The eight a-n members selected for the 2019-20 a-n Writer Development Programme are: Kitty Bew (Brighton), Joanna Byrne (Leeds), Orla Foster (Sheffield), Jamie Limond (Glasgow), Rachel Marsh (Beaworthy, Devon), India Nielsen (London), Isaac Nugent (London), and Valerie Zwart (Leeds).

The first workshop of the programme took place on Wednesday 20 November 2019 at Coventry Artspace during the last week of the Coventry Biennial.

Led by Chris Sharratt, we were joined by Stephen Palmer (a-n’s head of online content). Special guest for the day was Ryan Hughes, director of Coventry Biennial, who very kindly agreed to be interviewed – press conference style – by the eight participants.

The workshop was a mix of tasks and discussion, with quick turnaround writing and editing plus a tour of two key Biennial venues, The Row and Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.

As a post-workshop task, each writer was asked to file a 1,000-word feature on the Coventry Biennial, including quotes from Hughes, description of the work on show and exploring the context and theme of this second edition of the festival.

Each of the features will be published here following editing and feedback.

Image: a-n Writer Development Programme participants and Chris Sharratt visiting the Coventry Biennial with Ryan Hughes. Photo: Stephen Palmer


Following the first workshop on the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20, hosted by Coventry Artspace back in November, the writers were tasked with filing a 1,000 word feature on Coventry Biennial.

The article needed to include quotes from the biennial’s director and founder, Ryan Hughes, while also introducing the reader to this young biennial and the context it operates in. The final feature from the programme participants is by Valerie Zwart.

8. Coventry Biennial by Valerie Zwart

It could have gone horribly wrong,” admits Coventry Biennial’s artistic director Ryan Hughes. This could be said about any endeavour of scale, but the 2019 biennial may have felt particularly precarious for Hughes, its only curator and full-time member of staff. With the help of a small team, he coordinated the contributions of 106 participating artists, 33 organisational partners and four public funders – all in the anticipation of 50,000 visitors.

Hughes themed the biennial ‘The Twin’, after the practice of twinning cities which began with Coventry’s linking with Stalingrad in 1944. That meant tapping talent from art communities in the 25 cities that Coventry has twinned with in the intervening 75 years.

Founded in 2017, the biennial was initially a response to Coventry’s 10-year cultural strategy, which included Coventry’s bid to become the 2021 UK City of Culture but did not include much visual arts provision. From the beginning, Hughes has viewed this project as an “opportunity to be bold and ambitious”. So, in the city that with twinning has done so much to promote the idea of international friendship, yet which also voted Leave in 2016, Hughes set out to engage with Coventry itself. Consequently, the 2019 exhibition’s positioning as the ‘UK’s social biennial’ also meant delving inwards to engage locally and join up communities that don’t usually meet.

Art is the catalyst here, levelling out social space – across studios, museums, tower blocks and homeless charities – to create the kinds of social experiences that change mindsets: getting people together to eat, do yoga, or make art. Hard-to-engage communities will come to the biennial, says Hughes, because they, or someone they know, are in the biennial. This kind of levelling is itself a kind of twinning.

Scale and complexity are good reasons to have a pragmatic approach to the biennial model. But Hughes has kept only the “useful” elements of the model, discarding some other typical features like being a “showcase for commercial galleries, as most biennials are”, and the habit of not showing the work of locally-based artists; something that “disgusts” Hughes. The outcome is a 50-50 mix between national/international and local artists.

Ultimately, however, a biennial is still about the art itself. At one point in its development, the civic aspect of ‘The Twin’ became so dominant that it felt like the team was, as Hughes puts it, “doing the council’s work for them”. The realisation led to an opening up of the theme to explore a much wider range of dualities’ including the double, the copy, the fake, the replica, (non)binaries, mirroring and counter experience. “At that point, we felt the exhibition had some sort of potential to probe and explore the contemporary moment that feels deeply problematic.”

