Yawning Bread. September 2006

Who owns the street?




It was supposed to be a lively, yet thought-provoking carnival, filling the Substation, its grounds, and bursting out onto Armenian Street.

The police killed it.

The Substation Street Party 2006 was meant as an all-day, all-night event mixing art with civil society. Although it never got to the final planning stages, I was given the image of a fair with buskers, mime artistes, rock bands and others performing amidst booths put up by various non-government organisations (NGOs) set up to inform the public about their concerns. The latter would include the vegetarians, cat lovers, fair trade activists (i.e. people who believe that even workers in poor countries producing Nike shoes, iPods, etc, should not be exploited in terms of their wages and working conditions), activists for autistic children, Mercy Relief (a disaster relief NGO) and many others. People Like Us would be there too.

It would be entertaining, fun and yet educational. Increasingly, people see the connection between art (and even entertainment) and social purpose. An early example was Sonny Bono and Bob Geldof's 'Do they know it's Christmas?' (1984), a hugely successful project to draw attention to and raise funds for fighting famine in Africa.

The Substation wanted the event not just to be big, but to be public and accessible. For that, they conceived of closing off about 150 metres of Armenian Street, a low-traffic road. Its closure would affect very few other buildings along that stretch, especially on a Saturday. But that meant they had to liaise with the police.

Anticipating that the police would be ridiculously cagey, the Substation was prepared to put the NGOs and activists indoors, while the arts performances would be in the garden and on the street, in order to draw people into the building.

Despite this, the authorities demanded that every organisation that would have a booth on the day of the event had to provide, within 48 hours, a list of things that would be displayed at the booth. That's not all. For each item, the NGO had to declare what text would be on it, be it a T-shirt, a poster, a banner, a postcard, a CD or a pamphlet. 

Almost the NGOs felt this was utterly unreasonable. What right do the police have to vet speech?

In practical terms, it was also impossible to comply with, since being volunteer organisations, short on manpower, a typical NGO arranges its booth and decide what goes into it, at the last minute. This is true the world over. The NGO might also change the look of the booth as the day goes on, based on feedback about what catches the eye of passers-by.

And so the event was called off. On the right is the statement issued by the Substation.

Why the street is important

We may not be conscious of it, but doing something in a public space is very different from doing it in an enclosed space. In a public space, what goes on is understood as being of a civic nature, celebratory, for the public interest. In an enclosed space, it is marked in our mind's eye as something more for aficionados.

In a public space, people are less inhibited about wandering in and interacting with the participants. They know immediately that the event is meant for everybody. In an enclosed, indoor space, there is a subliminal sense of trespass, of a need to be invited, and even then, there is the feeling of being a client or mere visitor. On the street, everybody is equal.

Humans are very good at grasping spatial significance. That is why we know exactly when to hang out a rainbow flag from our windows, and why we'd be disgusted to see beer advertisements adorn the front of a courthouse.

It's not as if we never close streets in Singapore. Every August 9th, we do, for the National Day parade. Around Christmas, we close Orchard Road. For Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, we close New Bridge Road. Every night, Smith Street in Chinatown and Boon Tat Street near Lau Pa Sat are closed to allow food vendors to set up tables for al fresco dining. Even Armenian Street was closed for Kuo Pao Kun's funeral in 2002. Kuo was the founder of the Substation. For the funeral of former Deputy Prime Minister S Rajaratnam, quite a number of downtown streets were also closed earlier this year.

However, excepting perhaps the 2002 occasion, all other occasions involving street closures are for government-initiated purposes. The National Day parade is obviously one, while the closure of the food streets, or the main roads for Christmas, Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival are initiated by the Singapore Tourism Board in their attempt to inject "life" into our streets, kitschy though the results may be.

By this pattern, we can deduce that the police, who are the licensing authorities, see government-initiated events as legitimately of public interest, while citizen-initiated events are imposters.

More than that, going by the way they demanded that every single word, comma and question-mark displayed at every booth should be submitted in advance for vetting, they saw the citizen-initiated Substation Street Party as subversive. Why this degree of suspicion? Are citizen's concerns as expressed by NGOs at their booths, or as sung by buskers in their songs, necessarily a threat to the State? To public peace?

It would seem so, by their reaction. Their paranoia must have been particularly heightened when so many NGOs decided to do an event collectively.

But this begs the question: Who owns the street? (I use "street" here to mean the public space in general). I may be stretching it, but the behaviour we've seen may reveal that the government thinks they own it, and the citizen may only encroach with their reluctant permission. Moreover, the job of the police is to serve the government and its interest, even if that interest includes the spurious claim that the government owns the public space. 

I would contest that model of thinking. Public space and the street belongs to the public, and the job of the police is to juggle the competing claims of the public on that common space. Sure, there is the interest of traffic and circulation. Sure, there is the question of noise and disturbance. But there are also other public interests such as political awareness, social action, civic celebration, and artistic expression.

