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


Following the first workshop in the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20, which took place at Coventry Artspace in November, the writers were tasked with writing a 1,000-word article on the Coventry Biennial.

The brief asked for direct quotes from biennial director Ryan Hughes (who kindly agreed to be interviewed during the workshop), as well as description and comment about the 2019 biennial.

3. Coventry Biennial by Rachel Marsh

“I think the problem is that visual art, especially contemporary art, is seen as the difficult one of the arts… hard to engage with… elitist…” Ryan Hughes, artist and founding director of the Coventry Biennial, is sitting cross-legged on a plastic chair, drinking from a litre carton of orange juice. “But,” he continues, “we’re working very hard to alleviate some of that tension, and to try to make the art world more accessible.”

Hughes is speaking during the final days of the seven-week-long biennial, which has hosted over 800 individual works by 106 artists across 21 venues. As the only full-time member of staff he has curated everything, with the help of a very small team. If he feels tired, he doesn’t show it. In fact he’s already looking forward to the next one.

Hughes started Coventry Biennial in 2017 as an artist-led response to Coventry’s successful bid to become the UK City of Culture. At that point the city’s strategy focussed on dance, theatre and performance, with little mention of contemporary art. Hughes looks wry: “I saw an opportunity to be bold and ambitious and to play nicely with others.” That first biennial helped to make the city’s bid successful; now, contemporary art’s role is assured during Coventry’s 2021 celebrations. 

The 2019 biennial is themed around the idea of ‘The Twin’, in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the start of the city twinning movement, which began when Coventry was twinned with Stalingrad (renamed Volgograd) in 1944. Coventry now has 26 twins in total, including Dresden in Germany, Parkes in Australia, and Jinan in China. Hughes invited artists from all 26 to become part of the biennial, then opened it up to artists in and around the city, including those who were newly graduated. At this point the theme expanded to include work exploring identity, recognition, fake news, binaries, doppelgangers, and relationships of every kind. “It was at that point,” says Hughes, “that we felt the exhibition had some sort of potential to probe this contemporary moment, which feels deeply problematic in a lot of ways.”

The two main exhibitions — one at the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery and one at a disused NHS rehabilitation facility renamed The Row — are twins in themselves, with several pieces of work shown in both. For example, at the threshold to the Herbert show, the pink, blue and white ribbons of Dylan Fox’s Strip Curtain (2018) feels celebratory and optimistic in its exploration of gender transition. At The Row – where the NHS fixtures and fittings remain largely intact – the same work takes on a deeper emotional resonance, its bright colours an uneasy contrast to the chipped paint and scuffed walls of the building’s unloved interior. 

The biennial shows that anywhere can be a gallery. In the toilets at The Row, positioned exactly above the sink, is Ewan Johnston’s 2019 painting, Prehistoric Hangover, in which a bare-chested man contemplates his reflected self with a deer’s head. A darkened consultation room showing Georgiou and Tolley’s 2019 video work, Twin Stranger: Entangled State plays with reflections within images of a cold war-era hotel foyer. The voiceover makes ever-more incredible connections in an ongoing monotone of paranoia and conspiracy. Who is real? Who is an agent? Who is the mystery boy in the photo? 

There is so much more to see and experience: an exhibition at the medieval Weaver’s House that relates textile works in Polish industry to the domestic setting of Muslim homes; Potluck Lunches at vegan café The Pod; artist-led yoga at The Herbert. Just to see all the exhibitions in the biennial would, Hughes calculates, take four days. Has contemporary art been made more accessible, the “elitist” tag challenged? Hughes would like to think so. He explains that, rather than just expect locals to come to the biennial, the biennial has gone out to them, working with many different communities across the city. “We don’t have to tell them to come to the shows, because they’re already in it,” he says. “Or if they’re not, then their dads or friends are.” 

These community initiatives included work at STEPS for Change, a city centre drop-in service for rough sleepers, where works created from donated socks, t-shirts and cardboard were exhibited in a new gallery space. Developed in partnership with the homeless charity Crisis, the space itself is controlled by the rough sleepers who use the facility.

