Turning old KL buildings into art spaces: does it really work?

A Philharmonic Winds Of Malaysia concert at the arts space REXKL last year. REXKL was formerly the old Rex cinema in Chinatown. Photo: REXKL

The idea of repurposing old or abandoned buildings and turning them into creative spaces and giving them a new lease of life is not an uncommon practice in major cities.

London’s famous art museum, the Tate Modern, was once the Bankside Power Station and New York’s Capital Repertory Theatre used to be a downtown Grand Cash Market supermarket.

The history behind these buildings, their size and original architecture and their location, give them a unique edge for developers to transform them into art and performance spaces.

In recent years, Kuala Lumpur has had its fair share of exciting new arts space projects emerging from the ashes of an old downtown cinema, a former meat-packing factory and workers quarters, a grand old hotel right down to a near-forgotten warehouse and a colonial-era bungalow.

Opening up new spaces – small and large – is vital in creating fresh opportunities for arts creatives and performance makers.

 A digital artwork from the iNyala exhibition at REXKL last year. Photo: Helios LooA digital artwork from the iNyala exhibition at REXKL last year. Photo: Helios Loo

RexKL, which was formerly the Rex Cinema, on Jalan Sultan in KL, began operations last June. Several interesting projects have taken place at the Chinatown venue, including indie arts markets and events such as the Kancil Festival 2019, Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2019, KL Butoh Festival and Made-In-Malaysia 2019, a Malaysia Day festival.

The original building was completed in 1947 but a fire razed it in 1972. Four years later, it was rebuilt into a single-screen cinema that could house over 1,000 people. Rex Cinema ceased operations in 2002 and the building steadily faded into obscurity, even being used as a karaoke den.

In 2017, the RexKL project rolled in to rescue this space, which has now been repurposed for arts events, theatre shows, exhibitions, performances, screenings, library facilities, workshops, and F&B and community markets.

Architect Shin Chang, co-founder of RexKL who runs Mentahmatter Design, shares that nearly 60% of events that have happened in the space since it opened has been arts-related.

“The creative and community aspects of our positioning are the reasons we draw many art events here, ” says Shin Chang.

“There are pockets of spaces within the building to suit different types and sizes of events and exhibitions. As for the main hall, the floor is a slope (maintained from the cinema days), which makes it perfect for performances as there’s no need for tiered seating, ” he adds.

“Furthermore, the hall is a bare, raw space. This always excites content providers as they are able to transform the space to suit their work – and the possibilities are endless.”

Last November, the iNyala light art exhibition, organised by creative agency Helios Media, transformed the cinema hall into a digital park with 12 innovative works, while veteran artist Victor Chin led a heritage walk down Jalan Sultan during his exhibition and film project in the space called Moved Out, and a Philharmonic Winds of Malaysia’s concert introduced the venue to a classical music audience.

RexKL is poised to further tighten its programming, making the Chinatown area a credible destination for the arts.

This month, the venue will be hosting the Musashi – Music From The East concert tour organised by the Japan Foundation KL, and the Continued Construction: A Suite In Eight Parts show in April, which is a collaborative work by Orang Orang Drum Theatre and Polish jazz saxophonist Angelika Niescier.

Also read: REXKL, an old iconic cinema reborn into a unique arts and culture hub

 KongsiKL is located at the 40-year-old Gudang Yee Seng 2 in Old Klang Road, KL. Photo: KongsiKLKongsiKL is located at the 40-year-old Gudang Yee Seng 2 in Old Klang Road, KL. Photo: KongsiKL

Dancing in a warehouse

Another repurposed building that has been in operation since mid-2017 is Gudang Yee Seng 2 along Old Klang Road, better known as KongsiKL. KongsiKL was founded by KakiKongsi, a collective of architects, designers, artists and academics.

The nearly 40-year-old cavernous warehouse, entrusted by property developer Exsim Group, has emerged as a serious arts space.

“KongsiKL is built on the idea of ‘kongsi’ – sharing and gathering. It’s an experiment to see how people with different resources such as underused space in the city and creativity can come together to make something bigger, ” says KonsiKL’s artspace manager Low Pey Sien.

Although KongsiKL opened its doors to the public in July 2017 with the Dances In Ruins show, the venue has not had many consistent performances and arts events until last year with the start of the Seni Tiga programme created by Kongsi Petak, an entity from the KongsiKL community that works on promoting multidisciplinary performances and diverse art disciplines.

Once a month, a different team of artists from three disciplines – movement, visual and sound – create a structured, site-specific performance in KongsiKL. So far, there have been 10 Seni Tiga shows, says choreographer and producer Loke Soh Kim.

