Honor Harger is the Executive Director of Singapore's iconic ArtScience Museum. Born in New Zealand, she has followed her passion for the intersection of art, science and technology around the globe, from NZ to Australia, the UK, Europe and Asia. Along the way, Honor has earned a reputation as a true leader in her field, even named by The Guardian as one of the most influential people in the global creative industries. Despite all this, her humanity and humility are as inspiring as her work. Honor shared her fascinating insights with us on creative life in Singapore, and her inside tips to experience this futuristic city.
ON WHERE YOU’RE FROM
I’m from Dunedin in the south of the South Island of New Zealand. It definitely shapes who I am. It’s an amazing city where you can see a whole range of wildlife such as the colonies of albatross, penguins, and seals. It’s rare in the world to have an urban base that is in harmony with nature.
ON WHERE YOU HAVE LIVED AROUND THE GLOBE
I’ve lived in quite a few places. As well as Dunedin in New Zealand, I’ve also lived in Auckland, then to Australia where I was based in Adelaide for a while. After that, I relocated to Europe and lived in London and Newcastle in the UK, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Zagreb in Croatia, Riga in Latvia, Berlin in Germany, and I was working in Brighton, on the South East coast of England before coming to Singapore in 2014.
ON YOUR MOTIVATION FOR MOVING INTERNATIONALLY
I love New Zealand and I miss it all the time. It is still very much home even though I haven’t lived there for a while. My main motivation for moving was work, and the desire to be active in the very specific and niche area that I am deeply passionate about – the place where art meets science and technology. I had the opportunity to join an organization called the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT). Joining an institution that created bridges between the worlds of art and technology was a big inflexion point in my life. In many ways, ANAT was where I really started focusing on my career. It would have been easy to stay in New Zealand and to have an incredible quality of life. But I felt a real urgency to get things done and create opportunities for other people, which is what curators do best.
ON WINDOW SEAT OR AISLE
Definitely Window. I like to be able to look out and see the world unfold beneath me.
ON HOW THE INTERSECTION OF ART X TECHNOLOGY TRAVELS
I started getting involved in the field of art and technology in the early 1990s, which was also around the time the World Wide Web came into use. By the late 90s there were communities of interest emerging around culture and the web, and that was the reason I moved to Europe. There was a real sense of excitement in the 90s about the possibilities of the web. There was a sense of optimism that the internet would help catalyze a better society. Even though the internet enabled global communities to form, the art and technology ecosystem was still small. It was possible to know pretty much everyone in the field internationally, if you were active in certain networks, and reading the right mailing lists (which were the precursors to social media).
Of course the societal changes the internet enabled didn’t turn out to be as positive as what we hoped for. But, despite that, there’s no question that being active in one of the first global communities that the internet made possible, was a formative experience.
ON YOUR MOTIVATION TO MOVE FROM BRIGHTON TO SINGAPORE
I first came to Singapore and spent some time here in 2008. I was really surprised by how much I loved the city. It really spoke to me. But the motivation to actually move here in 2014 was ArtScience Museum. My passion has been working in the space where art, science and technology come together, and in Singapore, Marina Bay Sands built a whole museum that does exactly that! So the opportunity to work at ArtScience Museum was inspiring and attractive.
When I first came here, my friends from Europe would ask me to tell them what it was like and I would jokingly tell them it was The Future. I was being flippant because Singapore is ahead of Europe in terms of timezone. But I was also being accurate at the same time.
ON SINGAPORE AS A MOVIE CHARACTER
I have two answers for this. The first is a character from the amazing Studio Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke. It is Lady Eboshi. She is the Studio Ghibli of Iron Town, who cares deeply about the people that she leads, providing opportunities for the poor and the needy. She believes in equality for all people, creates a haven for outcasts from society, stands up for her principles and is driven by rationality. She’s complex and fascinating character, but quite ambiguous. Her policies are taking a terrible toll on the environment, and many viewers can lack sympathy for her. But Lady Eboshi does what she believes to be best for the people whom she protects. So she is an interesting metaphor for some aspects of Singapore.