The biennial has addressed accessibility in other ways, too. Hughes and his team were keen to “discard the baggage” of the less helpful elements of biennial culture, such as the invisibility of local artists at many of these international events. “We see huge numbers of biennials not showing any work by artists from their own location and that disgusts me,” says Hughes. Instead, Coventry Biennial has a 50/50 split between local and national/international artists. And while there are some big names in the lineup, the emerging and lesser-known artists are presented on an equal footing.

Crucially, when the biennial is closed, new visual arts infrastructure remains. In 2017 that saw the former Coventry Evening Telegraph (CET) building become a temporary gallery and studio space, hosting 33 further exhibitions. There was, as Hughes puts it, “an outpouring of creative excitement because there was somewhere to make and show work”. This year the team is hopeful that The Row will remain in artists’ hands, providing gallery spaces and artists’ studios in the heart of the city. Meanwhile, the work continues across Coventry’s many communities. “We’re hyper aware of making work when we’re not making work,” smiles Hughes.

And so it is that Coventry, the city that both started the twinning movement in 1944 and voted Leave in 2016, has been placed at the heart of this biennial. This self-declared ‘Social Biennial’ has social engagement at its heart: “No progress without others” as it declares in the New No’s, a manifesto by Paul Chan and Badlands Unlimited at the entrance to The Row. Hughes and his team have set up the connections and infrastructure to make the 2021 Biennial during Coventry’s tenure as UK City of Culture an exciting prospect. “It could have gone horribly wrong,” admits Hughes modestly. “But I’m quite pleased with it.”

Rachel Marsh

1. Dylan Fox, Strip Curtain, 2019, Coventry Biennial 2019, The Row. Photo: Marcin Sz
2. Georgiou and Tolley, Twin Stranger: Entangled State, installation view, Coventry Biennial 2019, The Row. Photo: Marcin Sz


During the first a-n Writer Development Programme workshop at Coventry Artspace in November, Coventry Biennial director Ryan Hughes kindly agreed to be interviewed by the eight writers on the programme. Hughes also gave us a tour of two of the festival’s key venues – The Row and Herbert Museum and Art Gallery.

As a follow-on task, the programme participants were asked to write a 1,000-word feature on the biennial. Each of the finished pieces will be published on this blog – the second of the articles is by Brighton-based writer Kitty Bew.

2. Coventry Biennial by Kitty Bew

“A politically and socially-loaded setting.” Ryan Hughes – artist, curator and founding director of Coventry Biennial – is well aware of the ideological burden of exhibiting in an abandoned NHS facility. The Row, a former rehab centre in the heart of the city, is one of the primary venues for the 2019 biennial, the second iteration of the festival that was first staged in 2017. Dubbed ‘The Twin’, it centres on the city’s role as a pioneer of the twin-city movement. During the second world war, Coventry was paired with Stalingrad – now Volvograd – as a symbol of intercontinental support and collaboration. Seventy-five years later, it is now twinned with another 25 cities across the world. The concept of opening doors to cultural difference is embedded in Coventry’s history; it’s no surprise then that the biennial’s core programme is marked by themes of international togetherness, relationships and dualities.

This social setting is no more apparent than at The Row. While other venues include the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Arcadia Art Gallery and Coventry Cathedral, this repurposed building stands out as an embodiment of the biennial’s “political thread” that Hughes so enthusiastically describes as running through “everything we’re doing and trying to do”. When asked about the role of politics in his curation of the festival, Hughes acknowledges the importance of creating an environment for open and honest conversation between artists and visitors. In many ways, The Row offers the chance to broach the most critical subjects of the UK’s current political conscience. The National Health Service is inseparable from British politics. From its founding in 1948, to its current under-funded self, its existence is as vital and as controversial as ever. The politics of health was apparent in the months leading up to the EU Referendum, and even more so in the liminal three years since. It has also proved to be a hot topic in this year’s general election.

The biennial exhibition is the first substantial public use of The Row since it was deserted two years ago. Hughes and his team have left it as it was: “an NHS clinic that has been abandoned.” Touring the three-floored building is an uncanny experience. Lino floors, panelled ceilings and duck-egg blue walls are obvious vestiges of its institutional past. Its multiform rooms are suffused with a universal sadness that is hard to shake, much like the scent of disinfectant that hangs in the air. The building is missing its clinical fixtures, its gurneys and rows of plastic chairs, the scuffs and stains on the wall are its only keepsake. 

