Arts & Culture

A conversation with Singapore: Inside Out Tokyo’s Creative Director, Clara Yee

About Singapore: Inside Out's narrative and ideas
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Singapore: Inside Out was first launched in 2015 as part of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebrations where it travelled to four cities - Beijing, London and New York City before making a homecoming to Singapore as its final pit stop. The second edition happened last year in 2017 where it travelled to Tokyo and Sydney.


You were involved in both editions, first as the Art Director for the 2015, and later, as the Creative Director. As someone who has worked on both editions, what do you think are the differences between the two editions - between the cities that the showcase has travelled to and the differences in the types of local audiences who have experienced Singapore: Inside Out

Firstly, the 2015 edition had a very different context. It was held as a key project of SG50, against the backdrop of an unusually amplified national conversation about nation building and national identity as we hit a historical milestone. These topics were impossible to avoid as we conceptualised the 2015 edition. For 2017, I can only speak for the Tokyo edition as that was the showcase we worked on. It was much freer in the themes and expressions we could explore.

Also, for the 2015 edition, we had to design for four completely different types of audience, across four different cities, which significantly influenced the way we presented the showcase. For 2017, we designed the showcase specifically for our target audience in Tokyo only, which allowed us to be more playful with the nunaces of the showcase’s design and messaging.

Each city’s audience had a very different profile inherent to the culture of the city. We had to be sensitive to the local norms and general habits of each city. We also had to consider that each city has a different relationship with Singapore and different pre-conceived notions of what Singapore is like.

What would you describe as your biggest challenge as well as your greatest joy in working on Singapore: Inside Out?

The greatest challenge working on the Tokyo edition was balancing the micro-universes of each artwork, within a singular interior space that was not purposefully designed as a white cube gallery. There are multiple considerations of overall narrative vs individual narratives, visual composition as a whole vs individual aesthetic of each artist, technical intricacies of mounting each work, audience’s emotional journey vs logistics of event management, and the halo effect of the project for its different stakeholders beyond its event dates.

Understanding all these separate ingredients is crucial in the process of fusing them into a great show. That whole process of balancing, calibration and conjuring is like chemistry really, and this is also what I really enjoy.

Credits: Singapore Tourism Board

You have progressed as a designer since - from being a freelance designer to being the Co-Founder of a multidisciplinary design studio, in the wild. Do you think your design practice has changed and did you notice this change when you worked on the Tokyo edition?

My design approach has definitely changed as I grow and mature as a person. You can’t divorce the two. Design is sort of like alchemy to me… there’s a risk in creation that we don’t often talk or ponder about. It takes a certain calmness and confidence to encounter and bear with these risks and uncertainties constantly.

By bearing with the risks, of course I don’t mean to create life-threatening unstable architecture or toxic products for people to use, but to understand that in the process of creative experimentation you will definitely get a whole bunch of wonky bad designs, especially if you deviate from templates and lazy copying. You need to know how to toe the line without tipping over, it’s like a dance. By bearing with the risks, I mean you have to be responsible for your design, and in this digital era, people have become too irresponsible with imagery.

Singapore: Inside Out is described as an “international cross-disciplinary showcase of the dynamic contemporary arts and design scene in Singapore”, a showcase of Singapore’s creative talents. The showcase is commissioned by the Singapore Tourism Board, and I assume they would have Key Performance Indicators to meet, which is, fair enough and also for accountability purposes. But what does this mean to you as the Creative Director of the showcase? How does the layered objectives affect the curation of the showcase experience, and the selection of artists? How does this affect the artists, their creation process and the artwork that they put out?

I’m sometimes hesitant to talk about how institutional objectives are a part of the creative process, because people tend to jump to conclusions based on which camp they come from. It’s so loaded with baggage and things left unsaid or unresolved from so many different places and time that it becomes almost impossible to just talk plainly about working with creative integrity in a corporate commission. Many times, this happens when people start to view each other as binary, you’re black or you’re white, I’m here and you’re there. We forget that human are inherently dynamic.

