Spang & Lei

This is the final instalment of a four-part series The New Creative Economy on homegrown professionals who are driving Singapore’s creative, innovation-based economy.

As is the case with so many things in life, Spang & Lei duo Serena Pang and Ng Wen Lei’s journey into the intersection of art and technology was a result of serendipitous timing.

“We returned around the time everyone was celebrating SG50,” says Pang, on how they attended New York University, were inspired by the arts scene, and came home with plans to start an art collective. “There was a lot of talk then about Singapore evolving towards a tech-heavy society, and as artists, we were intrigued how digital technology would impact lives.’

The government had been gathering representatives from the business, tech, and finance industries to discuss solutions, says Pang, “and we thought: where is art in this conversation? So I said: I know how to get people on board — put the ‘art’ into Smart Nation!”

It worked.

The positioning cemented their spot as digital art pioneers in Singapore. Branding themselves as Spang & Lei, the long-time friends first met in the theatre circuit as teens. Since then, they have produced and curated a variety of arts and tech programmes in the country. These include art installations and digital art mentorship Noise Metaverse. They even launched Pluritopia, a joint initiative of the Singapore and South Korean arts councils.

Related: NFT art creators take cover amid crypto crash

Getting smart about art

Serena Pang and Ng Wen Lei.

Spang & Lei existed before NFTs. Currently in their 30s, their creative partnership began in 2016 when they presented Betwixt Festival, Art & Bytes, Singapore’s first home-grown digital interactive art event.

They originally planned to run a weekend of talks and art displays, but it quickly expanded to a six-day event, featuring partners like the ArtScience Museum. “Things just blew up. We were so amazed,” Ng says.

As with any good team, Pang and Ng know what each other brings to the table. Ng does the coding and provides a fountain of ideas, while Pang hovers over everything, managing projects and reining in her partner’s perfectionist tendencies. Once, Ng was still coding while audiences waited outside exhibition doors. Pang begged her to let them in, but she replied, “Give me 10 more minutes!”

When it comes to their liberal use of phrases like “depth of interaction”, it’s easy to mistake them as your typical artist types. However, Spang & Lei are actually multihyphenates. Pang researches performance studies and used to be a professional theatre actor, while Ng, who taught at Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore, studies data collection using biosensors.

Related: An art expert’s take on NFT art and the nascent digital marketspace

Tapping on greater awareness on digital art

Art is subjective, so how do they evaluate their work? “There has been a shift in mindset,” shares Pang, noting how the public has become more aware of digital art. “People used to think it was photography and animation. Now we talk about creating paintings with programming. Audiences accept it; we don’t have to explain it.”

A further unexpected change tech has brought to the art space is its rigour. “Tech has this very strong link to the financial system and a startup-related framework,” explains Ng. “All ventures are product- driven, and this culture will trickle into the art landscape.”

“If you want to succeed in the New Creative Economy, this is the time to hone your craft”

Serena Pang

It’s already happening: more new artists in the digital space are adopting startup mindsets, setting up lab-esque incubators, and securing funding before launching their products.

Do Pang and Ng remain optimistic about NFTs amid the crypto winter? Yes, of course. Despite the current tumult, they find that the market is being cleaned up and “situational artists” are being separated from long-term investment candidates. However, they warn that the space is essentially a commercial art gallery operating at hyper-speed.

According to Pang, these chaotic times present an opportunity to create a legacy. “The recession is upon us, but if we look carefully, there are gems to be found. If you want to succeed in the new creative economy, this is the time to hone your craft.”

Related: Meet the Asian millennials making millions selling NFT art

Visit our Made in Singapore, Creatively series for more stories on homegrown creative personalities.