Sprawled across The Row’s three floors is a variety of work from 58 artists and artist-duos that dare to play with the makeup of the building. One piece is especially fitting. Matt Gale’s Soma (2019) is a playful and grotesque exploration of the idea of the body as ecosystem; delicate and dependent. A collection of bloated and vibrantly coloured gourd-like vessels are strung together, connected by threads of electric light that kindle one, and then another. Some are filled with fluid, others with an organic substance; soil, moss and budding plants. Inseparable from its surroundings, their fragility also brings to mind the infirm state of our own collective health service – Britain at death’s door. 

A series of small paintings from local artist James Birkin detail dilapidated, urban interiors. He explores the dereliction of town centres, presenting us with the dismal reality of parts of the Midlands such as Coventry, where empty high-street shops are commonplace. Undoubtedly his work resonates with its exhibition space. One painting Untitled (2018) depicts a small kitchenette with cupboard doors dangling from their hinges, dreary white tiles, and a floor scattered with debris. For visitors it might bring to mind their immediate surroundings; a not dissimilar room lies just next door, bearing yellowing tiles and a kitchen sink. His work represents an engagement with an especially contemporary English landscape. For the Biennial’s audience, it is a landscape that can be seen and understood by exploring the area surrounding The Row, an area that has far from blossomed under 10 years of austerity, with much of it lying empty. A sense of abandonment saturates the exhibition space, the city, and is echoed in the work of artists such as Birkin.

A feeling of having been ‘left behind’ by a southern elite, was thought to have been a motive for Leave-voters in Britain’s northern and Midlands towns in the 2016 referendum. As Hughes points out, Coventry voted to leave the European Union – the West Midlands were in fact the heartland of the Brexit vote, where 29 out of its 30 council areas voted in support of Leave. ‘The Twin’ brings to the fore Coventry’s heritage of international twinning, a concept with ties to diversity, collaboration and open arms, that runs counter to a vote for Leave. The Biennial has certainly done much to create what Hughes calls a “rich environment” for open conversation. It’s appropriate then that ‘The Twin’ is being articulated as the UK’s Social Biennial, one that aims to engage directly and sincerely with the city’s local community. Perhaps a social focus is all the more important at a time of nationwide disillusionment with our current socio-political condition. As Hughes puts it, the Biennial felt a responsibility, and a potential, to probe “this contemporary moment”.

Kitty Bew

1. James Birkin, installation shot, The Row, Coventry Biennial 2019. Photo: Marcin Sz
2. Matt Gale, Soma, 2019, The Row, Coventry Biennial. Photo: James Birkin, installation shot, The Row, Coventry Biennial 2019. Photo: Marcin Sz


As a task following on from the first Writer Development Programme workshop at Coventry Artspace on 20 November 2019, each of the eight participants was asked to write a 1,000-word feature on the Coventry Biennial.

The piece needed to include quotes from the press conference-style interview with Biennial director Ryan Hughes conducted during the workshop, while also exploring the context and theme of this second edition of the festival.

All eight articles will be published – in no particular order – on this blog. Here’s the first one.

1. Coventry Biennial by Jamie Limond

“There are quite deep problems with being a biennial,” admits artist-curator and Coventry Biennial founding director Ryan Hughes. “People feel a particular way about what biennials do and how they do it. Whilst we see the value in some of those structures, it’s important that where we don’t see the value we discard that baggage.” Number one on Hughes’s junk list is ingrained privileging of the international over the local. He’s particularly disparaging about the many high-profile biennials that fail to show artists from their area: “That just disgusts me,” he says simply.

Visiting the diverse sites and venues of the second Coventry Biennial – the inaugural festival took place in 2017 – it’s clear it sees itself as something emerging from within the city, rather than a cultural intervention from without. There is a 50-50 split between local and national/international artists, a logic that’s been applied to the Biennial as a whole, with museum shows and events balanced by a series of workshops and training programmes for Coventry’s residents, including its homeless population.

