Creative collectives in Singapore: Main Tulis Group, Why Not?, Island Boys, and 21Moonstone on the power of collaboration

Creative collectives in Singapore: Main Tulis Group, Why Not?, Island Boys, and 21Moonstone on the power of collaboration

Banding together

Text: Tracy Phillips

Humans are social creatures by design. Thanks to our collaborative nature, we've thrived as a species by finding strength in numbers and learning to grow, build, and live as communities. Somewhere along the way though, the Darwinian theory of "survival of the fittest" and the phrase "every man for himself" became a more accurate description of modern societal attitudes, which the recent panic bulk-buying of toilet paper and groceries over the Covid-9 virus scare illustrated.

Can we really accomplish more alone? Or does the power of the collective ring true? We speak to several notable young collectives across fashion, theatre, photography, and F&B to find out how they operate, what they've accomplished, and the highs and lows of working together.

Nabilah Said, Main Tulis Group

Formed in 2016, Main Tulis Group is Singapore's only playwright collective focusing on developing English and Malay scripts. The emphasis is on "main" ("play") and "tulis" ("write")  writing organically, without restrictions  while also literally being about playwriting. Main Tulis Group has been performed at Singapore Writers Festival, BuySingLit, and Centre 42's Late-Night Texting.

Other members of the collective: Adib Kosnan, Ahmad Musta'ain Khamis, Farhanah Diyanah (FD), Hazwan Norly, Nabilah Said, Nessa Anwar, Raimi Safari, Sabrina Dzulkifli, and Zulfadli Rashid.

How did your collective come about?
In 2016, I attended a flurry of playwriting workshops run by senior playwrights, including an intensive one by Huzir Sulaiman of Checkpoint Theatre. When that ended, I felt the need to recreate this workshop setting with a group of my peers. Playwriting can be a lonely activity, but by including other writers in the writing process, it becomes a lot more social. At the same time, you get feedback on how to improve your work. I asked a number of playwright friends who asked their friends, and that's how it started.

How has collectivising helped you in your work, cause, and industry?
It started out as a personal accountability thing. If you're working out with a buddy, you're more motivated to do it, right? The initial intention was that each playwright would individually benefit. However, along the way, the collectivising became a lot more galvanising. We became support systems for one another, and institutions started becoming interested in us as a group. We are all Malay playwrights, but individually, we are so diverse  age, background, levels of experience, etc  and as a group, we offer an interesting plurality of voices for our audience. The first time we had a public showcase of short plays, ETA: 9 MIN, at Late-Night Texting in 2017, people were pleasantly surprised by the range of issues and styles presented. They were like "oh, this is Malay theatre!". It was amazing to be able to challenge perceptions.

What are the best and worst parts of working in this way?
The best part is that MTG is flexible to the needs of its individual members. It's like a cat; it fits the shape of whatever container it sits in. For example, we started off meeting on a monthly basis, but we adjusted our schedule so that it would be helpful to the playwrights who needed more time to write. The difficult part is figuring out what the container should be. Sometimes you have to sit in a weird-shaped one while you're figuring things out. It's all part of the growing process.

Please share more about some of the unique projects that you have done.
We presented our plays outdoors for the first time as part of Centre 42's Late-Night Texting last year. It was exhilarating and technically quite different from the work we're used to doing, which is usually indoors in a theatre space. We had to cater to a roving crowd that was out and about as the event was held during the Singapore Night Festival. About 6,000 people came.

Izwan Abdullah, Why Not?

Why Not? is a collective that designs contemplative and rebellious fashion showcases with a focus on visual art. Its members include fashion designers, cultural writers, and visual artists.

Other members of the collective: Manfred Lu, Racy Lim, Miyuki Tsuji, Sabrina Elman, Putri Adif, Clara Lim, Kimberly Kiong, Poh Shimin, Chua Jiedi, Gao Fuli, Sharon Choy, Priscelia Wong, Oh Yuri, and Yim Sunyoung.

How did your collective come about?
The collective came about as a result of a lengthy discussion with co-founder, Manfred Lu. We were both dissatisfied with the way institutions carried out graduation shows. We wanted to create a platform where fashion creatives could showcase their works with full creative autonomy. We gathered like-minded friends who were fashion designers, stylists, writers, graphic designers, visual artists, project managers, and makeup artists to produce our own fashion show last June.

How has collectivising helped you in your work, cause, and industry?
Coming from different backgrounds, collectivising has enabled us to reach our milestones and get resources and support from a wider pool of talents. We have managed to reach out to more than the fashion industry, and that is our ultimate goal  to make fashion accessible and to elevate it to the same stature as art.

What are the best and worst parts of working in this way?
It has helped us to cultivate teamwork in an environment of care and empathy. Working around the schedules of 20 over people is tough and demanding, but it has taught us about the importance of communication and structure. Respect is important to keep things moving as well. We have all learned things that we have previously were not exposed to, or weren't required to do if we stuck to our own niche. It gives us a new perspective in everything that we do, and even though we all individually have our own roles in the collective, we're constantly moving people around to help other departments out. Because of that, the participating designers get to have a hand in marketing, creative work (such as graphics and set design), and the overall process of how an event is set up.

The worst part might be that the premise and structure of our collective can come across as idealistic to some. Space is a problem for us too. As a group of more than 10 (and at its peak, nearly 20), we have had difficulties finding space to house everyone for discussions. Some people assume that we're a collective made of money, but the truth is we started the collective with not much, and today, the collective is made up of people who work to earn their keep. That's why we do fundraising parties to raise production funds and also to integrate forms of media that we enjoy, and ultimately, to help cultivate and develop the collective further.

