Art Here we go again. It’s 1:15pm on the 8th April (2014) as I write having just returned from the press conference announcing the goodies in this year’s Liverpool Biennial (2014) (barring lunch and an interesting time with Inside Inside Llewyn Davis, the making of the Coen Brothers film). We’re embargoed, asked not to report what we’ve seen anywhere until tomorrow morning. Or this morning since you’re reading it now. Blogging is a bit complex under these circumstances. The whole point of blogging is that it’s immediate, post and it’s there but here I am in the past writing something which you’re not reading until right now.
But it’s fair. It makes sense. There’s a similar launch in London tomorrow, or today, at about the time this is posted (phew) for the capital centric journalists which are what stop the Biennial from being a simply a local event into something national or international and the PR department has a tricky balancing act between wanting to tell us locals about what’s occurring, will be occurring, whilst also wanting to make sure the whole thing doesn’t feel stale to whichever correspondent is sent by The Guardian or the BBC. As I said to someone I like to think is a friend today, I do love all of this, the cloak and dagger, the mystery, the feeling of being in the loop on something.
We were asked to gather at the Hope Street Hotel, the rather nice boutique (is it boutique?) inn opposite the Philharmonic Hall on, well Hope Street, obviously, with the explanation that after that we’d be taken to a secret venue. There were some familiar faces in the crowd and breakfast, coffee and croissant, neither of which I availed myself of, the former because I’d already stored up on coffee before leaving home and could just feel the caffeine buzz starting, the latter because of my ongoing, hernia-inspired attempt to become a thin person (which is still going well by the way, though its true the weight loss does slow down after a time).
Not before too long we were led up onto street level, the plot thickening with every step. Where were we going? Not too far hopefully because it was a deceptively chilly morning and sure enough, and this is the first of the headlines which I’m sadly burying in the middle of this paragraph (yet given away with the above illustration) because I have no idea of how to structure text, we were quickly ushered into the Trade Union Centre on Hardman Street, sometimes called the old Blind School and which is to be the main exhibition space for this year’s festival and I think you’ll agree, a magnificent choice.
Everyone wanted to go off and explore immediately but we were quickly led into a large room on the ground floor which had been set up with plasma screen, chairs and tables ready for the press conference. After talking a seat at the front, I thought about the benefits this venue will have. With its central location in comparison to the Cunard Building, it immediately creates a visiting structure for Biennial visitors, who can be introduced the festival here then walk to FACT, down Wood Street to the Blue Coat then on to the Tate and the Open Eye and whatever else is in the public realm in between.
The press conference, then. Sally Tallant the Director of the Biennial offered some statistics about the success of the festival over the years then Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman outlined what’s to come. As you read, professional journalists are seeing the light at the end of the embargo and the new Biennial website itself should have gone live so there’s little point in my repeating what’s there, not least because I tried desperately not to pay too much attention myself. There’s always a balance at these things between wanting to have some idea of what we can look forward to and destroying the surprises.
The overall title of this year’s Biennial is “A Needle Walks Into A Haystack” which isn’t quite as snappy as some of the one word designations of previous festivals but has a much clearer direction of intellectual traffic perhaps than last time. As the press booklet explains, “overall the Biennial exhibition reflects on how artists disrupt the realms of habits and habitats, reconfiguring objects, images, representations and activities that constitute their immediate surroundings”. Now arguably that could describe all art, indeed all culture, but it has an atmosphere of specificity which will provide a decent context for the work that visitors will be seeing.
The other big change this year is the timing. The whole show is opening on the 5th July to coincide with the International Festival for Business and during the main tourist season which might bump up visitor numbers. But cleverly, because students and young people are also its mainstay, after the main launch in the Summer, there’s to be a secondary launch in September when there’ll be a performance weekend of some sort as part of the programme and a whole bunch of other stuff will open like Bloomberg New Contemporaries (which is moving into the horse shoe gallery at World Museum Liverpool which seems like a good fit).
Of the festival components that have been announced arguably the most exciting is the exhibition of and about Whistler at the Bluecoat. I genuinely gasped when this was revealed, because it’s such an unexpected joy. There wasn’t much detail as to who will be coming (presumably not his mother) but given the general lack of exhibitions of non-permanent collecton pre-1900 work in Liverpool, the appearance of someone who nevertheless helped creat the context of modern contemporary art at this festival is just, well, it just rocks. Part of the exhibition will apparently recreate his famous Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, with the birds and the heaps of gold.
Presumably we’ll talk some more about that and the implications the choice of Whistler has in relation to the main Biennial theme when the show opens though its appearance somewhat throws off my plan to focus on just the art of the moving image at this year’s Biennial. After watching lots of Shakespeare in 2012 and Doctor Who in 2013, this year as you will have seen I’ve been stepping up my film watching and contemporary films at that, so I thought it would give my some kind of focus to at least try to watch as much of the film & video art at the festival this year and report back on my findings here.
An example would be Sharon Lockhart, who’s being brought to FACT with back catalogue, new productions and a film programme. Her work (excerpts of which are on her website) blur the line between still life photography, non-narrative documentary and I think slow cinema. Hopefully selected items will be Lunch Break and Goshogaoka, both of which are essentially a oner or string of extended takes scrutinising a single subject and people in space in a similar way to Abbas Kiarostami’s 00s work, Godfrey (Koyaanisqatsi) Reggio or Ron (Baraka) Fricke or indeed the dawn of silent cinema.
After that we were allowed to see some of the venue, now owned by the Hope Street Hotel and due to be renovated by them but who’ve delaying their work for the duration of the Biennial not unlike John Moores University at the old postal sorting office last time. The thought of that venue on the bus ride home made me realised that there wasn’t any talk at the press conference of Cityscapes, the festival within a festival it housed and the undoubted highlight of the 2012 Biennial, in which other cities created their own exhibitions for us. Not everything has been announced yet so perhaps it is still happening. I hope so.