I sat down on Sunday to write my forth Biennial blog and I realised... I hadn't actually seen any of the Biennial in the last two weeks. This isn't strictly true as I went to the Random Acts symposium at FACT, which was promoted as part of the Biennial; but there is so much to say about this event that I am covering it separately. Otherwise, I went to the Homotopia launch (more about that later) and... that's it. This can only be biennial fatigue.
In an effort to re-engage myself with the festival, I pulled on a waterproof jacket and braved rainy Liverpool. Having been quite event focussed, I had yet to see the 'Unexpected Guest' exhibitions at some of Liverpool's core contemporary art venues. However, my first port of call was a space adjoining the Monro gastro pub on Duke Street, curated by the Biennial team. Tempting as it was to duck in to Duke Street Espresso or Sound Food and Drink, I remained committed to my mission and found Biennial A-board number 9.
I am drinking cold ginger and thyme tea from a teacup in a forest on a Friday night. Anticipation hangs in the air as our small group swells in number. Our hosts are present but absent. We must all possess masochistic tendencies, as we knew this evening was going to be inhospitable, but... here we are. Like any gathering of strangers there is some small talk. It is a bit like that first day of university, or like when the Big Brother contestants enter the house for the first time and are plied with booze. Is there gin in this tea, by the way?
This evening was the first of two Inhospitable Supper Clubs at Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) in association with Leaf. The advertising blurb described it as "a three-course meal and a dining experience exploring themes of social constructs"; it is part of the Unexpected Guest strand of Liverpool Biennial and is an attempt to disrupt the 'host' concept. If you have a ticket to the second one, the following might contain spoilers (the event is now sold out). The forest is actually an art installation called The Inhospitable Landscape, which has very successfully transformed the space so that it feels like an inverted cabin in the woods; the perfect setting for a horror film. There is bark underfoot and rustling in the leaves and the floor boards above are creaking.
The chat around the table is pleasant and the food is delicious. The Big Brother reference wasn't totally flippant as the event is being streamed live on the internet, which (perhaps due to the wine served with every course) we soon forget about. Suggestion, however, is a powerful force. As the meal goes on we start to wonder just why it has been so pleasant. The rustling starts to feel a bit unsettling. What are those footsteps? Is there something under the table?! All of a sudden one of the other guests is standing on her chair and there is much shrieking. As the shrieking subsides there is a bit of finger pointing - was it you? Did you see the table cloth move just then? But before anything horrible happens, the evening was over. Was the event a bit miss-sold or was the word 'inhospitable' enough to give what would have otherwise been a very nice evening a bit of an edge?
This wasn't the only piece of performative art that took place during the last two weeks. The Royal Standard - another artist-led organisation who were made an official partner of Liverpool Biennial 2012 - opened the second of their five-part Service Provider programme this week. Fran Disley, one of the TRS Directors, says that "the intention of Service Provider was to interrogate what we [TRS] do by inviting other similar organisations to deliver projects in our exhibition space that offer an interesting response to this notion." This week saw the opening of 'The Agency' conceived and delivered (performed?) by Generator Projects from Dundee.
"Hello! Welcome to the Agency. Would you like to browse our products? Please take a number, one of my colleagues will be with you now." A woman in her 20s or 30s, fuchsia lipstick, quiff, pencil skirt, greeted my friend and I as we arrived at lunchtime on the opening day. She gestured towards her colleague in identical costume, sitting behind a desk. Before we had time to think about the way that the space was used, or the way this subverted the 'exhibition' experience we expected, we were thrown straight into the role of customers and compelled to play along. Agency staff signed us up to the 'artcrawl' tour on Long Night before we even realised that we were both working that night and wouldn't be able to go. Since our visit, judging from twitter, the Agency has mostly been engaged in a string of raucous office parties. I am sad to miss the artcrawl as I am sure that it will be a hoot and I urge anyone who hasn't already to swing by and sign up.
