The Substation

The Substation is the first independent contemporary arts centre established in Singapore. Located on Armenian Street, it is regarded as a key venue for the production and staging of young, experimental and contemporary works in dance, literature, music, theatre, and visual arts. The aim of the centre is expressed in its slogan "A Home for the Arts".1

The Substation was founded in September 1990 by Cultural Medallion winner and playwright-dramatist, Kuo Pao Kun. The centre derives its name from the conservation building which it now occupies. Constructed in 1926, the building was formerly a power substation.2

The idea of an independent arts centre first came to Kuo in December 1985. He envisioned the future of the then abandoned power substation as a place where people could gather to interact and engage with different arts forms.3

In collaboration with renowned architect Tay Kheng Soon (who later became the founding chairman of the centre), a proposal for the arts centre was prepared and submitted to the former Ministry of Community Development (MCD).4 The centre was awarded S$1.07 million by the MCD in 1989 for the reconstruction of the building. The renovations were completed in June 1990, and the centre was officially opened on 16 September 1990 by then Minister for Community Development Wong Kan Seng. Kuo was artistic director of the centre from its founding to 1995.5 He was succeeded in 1996 by T. Sasitharan.6 In 2000, Audrey Wong and Lee Weng Choy were appointed artistic co-directors. Noor Effendy Ibrahim was artistic director from 2010 to January 2015.7 Alan Oei has been the artistic director since September 2015.8

Venues within a venue
The centre contains a variety of venue spaces to cater to different art forms. While the centre has its own lineup of events and shows, the venues are also available for public rental.9

The ground floor of the centre houses the two main venues: The Theatre, which  has 102 elevated seats for performances and screenings, and The Gallery, 113-square-metre space for exhibitions and receptions. There is also a 20-square-metre room on the ground floor for small-scale workshops.10 The theatre and gallery have hosted a number of important presentations by Singaporean and international artists.11 The second floor of the building contains a dance studio and a meeting room.12  

The garden, once regarded as one of the main venues, has hosted numerous live events, notably rock concerts by local musicians.13 It was also the venue for a popular flea market that used to take place on Sundays.14  Since 2005, the area has been tenanted to Timbre, a bistro and bar, which help to attract young adults to The Substation.15

Many artists have come up with novel uses of the centre’s spaces.16 Over the years, even off-site spaces (the stairwells, spaces beneath the staircases, and the rooftops) within and around the centre have been used for artistic presentations.17

The Substation's programmes were initially organised according to the various art forms: dance (Dance Space), film (Moving Images), literature (Word Space), music (Music Space), theatre (Raw Theatre) and visual art (New Criteria).18

Other notable programmes include a series of bi-annual conferences about art and discourse entitled The Substation Conference. These have been held periodically since 1993.19

Engagements with artists
From the start, the centre has focused its attention on building long-term dialogues with artists.20 The Associate Artists Scheme, revamped as the Associate Artist Research Programme during Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s tenure, is a two-year residency programme which supports the research and development of contemporary art and interdisciplinary practice. Artists who have been invited to participate in this programme include visual arts collective Vertical Submarine, writer-curator Tania De Rozario, and performance and video artist Loo Zihan.21

Under the Artist-in-Residence programme, individual artists and artists groups live for an extended period of time on the third floor of The Substation – which have been converted into studio and living spaces – to carry out their research and work.22 Some notable participants of this programme include Theatre Ox, Ankara, Zai Kuning, Tang Mun Kit and Sanjot Kaur Sekhon.23

The centre has also hosted iconic works of Singapore contemporary art. These works often engage with the idea of the centre as a site for experimentation and discourse.24


