and whenever at the Sub” is going to work which means that a new artistic direction is needed.  There will be a renewed focus on engaging the public, “not about selling them tickets or getting them to attend outreach. I mean that in the sense that we must feel Substation belongs to all of us, and not just artists.” In its just released Artistic Direction, Alan also pledged to “strengthen and focus its cultural legacy.” Its legacy as an open and plural space will be reemphasised with a “yearly thematic programme, exploring smaller, and experimental shows, as well as workshops that will culminate into a larger presentation exhibition.” It also wants to play a larger role in developing art and artists who play an important role in “shaping our cultural conversations” by “transitioning gradually from a venue rental and programming site to a research and developmental space for artists.” It has also set the tone for the vibrancy of our local arts scene by expanding what the Arts encompasses to include “writers, historians, economists, geographers, engineers.” 


Besides his role as Artistic Director and setting of the artistic direction, I was also curious about Alan as a person and an artist. His favourite memory of The Substation is actually pretty damn cool.  “As an art student in a group show called Post-Ulu I was exhibiting this pretty awful art installation that involved a urine bag you could release over some writing I selected. Anyways, Sasitharan, the AD at the time, dragged me up to his office. I was a nervous wreck of an art student but explained to him why I wanted to do this. While he didn’t seem entirely convinced, he said OK go ahead, as long as I’d thought through the issues and consequences. That moment — the Substation’s moral courage to support artists in risk-taking —has always stayed with me.”

Another snippet of wisdom from Alan is to caution against the need to always seek international stature and acclaim. “I don’t think that Singapore needs to always have that anxiety to be international and connected. I would like us to be more contrarian to this narrative of the global and contemporary that permeates our art landscape. Let’s really think about local. At a time when Singapore is changing so much, what do our artists have to say?” This is something that I really agree with, it’s better to develop our own local voice and identity first, it’s always better to learn to walk than run.

Substation Gallery

It’s clear that with Alan’s appointment as the new Artistic Director, the years to come will surely be exciting ones for the Arts community in Singapore and I can’t wait to see what’s next!


All Images Courtesy of The Substation!



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