The contemporary moment is undeniably present in the artworks shown at the biennial’s two main venues, but the work never comes over as illustrative of a particular curatorial perspective. This is partly a function of the twin as the biennial’s versatile conceptual lynchpin, and it’s also down to the contrasting nature of the show’s two main venues. One is the Herbert, a white-walled, purpose-built cultural vessel. The other, the Row, is a former NHS addiction rehab clinic, untouched since the day it was abandoned. These two venues are as socially and politically non-identical as twins ever could be.

At the Herbert, the work itself does all the heavy lifting, and two works – one by a local activist, the other by an international award winner – best demonstrate the accessibility and spirit of this part of the exhibition. Adele Mary Reed’s Five Dérives series of photographs looks outwards and within Coventry to make connections. Reaching back to Guy Debord for inspiration, Reed walked around five cities photographing their similarities and differences. In an extension, or twinning, of this work, Reed also shows a more literally and physically accessible series of derivatives — photos of cats in windows in the five cities, to be distributed as window stickers throughout Coventry. The accompanying wall text doubles as a notice for a meeting of Mothers Who Make Coventry, an organisation supporting mothers who are artists, of which Reed is a local organiser.

In contrast, it’s hard to imagine a more elegant examination of a problematic relationship than Mona Hatoum’s A Couple (of swings). For most, an empty swing is an open invitation, but Hatoum’s face one another at a proximity that makes them impossible to use, even if these swings weren’t made of glass. The Palestinian-born artist has neatly evoked the universally relatable notion of unfulfillable potential due to a thing’s own nature and position in relation to its immediate surroundings.

At the Row, many of the pieces are site-specific, referencing health and identity themes. These include Hira Butt’s Dhee Rani (Princess Daughter) whose evocation of the use of power within a specific culture requires only a few angled poles, bracelets and a bejewelled football. In contrast, the home-made aesthetic of Matt Gale’s Soma, featuring vessels with balloon-like shapes that distill liquid and light from a central heart, lung and oesophagus, gives a visceral sense of the fragility and imperfection of the human body.

The contemporary moment is also echoed in Darryl Georgiou and Rebekah Tolley-Georgiou’s dual-screen valentine to cold war paranoia, Twin stranger: entangled state, which pairs a series of filmic reframings of two images – a Berlin hotel lobby and an ID photo of a boy – with narration that seeds suspicion into every element, in a stream-of-consciousness tour of impressions and insinuations. It has an illogical centrifugal force very reminiscent of social media.

Some works are ‘twinned’, or shown at both venues. One of these is Lorsen Camps’ 2 Masks (Pollux & Castor). At the Herbert, two styrofoam packaging inserts come into sharp focus as an ur-artwork – born of our hard-wiring for seeing patterns – here as faces recognisable in the moulded packaging’s spatial voids. It also references an ongoing ‘faces-in-places’ social media meme. At the Row, it is hung either side of the one-way reflective window of a managerial office – asserting social and political meanings of inequality and location, while also literally reflecting the mirror aspect of twinning. However, the diverse facets of this work are so beautifully distilled by the two different venues that it made other ‘twinned’ art pieces, like the nominally variegated patterning of Richard Scott’s Grain Progression, and walking through Dylan Fox’s Strip Curtain of transgender flag colours, seem like the twins you can barely tell apart.

What visitors won’t see is the exhibition’s own twin: Coventry 2019’s legacy of ongoing relationships with new art audiences, and the next two year’s worth of creative programming at the Row. This legacy, which leaves the team “hyper-aware of making work when we’re not making work” is clearly one of the valuable bits of the biennial model for Hughes. His observation that “something is happening and building in the city”, and that the “challenge now is to harness that, or steer it toward the City of Culture biennial” would seem to indicate that this particular twin will be a key part of the next biennial.

