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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