Arts Interview Substation

uproot | rootless: An Interview with The Substation Artistic Director Ezzam Rahman, and artists of SeptFest 2022

There was a time when arts venue The Substation had a massive Malayan Banyan Tree growing along the walls of Timbre. Considered an iconic part of The Substation, the tree had been there even before the founding of the venue in 1990, and became the site for countless events, gigs and performances, representing the ongoing connection between art and nature. But come 2015, the Banyan tree was uprooted to make way for a new SMU building, and no longer sits at its original site. Still, the memory of it lives on in the artists, arts administrators and arts goers, with some even having grafted parts of it before its removal in the hopes of re-growing it, and letting it live on in some way.

Nothing lasts forever, and like the Banyan tree that left its grounds, The Substation too lost its home at 45 Armenian Street in 2021, when the building was returned to the National Arts Council (NAC), to be renovated and refurbished before becoming a space to be leased to various arts groups. The Substation carried on as an organisation, but in finding itself without a physical space and a nebulous entity, became rootless, unbound, and faced an uncertain future. Yet, it survives, and with the announcement of Ezzam Rahman as its new Artistic Director in late 2021, the organisation has found a new lease of life and new direction, to continue supporting artists, and to cultivate a safe and secure environment where artists can remain courageous in their art making.

The Substation Artistic Director Ezzam Rahman

Nine months on, and Ezzam has made good on his promise, with a visual art exhibition in June 2022, and the return of The Substation’s signature SeptFest programme this September. Even without a central venue, SeptFest 2022 features a full line-up of programmes running throughout the entire month, spanning visual art, performance art, theatre, music, and even extending into the digital sphere. All these multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary events and performances adhere to an all too appropriate theme to mark The Substation’s first SeptFest since losing their home – uproot | rootless, and asks the fundamental question: when something is removed from a place, what remains?

“I took inspiration from The Substation losing its physical arts space, and compared it to the metaphor of a plant – even after pulling it up, there will be some kind of remnant, much like how The Substation building itself is still there, and the artists who have worked with us before,” says Ezzam. “And honestly, I’m excited to see what’s going to happen to the site in future, and how those in the arts community will always feel very rooted to the place. uproot | rootless then is about embracing change.”

SeptFest 2022 is all about going back to The Substation’s roots, and its focus on underground, independent art, right down to the monochrome colour scheme used across its collaterals. As Ezzam explains, in consultation with designer Jackson Tan, they decided on drawing inspiration from street art and the grunge aesthetic of posters stuck on walls in cities in Europe, full of carefree expression. The red arrows resemble a tree and a network of roots growing deep into the soil, and represent a single source that spreads far and wide, much like The Substation’s own influence and artistry, going from roots to routes mapping the way forward.

In crafting the programme this year, Ezzam then gathered a group of artists and collaborators he wanted to give an opportunity to explore and present their artistry, often with more experimental fare. “I was very humbled that this group agreed to come onboard on this journey – when I was appointed Artistic Director in November, I had maybe a month to apply for grants and get to work planning SeptFest for this year, and got to know and call on so many of them during that time,” says Ezzam. “From artists to curators to playwrights and people behind the scene, even though they knew I didn’t have a space, and was literally creating a festival out of nothing, I really just felt so thankful that they believed in me, believed in The Substation, and I know that they all have The Substation DNA in them, as I fulfil my role to bring these creatives together.”

Among these artists are Grace Kalaiselvi, whose work, Declutter Me! is a unique one-to-one video call, where the audience members selects an item which Grace will then expound on with a story about identity and culture. “SeptFest to me is so fascinating as a multifaceted festival of art forms, and when Ezzam approached me, I saw it as an opportunity to find out more about artists in Singapore, and took the chance to create a show that would share more stories from my life, my culture and what it means to me,” says Grace. “Culture grounds you and roots you, but also weighs you down at times, so we have to decide what elements to keep and what to throw, or ‘declutter’, and find balance.”

Also on the online space is Oliver Chong with his work The One At Home, a 14-day durational performance that takes place in a co-living space, and is live-streamed to audiences via Instagram. “SeptFest has always felt like it’s featured unique and special works that are more grunge than polished, and for my work, I’m borrowing an idea from my previous durational work Time Between Us, where I spent 5 days incarcerated in a wooden house at Marina Bay Sands,” comments Oliver. “Reflecting on that experience and the pandemic, I thought it might be a good time to lock one’s self up again and re-examine all we’ve been through, how we’ve grown, and how we’ve not, and this time adhering to the COVID quarantine period of 14 days. It’s to do with ideas of solitude and sanity, and comes back to this year’s theme as I wonder, when the body is removed from the mind, what is left?”

And perhaps making the most waves amidst the performance pieces is Alfian Sa’at’s new play, The Death of Singapore Theatre as Scripted by the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore. Directed by Irfan Kasban and performed by Farah Ong, the play is written as a direct address to IMDA, and traces the history of how theatre has been regulated in Singapore, from the colonial period to post-Independence, chronicling how moral panics, culture wars, bureaucratic language and political elites have shaped the Singaporean censorship landscape.