Valerie Zwart

1. Lorsen Camps, 2 Masks (Pollux & Castor), Coventry Biennial 2019. Photo: Marcin Sz
2. Mona Hartoum, A Couple (of swings), 1993, Coventry Biennial 2019, Herbert Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: Marcin Sz


Continuing our series of articles on the Coventry Biennial, which each of the eight participants on the programme submitted following the November workshop, here’s Isaac Nugent’s 1,000-word feature.

7. Coventry Biennial by Isaac Nugent

“It could have gone horribly wrong.” Ryan Hughes is speaking about Coventry Biennial, a programme of contemporary art exhibitions and events that he founded in 2017. Luckily for Hughes, it has been a huge success. Almost 24,000 people attended the first festival in 2017, modestly described by its director and curator as “a pilot”. The second iteration opened in October 2019 and should achieve double that footfall: 50,000 visitors are forecasted before the biennial fully closes in the new year. With Coventry due to be the next UK City of Culture in 2021, the third edition is likely to be even larger. “We’re seeing something build, something happen,” says Hughes. 

The 2019 biennial is titled ‘The Twin,’ taking its inspiration from Coventry’s role in inaugurating the modern twin cities programme. Artists living and working in 18 of Coventry’s 26 twin cities are represented, including practitioners from Kingston, Jamaica and Dresden, Germany. 2019 was the 75th anniversary of the first symbolic ‘bond of friendship’, made between the citizens of Coventry and Stalingrad (now Volgograd.) Both cities had been heavily bombed during the second world war and twinning served as a symbolic gesture of peace and goodwill that began the process of reconstruction. In 2016, Coventry voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. Through acknowledging Coventry’s role in, as Hughes puts it, “founding the idea of international friendship,” the biennial hopes to start a spirit of reconciliation in the city once again. “The contemporary moment feels problematic in lots of ways,” Hughes says, “a political thread runs through everything we’re doing and trying to do.”

An unlikely artistic director, Hughes appears relaxed, sitting back in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, drinking orange juice directly from a one litre carton. Why did he start Coventry Biennial? One impetus, he freely admits, was “personal career development”. He had been working as a freelance curator for several years and wanted to “entice bigger name artists with the offer of a biennial” rather than “a funny little group show in a city no-one’s heard of”. When the city council published its 2017-2027 10-year cultural strategy to coincide with the City of Culture bid, they made very little mention of the visual arts. Hughes’ decision to launch the biennial was an artist-led response, designed to fill a gap in Coventry’s cultural provision. The City of Culture Trust, which will deliver the  celebrations in 2021, is now the second largest funder of Coventry Biennial, alongside Coventry City Council, Arts Council England and Coventry University. Clearly Hughes has been successful in persuading funding bodies to provide support for the visual arts.  

As the sole full-time member of staff, Hughes curated the entire biennial himself, supervising the installation of over 800 individual works by 106 different artists across 16 exhibition venues in Coventry and Warwickshire. All this hard work is worth it, he says, if it “makes contemporary art accessible to the people that live in Coventry,” combatting a perception that visual art is inherently “elitist” and “harder to engage with” than other artistic disciplines like dance, music or performance. “We’re taking activity to them,” explains Hughes, as he describes running arts workshops for groups that aren’t usually engaged in contemporary art, including homeless people and those living in the most deprived areas of the city. “We don’t actually have to tell them to come to the show because they’re in the show, or if they’re not in the show, then their dad or auntie is.” 

The biennial, Hughes believes, can be an important driver for social change. Coventry is a city riven with divides along ethnic and economic lines; life expectancy is 10 years lower in poorer areas than wealthier neighbourhoods. Hughes intends each edition of the biennial to leave “changes to the infrastructure” in Coventry, building an environment where contemporary art can be made and enjoyed by everyone living in the city. After the 2017 biennial, the former Coventry Evening Telegraph building, which was the main exhibition space for the festival that year, became a permanent exhibition space for local artists to show their work. Prior to the 2019 edition, Hughes and his team spent siz months working with homeless people, running art workshops and building a permanent gallery space for them to display their work.  

