I recently went back to the place where I was born and lived for 19 years, Anfield in Liverpool, to see an exhibition. This isn’t a big deal, unless you know that Anfield is one of England’s most deprived areas. Paradoxically, one of the world’s richest football clubs jostles for space amongst its terraced homes. Artist Jayne Lawless has been making paintings and sculpture about the painful regeneration process that has dominated this area for 20+ years. Her family home was ‘tinned up’ under the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI).
Lawless co-founded Dead Pigeon Gallery in 2017, which is usually based in Liverpool’s Fabric District. For the duration of Independents Biennial 2018, it’s in a politician’s office in Anfield. Launch night chatter ranged from voting and the accessibility of art, to Lawless’s handmade brushes, to the familiar buses and glossy shop windows seen in Mark Loudon’s photo-collages. The politician’s colleague, Valerie, told me that she wishes the art could stay here permanently.
Dead Pigeon Gallery’s exhibition made me think very carefully about bienniales, and the role that they play in many micro exchanges and decisions. Liverpool is similar to other cities in the UK in that it has problems with cuts to services, affordable housing, homelessness, and – ironically – over development.
In the past few days, housing charity Shelter revealed that more than half of the homeless families they help are in work, while Liverpool’s ‘creative’ district, Baltic Triangle, asked why their spaces were being demolished to make way for new apartments, while 3,000 empty houses wait for refurbishment or demolition. It’s a good time to feel angry, not just about what we’re doing with Liverpool’s buildings, but what we’re doing to Liverpool’s people.
The city, of course, also has Liverpool Biennial, the UK biennial of contemporary art, and the peer-led, DIY Independents Biennial. Both have, over the years, addressed emotive issues around housing, typically by granting artists access to non-art spaces. Originally, Independents Biennial was a crucial part of the Biennial proper, running parallel since 1999 (although there’s scant online evidence of this pre-2002). Former Biennial Board Member Bryan Biggs tells me that its patron James Moores was eager to see a ‘fringe’ programme.
That first Independents show, entitled ‘Tracey’ (a tongue-in-cheek response to the Biennial’s title, ‘Trace’) followed a model established by Liverpool’s Visionfest festival, “that took over warehouses, the streets and even the city’s flagpoles”, says Biggs. “It really showed the potential to use the city as a canvas for a wide range of new art, and in many ways anticipated the Biennial.”
Since then, Independents Biennial has changed hands and sometimes received Arts Council funding. Previously billed as ‘a non-curated, open-access event to showcase young and emerging new talent alongside established international artists’, practitioners under the Independents banner from or based in the region – like Kate Cooper and Brigitte Jurack this year, and in previous years Ryan Gander (now exhibiting in Liverpool Biennial 2018), Nina Edge, and Emily Speed – have platformed their work at the same time and in the same city as Ai Weiwei and Yoko Ono.
Current Independents Biennial organiser and Art in Liverpool editor Patrick Kirk-Smith tells me that it should be giving artists what they want. Namely, city centre venues to exhibit in, and a spotlight on St Helens, Wirral, Sefton and Liverpool’s suburbs – where artists actually live – as places of cultural production or presentation.
Merseyside, rather than just Liverpool, is big on the 2018 agenda. Kirk-Smith, who lives in Knowsley, has fundraised approximately £80,000 – from local authorities and Arts Council England – and recruited eight writers-in-residence, as well as experienced Volunteer Coordinator Hayley Gregg and PR Laura Brown, who have previously worked together on another city-wide culture festival, LightNight. Biggs and Liverpool Biennial Executive Director Paul Smith have supported, with the latter helping to secure the festival’s star exhibition venue: George Henry Lee’s, a beloved, former department store which is currently held in reserve (surprise, surprise) for new apartments.
