SOUNDSCAPING: Goodman Arts Centre

Old school / new school.

11 Aug 2011
SOUNDSCAPING: Goodman Arts Centre

Usually, we simply soundtrack Singapore in SOUNDSCAPING. Tonight, SOUNDSCAPING goes live at our launch party.

Guests will tour the historical Goodman Arts Centre with a curated mixtape by artist Rizman Putra, who has compiled together a mix of samples and originals, based on his years studying here when it was LASALLE.

SOUNDSCAPING: Goodman Arts Centre is presented in collaboration with imagineear, whose media players unlock the cultural world.

Even after the revelry, you will be able to hear the mixtape on the Mixcloud player below. And as always, you can re-create the walk by downloading Mixcloud’s free iPhone app, which allows you to stream the mixtape on the go.

Enough talk: Here, then, is the music of Goodman Arts Centre.

The rules of ulu-ness are thus: if a place is more than seven MRT stops away, it is fairly ulu. If it is more than seven MRT stops away and requires a change of trains onto the Circle Line, it is moderately ulu. And if it is more than seven MRT stops away, requires a change of trains, and a five minutes walk to get to – forget it.

In our tiny country, where you have to strain to see yourself on Google Maps, our visions are further and curiously microscopic.

To get to Goodman Arts Centre, you can also tell the taxi driver just that. Assuage his quizzically aggressive glare with a “near Mountbatten, off Old Airport Road”. And if he still looks like he’s going to throw you out, inform him that it is the old LASALLE. “Ah, why you never say that earlier?” he says, nine out of ten times.

But before 90 Goodman Road was LASALLE College of the Arts, an interim School of the Arts (SOTA), and now the National Arts Council (NAC)’s Goodman Arts Centre, it was Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School.

Named after the 16th and 17th Century’s Bendahara of Johor, precious little is known about this founding school. Opened in 1962, it was one of two Malay-medium schools established to improve Malay education (the other being Sang Nila Utama Secondary, also phased out in the eighties).

Tun Seri Lanang’s principals included artist Suri Bin Mohyani and former Member of Parliament Wan Hussin Zoohri. Alumni members call themselves “Lanangans”, and one, Barney Lau was quoted as saying of his education: “During school assembly, when other school principals encouraged their students to become doctors and lawyers, our principal told us he'd be happy if we stayed out of street fights and didn't use drugs or become alcoholics. Most of us would have settled to be technicians or plumbers or something like that.” He is now Microsoft Singapore’s managing director.

It was 1992 when LASALLE moved in to this 15,000 square metres space – just one year after Nirvana’s Nevermind broke punk to mainstream America. Here in Singapore, the grunge years found artist Rizman Putra studying Fine Arts in LASALLE.

From his outpost in the three-storeyed Block E, him and other “scruffy” Fine Arts students would revolve stacks of CDs. The playlist of the day included: Dinosaur Jr., Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, and Tom Waits, plus relatively quieter musicians like Nick Drake, Red House Painters, Miles Davies, and Marvin Gaye. Still, “We got a lot of complaints from the other classmates,” Rizman recounts – he spent almost a decade pursuing his further education here. “They were into easy listening music.”

Block E also afforded them a commanding view of the catwalk, an open-air walkway that cut through the liveliest part of old LASALLE. This runway stretched from the curved Block B, where most of the Design and Multimedia studios were located, across the amphitheatre and canteen, to the centre of the compound. All eyes – aesthetic ones at that – were on you as you displayed yourself in crossing.

The fashion students, of course, stole the show, but design pupils could exhibit their portfolios as they went from studio to studio. Rizman remembers the place as being an artist colony of sorts. Despite the inter-faculty divisions, students were mostly free to do as they pleased.

The amphitheatre, at which bands like Force Vomit and Stoned Revivals played, and where Rizman’s own Tiramisu was formed, was once filled with water by Zai Kuning. As an installation, the performance artist took a swim here, and received his degree.

Other artists tagged the school with graffiti, and a blind eye was turned. In 2007, the same year LASALLE moved off to McNally Street, a student was expelled for spray painting “Gotta start somewhere” on its slick new campus. The old canteen, which apparently served terrible food, is now the fine dining restaurant La Barca.

