This article is the second in a series. To read the first, click the link below:
Independent and Alternative Spaces in Singapore n.1: I_S_L_A_N_D_S
Independent and Alternative Spaces in Singapore n.2:
Coda Culture – A Review of “The Spirits of Echoes” by ila (14 - 23 September 2018)
This article is the second in a series which will focus on independent and alternative art spaces in Singapore that have emerged and become a key part of the arts ecology in Singapore. Such spaces are differentiated from galleries or museums in that they are primarily non-profit, relies minimally on or not at all on institutional support, and often presents the work of artists with alternative or experimental practices, who may not be well-represented in larger institution spaces. You can read the first article here, where an introduction into independent spaces in Singapore is covered, with a review of I_S_L_A_N_D_S at Peninsular Plaza.
This article discusses new independent art space Coda Culture, housed at a shophouse unit at Block 803, King Georges Avenue. Similar to I_S_L_A_N_D_S, Coda Culture started as a passion project by Seelan Palay, Singapore artist/activist who is the one-man team behind the independent artist-run space situated in the block of shophouses. It is within a surrounding landscape that differs from other galleries often located in central districts among other museums, luxury shops or commercial spaces, which as a result attracts a certain audience that might be considered to be elite or upper class, associated with white cube galleries of a certain ilk. In contrast to this, Coda Culture’s location within a Housing Development Board (HDB) estate near Lavender MRT station attracts an audience that can arrive from a variety of backgrounds, both from the local art community as well as residents of the neighbourhood. Yet, it is well-positioned within a stone’s throw of other independent art spaces in the area, such as Your Mother Gallery and Supernormal, and in close proximity to the Jalan Besar and Bugis districts that are located downtown.
Coda Culture opened in January 2018 after three years of planning and is funded from Seelan's own pocket, with a specific intention not to obtain government funding in order to sustain the space. Coda Culture functions partially as a studio space for Seelan himself but is also opened up to showcase the work of other artists. To date, Coda Culture has hosted ten solo and group exhibitions and has a full exhibiting schedule until the end of 2018, which is when the lease expires. After which, Seelan is prepared to close the gallery in its current location, while future plans are unconfirmed. The question he posed was: “How much can you achieve in one year?” (during “Independent Art Spaces in Singapore; A Conversation”, a discussion panel held on 26 July 2018); with the knowledge that the lifespan of the space is limited, perhaps one is spurred to push the potential of the space to its physical and conceptual limits.
And push its limits it has. The packed lineup of exhibitions at Coda Culture since its first in January 2018 has meant that each show lasts for 1.5 – 2 weeks, with a short turnover time for the next exhibition. For comparison, larger galleries such as Ota Fine Arts or Chan + Hori Contemporary host shows that run for 6 – 7 weeks. Running for a shorter period means that whilst one can squeeze in more exhibitions within a smaller frame of time, that it also translates in exhibitions changing quickly, with fewer audience members being able to view it before it ends. Perhaps then, the openings and regular artist talks provide a good reason for people to attend and congregate, giving Coda Culture a constant buzz of energy and excitement that other gallery spaces may lack. During such openings and talks, audience members spill out of the small space, sitting on plastic stools along the shophouse corridors. The space is simply too small to fit many, but this also lends an intimate experience, one that results in an inevitable spillage of excess. Excess, not in a negative sense, but an overflow in the production of sensation and experience that exceeds pre-given conditions of possibility of the structures of the gallery space, in doing so generating new circumstances of encounters between all participants.
This, arguably, makes the work that Coda Culture does intensely ‘contemporary’, in which the ‘contemporary’ is not a chronological, but an ontological term; emerging not as a response to history, but rather operating directly from life, an ‘atemporal art’ whose “criteria are not history, medium, technique or content, but creativity” (Stephen Zepke, 2010). This creates a space of contemporary inclusivity, experimentation and openness for emerging artists, together with its independence from external funding and minimal administration or bureaucracy, is significant in the type of exhibitions it gives space for. For example, some of the artists have their first solo shows with Coda Culture (The Past is not the Past, Erica Chung, The Spirits of Echoes, ila) and issues such as conceptions of beauty and marginalised bodies (The Purple Line, Benjamin Matchap), non gender-conforming romantic relationships (In Love, Norah Lea), and rejected proposals (The Rejected Proposal Showcase, Desigirl69 Collective).
One recent show was ila’s The Spirits of Echoes, which took the form of an evocative installation combining elements from on practice – photographs from her solitary wanderings through the city late into the night, which were her way of dealing with depression, with her continual research and gathering of ghost stories that she has been undertaking for many years. The recordings of her conversations with people she met, who shared with her their ghostly encounters or stories, come from a place that is deeply personal and intimate in the sharing, but also touch on a more otherworldly resonance that surfaces as common experiences. These conversations play as a backdrop to her photographs, projected and shifting as light, onto an installation of hanging translucent red cloth. The cloth flutters and moves in an unseen breeze, the projected images of lonely moments in time of an empty urban landscape temporarily in slumber, themselves shifting and passing through space. ila, during her artist talk – which, while focusing on the work of the artist, also transformed into a ghost story-telling session – spoke about the relationship between her emotional disturbances, which manifest in her late night wanderings and photography, and her experience of hauntings, both which come together in the installation in Coda Culture. What surfaced during ila’s artist talk was the inseparable connection that the work has to her life – it stems from a deeply personal place. Notably, Coda Culture, as an independent space, gives deeply intimate practices the ability to perform an immediate contemporaneity, operating directly from and in response to life.