Hughes’ efforts to involve the local community go far beyond those of most biennials, which often view the city where the biennial takes place as merely a convenient backdrop. He was desperate for Coventry Biennial to be more than just “a showcase for commercial galleries,” instead designing an event that has a distinctive West Midlands identity. At least 50% of artists included in the 2019 edition are local to Coventry, living no more than 30 miles from the city. In addition, many of the exhibitors are recent graduates from West Midlands art schools or employed in higher education in Coventry or Birmingham. Paul Crook, a painter who has several works included in the biennial, completed his MA at Birmingham Polytechnic and now works as a lecturer in Leamington Spa. Tayyibah Mota recently graduated from Coventry University. 

“We’re not Venice, we’re not Istanbul, we’re Coventry,” Hughes explains, stating his ambition to create a biennial with a difference. This is a festival with a strong grassroots ethos; almost all of those involved in organising it are artists themselves. Branding it a ‘Social Biennial,’ weekly Potluck Lunches and yoga sessions are highlights of the events programme, fostering an environment for people from different backgrounds to meet and collaborate. Bharti Parmar and Marion Piper, who first met at the 2017 biennial, collaborate on a large abstract drawing constructed from numerous sheets of A4 paper for the 2019 edition, filling a wall in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. This work emerged out of a distinctive process where Parmar and Piper would send each other sections of the drawing in the post, together with written instructions on how they would like to see the work develop. 

Parmar and Piper’s collaboration is the product of the community ethos that Hughes hopes to engender. This isn’t a biennial for “people that attend biennials” – it’s an event to stimulate the local contemporary art ecosystem, providing exhibition opportunities for the artists of the West Midlands and encouraging local people to engage with visual art. It’s a biennial that works for Coventry.

Isaac Nugent

1. Press conference with Ryan Hughes, Founder and Artistic Director of Coventry Biennial as part of the a-n Writer Development Programme workshop at Coventry Artspace, November 2019
2. Farwa Moledina, Not Your Fantasy II, 2018. Installation view, The Row, Coventry Biennial 2019. Photo: Marcin Sz


As a task following on from the first workshop in Coventry, each of the writers on the programme was asked to produce a 1000-word feature on the Coventry Biennial. After feedback and a light edit, this is India Nielsen’s article.

6. Coventry Biennial by India Nielsen

The theme of the 2019 Coventry Biennial, its second iteration, began with the story of how Coventry found its first twin in the city of Stalingrad. After the Blitz, a group of women reached out to the southwest Russian city (now Volgograd) and formed a bond. Since this historic moment in 1944, Coventry has gone on to form links with a further 25 cities and towns across Europe, the US, Canada and China, among others. On the 75th anniversary of this event, Ryan Hughes, who founded the biennial in 2017 and now acts as its director, decided to create ‘The Twin’ – an exhibition with artists from many of these twin cities.

As connections opened up between the cities, what emerged was more of a network than a balancing of two polarities. The notion of the ‘twin’ also expanded to include a wider range of dualities – Hughes began to invite binary and non-binary artists to participate, as well as those working with doubles and copies, seeing it as an opportunity to create what he terms a “social biennial” – a quasi festival designed to explore this contemporary, deeply problematic moment.

The 2019 biennial takes place across Coventry and spills into Warwickshire – the nearest county. A pair of exhibitions form its structural core: the Herbert art gallery is a straightforward museological exhibit, while its twin inhabits a former NHS rehabilitation unit. Holding one of the shows in an abandoned clinic forces visitors to confront one of the hottest topics in our current Brexit debates, creating what Hughes describes as “a rich environment to have an open and honest conversation”. He goes on: “We’re articulating our work as the ‘social biennial’… it is not a commercial showcase.” To this end, as well as housing the biennial, these two buildings have also been opened up as artist studios and project spaces, building further connections of support into the local artistic community. 