Overlooking the past and present is Brother Joseph McNally’s towering statue John Baptist De La Salle (1995), which is still slightly spooky. In 1984, Brother McNally first established at St. Patrick’s School a Fine Arts Centre, which later became LASALLE.

A tireless advocator of arts education, and an accomplished sculptor and painter himself, Brother McNally honoured through his statue the patron saint of teachers who founded the De La Salle school of Christian brothers, of which he was part of.

The catwalk used to lead you from LASALLE’s most bustling section to its most peaceful. Today, you have to walk around NAC’s offices, where the Earl Lu Gallery used to be.

Managed by the Old Parliament House, Goodman Arts Centre is NAC’s pilot project for new arts spaces. In 2010, artists were invited to rent the over 30 shared facilities, including studios, galleries, and theatre spaces.

What with the shortage of affordable arts spaces, applications have far outstripped supply. For example, with NAC’s subsidies, young artists (defined as having practiced for three years or less), pay less than $200 monthly for a 30.8 square metres space.

At Goodman’s quieter side is where T.H.E. Dance Company is. The acclaimed group, founded in 2008 by Kuik Swee Boon, has its office and dance studio here at Block M.

“We’re thankful because if we didn’t have a permanent space, our progress would definitely have been affected,” Lee Mun Wai, one of its dancers, says. “At the beginning, within one project of three months, we would even have to jump to seven different venues.”

For Lee, it’s also about coming full circle – when Goodman was LASALLE, he used to train here. “Except for the air-conditioning, nothing has changed.” A similar story is told at Block B, where visual artist Ryf Zaini, and also our publisher Studio Wong Huzir is based. Originally allocated a different studio, Ryf requested and received the exact same studio where he read interactive media arts. “The energy’s still here, except it used be slightly messier,” he says.

Apart from many now working where they were once studying, the tenants at Goodman could also be said to reflect NAC’s push for the traditional arts. Defined as “deeply rooted cultural and artistic expressions which are specific to major ethnic community groups”, NAC has increased funding for these groups.

Apsaras Arts at Block D is one such example. The traditional Indian dance troupe was co-founded in 1977 by Neila Sathyalingam, a Cultural Medallion recipient. Her husband S. Sathyalingam, Apsaras' other founder, passed away one week before they moved to Goodman. A memorial ceremony was held here. The formidable Neila says, “It was a farewell, like he was saying, ‘Go to the new place, and do good.’ This is a great new beginning.”

Goodman’s mix of modern and traditional artists (others included ink painter Tay Bak Chiang, and Angkatan Sasterawan ’50, the Malay literary group) is welcomed by most. The visual artist Wong Lip Chin, who started in street art, has as a neighbour Tian Yun Beijing Opera, who he is in principle interested in collaborating with.

Compared to what LASALLE must have been, however, most doors now remain closed. Perhaps it’s just the nature of working artists, who have to keep their upcoming projects a secret, but the risk of housing artists together with NAC, of course, is that everyone begins to think alike. Lip’s door itself reads: “I have a great need to be alone.”

Remants of LASALLE still remain. Block G and H were where the late Brother McNally’s studio and residence was, and is now, appropriately, a ceramic workshop. Rizman remembers “all of us little art virgins visiting his space”. You would pass “a small fountain with his sculptures, and a huge painting of an important old Chinese man, smoking a big cigar” before you got to the quiet Irishman who was, in fact, a pioneering supporter of Singapore art.

And then there are, as with every old school, ghost stories. Rizman himself met Sarah, a 16- or 17-year-old girl when they once played with an Ouija board. One of his classmates became possessed. Other stories abound: an old woman on Block B’s fifth floor, Block E’s second floor, in the ceramic workshop … she is a very mobile ghost. The natural authority, graveyard shift security guard Zainal bin Johari, says, “Got something lah, but if you don’t bother it, it won’t bother you.”

Unlike the supposed ghost – the good woman? – Goodman Arts Centre requires a lot of bothering. The rules of ulu-ness are thus: build there a centre for the arts, and whatever its name, wherever it is, they will come.

Music & Music Curation Rizman Putra

Words Dan Koh

Images Gabe Chen


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