Heman Chong

1. “The Substation: A Home for the Arts,” The Substation, accessed 3 January 2017; Substation (Organisation), The Substation: A Home for the Arts (Singapore: The Substation, 1994), 3 (Call no. RSING 790.205 S); Audrey Wong, ed., 25 Years of The Substation: Reflections on Singapore's First Independent Art Centre (Singapore: The Substation: Ethos Book, 2015), 11, 41. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 TWE)
2. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 4; Substation (Organisation), The Substation: A Home for the Arts (Singapore: The Substation, 1996), 12. (Call no. RSING 790.205 S); Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 11, 91.
3. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 4.
4. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 4; Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 11, 17.
5. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 2, 4.
6. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 30; Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 53.
7. Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 7, 41, 78, 120.
8. Lee Jian Xuan, “The Substation Announces Artist-Curator Alan Oei as Its New Artistic Director,” Straits Times, 30 September 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
9. The Substation, “The Substation.”
10. “Venue Hire Package,” The Substation, 3 January 2017.
11. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 6, 9.
12. The Substation, “Venue Hire Package.”
13. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 8, 10, 18; Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 106, 122.
14. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 20; Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 8.
15. Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 8; Christopher Toh, From Arty to Party,” Today, 23 October 2007, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
16. H. Chong, “Home of the Arts for Artists,” Substance = Dian liu (September–October 2000): 2–5 (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB); Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 54.
17. W. C. Lee, “New Criteria V,” Substance = Dian liu (May–June 1997): 3. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB)
18. W. A. Hadi, “Moving You,” Substance = Dian liu (November–December 1999), 9–10 (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB); Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 20; Lee, “New Criteria V,” 2–3.
19. Lee Weng Choy, ed., Art vs Art: Conflict & Convergence: The Substation Conference 1993 (Singapore: The Substation, 1995), 1 (Call no. RSING 700.95957 ART); Kwok Kian-Woon et al. eds., Our Place in Time: Exploring Heritage and Memory in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1999), vii (Call no. RSING 959.57 OUR-[HIS]); Lee Weng Choy, ed., Space, Spaces and Spacing: The Substation Conference 1995 (Singapore: The Substation, 1996), 1, 11. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB)
20. Chong, “
Home of the Arts for Artists,” 2–5.
21. Corrie Tan, “Substation Artistic Director Steps Down,” Straits Times, 14 November 2014, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Artist Residency: Introducing Loo Zihan,” The Substation, accessed 3 January 2017.
23. Chong, “Home of the Arts for Artists,” 2–5; W. C. Lee, “Pedestals for Death: An Interview with Zai Kuning,” Substance = Dian liu (January–February 1998), 2–3 (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB); S. L. Ngiam, “Tang Mun Kit: Artist Out of Hibernation,” Substance = Dian liu (July–August 1997), 2–5. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB)
24. Substation (Organisation), Home for the Arts, 20–21; Wong, 25 Years of The Substation, 7, 43.

Further resources
H. L. Kok, “Sing-a-Drum... Come Watch,” Substance = Dian liu (May–June 1997), 5. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB)

H. S. Toh, “New Criteria V: A Viewer's Impression,” Substance = Dian liu (July–August 1997), 22–23. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB)

Lee Weng Chye, ed., New Criteria III: Ray Langenbach, Suzann Victor, Ng Siew Kuan & Jason Lim (Singapore: The Substation, 1995). (Call no. RSING 709.04 NEW)

R. Langenbach, “Perhaps New Criteria?” Substance = Dian liu (July–August 1998), 10–12. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB)

S. Lingham and A. Kueh, “Review: New Criteria 8,” Substance = Dian liu (July–August 2000), 7–8. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 SUB)

Substation (Organisation), Open Ends: A Documentation Exhibition of Performance Art in Singapore at the Substation's Septfest, 7–21 September 2001 (Singapore: The Substation, 2001). (Call no. RSING q700.95957 OPE)

Tan Kok Meng and Ling Hao, eds., Home House (Singapore: The Substation, 1999). (Call no. RSING 728.3 HOM)

Zai Kuning, BlueMonkish (Singapore: The Substation, 1996). (Call no. RSING S822 ZAI)

The information in this article is valid as of 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Arts facilities--Singapore
Substation (Organization)