The second of three workshops that form part of the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20 took place on Wednesday 15 January at Baltic, Gateshead.

Led by frieze deputy editor Amy Sherlock, the focus of the afternoon was exhibition reviewing for the art press.

Before the workshop, Amy asked each of the eight participants to pick an art review they had read recently and to note what they liked about it, what worked and what, perhaps, didn’t.

On the day, the first couple of hours were spent discussing the texts, which ranged from Peter Schjeldahl on Rothko for the Village Voice to Jeremy Millar reviewing Mike Nelson’s Tate Britain show ‘The Asset Strippers’ in Art Agenda.

After much discussion and good advice from Amy, we spent around 45 minutes visiting the current exhibitions at Baltic: a Judy Chicago retrospective, a solo show from the painter Joy Labinjo, and the group show, ‘Animalesque: Art Across Species and Beings’.

The remainder of the day was spent working on the opening sentences for a 600-word review, followed by more discussion around those difficult first words. The workshop also touched on pacing and structure, as well as the important balance between description, opinion and keeping the reader entertained.

All eight writers will file a completed review of one of the shows, which will be published on this blog in the coming weeks.

Participants at the second workshop of the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20. The workshoptook place at Baltic, Gateshead and was led by Amy Sherlock, deputy editor, frieze. Photo: Chris Sharratt



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