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In Telok Ayer, An Arts Club Reignites The Spirit Of Community Centres

By Bianca Husodo

Felicia Yap/Telok Ayer Arts Club
 
Telok Ayer Arts Club

The Arts Club’s facade features terracotta tiles evoking the now-demolished Old National Library Building at Stamford Road. “We wanted to present our vision of a utopian ideal. That’s why the NLB reference. That, to us, has a lot of collective memories — not sorrow — but we all miss the NLB,” says Anmari Van Niuwenhowe. “We want people to come here and be reminded of things, feel at home but at once experience something new, too.”

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Telok Ayer Arts Club

Far from a white cube, the Arts Club’s space presents art through an intimately casual intertwining with its bar-bistro concept. Head chef Bertram Leong’s all-day dining menu is a concoction of French Mediterranean fare tinged with distinct Asian notes.

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Telok Ayer Arts Club

A closer look at Goh Abigail’s “in-inhabitations” artwork series, which grew over the span of a month via weekly residence sessions, seeing the artist observe and blind-doodle visitors in a single stroke to tracing the space’s aural sensations onto paper.

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Telok Ayer Arts Club

Headed by beverage manager and head bartender Din Hassan, the bar programme reinvents classics with witty dashes of Southeast Asian and local flavours — chilli crab sauce, for one — and adds seasonal cocktails specially whipped up in reflection of the Arts Club’s exhibitions.

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Telok Ayer Arts Club

Curator Anmari Van Nieuwenhove and music director Hasnor Sidik.

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“I don’t know if CCs [Community Centre] played a huge part in my life, but they’ve always been there. They are always nearby; a place where people go to take up classes — line dancing, art, new languages — or makan at its food court. It’s unintimidating and usually very accessible. It’s made for the community,” muses Anmari Van Nieuwenhove, Singapore native and curator of the newly opened Telok Ayer Arts Club multidisciplinary space.

The modest space, its size fairly comparable to the typical shophouse bars in the district, features a well-stocked bar, a simple seating arrangement that brings to mind of congenial cafeterias, and walls hung with local artist Goh Abigail’s scribble-like series of artwork. As a sound-producing device Goh built by arbitrarily amassing random objects hum and click in the background, Anmari gestures towards our surroundings, “That’s how we envision this place too. That’s why it’s called Telok Ayer Arts Club.”

A Community Centre or Club, which locals collectively nickname as CC, is a familiar omnipresent fixture of Singaporean heartlands. Today, within the city-state’s limited grounds, there are more than 110 outposts — each named after the neighbourhood it’s located in (Tiong Bahru CC, Pasir Ris CC, and so on) and serves an average of 15,000 households. Its purpose is simple: to become the open common space for people, regardless of ethnicity and background, to gather and socialise.

Having existed for more than 60 years, the model of CCs was first masterminded by the British government with the objective of dampening anti-colonial sentiments. When the People’s Association board took over the management in the ’60s, CCs’ political agenda took a backseat for multicultural community-building. Be it for a round of sepak takraw (a Malay phrase for “kick volleyball”) or a languid evening assemblage to watch television, CCs became the life-pumping hearts to the neighbourhoods they served.

Now, more than half a century after their inception, are they still what they were then? Have they remained relevant, pertaining to its purpose as social hubs?

Enter Telok Ayer Arts Club. The nascent multidisciplinary space opened its doors just a couple of months ago in August. A brainchild of The Supermarket Company — the folks behind SPRMRKT, a cultural-culinary concept where food and beverage, retail and art are casually housed under the same roof — the Arts Club, as Anmari calls it for short, runs in a similar, though not the same, vein as its predecessor.

The Arts Club is many things at once. Traditional labelling doesn’t work on the fluid space. A passerby’s first impression may pass it off as primarily a bar-bistro, but it meshes that with art, music and the ambitious yet imperative notion of a multifaceted ecosystem. “There’s an equal balance, though art takes centrestage, holding everything else together. There’s art in the kitchen, the way our chef interprets things. Similarly at the bar. There are a few ways to look at it. The bar supports the art and vice versa,” explains Anmari.

Though nestled at Telok Ayer’s McCallum Street, smack dab at the crossroads of Singapore’s buzzy city business district and history-packed cultural axis, its appearance is furtive in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way. At closer inspection, its terraccota-tiled facade pays homage to the Old National Library Board; a witty invitation for knowing locals. “We’re in a fast-paced neighbourhood where people have no time to stop. They’re just working, working, working,” Anmari posits. “In that sense, the idea of a Community Centre steps in, because you can come here and experience something new. You might chance upon some crazy multidisciplinary art.”

As diverse as its patrons, the force behind the Arts Club is, too, a melding of assorted minds and perspectives. This is what sets them apart from other art-infused spaces. Far from the exclusive construct of white cubes, the Arts Club’s vision posits that art is for everyone. “There are many kinds of entry points for all kinds of people. It’s very chill and relaxed, casual. When you go to a gallery, sometimes you don’t know what to do. You wear black, get a wine in one hand. Here, hopefully it’s a safe space for people to encounter the arts in a different way,” quips Anmari. Its agenda brims with experimental presentations — the likes of Goh’s and a DIY-style performance clashing art, poetry and music by artists Ruben Pang and Adam Staley Groves — artist panel talks, as well as boundary-pushing musical ventures. The programmes often go hand in hand in a collaborative nature with the food and drink pillars, spearheaded by head chef Bertram Leong and head bartender Din Hassan respectively, taking form in time-limited novelties especially devised in reflection of the artworks.

Co-founder and music director Hasnor Sidik or Mr. Has, one of Singapore’s vanguards in electronic music and nightlife scene, masterminds the space’s aural pillar. He enlists weekly Friday sets, called Office Hours, where tables and chairs are cleared as he gets to work in one corner blasting funky genre-bending beats for the CBD crowd; and club nights headlined with eclectic debuts. Has explains that all this takes place in the chameleonic confines of the Arts Club, “It’s a different kind of experience. We have tiny Devialet power speakers that are meant for home use. So the sound is intimate. You can makan and drink. It’s almost like a house party, really.”

At the Arts Club, it’s the non-insular fostering of a modern-day community fabric that somehow transcends the fact that it is, at the end of the day, a business model. One which deftly employs the simple borrowing and rebooting of CCs’ early esprit, that the current generation has no memory of, but is in search of. And so, the question looms still: are CCs still relevant?

“CCs are still relevant. It just needs to be updated,” Anmari suggests. “There is a need for community spaces, or social spaces that’s open for everyone and anyone. We don’t want to just go to a restaurant and go home. We want to hang out with our friends. So where can you do that in a relaxed environment and maybe chance upon new things now?” At the Telok Ayer Arts Club, perhaps.

Visit Telok Ayer Arts Club at 2 McCallum Street. Kelab Malam featuring DJ Fort Romeau’s Singapore debut is happening on 16 November 2018 at 8pm.