Also, with the addition of new members constantly, there's bound to be new friendships, connections, and camaraderie formed. In that process, there's a lot of tearing apart of differences and some of us might not be as patient with one another as we imagined in our heads to be all the time, but we're always learning how to manage our own differences and eventually form a unique bond. We have petty fights sometimes between the core and management team, but that's what being a family is about.

Please share more about some of the unique projects you have done.
We had our first show at The Substation last June where we featured six emerging graduate designers from local institutions. The show was born from the limitations of their alma mater's offerings with regards to giving students the agency and autonomy to fully express their narratives and their works in a showcase. The result was honest, and contrasting narratives told through different presentations. For example, Manfred's collection was about male sensuality and Putri's collection revolved around female genital mutilation  the kind of topics that were considered taboo in school. We held a mixer event at White Label Records last November, hosting panel discussions with various creatives and professionals in the fashion industry such as Nadya Wang, Max Tan, Closetchildren, and Nicole Ngai. We wanted to gather insights on the industry that we are dealing with and invite participants for the open call for our next annual show.

Anything upcoming you want to promote?
Our annual show will take place around the third quarter of 2020. Leading up to that, we will host a series of fundraiser parties called 'Y'. All proceeds will fund the production of the big show! We're really excited and honoured to be able to rope in people from different groups and communities to contribute to our show. The first party took place last Saturday at Somewhere by The Council. We invited DJs and VJs in their 20s to play. This activation is also based on how our collective is continuously informed by music and visual art. It made sense for us to offer a slice of this form of programming and exploration for people we love. We are also working on implementing more tangible actions to keep our parties fun, safe, and inclusive for all. The next 'Y' party will happen on 21st March at The Projector.

Izzraimy, Island Boys

Island Boys is a team of creatives who work together to produce content, from video production to photography, to graphic design and motion graphics.

Other members of the collective: My brother Izzadely, Shafeeq, Imran, Sufyan ShaifulJohn Marie, and many others who we work closely with.

How did your collective come about?
It came about when me and my brother were working at a sneaker cleaning store. Since we were in our early teens, we've always been inspired by hip-hop, fashion, and documentaries. We figured that it's something we'd like to work towards. While working part time, we decided that we had to start the collective. On the same day we decided to push forward with the idea, we got our first job, which was to shoot Fariz Jabba's "Ape Sia" music video. Ever since that video went live, the jobs started coming in as the video permeated the music scene. One and a half years later, we are here, still doing what we love.

How has collectivising helped you in your work, cause, and industry?
I've always believed in working as a team to get what I need done. Before we started the brand, we were reaching out to our close friends, pitching the idea, and making connections so that we could expand in the near future. From just me and my brother, it soon grew into a collective of eight members. It helped us grow a lot as we were all able to put out our work under one collective. When something comes our way, we have each other to make sure the job gets done with proper expertise.

What are the best and worst parts of working in this way?
The best part is that we have all the resources in the world being a team of eight. The worst part in having a large collective is to not be able to pay the members' their worth. Most of the time, we get projects that don't pay enough for us to fund everyone in the team. Unlike other solo production artists, we prefer to work as a team for every single project so that we don't undertake the pressure and responsibility alone.

Please share more about some of the unique projects you have done.
We owe everything to TheWavySzn, a hip-hop night run by Pravin and Shahrin. We started going crazy with our recap videos for each event, stuff that was never seen before in Singapore. From there, our presence in the nightlife scene grew.

However, we've done countless unique projects in Singapore too, from working on a video campaign for New Era's new store to shooting both Fariz Jabba's music videos. Overseas, we have shot and produced videos and also the event-wrap video for The Culture Kuala Lumpur, which was Malaysia's biggest street convention.

Jeremy Lim, 21Moonstone

21Moonstone started out as a co-working space formed by co-founders of different backgrounds and professions, with the shared ambition to bring the creative community closer together. It is now operating Moonstone Bar at Amoy Street.

Other members of the collective: Tan Yang Er, Narelle Kheng, and Vincent Ho.

How did your collective come about?
21Moonstone came about under the most unexpected circumstances. It all happened during a catch-up lunch between me and Yang when we chanced upon this canteen that was going up for lease on the rooftop of Poh Leng Building. Curiosity struck and we decided to make an appointment to view the unit acting as though we were interested to run a canteen. That random viewing experience turned out to be love at first sight very quickly.

How has collectivising helped you in your work, cause, and industry?
It's about the power of numbers! We have brought together a community of people in all aspects of the creative industry, primarily through word-of-mouth and the events that we have put together in the last couple of years. Little did we expect our humble space to be the second home for many different artists, writers, musicians, photographers, and fashion stylists.

What are the best and worst parts of working in this way?
The worst part of being in such an arrangement has to be the chaos our mix of people naturally creates. The best would be the chaos that brings out some of the most amazing discoveries about ourselves as individuals and collectively as a community. There's never a boring experience at Moonstone.

Please share more about some of the unique projects you have done.
At 21Moonstone, we have always envisioned ourselves to be the 'modern-day kopitiam' that anyone can feel comfortable hanging around in and meeting new people. We started by organising our flagship event, the Xiao Kopitiam in April 2017, which was kind of a lazy Sunday event with food, booze, and an open flea market featuring local crafts and makers. This eventually grew into various other themed events like tarot card reading sessions, flash tattoo shows, dance auditions, film screenings, and even nude live drawing sessions.

Is there anything upcoming you would like to promote?
Well, the newly opened Moonstone bar of course! Our former dive bar at 21Moonstone was one of the best things we were known for in the two years we operated in 2017 and 2018. We were forced to shut down the 21Moonstone bar at the end of 2018 due to complaints from residents in the vicinity. This time, we've upgraded our food and beverage options with a fully functioning kitchen serving all of our favourite comfort food and a well-stocked bar.