The site of The Substation, as its name suggests, was previously a power sub-station. The building dates from 1926. In 1950 the Public Utilities Board added a garden to house outdoor equipment. The sub-station ended its operations in the late 1970s and the building was left vacant. In the 1980s, the Ministry of Community Development (the MCD, which then included the arts and culture portfolio) explored ways to develop arts and culture in Singapore. In 1986, dramatist Kuo Pao Kun and Practice Performing Arts sent in a proposal for the conversion of the disused building to an arts center. It was accepted. Also in 1986, the building, together with the adjacent Tao Nan School (now the Peranakan Museum) and the shophouses along Armenian Street (now used by National Heritage Board), were earmarked for conservation under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Civic and Cultural Master Plan.
In 1989, the MCD officially invited Practice Performing Arts Centre Ltd (PPACL) to manage The Substation and put up funding of $1.07m for the building’s renovation. In June 1990, the interior fittings and equipment installation works were undertaken, and The Substation officially opened on 16 September 1990. Therefore The Substation predates the formation of the National Arts Council, Singapore (in 1991) and in fact, was the first building under the Arts Council’s “Arts Housing Scheme”.
In the first five years of The Substation’s history, under the visionary artistic direction of founder Kuo Pao Kun, The Substation was a pioneer arts space in Singapore. It played a key part in almost every arts event or development of significance. The Substation’s founding coincided with a burst of activity in Singapore such as the emergence of professional theatre companies, new writing in theatre, and a new generation of visual artists inspired by new practices and ideas promoted by artists and groups such as the Artists Village. Experimentation, across all the art forms, was the order of the day. These artists found a congenial home in The Substation which encouraged them to experiment, to try, and most importantly, to fail – and to continue.
In the arts… a worthy failure is more important than a mediocre success.
Kuo Pao Kun, founder of The Substation
From the start, The Substation has been committed to nurturing ‘local voices’ in Singapore arts and culture, and supporting diversity and depth in the arts. It is also a multi-cultural arts space with a commitment to raising awareness of Singapore’s cultural memories.
The first multi-disciplinary, thematic events were held at The Substation including The Tree Celebration, which featured installations, mime performances, theatre performances, readings; and Pao Kun’s “Memories” seasons which explored tradition and heritage from a personal point of view, through art. The “Memories” seasons developed into The Substation’s annual festival SeptFest which was notable for the seminal arts conferences that brought together artists, critics, cultural commentators, civil society activists, and the public.
Under The Substation’s second artistic director T. Sasitharan, The Substation started the process of institution-building, as its management and financial systems were consolidated, and as the arts scene became more professional and government investment in arts and culture increased. Programs at The Substation were streamlined, international and regional networks expanded, and artists encouraged to develop rigor in their practices and approaches to art. Platforms started under Pao Kun’s leadership – Dance Space, Music Space, Raw Theatre – developed into important showcases for new artistic work in Singapore, through artist commissions. The Moving Images film programme was set up in 1997 with the aim of nurturing Singapore – and later, South East Asian – filmmakers and growing a regional film community.
“Unless artists are capable of grappling with the full and unmitigated force of the complications of history, the dilemmas of modernity, the complexities of life as it is lived collectively by men, women and children, they will never be capable of making great art … There can be no great art, no living culture, without great lives, at least lives lived not just expansively but also more deeply.”
T Sasitharan, Artistic Director of The Substation (1995 – 2000)
Today, The Substation is no longer the ‘only’ venue in town, as the Esplanade, the Arts House, Sculpture Square, the Drama Centre, have been built (with similar-sized small theatres). Arts groups have also developed their own small spaces and developed the capacity to organize their own festivals and events. In parallel with these developments, there is increasing global interest in “Asian” contemporary arts. Yet, The Substation’s role as envisioned by Kuo Pao Kun remains crucial for Singapore arts and culture: as an incubator of new artistic work, artistic practices, and artists; as a much-needed gathering point for the arts community, the public, communities and people from different language streams and cultures; as a place where young artists and arts groups can have their start; as a space for critical discussion; and most importantly, as a place where artists can ‘fail’, and are given time and space to develop the critical rigor needed to create art of any significance. The Substation is an indelible part of Singapore’s cultural and artistic heritage. The next challenge for The Substation is to educate a new, young generation about The Substation and the value of maintaining this open space for diverse voices, languages, opinions, and artistic practices in Singapore.
“Pao Kun once said that ‘ideally, The Substation should be anything anyone wants it to be: open and flexible enough to do things his or her own way’. This is an alarming statement that seems to invite chaos! But it also represents an image of The Substation as a civic space, and recognizes that civic spaces can be messy. In rule-driven, results-oriented Singapore, The Substation reminds us that we have more than just material needs. The ideal of The Substation — as a public, open space as well as an experimental, contemporary arts centre — is the energy that drives this place. Above all, The Substation is about an ideal of freedom and civic expression, it is egalitarian but also insists on the intrinsic value of the artistic spirit and individualism…”
Audrey Wong, Artistic Co-director of The Substation (2000 – 2009)
“Like Audrey, I joined as Artistic Co-Director in 2000. But ever since 1992, when I moved back to live in this part of the world, I’ve been a regular here. One might think that I would have gotten a strong sense of ownership of the place by now. But as it happens every so often, I’ll be leaving the office in the evening, and there’ll be a whole bunch of people I don’t know in the foyer or in the garden, gathered to watch a play or attend a reception for an exhibition opening, and I’ll feel like it’s me who’s the gate-crasher at the party, that I’m the stranger in someone else’s backyard. Or I’ll go into the Theatre to watch a performance by, say Daniel Kok, one of our Associate Artists, and I’ll feel more like an old-timer audience member than a guy who runs the space along with Audrey. In my three very hectic years here, I still haven’t gotten to the point where I really feel at home. Make no mistake, I am very comfortable here — most of the time. But I don’t imagine being more comfortable than the artists we work with, who come and frequent the place. For me, this is a good thing. The people who use our space, they take possession of it. And for a while, it’s theirs. So much so that it’s me who’s like the welcomed guest, and not the other way around.”
Lee Weng Choy, Artistic Co-director, The Substation (2000 – 2009)
(Comments taken from captions in the exhibition The Home that Pao Kun Built, created by The Substation for SeptFest 2003).