The other character who comes to mind is quite different. You may have seen the film The Pursuit of Happyness, with Will Smith and his son Jayden. The film is about a real-life person called Chris Gardner, and his journey to build a future for his family. Gardner is intelligent and talented, but has few prospects. He must endure many hardships, but he refuses to give in to despair as he struggles to create a better life for himself and his son. Gardner’s story, shows us that determination and industriousness pay off. That story has a pretty strong resonance with Singapore.
ON YOUR TRANSITION INTO SINGAPORE AND LOCAL CULTURE
It was remarkably smooth, actually quite surprisingly so. If you were looking at two cities side by side on the map, and in terms of demographics, Brighton and Singapore are almost like opposites. One is a small, very liberal, university town by the sea, with quite a gentle pace of life, while Singapore is a bustling metropolis, and one of the most dynamic and fast-paced cities in Asia. You would think it should have been quite jarring to go from one to the other. But it was remarkably harmonious, and the reason for that is the people. I was incredibly blessed to receive a warm welcome, not just by my work colleagues who were wonderfully hospitable, but the whole community here – the arts community, the science sector, and the tech scene.
ON HOW SINGAPORE INFLUENCES YOUR LIFESTYLE
I think there are a couple of little truisms about Singapore that do ring true for me. The climate is amazing. If you have lived, as I have, for a good proportion of your existence in the colder climates and then moving to a place by the Equator where it is warm and lush every single day, does change the way that you feel. It totally lifts your mood. I felt less anxious, and more at ease pretty much from day one.
The other thing which is true, is that Singapore is safe. There is a very well managed harmony in Singapore. When you’re a woman living here, you no longer have to adjust your behaviour the way that you do in most other large urban settings that I can think of. Walking at night, taking public transport, living alone and going out by yourself are all completely fine here. You’re unlikely to run into issues around public harassment or the threat of random violence here, unlike many major cities. The freedom and calm that you feel when the anxiety about your safety is removed is very striking, because until it is gone, you didn’t really know it was there in the first place. When that cognitive load is gone it frees you up to think about other things.
I’ll give you an example about the sense of safety. In Singapore, you often see people in cafes leave their wallet and iPhone on the café table, when they go to the bathroom. They’re not worried that it will be taken. I’ve seen people walk out of a café where they’ve accidentally left a phone or a wallet and someone will run over, pick up the phone and literally run down the street to give it back to them.
One of the great gifts that artists can give a community is the gift of unconventional insight..Seeing the city differently through artists and their works was a really profound point of connection for me. It helped me bond with this city.
ON SINGAPORE’S FUTURISTIC SOCIETY
When I first came here, my friends from Europe would ask me to tell them what it was like and I would jokingly tell them it was The Future. I was being flippant because Singapore is ahead of Europe in terms of timezone. But I was also being accurate at the same time. In certain places, Singapore looks outrageously futuristic, dotted with astonishing new skyscrapers built on reclaimed land. In addition to those cosmetic features, some of Singapore’s societal innovations also have a curiously futuristic quality to them. Singapore has made a very calculated decision that harmony is a value worth fighting for and making sacrifices for – deep sacrifices, that do not come easily. For me personally, there have been some interesting and transformational lessons to be learnt from that.
ON HOW YOU CONNECTED WITH LOCAL CREATIVE CULTURE
What really helped me connect with the local culture in Singapore was getting to know the visual art scene. When I arrived here, the art community was gravitating around institutions like the Singapore Art Museum and The Substation. Through their programmes, and through the work of artists like Robert Zhao Renhui, Lee Wen, Donna Ong and Genevieve Chua, I started to understand Singapore, in a way that I would not have done if I wasn’t part of the art world. One of the great gifts that artists can give a community is the gift of unconventional insight. Getting involved in the art scene, and seeing the city differently through artists and their works, was a really profound point of connection for me. It helped me bond with this city, and cherish its cultural diversity and its very specific take on the world.
My other gateway into Singapore was literature – particularly the poetry community. The poetry and short-story scene in Singapore is lively and very engaged in conversations around society, the future, and how things could be better. Learning to ‘read’ Singapore through the work of poets and writers has been deeply insightful for me.