With 2018’s and (very likely) 2020’s Independents Biennial inextricably linked to Art in Liverpool, there is at least an infrastructure to build upon. A new monthly, printed edition of the Art In Liverpool blog will fund and chart regular Independents events throughout the ‘fallow’ months. This year’s show is enormous – 350 artists, 200 events, at 75 locations, with more being added until it closes on 28 October 2018 – and the work references a diverse range of topics. But I kept thinking about this idea of home, and it seemed that the Independents contributors were too. What does home actually mean?
‘Facing number seven / sign of hardhat and guard dog / yellow surveillance’
Ali Harwood has been writing haikus about empty homes for four years. His Independents Biennial exhibition #Tunstall30 is pasted up on Tunstall Street’s hoardings in Wavertree like mini-adverts for the theatre. Spoken aloud, I am able to for just one moment consider what it might be like to live in, and then be evicted from, a site zoned off for demolition.
Further into town, in order to visit several exhibitions and a popup cinema at George Henry Lee’s, you’ll certainly walk past people camping and begging. Photographer Tony Mallon addresses us directly with Homeless Hostel Storeroom, a devastating document of the belongings left behind by those who die at Salvation Army centres. It’s impossible to look at the torn plastic bags full of shoes and books – one bearing the simple label ‘NATHAN DEPART 7-1-14’ – and not feel thoroughly appalled at such poverty and loneliness.
In shrill contrast, Empty Spaces Cinema is soon to screen ‘Turn of The Tide/Passing Tides’ (23 August), a series of short PR films, commissioned by the city council in 1966 ‘to promote Liverpool as a vibrant, energetic and forward-thinking city’. Liverpool is certainly a vibrant, energetic and forward-thinking city, but it’s also failing its residents. Art can’t solve people’s problems, and Independents Biennial can’t solve a city’s. It can, nevertheless, cast into sharp focus the hypocritical and cruel political wrangling that goes on at local and national levels.
- From the a-n News archive:
Output seeks input: new Liverpool gallery launches with a focus on Merseyside artists
One venue, Output Gallery, is at least demonstrating how cultural spaces can return to sites of contention in the city centre, specifically within new developments. Owned by The Kazimier, whose club was ousted from this spot in 2016 to make way for luxury apartments, Output Gallery currently boasts a solo show by the aforementioned Kate Cooper; the Knowsley-born artist and Director of Auto Italia. Her disconcerting films, We Need Sanctuary and Symptom Machine, play on rotation, and feature a skinny, white woman in leisurewear repeatedly clawing her way towards – or away from – a frightening but oddly passive figure caked in dried blood. Insert your own crass comparisons to gentrification here; initially a stressful watch, the films eventually instigate feelings of apathy.
A short train journey away in Birkenhead, photographer Cian Quayle offers a complex visual narrative of home and place in his Williamson Gallery exhibition, ‘Detours and Dislocations’. Fascinated by author Malcom Lowry, Quayle exhibits a collection of slides, lightboxes, framed texts and painting which illustrate locations visited and lived in by both. I see Liverpool’s docks, Douglas Beach on the Isle of Man, and Vancouver’s now regenerated Cates Park. Quayle’s neon sign, ‘SHELL’ with the ‘S’ hanging off, is a nod to the hellish oil refinery that Lowry lived opposite between 1946-56. The stories that Lowry wrote in this polluted shack – examining the past, fate, harmony, and optimism about the future – seem to bleed into Quayle’s state of mind, and into mine.
1. Ali Harwood, Kids That Fly. Independents Biennial 2018 at St John’s Market. Photo: Tony Knox
2. Rob Flynn, To Become More. Independents Biennial 2018 at St John’s Market. Photo: Tony Knox
3. Brigitte Jurack at Williamson Art Gallery. Jurack was winner of Independents Biennial 2018 Wirral commission. Photo: Tony Knox
4. Ali Harwood, #Tunstall30. Photo: Tony Knox
5. Opening at George Henry Lee’s as part of Independents Biennial 2018. Photo: Tony Knox
6. Kate Cooper, We Need Sanctuary, video still, 2016. Courtesy: the artist
7. Rimrose Valley environmental art trail, Bootle, Sefton, as part of Independents Biennial 2018.