What makes a place? Urban Ventures 12 at Keong Saik Road

By Akanksha Raja

For her third GRC piece, Akanksha Raja reviews the 12th edition of Urban Ventures, a placemaking initiative by urban design studio LOPELAB, held on Keong Saik Road. In experiencing the artworks at the event in relation to its street, and the undeniable gentrification of these “heritage” neighbourhoods, she asks what becomes of a place, and what it means to “make” it?

Urban Ventures 12 at Keong Saik Road, 2019. Image courtesy of the author.

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How to activate spaces quickly and easily?
How to design a fluid space?
How to upgrade under-utilised plazas?
How to make more human-centric cities?

These were some of the questions displayed on placards affixed to benches made of repurposed beer crates and polished wooden pallets, clustered in a corner at the junction of Keong Saik Road and Jiak Chuan Road, as part of the twelfth edition of Urban Ventures, which took place on 5 October 2019.

Beats Encore & Guerilla Public Space Activation, Urban Ventures 12 at Keong Saik Road, 2019. Image courtesy of the author.

Urban Ventures describes itself as an independent placemaking initiative organised by urban design studio LOPELAB, known for running the Urban Design Festival Singapore. Featuring, among other programmes, a series of DJ sets, communal art-making and dance sessions, installations, and pop-up kiosks by local independent enterprises and F&B establishments, the aim of Urban Ventures is to activate public spaces through arts and culture.

Across the road from the benches and placards was a booth by the Hedonist Store, a sex-positive shop inviting visitors to check out sex toys, have open conversations about sexuality, and take a quiz labelling the various parts of sexual anatomy on illustrated diagrams. Opposite the Hedonist Store was a team of poets who whip up an impromptu verse or two based on their immediate impressions of each visitor. On occasion, there would sound the explosive and exuberant rhythms of drum ensemble Beats Encore reverberating through the streets and beyond. On the other side of the question placards are responses citing examples of previous LOPELAB projects, imbuing the seemingly superficial street party atmosphere with a sense of the design thinking behind LOPELAB’s several projects. I’m not sure how many visitors would have paid attention to this showcase amid the plethora of exciting things going on at every corner—while people would occasionally stop to rest on the benches, most just weaved their way through to the next kiosk.

Urban Ventures is ostensibly independent and grounds-up[1], but in partnership with the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Streets for People programme—which includes logistical support, consultation with government agencies, and seed funding. Discourse and critique around placemaking initiatives in Singapore often revolve around the state’s instrumentalisation of cultural activity as a means to ends skewed towards certain economic or sociopolitical objectives; the term “place management” is sometimes used instead, defined more by its “top-down, deliberately planned, and results-oriented”[2] nature, while placemaking refers to efforts that are more organic, grassroots, and community-driven.

I don’t mean to suggest that Urban Ventures or LOPELAB’s other projects are solely products of “place management” government stewardship—they seem to be in a middle ground between not quite government-directed (would a sex toy store be easily given the green light for a family-friendly event? maybe not), but certainly not guerrilla either.

One thing that does gnaw at me is that Singaporean artists have been addressing—and continue to address—these very questions of remaking/reimagining/humanising public spaces through their works for decades; Priyageetha Dia didn’t ask how one could make the staircase of her Jalan Rajah HDB building feel more fluid, or revitalised as a peripheral space, she just went ahead and did it. Same with SKL0’s My Grandfather Road. Both have faced rebuke and censure from the state for their works, but their ideas are the very same ones that government bodies seek to champion through engaging in partnerships with placemaking programmes. Why are meaningful, potent works of art in public spaces only deemed acceptable if they are state-sanctioned?

Art Reev by Artistically Ariff & Strangers Meet by ArtWave Studio, Urban Ventures 12 at Keong Saik Road, 2019. Image courtesy of the author.

Something completely different that struck me about this edition of Urban Ventures was that I wished for greater specificity and dialogue with the area. Only “Strangers Meet”, a site-specific sound installation by ArtWave Studio, referenced particular establishments along the road, and made me pay closer attention to the actual buildings—the lightboxes at the entrance of the brothel, the nearly 100-year-old Cundhi Gong temple, which until the 1970s was only open to women for worship and frequented by ma jies, or domestic workers from the Guangdong province of China. The work is meant to be experienced in pairs, with each partner listening to a different track on a separate MP3 player. We are made to take on the roles of two characters created based on the road’s history, and to share some of this history with each other. It was a short audio work, a few minutes long, but if not for this piece, I felt as if Urban Ventures 12 could’ve taken place just anywhere—I might as well have been somewhere in Tiong Bahru or Joo Chiat or Ann Siang Hill.

Admittedly, I haven’t attended any of the previous editions of Urban Ventures (most of them took place on Keong Saik Road) so I don’t know if this lack of specificity has been addressed before. Looking through reviews and reports from past editions, I learn that Urban Ventures 7 featured a walking tour of the area and its history by writer Charmaine Leung who had grown up there. Apart from this, I don’t find strong connections between this placemaking initiative and the community in the area, aside from the businesses and organisations operating there.

Keong Saik Road is home to the flagship branch of coworking space The Working Capitol and to Kafe Utu, the African-themed café that has made international “most Instagrammable cafes” lists. The road is also listed at #4 on Lonely Planet’s Best in Asia 2017, and was described by the magazine as the “poster-child for hip ‘New Singapore’”. Yet I struggled to find what this experience brought out about Keong Saik Road—how Urban Ventures makes Keong Saik Road. Aside from the fact that it’s definitely a cool place to have a party every few months. Is that all we want or need from a public space?

[1] “About.” Urbanventures, www.urbanventures.co/about.
[2] Su Fern, Hoe, et al. “Getting to the Heart of Great Public Spaces.” The Straits Times, 8 Jan. 2016, www.asiaone.com/getting-heart-great-public-spaces.


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