As the Creative Director, it is my duty to observe both the objectives of the commissioner, the objectives of the commissioned and the objectives of the audience. Only in understanding the nuances of these objectives can I find their commonality. Only in distilling this commonality can I then even begin to design a narrative for my audience.

In the context of Singapore’s art commissioning process, artwork is viewed as a commodity to trade (you understand our city’s inert language is one of trade and commerce) and hence the artist is then viewed as the “brand” of the commodity. Now I’m going to leave that as a neutral observation, because to debate about whether that is right or wrong is a whole other conversation. This runs contrary to the way many artists practice in Singapore. The term art practice itself shows that it is a continuous process of practicing the body and mind. There is no end product to ship, no app launch date, maybe until the artist dies or decides to stop. Perhaps the closest analogy is the athlete who continuously train his/her body. Here the gym is the city. Practicing in a city that is detached from materiality and resource scarce encourages non-material outputs as well, and that informs a large part of the art language in Singapore. Again I’m going to leave that as a neutral observation that is neither wrong or right, but we can already see that the two are mismatched at multiple points.

Where they agree on is that the value is in the “brand” or the artist. The Artist here can refer to the whole group or an individual. Again for the sake of brevity I’m going to omit the debate on brand as a separate entity vs a complex and very human artist. On the global art scene, we have yet to have a truly household name (not to say it’s impossible, look how well our pop culture is doing). When faced with a bigger challenge, it is an advantage to have a team. Probably a lot more fun too (I mean Avengers is way more fun than a solo Superman flying about). For that reason, Singapore has always adopted the strategy of ‘hunting in packs’. The bigger brand here is Singapore. Now at this point I must clarify, when I say Singapore I’m not just referring to the government. I’m referring to the people that make up Singapore. For an artist practicing in Singapore, the dream is always to have a much bigger playing ground and audience beyond Singapore, there is a lot of groundwork to prepare for a hunt. And here I’m going to assume professionalism from all parties, no childish hidden meanings or motives.

These to me are much bigger and more important agendas that informs who we approach to work with, and which works are presented.

The process of being commissioned and working closely with the commissioner is beneficial to the practice of artmaking actually. No one creates in a vacuum. I find what affects the artist and their presentation the most is working with an extremely distracted audience. The short timeline adds a lot of unnecessary constraints that could have benefitted from a more cost effective solution that requires longer gestation period. Pitching for a work like this is also extremely cumbersome as we needed room for the artist to develop their concepts without doing free pitch work upfront, but the nature of a pitch is that we had to explain the ideas with visuals and be articulate about the design.

Credits: @polter.kai

Singapore: Inside Out has since travelled to five cities. How far can we stretch this narrative and mode of presentation?

Very far, if branded and presented with a longer term plan and strategy. From a tourism perspective, it is strategic to have a tourism product that reaches out to the audience instead of baiting them from afar. That is the nature of evangelization to new audiences. From a content perspective, we have so much to share, so much to bring to a global creative conversation. STB understood this and that understanding was the foundation to a great partnership with equally invested parties that made the current editions successful. Marketing Singapore as a arts and culture destination is quite new so more insights into the actual creative tourism behaviours and spending in Singapore is important feedback.

But SG:IO must not fall into the trap of being a trade show, advertising our ‘artworks’ on a slideshow, which is much easier logistically and does not require design and is more cost effect to execute, but would be a detrimental representation of the art and therefore of the brand’s perceived value by its audience. This is highly likely to happen if there is lack of sophistication in the design process and lack of understanding of how the arts work. If we are already viewed as efficient and unimaginative by overseas audience, they definitely do not need to be reminded of that.

Where would you like for Singapore: Inside Out to pop up next and why?

For purely personal preferences, with no consideration for where our largest tourist markets are from

Maybe Nepal. It probably wouldn’t work well, but I just think it would make such a fascinating contrast, between two very young Republics (Nepal’s independence was in 2008) but with such wildly different backgrounds, history and context. We always obsess with how ‘young’ our nation is and sometimes use it as a convenient excuse to avoid difficult discussion. Nepal is not a young country by any means. Maybe that contrast will strike a chord with both audiences.

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