These various strands are connected by a feeling of “us-ness” – “us” here being not only the artists participating, but the local identity of Coventry as a whole, the historical connections between geographically disparate townships and the more abstract, fuzzy problem of delineating what exactly “us” and “I” mean. More literally, the biennial hosts dinner parties for artists and visitors. Eating at The Pod, a local restaurant, and doing yoga at the Herbert is, believes Hughes, an important aspect of the biennial as these are “the kind of things people who live here do”. During one such event – a ‘Potluck Lunch’ – Hughes describes sitting back and taking stock of who was in the room: representatives from “national funding bodies eating with a homeless man that came to all our events, prizewinning artists, and a guy who walked in with his camera…” 

For Hughes, such activity is at the core of the biennial’s ethos. It’s an approach perhaps typified by his description of a six-month workshop held with local homeless people. At the end of this period a gallery space was built at a rough sleepers drop-in centre for the participants to display their artwork, supposedly embedding them into the biennial. Who gains most from such a relationship isn’t entirely clear, however. While the biennial accrues cultural and social weight for holding such workshops – something that is needed to secure funding for future biennials – how much do the homeless people themselves benefit? Hughes’ response to this question is vague, but he states that the arts coordinator of homeless charity Crisis is on the biennial’s board and that together they are looking into the possibility of putting the gallery to other uses, although what these will be has yet to be confirmed. 

Hughes adds that the biennial has created an opportunity to address the city council’s relationship with the visual arts, and in particular the view of contemporary art as elitist and difficult to engage with. It has, he explains, opened up discussion around this issue, working with the council on different policies that might help to make art more accessible.

The biennial seems to be balancing its own double – riding the line between a very socially driven, anti-institutional and anti-commercialisation stance. Hughes stresses the importance of building an interrelation between artist and audience. “We’re not trying to just get people to come to exhibitions, we’re trying to take the activity to them,” he says, citing the biennial’s educational and participatory programmes and work with local residents. All this helps to make those based in Coventry “feel embedded in the biennial”.

Alongside this, shrewd decisions have been made to expand the biennial in terms of recognition and funding. The October opening date of the first biennial, for instance, was chosen because as part of Coventry’s successful bid to be the 2021 UK City of Culture, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport judges were rumoured to be visiting the city around that time. For 2019, the biennial launched to coincide with Frieze London, hoping that it might tempt those attending this international contemporary art fair to take the one-hour train journey to Coventry. Whether the Frieze crowd took the trip or not, attendance is growing at an impressive rate; where the first biennial had 24,000 visitors, this year’s is on track to reach 50,000.

As the only full-time member of staff, Hughes curated the over 800 works on display himself, alongside a number of collaborators. However, he describes the process as being very much artist-driven – if an artist were to make a specific request, he states that he would “see the inherent need to fulfil it”. His role, then, seems to be more that of a coordinator than curator.

With all of the visual art activity that is now taking place in Coventry as a result of the biennial, this emphasises its shadow side; what happens in the negative space that’s left behind, when you don’t have anything on? A true test of whether the Coventry Biennial is a “social biennial” will be whether the discussions it has provoked around cultural and social policy, international and local connections are maintained outside of the event’s short seven-week run. Interestingly, Coventry voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum despite being a city that, through twinning, founded the idea of international friendship in the modern moment. Perhaps now more than ever is the time to remind it of its history.

India Nielsen

1. Coventry Biennial 2019, ‘The Twin’, installation view, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. Photo: Marcin Sz
2. Partisan Social Club, installation view, The Row, Coventry Biennial 2019. Photo: Marcin Sz


Continuing our series of articles on Coventry Biennial, stemming from the first workshop at Coventry Artspace which saw the biennial’s founding director Ryan Hughes interviewed by the programme participants, here’s Joanna Byrne’s profile.