ON ADVICE FOR CONNECTING TO SINGAPORE’S CREATIVE CULTURE
Connecting with the creative culture in a new city is a great thing to do as a new resident, no matter where you are around the globe. The way in is to go to the places where people are naturally gathering, and find the lay of the land. In the arts, turning up to exhibition openings at galleries and museums is a good way to meet the people in the sector. There are also similar meet-ups for the science and technology sector. When I moved to Singapore, I went to start-up meet ups, hackathons, Maker Faires, and tech conferences to find out what people were into and what they were passionate about. Back then, there was a lot of energy in the tech community, particularly around start-ups. There was some really interesting work being undertaken by start-ups working at the interface between technology and food, and technology and urban farming. I discovered that by going to conferences, our local Maker Faire, listening to the local community, and talking to strangers.
ON YOUR ROLE AT ARTSCIENCE MUSEUM AT MARINA BAY SANDS
As Executive Director of ArtScience Museum, I have two broad functions. I look after the artistic direction of the museum, and the executive direction. So it really is two jobs in one. There is a tendency to divide the artistic and executive roles in cultural organizations, but we unite them under one banner and there are a lot of advantages to doing that.
My role as artistic lead for the museum involves working out what kind of exhibitions we need to curate, plus shaping our public programme, including conferences, screenings and performances, and our education programme. Obviously I do that with a great team of people. The other component of the artistic direction is to defining the focus of our permanent offerings. Our permanent shows are FUTURE WORLD: Where Art Meets Science, an exhibition staged in partnership with a Japanese art collective, teamLab, and Into the Wild, which is a collaboration with Google, WWF and Lenovo which looks at the rainforest ecosystems of South East Asia and empowers people to do something about deforestation and environmental degradation.
The other part of my job is the executive direction part, which includes looking after the budget, team management, providing inputs on marketing and promotions, and thinking about our visitation, how we can grow and evolve our audiences. We also exist within complex legal, compliance and regulatory structures, so I need to be on top of ensuring we are administratively robust.
There is an exciting and vibrant speculative fiction scene in Singapore.. that introduces Singaporean and regional perspectives to conversations about the future and technological change.
ON ARTSCIENCE MUSEUM X TEAM LAB COLLABORATION
As I mentioned, our permanent exhibition, FUTURE WORLD: Where Art Meets Science, is a partnership with teamLab. At the moment, the show consists of 19 interactive art installations and immersive environments for children and adults. When visitors come to Future World they encounter a deeply immersive experience of what it feels like when art, science, culture and technology come together. We opened Future World / in March of 2016 and since then it has been a massive success for us.
We undertake major transformations of the show on a regular basis, so we think of Future World as a permanent yet changing exhibition. We wanted to create a space which would change over time, and reward repeat visitation. One analogy we had in our minds when we were creating the show was a botanical gardens. It doesn’t matter how many times you go back to a well-designed botanical gardens – it is always a satisfying experience because the gardens are subtly different, each time you go, depending on the route you take. Our intent with teamLab was to try and create something that would have that feeling; that would act as a community space for our visitors, encouraging them to come back again and again. The exhibition has formed part of our character and identity in Singapore, and the fact that the visitor numbers are even stronger now, than when we opened, suggests that loyalty has built up over time.
ON THE ICONIC ARCHITECTURE OF ARTSCIENCE MUSEUM
Our building is an architectural icon in Singapore. And that does create an artistic challenge for us, because we have to get the inside of the building speaking with the same kind of bold dynamism that the outside of the building speaks with. That is no easy task. With every exhibition we stage, and every programme we produce, we have that in mind.
ON HOW TRAVEL SHAPES YOUR CREATIVE OUTLOOK
Visiting new places and encountering other cultures completely changes your perspective on reality. Living in a place where the language is different, the values are different, and the social arrangements are different, transforms your own outlook. It forces you to confront your own assumptions and your own preconceived ideas about how things should be.
For me, travelling and living in places such as Zagreb in Croatia, Riga in Latvia, Berlin in Germany and now Singapore has shaped my perspective on the world and given me a heightened sense of humility. It has helped me understand that the way I see things may not be the way that other people see things.
