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It’s always nice when my procrastination-scrolling on Instagram leads me to stumble on to something new (new to me anyway), and that’s exactly what happened with the Independents Biennial 2021. As a sister event to the Liverpool Biennial, the programme focuses on local artists who live and work in the city. Following a similar fate as the LB, things were put on halt last year, but in 2021 its organisers have made the respectable decision to keep its artwork entirely online for this year’s festival. The published exhibition programme – which is available as both a physical publication and a pdf through their website – introduces this fact, and while acknowledging the strangeness of an entirely digital festival, also makes the point that the artists’ works were created for the online sphere, so that is where they shall stay.

The website that houses links and information about all the things going on this year is pretty jam-packed, and it was only after taking a dedicated hour or so that I felt I was getting comfortable with exploring the artists and their works to full potential. With the proposed intention of updating blogs, sharing podcasts, and the implementation of a dedicated Google drive available for viewers to comment on throughout the festival, it is very much a living, breathing, thing of a site. It is this growth that bears coming back to however, inviting the viewer along in the artistic processes of both artists and curators that are often hidden from public view.

The issue of the potential messiness that will arise from this approach is something that is also addressed in the programme’s introduction, but there is something enjoyable about being able to witness this gradual gathering of what could become a unique form of archive that captures the strange situation we have found ourselves in this past year. As it is for now, it presents many of its works as shifting, collaborative efforts and opposes the finality that is given to the traditional gallery space. As we move through different phases of lockdown as a unit, it makes sense to afford the artists whose work we are consuming an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings throughout this process.

This sense of community and collectivism is strengthened by the subjects broached by many of the artworks themselves. Emmer Winder’s Social Pharmacy records an ongoing collection of the mantras or phrases that have helped the public get through lockdown and the isolation that has come with much of it, utilising the fill-in-the-blank template of a medicine bottle that visitors complete themselves to encourage public contributions. The approach of Winder to share each entry to a dedicated Instagram lends itself well to the nature of this project, as an easily updated and visually organised collative effort that is familiar and accessible.

ROOT-ed Zine’s Joy has also been adapted as a shareable form of artistic expression, commissioning local writers to react to the word Joy and describe what it means to them, and curating these poems into individual Instagram posts. Meanwhile, social art collective Rule of Threes have created Soft Sanctuary Online, an ongoing project dissecting what methods we can use as individuals to ensure self-care, and what a ‘nice day’ can look like for people.

Following such an unpredictable year, this festival is working well to bring a sense of comfort and cohesion in the form of creativity and conversation. The range of community centred projects with engagement at their core, and the approachability that these experimental digital platforms allow, are hopeful signifiers of progress within the world of contemporary art.