Discipline the City at The Substation, Singapore

By Bruce Quek

Debbie Ding, A Brief History of the Trap Door, 2017 (installation view). Courtesy the artist and The Substation, Singapore Discipline the City, 2017 (installation view). Courtesy the artists and The Substation, Singapore


The Substation, Singapore, 23 August – 26 November

Disciplinary architecture enforces conventions and prohibitions by moulding, through architectural elements and urban design, human behaviour. Perhaps the best known are measures to passively keep the homeless from public view, or high-pitched tones to deter teenage loitering. Yet the design of our urban environment includes countless other subtle cues, which seem set to explode with the convergence of the Internet of Things and machine learning.

Discipline the City is split into three distinct acts, with a number of artworks (and the punks-in-residence) changing with each act. The physical space of the building has been noticeably altered (a callback to conceptual artist Lim Tzay Chuen’s intervention Space Alteration #7 in 2001): influenced by both punk’s DIY ethos and the spirit of disciplinary architecture, the alterations include new passageways hacked through walls, antihomeless floor-studs and an incredibly narrow ‘fat-shaming’ corridor that restricts access to some work. Artist Debbie Ding’s A Brief History of the Trap Door (2017) also takes visitors through the basement, which is usually off-limits.

Parallel to themes of spatial control, Discipline the City can also be linked to Alan Oei’s appointment as artistic director of The Substation, the changes he wanted to implement and the outcry that ensued. The gist of this agonistic process is that Oei would have stopped renting out space for external exhibitions and events, the capacity of which had led The Substation to become a focal point for the punk community.

The discussions that followed – detailed documentation is available in the space – led to the development of the punk residency, with a portion of the gallery being used as its studio/exhibition space, and a stipend being provided, much like a regular artist residency. In keeping – farcically – with the disciplinary theme, the residents are asked to maintain detailed timesheets, and the space is surveilled by live-streamed video. Based on a number of visits to The Substation, I would say that Act I’s resident, Angjingsial, busied himself with the production of agitprop graffiti, working in the same punk aesthetic as Stevphen Shukaitis’s installation in the show, Stop the City… Revisited (2017).

Shukaitis’s installation is rather odd, consisting of a tiny room plastered with graffiti, flyers and other iconography of the protests that blockaded London’s financial district in 1983–84, in a manner reminiscent of a votive-strewn shrine. It is, of course, a seminal moment in punk history – and also a forerunner to the antiglobalisation movement of the 1990s and the Occupy movement of recent times – but its inclusion in this context could also be taken as situating the punk subculture squarely in the past, casting punks in Singapore as the inheritors of a tradition.

Like Stop the City… Revisited, both Ding’s installation and Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Something Nothing (2017) are permanent works in the exhibition, and engage with spatial discipline obliquely. Where these last two differ, however, is in being intense, immersive experiences on different ends of a spectrum. Something Nothing is but a right-angled tunnel a few metres deep, but by dint of some clever lighting, the experience is one of a weightless void free of shadow, stretching into infinity for want of any cues of depth. Ding’s installation, conversely, is a mostly lightless traversal of The Substation’s basement, groping along a length of rope to find the way, intermittently bumping into or squeezing past unseen foam obstacles, leavened at the end by a projected loop of animated GIFs of trapdoors, set to the sound of the artist discussing trapdoors.

This last info-dump aside, both of these permanent installations suggest the significance of experientiality over conveying or evoking information and emotion. It’s a quality shared with literal disciplinary architecture, such as those antihomeless floor studs, which find themselves turned on their head in Invisible City: Liverpool Top 9 (2006) by Kuang-Yu Tsui. In this sardonic pseudodocumentary, which ‘pataphysically reimagines hostile or disciplinary architecture in Liverpool as marvels of civic-spiritedness. For instance, a poorly designed highway off-ramp that obliges pedestrians to jaywalk and vault a fence is described as a thoughtful, time-saving measure, while cobbles designed to deter the homeless are enthusiastically praised as providing free foot massage to tired Liverpudlians. This and other videos by Tsui engage directly with disciplinary architecture, bringing to light the unnoticed absurdities and hostilities in urban environments.

As the exhibition transitions to its second act, one does wonder if more work engaging specifically with disciplinary architecture and urban design might have been apropos, perhaps finding common ground with stories of how Singapore’s punks have persevered in the face of hostile police, landlords and so on. The upside, of course, is an expanded field of spatial experience, a breadth that seems particularly valuable in the face of the insidious, amorphous disciplinary possibilities that ‘smart cities’ might allow.


From the Winter 2017 issue of ArtReview