There is value in such spaces that allow artists to work and respond in a way that is organic, generative and to prompt them to push boundaries, especially in an atmosphere where producing tangible or productive outcomes is prized and prioritised. In doing so, the approach taken by Coda Culture is one that does away with hierarchies or exclusions, where the exhibition arises from a conversation between the artist and the curator, but to also dismiss these positions which define the workings of the art world. Such a mindset extends to the audience who visit, in which they are averse to creating a community around the space in order not to construct more barriers for other people to enter and participate. And while Coda Culture might close its doors at its current location at the end of 2018, they will hopefully continue to persist with the same independence.
This article is the first in a series which will focus on independent and alternative art spaces in Singapore that have emerged and become a key part of the arts ecology in Singapore. Such spaces are differentiated from galleries or museums in that they are primarily non-profit, relies minimally on or not at all on institutional support, and often presents the work of artists with alternative or experimental practices, who may not be well-represented in larger institution spaces.
Within the relatively young arts scene in Singapore, and the fact that space is at a high premium, it is unsurprising that the main spaces to view and engage with art are national institutions or commercial galleries, and with it, an associated perception of galleries as alienating white cubes or accessible only to a limited art elite. “What keeps [the white cube] stable is the lack of alternatives.” (Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space). However, reducing the understanding of arts in Singapore to these spaces would discount the increasing emergence of unconventional and independent art spaces in recent years which defy traditional conceptions of what a gallery should be.
In fact, there is a precedent for such collectives and spaces in Singapore’s history. To mention a couple, The Artists Village, the first artist-run alternative art space in Singapore founded by artist Tang Da Wu in the late 1980s spearheaded radical new ways which artists collaborated and produced performances and exhibitions; and Plastique Kinetic Worms, an independent exhibition space co-founded by artists Vincent Leow and Yvonne Lee.
Many of these spaces today are characterised by their small size, both of physical space, and in terms of the team running them. They are often “passion projects” by young artists or creatives, and one thing that they acknowledge is that no form of monetary return to be yielded through the running of these spaces. Often, they operate out of their own pocket, and potentially are unsustainable in the long run. Yet, the teams or individuals who start these independent spaces persist because they recognise the value of providing such opportunities for the freedom and experimentation that is essential for a healthy and vibrant arts scene to develop, without being held back by grants from external stakeholders and commercial funding pressures.
Another key characteristic is their desire to push boundaries – be it through providing a platform for artists whose work may challenge difficult or controversial issues in Singapore (such as politics, religion, sexuality), or challenge art formats and mediums (artwork conventions – beyond painting, sculpture, photography, or media); or through breaking out of the white cube, such as spaces that are situated in non-conventional gallery settings – ‘in-between’ places, outside art precincts, and within the industrial, within the domestic, within perhaps, neighbourhoods or communities which are situated closer and more intimate to an everyday experience of life. This also goes against a governmental tendency to think of space and place via precinct-making policies that accompany a desire for ordering and categorisation. These spaces then serve as important pockets of energy and creativity that defy the relegation of art – its production, presentation and experience – to boxes and key performance indicators.
One such in-between space that perhaps exemplifies some of these characteristics is I_S_L_A_N_D_S, a public corridor of eight shop display windows, on the third floor connecting Peninsular Shopping Centre and Excelsior Shopping Centre. The space, despite its relative obscurity (while situated on the edge of the Bras Basah-Bugis District, a key arts and cultural district for the National Heritage Board, it does not see much pedestrian flow as the shopping centres are dated and contain many old shops), is a fascinating site.
Firstly, as a linkway corridor connecting two shopping centres, it is a place of movement and transit. Visitors pass from one commercial space to the next, and the very format of display is one that is historically, keenly tied to advertising and conspicuous consumption. The act of ‘window dressing’ is one that many department stores and retailers invest time and energy to present products that, through the use of effective visual communication, has at its core to invoke spending and consumerism. This particular corridor which I_S_L_A_N_D_S inhabits is no exception. However, what makes I_S_L_A_N_D_S so effective is its subversion of the format of display, as an experimental platform for artists to test ideas and alternative means of exhibition-making. Literally transgressing the four walls of the gallery, these experiments are brought into a public space, yet retaining some sense of enclosure within the individual cases. There is a provocation to look at space differently, and new challenges are posed to adapt work or make new work for this unique space. Whether directly or indirectly, the artworks shown have the power to contest viewers’ expectations of the space, and to provoke inquiry, dialogue and reflection.