Walking around the city it seems fitting that the theme of the 2019 Biennial should be ‘The Twin’. Like a beautifully barmy set from Ken Russell’s The Devils, the medieval modernism of Sir Basil Spence’s cathedral sits next to the bombed-out ruins of the 14th century St Michael’s. It was on this site of devastation that in 1944 a group of women reached out to the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), sending aid to the Red Army and establishing Coventry-Stalingrad as the world’s first ‘twin city’. “We saw that the 75th anniversary of that moment was potentially going to be quite a bland affair if left to the powers that be,” Hughes recalls, “that it wouldn’t reflect the diversity and energy that the twin city movement has ignited in the city. It felt important that we mark that movement emerging from Coventry.”

While the Biennial commemorates the city’s history, importantly it also ‘twins’ its past with its present and future. “Coventry voted leave despite being a city which founded the idea of international friendship in the modern moment,” Hughes notes. “That felt like a rich environment to have an open and honest conversation.” Across the festival there is a common theme of dialogue, discussion and dissent. Tully Arnot’s sculpture Birdsong (2019) – two ceramic bird whistles rigged up to plastic airbags – speaks of communication breakdown, tweeting happily and incessantly in a coldly anonymous consultation room of a former NHS rehab centre. Abandoned for two years and now known as The Row, the Biennial takes up three of its floors, while the space also houses sister project New Art West Midlands, showcasing the work of recent graduates.

The current state of the NHS hovers like a spectre over the proceedings. East Midlands-based artist Dylan Fox tempers its potential sanctification, hanging the words ‘Nobody Passes’ in pink and blue neon beside a medical curtain in one of the examination rooms. An ambivalent epigram, it explores the barriers thrown up for trans people by an inefficient or overstretched UK health system, as well as the societal pressure for trans men and women to ‘pass’. A call for tolerance and empathy, the work could perhaps be read as a self-defeating judgment: whether as individuals or institutions, we all ‘could do better’.

Over at the Herbert, the city’s main art gallery and museum, A Couple (of swings) (1993) by Mona Hatoum reimagines the playground staple as something more treacherous. Two glass panes suspended from chains face each other: poised for mutual destruction, they highlight the fragility of international and interpersonal relations. Twenty-six years old, they perhaps take on a new relevance for a generation designated ‘snowflakes’.

These uneasy dialogues continue across the two central venues themselves. Designed to antagonize each other, the museological Herbert is twinned with the rehabilitated rehab unit, punning on the notion of ‘institutionalization’. The works in The Row spill from room to kitchenette to hallway, while the Herbert marshals its visitors with conventional ‘don’t touch’ plaques and rails. Inevitably the show at The Row is the more distinctive of the two. There is audio-visual bleed throughout the building, leading at times to pronounced sensory confusion, the viewer met by a series of mirrors and doublings through doorways and partitions.

While both these shows are somewhat necessary flagship presentations, they are not necessarily the real heart of the Biennial. For Hughes (the only full-time staff member) and his team, the ethos of the festival had to be sown across the life of the city. “In so many cases biennials are attended by people who attend biennials,” Hughes reflects. “We really want them to leave feeling like they’ve genuinely experienced the city. Dining at The Pod café or yoga at the Herbert are things that people who live here do, so programming those things as part of the Biennial is really important. We’re articulating our work as the ‘social biennial’, it’s not a commercial showcase.”

With that social aspect in mind, perhaps the most important ‘twin’ of the Biennial is its shadow: what happens in the two-year interims. “We make infrastructural changes to the spaces we use,” Hughes explains, “we’re hyper-aware of making work when we’re not making work. We renovated the Coventry Evening Telegraph building in 2017 and 30 exhibitions followed there; just immediate change, an outpouring of creative excitement when there’s suddenly a place to make and show.”

As Coventry gears up for UK City of Culture 2021, it’s this sustainability through grassroots social endeavour that will prove indispensable. “We’re not just trying to get people to come to exhibitions, we’re trying to take the activity to them. We worked for six months on educational and participatory programmes with the homeless, workshops with local artists, worked with residents to actually make work, so that they feel embedded in the Biennial.”

Hughes cites a particular Potluck Lunch event, as indicative of the festival’s ambitions: “You had [people 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… this is what we started the Biennial for. We need to harness that and build on it.”

Jamie Limond

1. Tully Arnot, Bird Song, 2019, Coventry Biennial 2019, The Row. Photo: Marcin Sz
2. Mona Hartoum, A Couple (of swings), 1993, Coventry Biennial 2019, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. Photo: Marcin Sz