“We created Seni Tiga as a platform to inspire and to make arts accessible to all. How it grew from three artists to 53 artists and 56 volunteers is totally beyond our expectations. Throughout last year, I was thrilled to see new and emerging artists who are keen to experiment as well as professional and veteran artists who are willing to collaborate with new artists, ” says Loke.

“However, this can only happen when the space has low overheads and when there is trust from the owner. We’ve had people from all walks of life who believed in the idea of ‘kongsi’ contributing as volunteers, sponsors, donors and artists, ” she adds.

Also read: KongsiKL transforms warehouse into an experimental arts hub

The experimental-minded Seni Tiga monthly series at KongsiKL. Photo: Low Pey SienThe experimental-minded Seni Tiga monthly series at KongsiKL. Photo: Low Pey Sien

While Seni Tiga continues this year at KongsiKL, RexKL will join in as a co-presenter. Two shows will be held at the two locations once every three months.

What makes KongsiKL unique as a performance space, according to Loke, is that it is “filled with tangible and intangible traces of the past”.

She says that the almost non-existent demarcation of where the stage is gives audiences and performers the “freedom to move during performances that have minimal restrictions” and this barefoot experience also brings performers and audiences closer to each other.

“I always feel that I have an outdoor experience watching an indoor show in KongsiKL because of all these factors, ” adds Loke.

In a sense, the performance does not inform the space but rather, the space informs the performance, something other theatremakers agree with.

“The space is our expectation. We don’t overtly transform the space to follow our ideas. Instead, by choosing the space, it is part of the idea, and we need to respect the space. When we do our theatre performances, the space is one of the characters. This defies conventional theatremaking where you build your idea and world onto an empty space – a black box, an auditorium or a theatre hall is like a blank canvas, ” says Ridhwan Saidi, co-founder of theatre group Moka Mocha Ink (Moka).

“But in site-specific theatre, you just blend in with the building and its uncontrolled environment, ” he adds.

Moka’s third edition of Teater Modular (a series of playlets by Ridhwan helmed by young directors) was held at KongsiKL last April, with more than 300 young theatregoers in attendance.

A scene from 'Teater Modular: Redux' by Ridhwan Saidi, which took place at Serambi Karya Bellamy last November.  Photo: Serambi Karya BellamyA scene from 'Teater Modular: Redux' by Ridhwan Saidi, which took place at Serambi Karya Bellamy last November. Photo: Serambi Karya Bellamy

Theatre in a bungalow

Interestingly, Moka’s Teater Modular Redux was staged at another reclaimed art space in KL. The colonial-era bungalow Serambi Karya Bellamy, located at Rumah Meranti 2, Jalan Bellamy, was formerly Puteri Umno’s community space. You could say theatre was the heartbeat needed to revive this large house, with considerable lawn area, after it fell into disuse following GE14 in 2018.

Fazleena Hishamuddin remembers that she was looking for a venue for a theatre show involving less fortunate children. The property’s caretakers gave her permission to use the space.

“The show was a success, it was a full house. And after that, they said, ‘Why not continue to use this space? Make it into a hub for arts and culture, ” says Fazleena, the manager of Serambi Karya Bellamy.

Serambi Karya Bellamy was officially launched in August 2018, and since then, this arts space has played host to diverse indie events, including workshops, theatre shows, talks, markets and folk concerts. It can host about 300 people at a time.

A performance by Indonesian folk singer Jason Ranti, a concert by local folk-pop group Mafidz and a tribute exhibition to the poet T. Alias Taib have given Serambi Karya Bellamy a broader public profile.

Serambi Karya Bellamy, an unused government bungalow in KL, has emerged as a venue for theatre, literary events and folk music gigs. Photo: Serambi Karya BellamySerambi Karya Bellamy, an unused government bungalow in KL, has emerged as a venue for theatre, literary events and folk music gigs. Photo: Serambi Karya Bellamy

Arguably, creating a sustainable arts programme is the challenge, and theatre, poetry and book events have been mostly associated with this space, says Fazleena.

Last weekend, contemporary theatre director Fasyali Fadzly launched his anthology of scripts in the space, while this month sees the launch of Suri Panggung Vol.1, a theatre initiative by Serambi Karya Bellamy’s team to promote women directors and writers.

Fazleena also hopes to start a book club focusing on Malaysian writers.

“I think it’s very important to create your own distinct events. If you do events that are the same as everyone else, then what is the point? What different things do you offer your audience?” she says.

Arts and research hub

Taking a slightly different approach from the other creative art spaces is the Zhongshan building in Kampung Attap, KL. While other spaces have been reclaimed by a single party, this pre-Merdeka three-storey building is home to a number of creative arts and research-based groups. The building used to house the Selangor Zhongshan Association, and was the premises of Lee’s Frozen Food since 1962, before the company moved out in 2015.

It was then inherited by the mother-in-law of arts consultant and gallerist Liza Ho.

