Arts Preview

Of Books and Things: An Interview with Renée Ting, Founding Director of Singapore Art Book Fair

For years now, the annual Singapore Art Book Fair (SGABF) has been building up a name for itself as a haven for anyone with even the slightest interest in independent publishing, art books and zines. Now, returning for its tenth and largest edition yet this weekend, both the curious and the passionate visitor can once again come down to SAM at Tanjong Pagar Distripark and lose themselves in a swathe of local and international purveyors of art books, discover something new and perhaps even make a friend along the way.

Heading the fair from its beginnings is Founding Director Renée Ting, who also owns and runs online bookshop Thing Books. Running a relatively lean team, and completely independently, sourcing for their own funds and planning the entire fair themselves is a nigh-impossible act fuelled by passion, and we took a moment to speak to Renée about how she’s been leading and maintaining such an ambitious project for so long.

“We have the last ten years of experience under our belt now, so we’ve set out some SOPs and have certain structures in place for each subsequent year,” says Renée. “I start planning about a week after the previous fair ends for the next one, and then gather my team maybe half a year before the fair begins. Besides having myself, a person who runs marketing and a person who handles logistics, the rest of our team is made of both new and repeat volunteers, and when it’s go-time, we hit the ground running. I couldn’t possibly run it by myself, and I really have to thank my incredible team and our partners.”

On opening day on Friday, it’s just before 5pm, and already there’s a moderate line forming outside SAM, where visitors are queuing to get their wristband and enter the fair. Multiple volunteers facilitate the smooth process, and the checks and approvals are relatively smooth, each one handed a map of the fair before proceeding into the venue.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been extremely lucky to receive so much venue support, with NTU Centre For Contemporary Arts prior to this, and when they had to close their space in 2021, it just so happened that someone from SAM approached me and asked if we wanted to do the fair at Tanjong Pagar Distripark,” says Renée. “So they’ll be venue partners for 3 years, and I’m so thankful that we’ve received their support, because without such partners, we’d be on such uncertain ground and we wouldn’t be in the right headspace to make this happen.”

Compared to their first year at SAM in 2022, this year’s edition of SGABF has several changes, such as ticketed entry, partly to do with crowd control, and partly to assist with funding. “I think it’s reasonably priced, and hopefully people won’t become too demanding at the fair because they paid $8 to come in,” says Renée. “What I want people to understand is that we’re probably one of the only large scale art events in Singapore to be self-funded, alongside support from printing and venue partners. It’s not easy, but I think it’s important that this becomes an event people can attend, and for the fair to establish that it can and is able to stand on its own two feet in the long run.”

At the fair itself, one might feel slightly overwhelmed when they first step in, where it feels a little like a convention, with about a hundred exhibitors setting up shop across the entire space. The walls are adorned with prints and colourful signs proudly declaring each publication or printer’s name. Established titles are arranged alongside newer publications, and while there are a majority of Singaporean exhibitors, one will also encounter a healthy number of exhibitors from abroad, be it from Indonesia or Thailand, Japan or Korea, and even further afield, such as Argentina and Australia.

“This year, we gathered twelve industry professionals to make up a selection panel, and for them to curate the final line-up,” says Renée. “This year, we wanted to push the boundaries a bit, especially with how travel has opened up again, and wanted to expand the numbers. Both exhibitors and visitors need to grow proportionally, and we’re hoping we’ve found the sweet spot, a comfortable number that’s manageable for both us and the visitors.”

SGABF2023 also features an actual art installation amidst the exhibitors, with US-based artist Tricia Treacy’s Scaffolding, which uncovers a collection of printed grids, patterns and geometric frameworks from our constructed and natural environments that can be found everywhere and all around us.

“Every year we try to introduce a showcase. Often that would be done by The Book Show, and this year, we decided to try an installation with Tricia Treacy, and it was quite an exciting new thing for us to try out. It was quite last minute, but we managed to get it all in order, and I’m glad we decided to put it up,” says Renée.

Looking around the space, one will find all manner of printed ephemera. You’ll get your usual postcards, stickers, posters and books of course, but how each exhibitor chooses to display and sell them is an art in and of itself. Some are hung up via hangers, while others employ props such as literal potted plants, floor rugs and gachapon machines to catch visitors’ attention. There’s a subtle hint of competition, yet the mood is communal, with every vendor recognising that each of them are here for the same reason and possess the same passion to putting a creation of their own out there in the world, and being vulnerable enough to tell people to buy it because it is worth your time and money.

“The community is growing, and everyone knows everybody. We always receive applications from new exhibitors every year, and it feels very wholesome. The priority for us has always been that the exhibitors do well and make sales. They’re all independent and fund their own trips, and I don’t think many people make a living off this alone,” says Renée.

The beauty of art books really is that they can take on almost any form, where one’s imagination is the limit. From accordion-style mini pamphlets, to sheafs of paper bound with a metal binder, or tiny calendar-like spiral-bound pads, or properly bound books, or painstakingly hand-drawn pieces. The content varies even more, and at times becomes so abstract, people need not fully understand a ‘coherent’ narrative, and instead, simply take in the vibes and appreciate the art that goes into it.

“I do feel we occupy this in-between space in providing a platform for an accessible art form without dumbing it down. There is so much depth and diversity that goes into the book form that is different from attending an exhibition, something intimate about reading it rather than experiencing it in a gallery,” says Renée. “I think beyond feeling inspired, I hope people appreciate what a special experience it is to come down and be in the presence of the exhibitors, many of whom are the artists and creators themselves, and feel the warmth of getting to interact with them, see them proud of their work, and bring it into their lives.”

Singapore Art Book Fair 2023 runs from 14th to 16th April 2023. Tickets and more information available here

0 comments on “Of Books and Things: An Interview with Renée Ting, Founding Director of Singapore Art Book Fair

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: