On SGABF and the face behind it
Five years and still going strong, the Singapore Art Book Fair (SGABF) is one of the biggest festivals for art and book lovers alike. It is a gathering of creatives, both makers and appreciators, and even curious visitors within the confines of NTU’s Centre for Contemporary Art. Zines, art theory books or independent magazines your mainstream bookstores will have zero clue about — you will be able to find them all in one place.
Among all the festivals Singapore has, from music to performance, SGABF is the one that ties books, art and culture all in one hip and happy event. Perhaps “celebration” may be a more apt description of its happenings.
B-Side finds out more about the festival’s recent rebranding from Renée Ting, the woman leading this signature event.
Share with us a bit about yourself and your professional career thus far.
I own and run the annual Singapore Art Book Fair. I am also an independent creative producer, and sometimes an artist. Prior to this, I was the manager and creative director of BooksActually for seven years, where I helmed some of its major projects, including the Book Vending Machine and the 24-Hour Bookstore Event.
You do many things and own many skill sets. What would you like people to best recognise you for?
Right now, I would say for taking over the Singapore Art Book Fair and running it independently. I do many things, but that’s still the one I am most passionate about.
Do you think tangible books and print still have a place here in the digital age?
Print will always have a place in the world. How big a place it has or will continue to have depends on how we influence and educate society. The digital age has caused us to consume art and all its forms — books, exhibitions, music, photography, films, etc — in such superficial ways. We gravitate towards things that give us instant gratification.
If we want society to have a deeper or consistent understanding and appreciation of books and print, we have to start challenging certain things even if it means taking huge risks. For example, exhibiting or showcasing works that make people uncomfortable, or works that aren’t “aesthetically pleasing” or “Instagrammable”, works that push boundaries and open up a larger and more critical discourse.
From your point of view, how important is art in daily life?
That’s like asking, “How important are oxygen, water and food?”
How did SGABF come about back in 2013?
The organisers of Tokyo Art Book Fair first approached Justin Long from Hjgher to encourage him to start a Singapore edition, who then approached BooksActually to co-organise it together. Few people know this, but the first edition was put together in one month because of our busy schedules.
Stephanie Peh, who used to be with Hjgher, called me one day and said, “We have a month to the fair. Shall we meet to start discussing this?” We called everyone we knew who could make it on such short notice and they were all very supportive. That’s basically how the fair started: 2 people making 50 phone calls.
What was the hardest obstacle when you first wanted to kickstart the festival in 2013? How about now?
The challenges are different every year, but the main concern has always been the venue. Without the support of the venue, in this year’s case it is NTU CCA Singapore, the fair — while not impossible — will be vastly different.
How is SGABF significant among all the other festivals held here in Singapore?
With fairs like the Singapore Writers Festival, Buy SingLit Festival, and STGCC, the Singapore Art Book Fair runs a big risk of being very similar, which not only confuses the audience, it might tire them. As such, the focus of the fair is to showcase and represent artists, publishers and exhibitors that don’t fall under the category of any of the other festivals. For example, the research lab Atelier HOKO publishes titles that are neither literature nor graphic or comics books. On top of that, SGABF aims to always have a dedicated room or section for zines and independent self-published books, so that there will always be a space where zine-makers can buy or swap zines, and other aspiring makers can feel comfortable with different forms of experimentation.
What is the biggest difference between having partner organisations and being an independent festival?
Of course with partner organisations, you have the financial support to run a festival on such a scale. Being independent this year, the festival is pretty much running on my own dime. Not taking funding or a grant was a deliberate decision on my part, due to many reasons. But the independence has given me more freedom and more autonomy to realise the vision I’ve always had for the Singapore Art Book Fair since the start.
What motivates you as the SGABF festival director year after year?
Different things motivate me on different days. Sometimes it’s the idea of seeing a project I’ve been working on for the last six months finally realised. Sometimes it’s the thought that there is a possibility of a student somewhere out there who will visit the fair and that will spark a lifelong interest in the arts. Or when a magazine publisher meets an artist at the fair and they work on a new project together. Most times, it’s when people I look up to who have far more credibility and experience tell me how very important the fair is to our local arts and culture, and how much they believe in it, even more than I do.