5. Coventry Biennial by Joanna Byrne

The UK’s newest biennial of contemporary art may yet be its most radical. Founded in 2017, the second edition of the Coventry Biennial features over 800 artworks by 106 artists in 21 venues across Coventry and the West Midlands. Billed as the UK’s first ‘social biennial’, the programme invites audiences to “make, learn, look, eat, think, walk and talk… with us”. For founder and director Ryan Hughes, the “us” here means not just the artists, or the biennial team, but Coventry itself. 

Bringing people together is something the city has experience in; Coventry kickstarted the international twin city movement in 1944 through its partnership with Stalingrad (now Volgograd), after much of the city was destroyed during the Blitz. 75 years later, Coventry is a serial twin, connected to 26 cities and towns worldwide. This rich history is reflected in the 2019 theme of ‘The Twin’. Hughes wanted the biennial to represent the “diversity and energy that the twin city movement ignited in the city” and forge new relationships between artists and audiences.

At the heart of the biennial are two core exhibitions, both of which engage conceptually and creatively with this year’s theme. Based at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum and The Row, a former NHS facility, the venues sit either side of Coventry’s unique, ‘twinned’ cathedral of St Michael’s, a wonderful hybrid of gothic medieval ruin and Sir Basil Spence’s visionary, monumental modernism. Rising up defiantly from the concrete of the city’s central plaza, the cathedral’s otherworldly forms are emblematic of the collective trauma enacted by the second world war, and a postwar British socialist architecture of hope.

Politics is relevant here, as are the shadows cast by the 20th century. Coventry, like many other places in Britain at this current moment, is replete with complexities and contradictions. Despite founding the idea of international friendship in the modern era and welcoming many migrant peoples into the city, Coventry voted Leave in the EU Referendum. Hughes says this backdrop created a “rich environment to have open and honest conversations” with artists and visitors. 

Some of these conversations concerned the arts in the city, particularly in relation to Coventry’s bid for UK City of Culture 2021. Visual art, and particularly contemporary art, has often been seen as “difficult, elitist… or hard to engage with,” notes Hughes. Although the arts (theatre, dance, music) were well catered for in the 2021 bid, visual arts were lacking. Hughes saw this gap as “an opportunity to be bold and ambitious,” the result of which was the inaugural Coventry Biennial in 2017. This year builds on the pilot’s success with a diverse programme of exhibitions, projects and events. 

Hughes does admit, however, that there were some “quite deep problems” around expectations of “what biennials do and how they do it… We see a huge number of biennials not showing any artists from their location. That just disgusts me, so that had to go immediately”. In the final cut, artists from Coventry and the West Midlands were represented equally with national and international artists. 

There is a diverse range of work on show, and much of it feels haunted by the presence of human bodies. Outside the Herbert, James Bridle’s Drone Shadow (2013/2019) depicts outlines of unmanned drones – invisible to radar – chalked directly onto the pavement. Inside is Dylan Fox’s multicoloured Strip Curtain (2018), a permeable barrier that flutters around visitors as they pass into the exhibition, reminiscent of liminal spaces where public and private lives converge. In Mona Hatoum’s A Couple (Of Swings) (1993) two glass swings are suspended together. If either were set in motion, they would shatter, setting up a performative suspense wrought with dangerous potentiality. Comfort Blanket II (2018) by Natasha Brzezicki provides a soft counterpoint; a hand-stitched patchwork quilt made from found blankets is displayed like a relic, inviting human touch. This quality also emanates from Andrew Jackson’s From a Small Island (2018), a series of understated portraits shot in Kingston, Jamaica. The material qualities of light, grain and texture add a tactile physicality to the photographs.

The “politically loaded” setting of The Row, an abandoned NHS addiction rehabilitation facility, makes the second show feel edgier than its twin. Dispensing with the conventional ‘white cube’ gallery format, the institutional, medicalised environment feeds into the work on show.

