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The Banter: An Interview with New Substation Artistic Co-Directors Raka Maitra and Woon Tien Wei

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Taking over from previous Artistic Director Alan Oei, The Substation has now come under the joint leadership of Ms. Raka Maitra and Dr. Woon Tien Wei as Artistic Co-Directors of the venue.

Says Chew Kheng Chuan, Chairman of The Substation: “While celebrating our 30th year as a small but significant national arts institution in Singapore, we are conscious that the future holds great challenges and opportunities for us to be relevant and vital. We look with confidence to Raka and Tien to revitalise the contribution of The Substation to the advancement of the arts and Singapore’s cultural identity.”

A disciple of Madhavi Mudgal, award-winning Odissi dancer Raka founded Chowk Productions in 2007, focusing on producing contemporary and classical dance works. Her interests lie in exploring the notion of ‘Asian Culture’ through contemporary dance, the basis of her movement is both martial arts and classical Indian dance. Meanwhile, artist and curator Woon Tien Wei is involved in cultural policies dealing with art, social movements, community engagement, land contestation, urban legends, and social movements. Tien founded and co-founded multiple arts initiatives, including Post Museum, and has had his projects featured across Indonesia, Singapore and beyond.

Prior to The Substation, Raka and Tien had never worked on any projects with each other in any capacity. “We were laughing the other day how our relationship was like an arranged marriage,” says Raka. “We were selected individually, then told to meet for coffee, before then and there deciding if we could work together as artistic co-directors. While our styles and backgrounds are very different, we realised that the one thing we had in common was this desire to bring back the community aspect to The Substation, and to re-establish it as the beacon of Southeast Asian art, and to work on that together as our shared vision.”

While previous director Alan Oei’s A Public Square programme is still ongoing, Raka and Tien intend to introduce their vision proper come April, where a series of events and new initiatives are currently planned to officially launch their programme. “The Substation has always been a home,” says Tien. “And under us, we want to ask everyone who has been involved with it for the last 30 years to come forward and give us their feedback. We realised a lot of people saw it at different points in its history, and there were those who no longer recognised it as a home for the arts to come back to.”

“Kuo Pao Kun had a clear vision of what he wanted The Substation to be when he started it,” says Raka. “It’s always been a home for artists who’ve wanted to break away from the traditional and try something new. Over the last 30 years, each artistic director has had their own vision, and have engaged with the arts community at different levels. There have definitely been groups that have felt left out from time to time, and we want to make sure that The Substation really champions the multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary artists once again.”

The Substation’s new programming initiatives intends to embrace all art forms and feature: residency and research programmes; the re-introduction of SeptFest; and a host of initiatives designed to encourage artists and audiences to develop their own relationship with The Substation. “We’ve been thinking a lot about how the scene has changed so much from then to now,” Raka adds. “There’s so many new venues now compared to when The Substation first came about, from the Esplanade to museums. So our job is to find the gaps between these spaces, and use The Substation as a venue to fill in those gaps, something we’ve done by engaging in dialogue sessions with artists, and figuring out how to re-introduce some of these past initiatives and making them relevant again for 2020 and beyond.”

One particular initiative set to make a comeback would be the Associate Artist programme, which will see The Substation taking a number of artists under their wing as they’re given the resources and guidance to develop their work, before presenting it later on. “We’re looking at dividing the programme along a couple of tracks so we can better streamline it, from experimental music, to new ways of exploring Asian traditions, to street dance,” says Raka. “Tien and I want to build a community of artists, a space where we can mingle, and talk, regardless of disciplines. Things like co-working spaces or rehearsal spaces, artists just go in and come out without really interacting with each other, so we want to start a ‘fringe artists club’, where we’ll collaborate with Timbre to have a little gathering maybe once a month, with an opportunity for artists to showcase what they’re working on and some discounts on food and drink, and have conversations.”

As The Substation’s new leaders, both Raka and Tien then act as co-curators of a sort in the running of the venue, and deciding the line-up of what’s to come. “The discipline of curation has changed drastically over the years,” says Tien. “Nowadays, everything can be curated, from experiences to coffee. And you hear about ‘supercurators’ who programme multiple festivals and biennales, and it always ends up being the same artists at every event.”

“So on my end, personally, I think I have to learn to ‘uncurate’, and be more open about the kind of work we bring in,” Tien continues. “I’m interested then, in the dark matter of the art world. There’s only so many artists who end up becoming successful, but the other 99% of them, well, they all get ignored and unnoticed. A star is only visible because of the dark matter surrounding it, and we want to shine a light on all these other artists.”

“There’s this huge focus these days on the idea of an elaborate spectacle, and how everything must stand out,” says Raka. “I think everything has its place in the world though, and if it’s a good piece of work, it will resonate with others. There’s so much good art happening that goes unnoticed, and we want to bring that into focus and show the spectrum of art.”

Between the two of them, Raka, with her performing arts background, has decided to take charge of theatre, dance and film artists, while Tien would take charge of the literary and visual artists, as well as archival. “I want to know where our art community is,” says Raka. “We created a generation of brilliant artists back in the day, but now, everyone is flying off to Berlin, America and so on. Big festivals are getting international groups and spending lots of money to make a spectacle, but we need to support the local scene as well. We’re full of programmes in the art calendar, but there’s often so little time for incubation. Our idea then is to make sure this is the space for that, for people to incubate and to meet each other. We want to see artists who are willing to experiment and do things that are out of the box, and we’ll also try to rope in senior artists to mentor the younger artists, and essentially, create this system and community of artists working together.”

In essence, Tien sums up the idea as a homecoming, for both the artists set to come onboard, as well as The Substation itself. “We’re trying to revitalise the values of The Substation in our programming, and bring back the idea of artists who have interesting practices and be able to come back and share with the emerging artists the way they work,” says Tien. “There’s a lot of cultural capital to this act of sharing and passing down practices, almost like some kind of intangible heritage. Spaces close over the years, but we’re still standing. There’s something worth preserving about this, and the community must have some kind of ownership over what we stand for to keep it alive and going.”

“You know, a lot of people have tried to copy The Substation model and couldn’t,” says Raka. “In India, the arts scene is all about connections, and it ends up a case where the older artists support each other and there’s no one to help the younger ones. I remember how when I started out, there were all these Indian groups who refused me when I told them about my contemporary dance practice, who said that contemporary is just another word for ‘conning people temporarily’. I came to Singapore, and kept looking for a place where I could practice, and that space was The Substation, where I became an Associate Artist.”

“If artists make meaningful work that needs to be said, then we will stand by them as a community and support them as best as we can,” adds Raka. “At the end of the day, The Substation wouldn’t be where we are today without the artists we have contributing their ideas and work, and our goal then is to help them along, and provide a home for the arts here.”

The Substation’s new programming will be unveiled in due time, with an opening event set for mid-April 2020. For more information on The Substation, visit their website here

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