It is also important to acknowledge the enormous privilege of being able to travel, visit different places, see things from other people’s perspective, and to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This isn’t something I take for granted, as it is a massive privilege, and one unavailable to many people.
One thing which has greatly affected me as I’ve travelled over the years is that the more you visit other places and attempt to understand things from a new perspective, the more you realize that there is now one thing we all have in common, no matter where we live. And that is that we are messing up the environment. There is no corner of the globe where we can hide away from these issues now. The effect of the climate crisis and environmental destruction is evident everywhere on the planet. This is a common thread that now unites every culture in the world.
ON SOMETHING UNIQUE TO SINGAPORE’S CREATIVE CULTURE
There are two examples I would say are unique to Singapore. Firstly, there is an exciting and vibrant speculative fiction scene in Singapore. For such a small place it is surprising how many outstanding writers there are here, writing speculative fiction that introduces Singaporean and regional perspectives to conversations about the future and technological change. Considering these discourses can often be very dominated by Western perspectives, it is refreshing to encounter local angles, and to find a literary movement that feels inherently unique to Singapore.
The second thing I can point to is a trend that has emerged in the past ten years where designers and contemporary artisans are reinterpreting heritage traditions, particularly the Peranakan culture in Singapore, in exciting new ways. There is a fantastic ceramics company called Supermama that has really taken the local design scene by storm, drawing on the fascinating visual traditions of Peranakan culture, and presenting these motifs in a contemporary way. The Straits Chinese culture and the Peranakan culture, articulated and reimagined through contemporary means is something you can really only see here, in Singapore – and perhaps one or two other places in Malaysia, such as Penang and Malacca.
ON WHERE YOU FIND CREATIVE INSPIRATION
It is always in nature. If I want inspiration then I will go and walk in one of Singapore’s many National Parks. My favourite spot is Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. There you’re likely to encounter gigantic Malayan water monitor lizards, large populations of migratory birds and, if you’re lucky, a saltwater crocodile in the wild.
ON A FAVORITE CORNER OF ARTSCIENCE MUSEUM
Until recently there was a space called The Sound Room that was part of our Minimalism exhibition. It was a warm inviting space where people could sit in a darkened room and listen to a nine-hour programme of minimalistic music, which I co-curated with my team. That was one of my favourite corner of the museum up until the exhibition closed recently.
ON FAVORITE PLACES TO EAT IN SINGAPORE
The question of the best place to eat in Singapore is always a hotly debated question, as food is the national obsession. So I am just going to answer from my own perspective. The Tippling Club on Tanjong Pagar Road is not only my favourite restaurant in Singapore, it is my favourite restaurant in the world. The founding chef of the Tippling Club, Ryan Clift, ignited my interest in food, and he is a magician. He also masterminded my second recommendation which is Open Farm Community on Minden Road. What I love about this space is that it is set amidst a working farm. There is an incredible garden where the chefs harvest vegetables and herbs, enabling them to take a farm-to-table approach which you wouldn’t expect in a bustling metropolis like Singapore.
I’m a vegetarian so my last suggestion is Whole Earth on Peck Seah Street, which is probably the world’s only vegetarian Peranakan restaurant. They just do an exceptional range of delicious local specialties made with plant-based ingredients. The food is served in a simple, no frills café, but it is honestly some of the tastiest food you’ll ever eat.
ON ONE THING TO DO IF YOU’RE PASSING THROUGH SINGAPORE
If you only had a couple of hours, and could only see one thing in Singapore, I would have to say Gardens by the Bay. Visiting at night is a particularly futuristic experience. It makes you wonder if the architect of the gardens saw the movie Avatar and thought, “let’s build that”.
There are so many wonderful sights to see in Singapore, but if you’ve only got time for one, that would be my top pick.
ON SOMETHING FROM NEW ZEALAND YOU NEED A FIX OF IN SINGAPORE
You always miss your local food when you live in a different country. So my fix is marmite on toast. I buy my marmite in New Zealand – there is no way that any New Zealander could live without this! But finding good bread for the toast is a bit harder, so I buy Vogel’s bread from an online grocer called Kiwi Kitchen.
ON SINGAPORE IN ONE WORD
food and drink
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