The exhibitions I saw this week were also both linked to the idea of transforming or 'repurposing' buildings. The first was the Cunard Building, where the Liverpool Biennial team have curated their flagship Unexpected Guest show. This iconic building housed the waiting areas for passengers of the White Star Line until the 1960s and it is a powerful backdrop to the exhibition. The artists and the ideas here are very international (which is fitting in this location) but, on occasion, attempts to bring the conversation back to Liverpool are heavy-handed. Where it is done in a subtler way it works better. Project Curator Rosie Cooper tells us that when she bought a school group to see Ponte by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, they thought it was Liverpool and tried to look for their homes, when in fact the artwork was made in Johannesburg, South Africa. The piece slideshows though views from the windows of a tower block going up the floors, unintentionally demonstrating that cities the world over share the legacy of failed 'utopian intentions'.
Lastly, and perhaps most geekily exciting in terms of access to a space was my visit this week to the Copperas Hill building. The former Royal Mail sorting office, now the property of Liverpool John Moores University, is the location for the Bloomburg New Contemporaries and City States strands of Liverpool Biennial 2012, as well as housing a new commission by Jorge Macchi, which is part of the Unexpected Guest. The New Contemporaries was the usual rag bag of recent graduate work, some of which was elegant and confident (I especially liked the work of Jackson Sprague who made sculptures and wall-based work that seemed to flow effortlessly from the same spring of inspiration) while some clung to a tiresome YBA vocabulary (see the ceramic squirrel).
As we ascended the building to see City States, we became quite involved with the story of the closure of the building and the re-housing of the sorting office to Warrington. The notice-boards, clocking in machines and machinery of sorting have all been left untouched like ancient monuments (even though the building was in use until 2010). We assumed that this will change when the university re-purposes the building again into class rooms, studios or whatever it has in mind. I recommend you visit to see it in use as an art gallery in case you never have another chance to see inside. The City States exhibition itself contained some individually fascinating works but the overall narrative was hard to engage with. My favourite piece was the deadpan but fantastically ambitious installation Black Pillow by Audrius Bučas and Valdas Ozarinskas.
This year repurposing and transforming buildings seems to have taken precedence over artworks in the public realm. This is sad because in previous Biennials pieces of art that interrupted the fabric of our everyday lives were a staple. They helped to give the city a buzz and also to engage people without having to step over the threshold of an art gallery - something that is still a fearful or reluctant experience for many. Perhaps there are cost limitations to public realm work and maybe they are not seen as the most cutting-edge or critically challenging (the Abba house from Liverpool Biennial 2004 in particular was a mysterious entity). The memorable experiences this year are definitely things like the events programme of the artist-led spaces and the opportunity to see some of Liverpool's hidden architectural gems. It takes a bit more time and effort to see the exhibitions and go to events but sometimes, sadly, the art isn't the highlight of the show.
In Liverpool today we have a progressive burgeoning arts scene, which has again culminated in an exciting and challenging Biennial, with exhibitions like Bloomberg New
Contemporaries and City States being held at LJMU's Copperas Hill building.
We have new and well established media outlets covering arts in the city, from the fledgling but already well respected website, The Double Negative, to Laura's pages in the Liverpool Post. These titles get under the skin of regional arts and provide us with an accessible, independent and often intellectual contextualisation of the arts programme in Liverpool and beyond. In the School of Art and Design at LJMU, where I am Director, we aim to embed critical thinking in our courses to encourage students to look more objectively at historical and contemporary works, and not to take for granted or wholly accept artists' perceptions, philosophies and motivations.
I suspect that most people fall into two camps when presented with an Unexpected Guest. There are those who are happy when a friend or relative (or stranger) turns up unannounced, and those who are annoyed that they haven't had the opportunity to vacuum the stairs. I am the latter. The concept of the Liverpool Biennial 2012 is intriguing due to its inherent contradiction. But I wonder about the need for a concept at all? Speaking about dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel earlier this year, the Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev asserted that there was "no concept" to her art festival; this allowed new and old conversations in the visual arts to reveal themselves like a litmus test. Which begs the question: do themes help us to navigate art festivals or are they surplus to requirements?