In 2016, Ho co-founded (with Snow Ng) the Our Arts Projects gallery (now defunct) at the Zhongshan.

“While we were restoring this building (in 2017), we told a lot of our friends about it, and there was a lot of interest. Some people, like the Malaysian Design Archive, were looking for a new space at the time. People invited their friends, some of them believed in the space even before they knew what it looked like, ” says Ho, who now serves as the building’s manager.

“After that, we were able to look at things more holistically. What is it? A multi-disciplinary creative space. We wanted to create an ecosystem within the place. It was important to have a place where we can meet, and have dialogues, and connect with other people.”

The Singing Balcony series at the Zhongshan building has made opera works more accessible for the masses. Photo: VersesThe Singing Balcony series at the Zhongshan building has made opera works more accessible for the masses. Photo: Verses

She admits the Zhongshan is not a large event-driven space, but rather a hub for niche communities to converge.

Among the current tenants are exhibition space The Back Room, silkscreen workshop Bogus Merchandise, voice studio VerSeS, bookstore Tintabudi, design studio Miraclewatts, the Rumah Attap Library and Collective, the Malaysian Design Archive and typography studio Ejin Sha. Ho now runs The Back Room.

Each creative group in the Zhongshan building usually carries out their own events; these include talks, workshops, open mic events, screenings, art exhibitions and more. Occasionally, however, they all come together.

This year, Ho has plans to run Open Studios, a project she previously ran in 2017 in which visitors were offered a “behind the scenes” look at the tenants of the Zhongshan Building.

Hidden spaces, big potential

Sentul Depot might not necessary be a space for the arts community just yet. But it has huge potential. Located at Sentul West, KL, this depot was once part of the largest complex of railway workshops in Malaysia and has a history dating back to 1905.

There are challenges when organising pop-up theatre or performing arts events in non-conventional spaces.

“Acoustically, Sentul Depot is not an ideal place for performances. The cavernous space distorts music and spoken word performances. I believe few would pay to listen or watch a performance (in such a space), ” says Lim Kien Lee, KL Shakespeare Players’ (KLSP) co-founder.

“As an open space, the weather impacts our performance. At one point, the wind blew our prop newspaper off the stage. And on the first day, the makeshift partitions we set up toppled.

“We had to weigh them down to avoid accidents to the actors during the performance, ” he says, referring to a pop-up show called Wooden Lives held during a bazaar event series at Sentul Depot last year.

The KLSP show featured life-sized puppets, which added to logistical issues.

The family-fun arts market Pasar Seloka series at Rumah Tangsi last December. Photo: Rumah TangsiThe family-fun arts market Pasar Seloka series at Rumah Tangsi last December. Photo: Rumah Tangsi

Another creative arts space that faces similar challenges is Rumah Tangsi, an old KL mansion built in 1905 by renowned businessman Loke Chow Kit.

According to Rumah Tangsi’s creative director Ridha Razak, operating in this heritage building (also once known as Empire Hotel) has its share of issues to overcome.

Maintenance, for example, is always an issue due to the age of the building. Special materials have to be used for cleaning, and nothing can be nailed to the walls. Different types of partition walls – from boards to glass – have been used for exhibitions there.

“Then again, Rumah Tangsi’s heritage setting really adds to the value of the place. The aesthetics and the facade really add to the ambiance. Some of the materials here have been preserved for over 100 years! The way some of the ornamentation has been applied to the building, such as the columns and the staircase, is great. That really creates the attraction, ” says Ridha.

Most of the building, including the main hall, the foyers, patio and outside east and west courtyards, can be used.

The venue has hosted more than 20 events since it was officially launched in September 2018, including a street art exhibition with fashion brand Obey; KL Dulu, a poster exhibition of proposed city trails conducted by Kuala Lumpur City Hall; and Seloka@Tangsi x Team Etsy Malaysia, a major pop-up market event attracting 2,000 visitors last December.

The secretariat of Unesco’s KL World Book Capital 2020 will also be based at Rumah Tangsi. The year-long literary event will be launched this April.

The struggle to build an audience at KongsiKL has paid off despite the logistical challenges. Photo: Azmil PhotographyThe struggle to build an audience at KongsiKL has paid off despite the logistical challenges. Photo: Azmil Photography

Even at a warehouse venue like KongsiKL, Loke says there are issues.

“Since KongsiKL is not a proper performance space, we do not have proper front of house and seating for the audience and neither is there a green room for the performers or a theatre light and sound system, ” she says.

“In order to create, we have to make do with the very limited resources we have and try our best to be self sufficient, ” Loke continues.

As such, she shares, “audiences are often surprised by the outcome of our performances, especially by our lighting system that’s almost fully analogue and projections that are appropriately expressed in response to the scale of the warehouse.”

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