In addition, the location also opens up the work to a range of different non-art audiences, some who might be put off by typical gallery spaces. The unexpected, accidental encounters with art that I_S_L_A_N_D_S generate is what is especially interesting. The space is inherently transitory – people pass through, catch a glimpse, linger, return, or never do. We might encounter others within the space; there might be interaction, or we might remain anonymous and not share an experience. It evokes French anthropologist Marc Augé’s notion of ‘non-places’, referring to anthropological spaces of transience, in which human beings remain anonymous and they do not hold enough significance to be regarded as ‘places’. Yet, I_S_L_A_N_D_S seems to oscillate within such notions; while it can be a non-place of transition and movement, at the same time it can transform into a crossroads of human relations, drawn together around this alternative space, or brought together on certain occasions.
One such moment of transformation is perhaps the recent opening of the current exhibition at I_S_L_A_N_D_S, “Perennial Concerns” by Song-Ming Ang and Lai Yu Tong. “Perennial Concerns” is a refreshingly novel show, stemming from both artists’ initial impulse to start a band together. The idea of this spontaneous impulse is one that runs through the presentation, with an emphasis on fluidity, improvisation, and collaborative exchange, both between the artists and the visitors to the exhibition. Both artists have a common investment in the playful encounters between music, text and objects, which are visible in the displays. In doing so, the work raises questions about how processes of composition and performance are usually conceived, and to tease out rhythms and syncopations in the everyday. Through the format of the display case, they test and explore the limits of this physical system and the aforementioned associations within the public space of the shopping mall corridor.
One such work by Lai fills the display case with large sheets of crumpled white paper, instead of using the case to store or display objects. These sheets obscure the inner space of the display, made evident by the bright incandescent display light shining through the paper. Instead, Lai utilises the sliding glass windows, upon which are printed a series of words: the first line reads “BAD EGG CABBAGE”. It evokes some sense of the poetic, but the words do not form coherent sentences; rather, they resemble more a collage-like assemblage. The association to the musical becomes evident when one realises that these words are comprised of the main guitar chords, reassembling the letters to form anagrams. The words take on multiple layers – as an assemblage of chords, they form musical sequences; at the same time, they also form words with significations; and when combined into phrases, form other sorts of significations.
This playful attitude in juxtaposing differing signifiers also shows up in one of Ang’s works, which draws on punk/underground culture. One display contains a large poster-sized printout, the average size of a band poster, featuring the Google Image Search results of “unknown pleasures tattoo” – multiple images featuring people’s body parts on which the album cover of “Unknown Pleasures” by English rock band Joy Division was tattooed in various forms and creative reinterpretations. The aesthetic of low-fi and direct, found screenshots from Google Image Search evokes the content of these images themselves – appropriations of the Joy Division album cover, badly photographed and tattooed. The original image is designed by Peter Saville, based on an image of radio waves from pulsar CP 1919, an astronomical phenomenon made visible only through pulses. The white on black lines “reflect a pulse of power, a surge of bass, and raw angst” (Susie Goldring, BBC Online, 2007). It has transformed into a cult symbol, possibly the most enduring image of the post-punk era. Ang draws the representations into conversation, together with another element in the display case – a toppled beer bottle emblazoned with Trooper, a brand of beer inspired by the English heavy metal band Iron Maiden, seemingly spilling a puddle of beer onto the bottom of the case. This introduction of these two elements poses active provocations, drawing on these cultural symbols and evoking the remnants of this era of music in history.
Despite this being a two-person exhibition, and each artist having their own distinct language and intentions – Ang “sets up frank encounters with medium and representation”, often sampling material from popular culture, whilst Lai “takes a more nuanced approach”, utilising pattern and repetition to negotiate the banality of the contemporary condition – at times, it is in fact challenging to differentiate each artist’s work. Without informational labels as one might expect in an art gallery, the homogeneity of the cases contributes to the ambiguity of authorship – perhaps in opposition to individualising structures of conventional galleries, where individual artists are highlighted as separate, distinct entities with unique art practices.
Another exciting aspect of “Perennial Concerns” took place on its opening night, where in the spirit of improvisation, a performance that comprised of ten audio tracks, five each by Ang and Lai, were made available online and complicated the participation of the audience. Deftly orchestrated by the artists, audience members were asked to play these tracks, in any order, with the options to choose, skip tracks and control the volume, and to subsequently sojourn when it came to its natural conclusion. During the activation, Lai recorded the merging and coalescence of these various auditory outputs, creating a new piece where the pre-recorded tracks shift and flow to the audience’s whims, and are overlaid with ambient sounds. Due to the nature of the space, the audience was also constantly moving and shifting down the narrow corridor, contributing to a unique sensory and participatory experience. A focus was also placed on one's keen and present listening, alongside one's agency in the activation of the tracks.
Contrary to what one might assume, both the artists are well-experienced and have shown their work often and on other platforms and galleries. The associated limitations of non-independent spaces, whether they are manifested through literal restrictions or through unspoken pressures, is what gives emerging platforms like I_S_L_A_N_D_S its value or niche in the Singapore arts scene, to allow artists to push both their boundaries, and the boundaries of the arts space. In order for a healthy and vibrant scene to grow, there is a necessity for such experimental grounds, to provide an open, active and experimental seedbed for artists to test ideas and present art.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.