Review: The Island Bar

Photo: The Substation

no, not the countertop in your kitchen, geez…

I’m kidding.

“IsLand Bar was part of the Week 4 programme of Septfest: In The Margins by The Substation, which recently met its end as announced by its Board on 2nd March. After nearly 30 years—”

Ah, history, schmistory.

You didn’t think that’s what I sent you here for, did you?

(Well, if you’re really interested in the bor—*coughs* detailed *coughs*— description, why not read it yourself?)

I’m not here to tell you what everyone’s experience was, but what I experienced.

IsLand Bar was portrayed (marketed?) as a drink-and-talk session (reminiscent, perhaps, of the ones done by Nine Years Theatre post-shows), where an eminent artist would make you a cocktail (or mocktail, should you be bor— *ahem* have dietary restrictions, I mean), sit you down in a carefully curated space and have a chat.

What about, you ask?

God knows. Don’t ask me, I only went for one session.

Participants could choose from a list of timeslots over three days, where each timeslot was a 45-minute drink-and-talk session with a specific artist who would, in their own way, introduce you to their work (and of course, themselves).

In theory.

For me, I went for a 2pm timeslot on 26 March on a whim, at the urging of a friend (“eh bro, my lecturer Zarina in Septfest sia.” “oh, cool! Wanna go?” “Oh, ok!”).

The artist in question whose “Bar” we attended was Zarina Muhammed, who’s art, strangely, straddled the boundaries between realms. Between the spectral and the corporeal.

I could go on and on about how intriguing the immersive session was, but that’s not why we’re here.

Amidst the fanfare of the other Septfest events which saw much greater talk (and publicity) in the social sphere, admittedly, IsLand Bar was perhaps a much smaller deal in the line-up of events. But in terms of keeping in line with the publicly-recognised image of The Substation as a stripped-down, experimental, home-for-the-ragtag-artist space, IsLand Bar did a good job of that. Simply put, it fit the publicly touted brand that recent advocates of The Substation had repeatedly emphasised. From the cozy and “informal” nature of the talk, to the nature of the artists hosting each session in question, those with more experience and who had been present longer in Singapore’s arts scene would perhaps relate it to similar small and cozy spaces in which lesser-known artists performed in the past. In The Substation.

And at $21 a ticket, it didn’t need much marketing or publicity to sell tickets. Being part of Septfest (the “landmark” and “space-closing” highlight of The Substation) more than guaranteed that the event would garner clicks and views, because even if you weren’t buying tickets for it, you’d see it in the list of events lined up for the month of March.

(I’m serious, all that appeared of it on social media was one Facebook and Instagram post, other than the layman posting about it obviously. Go check if you don’t believe me.)

Ultimately, the magnet that sold the show most (and probably for almost every other event in Septfest) was brand loyalty.

(If you want a proper analysis of this, please await our group’s final report. Oh, did I not mention this was for a class? Oops.)

What brand? and what “loyalty”?

As every artist and person committed to the arts in Singapore who isn’t sleeping would know, The Substation would be laid to rest, mid this year. Septfest thus served as a “last hurrah”, the final episodic series of “performances” that anyone could watch performed at this space, before it closed for good. And as many would expect, everyone— from the person who genuinely loved and cherished this multidisciplinary space since its founding by the late Mr. Kuo, to the stereotypical millenial who wanted to publicly declare their allegiance to this (new) civic space and post it on social media— turned out en masse to attend that one, final, show at The Substation. Little wonder everything (probably) sold out.

And as for me?

Well I was gladly surprised that my $21 ticket amounted to more than a drink and a chat with an artist at the SAD Bar. (I’m serious, that’s what the space is called.) Zarina, with the loving care of an artist who cares for her collaborators, her medium and the subjects of her work, insightfully separated each seat (due to 1-meter social distancing rules) with a small package that every participant could take home once the 45-minutes were up.

Photo credits: Teo Annjee, who (bless her soul) took this picture because I didn’t think to take any.

(No, you don’t get to take the glass home. It’s the pandan leaf and what’s on it.)

The more insidious question (and one that perhaps, all— or some— of us might be grappling with) was this:

Was the noise drummed up by “The Substation Saga” pure marketing strategy and organisational forces at work? Or was it truly the homage and final respects paid to the spirit of a space, by many faithful and heartfelt Substationers, past and present alike?

I don’t know, don’t ask me!

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

IsLand Bar (Singapore): The Substation: A Home For… was a part of Septfest: In The Margins (2021). A festival curated and organised by The Substation’s Co-Artistic Director, Raka Maitra, it ran from 4th March to 28 March 2021. Featuring stories and tales that focused on the marginalised, on things we often don’t see (or choose not to), the festival was widely acknowledged as The Substation’s final programme before its slated closure in July 2021.

Find out more here.

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Philippe Pang

Philippe Pang

4 Followers

A communicator at heart; a manager at hand, but always the speaker of the truth for those who cannot.