“The Substation has always been an integral part of me as an artist, where I watched some of my first theatre shows there, and experienced such a diversity of visual art and music, and encountered this melting pot of people,” says director Irfan. “With The Death of Singapore Theatre, Alfian has written a play that is in conversation with an IMDA officer, and flows like how one would confront an abusive relationship that has gone on for many years, and finally turning the spotlight back at them. Each chapter will feature different performance styles, and it’s almost like flashing back to the past, like your life flashing before you upon death. The space is gone, yet the spirit and magic continues, and we do so much with so little, because of how people like ITI, The Finger Players, Teater Kami and Teater Ekamatra have been offering their help. The Substation remains an alternative space to showcase alternative voices, and so resilient against bureaucracy – we find new ways to work in spite of closures, and collaborate to have our voices heard.”

Elsewhere, Bridget Tay, who curated REDACTED in June, returns to The Substation to curate Frequencies, a group presentation featuring Aaron Teo, Joanne Lim, and Smiha Kapoor. Together, the works call upon the interconnectivity of structure and construct with each of the artists’ works presenting itself as an endeavour to approach the construct of the body that projects perceptions of the cultural, political and sexual. Ideas that are evocative of bodies and their relationship to the environment float through the works as they intermingle and intersect with each other and the space. Bridget is also curating performance installation Sillage, and solo presentation Tensity.

“This marks my first SeptFest, and my experience of The Substation is similar to the others’ – a place for a like-minded community, filled with independent alternative spirits, to gather and share,” says Bridget. “They’ve influenced my way of practicing and curating, and being the curator for 3 presentations, we’re trying to move beyond the idea of a fixed space while being centred on the core idea of what The Substation used to represent, and seeing how we can take it to the next level. As an artist in Singapore, it’s almost part of our DNA to be able to scout for new spaces to present work, and while we may be heartbroken over the loss of spaces, our local artists are very resilient. And just from the sheer number of venues who’ve come onboard to collaborate with us this year shows that the story is never over. Perhaps it’s the beginning of unionising within the arts, and learning to support each other as a community in order to move forward, and who knows? It might be the beginning of something far bigger than any of us can imagine.”

Amidst Bridget’s curated projects is Sillage, which sees Nurul Huda and Nicole Phua executing performative installations that expand into narratives connected to themselves and each other, exploring presence and absence, while also investigating meanings, familiarity and patterns through activation and responses between the material, intangible and human.

“I’ve previously been a part of SeptFest in 2020, but since then I’ve been working a lot with The Substation, which has always been very welcoming to new artists to the scene, like allowing me to use the space to do up a group exhibition,” says artist Nicole Phua, who will perform her work Nizalia, as part of Sillage. “No other space would have allowed me to do a 7 hour performance workshop, and honestly, without The Substation, we wouldn’t have anywhere to express that and come together and meet new people with the same mindset. For my work Nizalia, I am developing on from my previous work – Planting a Seed, and explore my journey of faith as akin to pulling a root out from the soil, and what comes after.”

In all, these pieces investigate and interrogate the urgent issues in our post-pandemic world: identity and privacy, displacement and disembodiment, virtuality and virality, as artists respond to the conflicts and contradictions that infect our isolated bodies and ravaged mindscapes, to present unconventional work in unconventional spaces. “I have presented live performance art at The Substation multiple times, from the alleyways to experimental film forums, and even staging work for preschoolers,” says Ezzam. “I’ve gotten to experience so many plays, films and art in the time The Substation has been here, and now I want to pay it forward under my directorship. We may not have a space, but we will find ways to realise artists’ work.”

“Take for example how Across Narrow Waters was born from me visiting Anthony Chin’s website and reading how there was an unrealised work he never got to make. I met up with him, and told him we would make it happen with The Substation, and now, together with Andrea Danker, Anthony Chin will be presenting that work at Supper House,” he adds. “I remember my own time, knocking on The Substation’s office door trying to find an opportunity to present work, and bringing a work I curated in Sweden back to Singapore. And they came through with the Random Room. At the back of my head this year, I knew who I wanted to work with, and represent the spectrum of art in Singapore, and to represent these unheard voices, and a combination of established and emerging artists. I remain so humbled because I have yet to be rejected by any artist I’ve approached, and The Substation for me, is a home, these are my people, my chosen family, who in turn choose me back.”

Clockwise from top left: Grace Kalaiselvi, Oliver Chong, Bridget Tay, Nicole Phua, and Irfan Kasban

“When I took over, I wanted to claim the month of September for SeptFest, marking the month it was founded in 1990. There’s still a lot for me to learn as Artistic Director, and I have to thank my artists under my wings for being so understanding, accommodating, and I appreciate every single sacrifice they have made to make SeptFest happen. I don’t know if this will be the format it will continue to take next year – maybe it’ll be more experimental, feature a new pool of artists, or find a new format,” says Ezzam.

“But what I do know is that given a choice, we will always challenge and feed our art audience with something different, these experimental works and works-in-progress. I hope the arts community can see the importance of The Substation in our local arts landscape, and I’m so happy that I’ve already been receiving so many message from other artists asking if they can present work during SeptFest. Even without a fixed physical space, The Substation continues to offer our artists a way to make a mark, and that for me, is a good sign of things to come.”

SeptFest 2022 runs from 1st to 30th September 2022 across various venues in Singapore. Tickets, lineup and more information available here

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