The Co-Op Experiment, A Common Ground

Sept 2016 - Feb 2017

The Substation is in a moment of crisis. Significant tension and anxiety was created in the 9 months of lack of transparency for the arts community leading up to the appointment of the Artistic Director. This was exacerbated by the lack of communication and consultation when the Artistic Director finally came on board. This crisis, which led to a high level of engagement and interest in The Substation, in fact reflects a significant amount of difficulty within the arts and cultural landscape in Singapore. In other words, the arts communities’ anxieties about The Substation are in fact indicative of the structural conditions of artmaking in Singapore.

About The Co-Op

Through an open call, 10-12 participants was selected to form a core co-operative group together with The Substation’s present Programme Managers. From September 2016 to December 2016, The Co-Op had to commit to meeting once a week on average. From December 2016 to February 2017, The Co-Op were expected to work together and implement their intended programme at The Substation in February.

The Co-Op was formed to examine the topics of (1) openness and plurality and (2) alternative models of operation for an arts space. The Co-Op decided to function upon a self-constructed framework that levelled decision-making, titled Land of Forever Negotiation, where a fixed number of roles was listed and these roles were undertaken on a weekly rotational basis by all members of The Co-Op. In February 2017, The Co-Op formulated a programme, A Common Ground. Through A Common Ground, The Co-op investigated the act of “commoning,” the creation of a space in which all resources are shared with the means of developing social processes. Experimental at its core, the main objective of A Common Ground was to produce a series of programmes that examined and interrogated the feasibility of establishing a commons in Singapore. A Common Ground was a month-long inquiry that will be examined through four anchor programmes:

  1. Berita Harian Panas Panas

    Berita Harian Panas-Panas (BHPP) is a communal translation project in which articles from Singapore's national Malay-language daily are translated to English for a non-Malay speaking audience. Through these translations, BHPP aimed to open up space to discuss the nature and implications of the narratives that arise from the articles' scope, angle and presentation of its subjects. By making transparent the subjectivities present in the news and how it shapes the narratives we tell ourselves, it hopes to encourage critical scrutiny of news reporting and its role in meaning-making.

  2. Something To Say

    The Substation's Box Office has been transformed into a recording room. Members of the public are then invited to book a recording session in which anything goes; while each session will be moderated by a member of The Co-op, participants are encouraged to speak as freely and creatively as possible. Something To Say (STS) in particular is eager to collect narratives from members of the public as a means of mapping a vernacular landscape of Singapore, culminating in a publicly accessible and continually expanding resource of audio recordings containing hidden knowledge and inside information about our neighbourhoods and the people that occupy them.

  3. Off-Grid Autonomous Water System

    When talking about an autonomous art space, discussions tend to be about creating independent frameworks to creating, curating or funding. Maybe an autonomous art space can also be a space that is independent of grid infrastructure. The Off-Grid Autonomous Water System (AWS) will manifest as a series of talks, workshops and building exercises to understand the "commoning" natural resources for all.

  4. Togethergathertogether Concert

    Organised by The Co-op with the intention of "commoning" music culture, the day-long concert (18 Feb 2017, 4.30pm-10pm) promises to traverse the boundaries between the demographic and stylistic enclaves that separate the music community, with the hopes of uniting its diverse pool of musicians and their respective devotees under the roof of The Substation. The featured bands are: Myanmar rock band 777, ethnic fusion band Flame of the Forest, dark/haunting folk band Hell Low Trio, all-girl hardcore band Radigals, vedic metal band Rudra, and Japanese ska group Sawayaka Yonkumi.

Personal Thoughts

What if The Substation didn’t have programmers or an Artistic Director?

I don’t think this is an easy question to answer, not with the numerous individuals that have come to form relationships with The Substation, artists and non-artists alike. Attempting to sum up the wealth of experiences that came with being part of The Co-Op is no easy task as well. But there are two prominent points I do wish to address in this particular reflection.

First would be the start of my own relationship with The Substation. Unlike the other participants, I had never had much contact with The Substation, and I might even say being selected to be a part of The Co-Op was a stroke of luck in itself. It remains an opportunity I am immensely thankful to have being given. I have since developed an affection for and investment in The Substation. I understand its position as a treasured space for artists in Singapore, with its tendency for putting out more experimental works and willingness to accommodate more radical voices. The Substation has never tried to shy away from confronting tensions, whether it is between artists and management, artworks and the state, or even between The Co-Op ourselves and the broader managing team.

The nature of commoning that we tried to explore with our programming was very much, in a meta manner, surfaced within our behind-the-scenes functioning. If we had to share power of decision-making, inevitable tensions would arise; if we had to share the space of The Substation with everyone else who was invested in its development, it meant we had to make compromises. Yes, we were supposedly promised the autonomy to programme, but we also had to negotiate when it came to seeking approvals for implementation and the such. To common is very much to accept and live with tensions, to make compromise to that coexistence can occur within a shared space. And that eventually concretised to be the reason for my growing affection for The Substation — its continually changing meanings and spatial dynamics that is eternally held in tension between its various inhabitants proved a potential for space to be creatively shaped beyond a monolithic physical infrastructure.

Second would be the unexpected exploration of language and voice through our anchor programmes. STS and BHPP in particular were fascinating inquiries into how language as a means of communication can shape meaning making and interpretation. The narratives presented through the translations of BHPP varied differently from the narratives recorded in STS. These, set in comparison with each other, communicated the vast array of subjectivities hidden or at least slipped into daily life.

My personal interest in everyday narratives made me pay attention to the recordings of STS. I noticed how a simple box office was transformed in purpose to a recording room, but even then the meaning of the space itself remained mutable depending on its users. Tensions could potentially occupy the room when opinions conflicted, but of course, our Valentine’s Day special changed the environment within the room as well with its “blind date” slant.

And it is voice itself that manages such changes in spatial dynamics — a notion that has an echo with the concert itself. Allowing bands that have disparate links to each other musically to perform in a single location, we return back to the notion of commoning. A single space has the potential to be creatively reimagined again and again depending on who occupies it, and fills the space up with their voice.

In Singapore, where geographical limitations tend to support the need for strategic spatial planning, we risk the possibility of losing creative autonomy over shaping our environment. The Co-Op presented one possible solution not only in terms of organisational infrastructure, in response to the uproar over The Substation’s change of Artistic Director. What really mattered to me in this particular project (putting aside all the strange feelings of having been seen as an experiment piece), was its proposition of allowing space to be shared and leveraging the potential ingrained within The Substation for being an experimental and mutable space. I believe that The Co-Op stood for a need to rethink the structures of art making in Singapore to step out of its fixed infrastructures of curation and overseeing, incorporating within a potential new framework of organisation that allows space and resources to be commoned — which means very much to not fear the bubbling cacophony of voices that comes with a coexistence within a shared space.