Liverpool's Biennial has a number of strands (the John Moores Painting Prize 2012, The Source, the New Contemporaries, Citystates, the Independents and The Unexpected Guest). The first five have distinct identities and flavours and the latter seems to be a repository for all other content. It seems to be characterised by a certain sort of transience, which is maybe due to the short-term nature of Bienniales. Sally Tallant the Director of Liverpool Biennial says in The Unexpected Guest catalogue that "Cities are defined, and changed, by the people who occupy them. These occupations can be momentary or last months...". This resonates with my experience of the opening weeks of the festival, which have mostly been event-based and centred on the relationship between creativity and place.
The first event I attended was a presentation by the John Moores Painting Prize China artists. The winner of the John Moores Painting Prize China is Nie Zhegjie who is concerned in an artistic and emotional sense by the way that farmers are regarded in Chinese society (his winning painting 'Being' is pictured). He paints them with grotesque distorted faces or no faces at all. His painting doesn't appeal to me on any aesthetic level and it is only when he speaks about his work that I learn to appreciate it. After I attended the talk, I re-read Ai Weiwei's recent article in the Guardian. In it he says that Chinese art needs to have critical content and "respect for the people's struggle" to be meaningful. Nie Zhegjie's painting seems to possess the very critical content that Ai Weiwei is looking for.
Held in the 'camp' part of Camp and Furnace, The Medium is the Medium, an afternoon co-hosted by thedoublenegative.co.uk (Liverpool-based arts and culture website) and Tate Liverpool, was the next event in my calendar. The speakers included editor of Aesthetica magazine Cherie Federico, Goldsmiths lecturer Edgar Schmitz and journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer. The aim was to analyse the nature of critical writing in the early 21st century; especially looking at the impact of blogging and twitter. Some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking moments came courtesy of Miranda Sawyer who told a story about outing Primal Scream as drug-users, leading on from this she advised the audience to ask themselves the question "am I a journalist or a friend of the artists?" the suggestion was that the two are not necessarily compatible.
'The Medium' made a coherent argument for critical writing as an art form. Schmitz offered this nice description of his own critical writing "...I do not have a methodology. I do not have a stable vocabulary... I have an urgency, something needs thinking about". He also reflected on why most writers do not identify as a critic, they are always an artist, teacher or curator who also writes (I expect this applied to many members of the audience).
The only 'exhibition' that I visited this week was the not-so-snappily named Sky Arts: Doug Aitken's The Source at Tate Liverpool. Aitken's video work, a series of interviews with creative practitioners from all disciplines, followed on well from Schmitz' observation about the plurality of creative roles. The US artist appears in each 3 minute film (there are 18 in total shown on multiple screens) asking each interviewee where the source of inspiration comes from. The experience was like being in a crowded bar, where you have to move closer to the objects of your attention to block out the chatty rumble of background sound. In spite of the stunning locations of the interviews, much of what was said translated across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to dreary post-Industrial northern towns. In particular I thought of my home in Garston when Jack White said that "you can't live next to factories without being influenced by them."
The dreary Midlands were the backdrop for my last talk of the week; George Shaw in conversation at the Walker Art Gallery, in his capacity as one of the John Moores Painting Prize jurors. He became a juror to see "what it is like on the other side of the fence" and (to the probable relief of every artist who has entered) he confirms that there is no "skulduggery." Shaw's work is also featured in Tate Liverpool's Biennial exhibition this year. His success as an artist, in particular his 2011 Turner Prize nomination, is the reason that the Walker Art Gallery selected him as one of the jurors. Shaw is an artist rooted in place and in process. He often depicts the town of his birth (Coventry) grudgingly using paint as a medium for his sentimental and romantic point of view. He says that "the places that humans are most honest is funerals" and describes his paintings as "karaoke funeral anthems". His humble paintings memorialise the streets, council estates and pubs of Britain.