Entering the exhibition through a second Strip Curtain (2018), we follow strange neon tentacles weaving in and out of the air vents above, into the alien room-scape of Mhairi Vari’s Perpetual Doubt (2015/2019). Here, a once-writhing, now-frozen mess of garish, post-organic lifeforms have ruptured the fragile epidermis of the space’s internal architecture. It’s as though the building’s nervous system has been exposed: garish cybernetic snakes burst through yellowed polystyrene ceiling tiles, roaming across the stained carpet as they search for a way out.

Opposite, divided by the remains of a glass-bricked hospital corridor, is Matt Gale’s Soma (2019). Translucent, womb-like chambers connected via a network of plastic veins, like intravenous drips, hold a variety of coloured liquids, animate and non-animate objects – moss, polystyrene – and living organisms – plants, larvae – that will evolve, and deteriorate over time. It is a sculptural fragmentation of the post-human body, hanging delicately in space.  

In Discursive Ability (2019) by Jazz Moreton, voices leak through the tinny speakers of the building’s old public address system. They talk honestly, sometimes painfully, about experiences of disability and communication difficulties. This expands on themes of medicalisation and discrimination found in Fox’s Nobody Passes (2019), located in a former treatment room. These neon words blink on-and-off; fluid, fluctuating in meaning, never one thing or another. The art here is socio-politically charged, reflecting bold curatorial choices.

Looking beyond the biennial’s exhibitions, Hughes is passionate about connecting with and giving back to the local community. Creative participatory projects have engaged local communities – “taking the activity to them” – while a partnership with the homeless charity Crisis and a local drop-in centre established a gallery space; its future use will be decided upon by service users. Hughes adds that “it feels really important to make infrastructural changes to the spaces that we use” in order that the biennial provides a tangible legacy for artists working in the city. Following the redevelopment of the Coventry Evening Telegraph building, the core biennial exhibition space of 2017, Hughes says “there was an outpouring of creative excitement because there was finally somewhere to make and show work”. 

You can feel this excitement running through the work on show, and it is palpable in Hughes’s voice as he talks about how hard he and the team worked to pull this ambitious biennial together. “It could have all gone horribly wrong…” he reflects, grinning (and grimacing) at the memories. But already, you can see 2021 is all that Hughes is thinking about. 

Joanna Byrne

1. James Bridle, Drone Shadow, 2013/2019, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry Biennial 2019. Photo: Marcin Sz
2. Matt Gale, Soma, 2019, detail, Coventry Biennial 2019, The Row. Photo: Marcin Sz


The first workshop in the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20 took place at Coventry Artspace in November. As a follow-on task from the day, the writers were tasked with writing a 1,000-word article on the Coventry Biennial.

All the features will be published on this blog – here’s the latest, by Sheffield-based writer Orla Foster.

4. Coventry Biennial by Orla Foster

“Just walk through any door you can physically get through,” suggests Ryan Hughes, founder and artistic director of the Coventry Biennial. We are in The Row, a former NHS rehabilitation unit turned visual arts space and one of the two main sites for the biennial. It still bears traces of its former life; peeling walls the colour of spearmint, flickering lights and industrial carpets. At first glance, it doesn’t seem the most obvious candidate for the staging of contemporary art, but then nothing about the Coventry Biennial could be described as “obvious”. 

Founded in 2017 and now in its second run, the event (which bills itself as “the UK’s social biennial”) has sprung up in 21 sites across the city. Comprising over 800 works by more than 100 local and international artists, it is already redefining how people in Coventry experience art – a bold intervention in a city that has never before programmed conceptual art on this scale. 

Hughes is aware of the somewhat stuffy connotations surrounding biennials, and understands that they do not always offer the most accessible way to experience art. “Biennial is a word many people don’t know how to pronounce,” he notes. He made a conscious decision to discard the “baggage” of the traditional biennial format, and its frequent failure to engage with the local area on any meaningful level. “A huge number of biennials don’t show any art from their location,” he adds. “That disgusts me.” 