A city with only smooth-flowing traffic, with red, amber and green lights changing silently and robotically is a city without spirit. The Substation and its participating NGOs wanted to show us all new possibilities. The government saw that as threat, even as they keep calling on Singaporeans to be "active citizens". 

© Yawning Bread 



15 Sept 2006
Press Statement from the Substation

Police say "No" to The Substationís request for road closure; Street Party cancelled.

After months of planning and negotiations with the authorities, the police have turned down our application to close down Armenian Street for a "Street Party" ≠ a collaboration involving several individual artists, arts groups and civil society organisations (CSOs). It would have featured musical performances on the street, and a range of activities by artists and civil society organisations indoors. It was scheduled for 30 September, several days after the conclusion of the World Bank and IMF meetings. In their response to our application, the police said that only if ALL activities were held indoors, would permission for the event be granted. If the entire event had no CSO involvement, we believe we might have had a better chance of getting permission for the road closure.

However, we decided that the event wouldnít have the same meaning if we couldnít have at least some performances on the street, and we wouldnít go ahead without CSO involvement. Therefore we decided to cancel it. While we are of course deeply disappointed, we want to try again and organise a Street Party in the future. We think it is important for two reasons (i) we strongly believe in the value of such a community-wide arts and civil society gathering, and (ii) we believe that if successful, it would set a positive precedent for engagement between the arts, civil society and the authorities. Indeed, government leaders have been consistently encouraging civic participation and constructive debate about society. And itís not as if there havenít been road closures for arts events before in 2002, we got permission to close Armenian Street to stage a tribute to our late founder, Kuo Pao Kun.

In this press statement we would like to explain our motivations for organising the Street Party, assert the values we believe it represents, and summarise our negotiations with the authorities.

Since the beginning in 1990, The Substation arts centre has always recognised that art cannot be separated from its social contexts and the circumstances in which it is produced. The Substationís vision and role ≠ a vision that continues to be urgent and relevant today ≠ is to be an open space that fosters cultural diversity a place where a wide range of artists, audiences, activists and the public can meet to make art and exchange ideas not just about art, for artís sake, but to reflect on artís larger purposes. This approach has led to the emergence, with instrumental support from The Substation, of some of the most exciting artists working in Singapore today ≠ a number of whom are represented in our first international biennale of contemporary visual arts.

It was in this spirit that we decided to organise an event involving the closure of Armenian Street, in front of our building. Our plan was to bring together the diverse arts and civil society groups, and to affirm ourselves as a community of active citizens. Precisely because we hardly ever come together as a community, we believed the Street Party would be especially significant, as it would encourage Singaporeans to appreciate the values of civic participation. Moreover, we wanted to create a strong sense of community ownership of public space, and thatís why closing the street ≠ even if only for one day ≠ matters so much.

It bears repeating the arts and and civil society are inseparable. In supporting the biggest cultural event of the year, the inaugural Singapore Biennale, the government confirms this. Organised to coincide with the World Bank and IMF meetings, and funded mainly by the government, this biennale, like almost every other biennale in the world, showcases many artists whose work is deeply concerned with social and political issues.

In planning for our Street Party, we worked closely with the authorities, taking into consideration their sensitivities about security during the WB/IMF meetings, and we made compromises. At first we wanted to hold the Party just after the WB/IMF meetings. After discussions with the police, we rescheduled it to the 30th, well after the conclusion of the meetings. We had also initially wanted to organise booths on the street, creating something like a flea-market of arts and civil society organisations. Again, in response to police advice and as a compromise, we decided to move all CSO activities indoors. But what we did not want to compromise on is the involvement of CSOs ≠ their participation is essential.

During this whole process our engagement with the police and other authorities have been very positive. We are encouraged by the open communication that we have had with them, and believe this is something to build upon. We plan to apply to them again in the future with another proposal for a Street Party.

We intend to convene a meeting on 5 October 2006 with the participants from the Street Party, which will be open to the press and the public. The purpose is to discuss everyoneís concerns in the wake of the cancellation of the event. The list of participants (arts groups and CSOs) is below. These organisations may be issuing press statements of their own.

A big thank you to all the participating organisations and individuals for their invaluable support.

The Substation 

Participants of the Street Party: Migrant Voices; Vegetarian Society; Pelangi Pride Centre; People Like Us; Crashout; Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2); Nature Society; Green Volunteers Network; Singapore Environment Council; Sea Shepherd; STITCH; Cat Welfare Society; Think Centre; SADPC; AWARE; Youth Employment Singapore; Village Xchange; Footprint Singapore; Magdalena (Singapore); Mercy Relief; The Society for Reading & Literacy; ONE (Singapore); ADLUS; p-10; Spell #7; WITA