One Small Voice: Noor Effendy

Published on 6 January 2015

Noor Effendy Ibrahim, The Substation’s outgoing artistic director, reflects on creating a safe space for experimental arts.

People often have the notion that ‘experimental art’ is necessarily avant-garde, provocative or offensive, but it’s really just an approach to art-making. The artist is just trying new things, investigating or questioning certain ideas. It’s not sexy, actually!

The Substation, where I’ve been artistic director for the last five years, is not so much a space for ‘experimental art’ as it is a space for artists to experiment. These are two different things.

I’m definitely one of the artists who experimented there in the 1990s. We could make mistakes, make noise and invite friends for private presentations. We felt safe to do silly things, not things that had to be perfect or only things that would sell.

A recent example of such experimentation is a production called in.ViSiBLE by Ming Poon, a dancer-choreographer based in Berlin. His project explored the idea of the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ in dance. He approached this by collaborating with people with HIV, because they live in a constant state of being visible, yet invisible.

Ming Poon worked with them over two years and together, developed a performance piece where the dance took place in total darkness. As an audience, you can only hear him, sense him, feel him — there were times he was completely in the nude.

It was a very intimate and emotional piece filled with trust and vulnerability. The audience was seated on the floor and there was a Q&A session prior to the performance, which really opened up a space for dialogue.

Audiences for such experimental works can be niche, so we try to expand the reach by making it accessible and affordable. As far as possible, we try to cap ticket prices at S$20.

To me, it’s important that there are safe spaces in Singapore for everyone to co-exist, where inclusivity is stubbornly protected — be it persons living with HIV, special needs or different ethnic groups or communities.

I remember one weekend, we had a traditional Indian dance performance at our theatre. Meanwhile, there was a hard-core punk concert and exhibition in our gallery. So we had this clash of two very distinct and separate worlds! Interestingly, I saw pockets of conversations taking place. This kind of diversity is very valuable for me — this getting to know and eventually getting familiar, without imposing your own culture on another.

To me, a safe space is not about people being offended or not offended. A safe space is where art is allowed to be created without unnecessary external intervention. By that I mean censorship or imposition from commerce, like, ‘I must sell so many tickets, so your work must be funny or must have good-looking actors!’

So what is protected is ultimately the art. But having said that, I also see art as secondary. It is a means to an end, which is dialogue. What is most important to me is people understanding, appreciating diversity, and embracing differences.

Noor Effendy Ibrahim is an interdisciplinary artist and the outgoing artistic director of The Substation, Singapore’s first independent contemporary art space. He was artistic director of Teater Ekamatra, a Singapore-based contemporary Malay Theatre company, from 2001 to 2006. Apart from being a Council member of the National Arts Council (Singapore) Board (2004-2006), Effendy also served on several other consultative panels and committees on arts and culture in Singapore.

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