Location, in this case, is crucial. The theme for 2019 is ‘The Twin’, a concept providing fertile ground for commissions exploring ideas about doubles, binaries, replicas, and fakes. It is also an idea peculiarly central to Coventry’s own identity. This year signals the 75th anniversary of the city’s twinning with Stalingrad (now Volgograd), a gesture which marked the start of twinning as two war-torn cities celebrated what they shared in common. Coventry has since partnered with another 25 towns and cities around the world.

This sense of solidarity across international boundaries has been challenged in recent years, however. Coventry Biennial is deeply influenced by the current political climate and the various issues that continue to splinter society, including the Brexit vote. “Coventry voted Leave, despite founding the idea of international friendship,” Hughes says, “so this felt like a rich moment to have honest and open conversations with artists and with the people visiting the exhibitions.”

Duality is even suggested by the biennial’s main venues which, explains Hughes, simultaneously “complement and antagonise one another”. In contrast to The Row, the Herbert is a traditional gallery space where work is neatly dispersed and well-lit, wall texts reassuringly providing context for each piece. Many of the works engage with Coventry’s twins, such as Anne Forgan’s Nothing and Something (2019) reflecting on the artist’s trip to Chinandega in Nicaragua, and Adele Mary Reed’s Five Dérives (2013), a series of photographs profiling six European cities (including Coventry), using colourways to analyse the features they have in common, and those they don’t. 

Exploring The Row is a totally different experience. There is something unnerving about seeing a former clinic left stark and bare, as though abandoned overnight. It is a discreet reminder of the straitened circumstances currently faced by the NHS. While many of the works overlap with those on display in the Herbert, here you have to roam through darkened corridors and deserted interview rooms to find them. 

A poem in the stairwell by Paul Chan and Badlands Unlimited acts as a mission statement for the festival and is translated into several languages: “No to news as truths /No to art as untruths”. James Birkin’s paintings (Untitled, 2018) show building interiors in disarray, their crumbling tiles and shredded wires prompting you to question what happens when spaces outlive their function. Elsewhere, Georgia Tucker’s VR installation Terra Firma (2019) comes with a warning, its immersive rendering of a digital tree canopy making the room pulsate with noise and light. It feels like art that has been let off its leash.

Seeking out non-traditional settings for exhibitions is a way of celebrating the civic spaces which make up the fabric of the city, while also encouraging people to view their surroundings differently. Alongside scouting unconventional venues, the Biennial team made it their mission to bring work to people directly, hosting workshops in high-rise accommodation and helping to develop new studio spaces in disused spaces, as well as inviting people to eat lunch together, attend yoga sessions and other inclusive activities. Already, Hughes has noticed a shift in the way art is being experienced. “We don’t need to tell people to come to the shows,” he says, “because they’re already in the shows. Or else their dad, their auntie, or someone they know will be.” 

It is evident that the biennial’s first iteration in 2017 had a galvanising effect on artists within the region too: “In a city with very little arts provision we saw immediate change, an outpouring of creative excitement because there was somewhere to make and show work.” With Coventry having been named 2021 UK City of Culture, the biennial has laid some solid foundations for the city’s year in the spotlight. 

Despite this, the Coventry Biennial wasn’t conceived as some glossy forerunner to the City of Culture. While Hughes is planning to collaborate with the organisers in 2021, his main motivation is to spark dialogue and to make people feel more invested in the art that is being produced in their city. “In one of our Potluck Lunch events, I sat back and looked at who was in the room,” Hughes recalls. “We had people from non-profit organisations, national funding bodies, a homeless guy who’s attended all our events, two local artists and an international prizewinner, and someone who had just popped in with his camera.” This, says Hughes, is just how he had envisioned breaking down the barriers between arts practitioners and people living in Coventry: “It’s exactly what we started the biennial for.”

Orla Foster

1. Anne Forgan, Nothing and Something, 2019, installation shot, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry Biennial 2019. Photo: Marcin Sz
2. Georgia Tucker, Terra Firma, 2019, installation shot, The Row, Coventry Biennial 2019. Photo: Marcin Sz