Engaging with the Unexpected Guest theme isn't necessary to enjoy the Biennial, and yet to some extent it underwrites all of the elements that make up the festival. The relationship between hospitality and culture is interesting. It isn't always a harmonious relationship as Lorenzo Fuzi hints at in his catalogue essay when he says "[hospitality is] a form of power that acts in a similar way to dominance and control." But at its most basic level, 'the Unexpected Guest' could refer to the invitation to artists and speakers to converge on Liverpool, as they are doing throughout the festival, to surprise, entertain and challenge us.
REALLY interesting - and very funny - talk from Turner Prize 2011 nominee and John Moores Painting Prize 2012 judge George Shaw at the Walker Art Gallery today, in which he discussed being an artist outside London, how he's kept a bit of rubble from a demolished Coventry pub, his TV watching habits and how Ruskin was terrified of his wife's, erm, lady garden.
George Shaw, second left, with the other John Moores Painting Prize Judges. Picture by Jason Roberts
I've condensed it down to my favourite quotes...
On being judged (for prizes/commissions)
You're not quite sure what criteria the people on the other side of the desk are using. Sometimes when you see the people who have got what you were going for it can make you angry.
JUST heard that Liverpool actor Leanne Best has been short-listed in the Best Performance in a Play category of the Theatre Awards UK 2012. Written by Frank McGuinness, the one-woman play received its world premiere in the Liverpool Playhouse Studio, where it was so popular it was given an extended run.
It was a fantastic performance - one of the best I've seen all year (click here to read my review).
Here is the full awards short-list:
I AM excited to announce the release of my debut novel, Just Wishing.
A contemporary story with a fantasy element, Just Wishing centres on the life of Pamela Cox, a bored secretary who whiles away her days envying the lives of reality-TV celebrities and WAGs. One night, Pam stumbles upon a tongue-in-cheek website which, in a nod to the old genie of the lamp tale, promises its visitors three wishes. The next morning, all Pam's dreams have come true.
HERE is a short film I made of Rhys Chatham's Liverpool Biennial performance of Crimson Grail - an orchestrated piece performed by 100 guitars. He had originally hoped there would be more but electrical regulations wouldn't allow it. Still, 100 guitarists was quite impressive visually (good look spotting them on this video - I wasn't in a great position) and any more would have taken up seats that the audience used. There was a huge queue of people wanting to get into Liverpool Cathedral to watch and in the end not everyone made it in.
By the time I got inside it was standing room only, so I perched on a step to film this video. It isn't ideal but it does give you a flavour of the event - 90 minutes cut down to just three - and you can see the conductors communicating with one another (Chatham is the one in black) and sometimes holding up pieces of paper to instruct the musicians.
The sounds they managed to coax out of the electric guitars were really interesting. At times it seemed that they were playing entirely different instruments. One section of the piece sounded like a string orchestra.
Since I posted the video on YouTube, it has received a couple of comments from people who were there, including one of the performers:
It was thrilling to be in the audience for this standing room only event - who got a well deserved standing ovation at the end!
Was amazing to be a member of this ensemble, just a fantastic 4 day experience. Thanks to everyone involved ;)
THE first day of the Liverpool Biennial, the day after the night before, the day after everyone's hard work came to fruition, the day after the after party, I found myself in a shed. The shed was the stage for a piece of performance art (or was it? - more on that question later...) located within an art fair, within an interesting comment on the traditional art market, within an innocuous warehouse building, within the Jamaica Street area of Liverpool, on a day when that area was buzzing with life.
I was at Cave Art Fair, a new model of artist-led arts commerce. This was an interesting place for me to start my Biennial experience, as I have been thinking a lot lately about the art market, taste and sustainability. The founders, Flis Mitchell and Kevin Hunt, speaking to the website Seven Streets, said that they wanted their art fair to be "playful and inclusive". Cave's USP is that it is not-for-profit and the artists receive one hundred percent of the sale price. Although in one sense a lovely idea, it comes precariously close to suggesting that you shouldn't put a value on the facilitation of art and the creation of opportunities.
HERE'S a video of John Moores Painting Prize patron Sir Peter Blake announcing Sarah Pickstone as this year's winner. He talks about winning the Junior Prize in 1961.