"I am not a student of human nature. I am a professor of a far wider academy of which human nature is merely a part."Art Most of the time when visiting venues, I tend to start at the beginning and stay until it's done. But with the randomiser conveniently dropping me here on Picturehouse at FACT's cheap Monday and during the proper release week for nuGhostbusters, I paused in the middle for two hours of supernatural comedy. nuGhostbusters is fine. It passed the six laugh test within the first half hour and although it spends a bit too much time trying to please all the people including fans of the original who were going to hate it whatever and suffers from the CGI finale problem and some rough editing, the actors and their characters are excellent company. Indeed, Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann is such a unique creation she steals the film from under everyone and I probably spent most of the duration simply watching whatever she was doing even when the other actors were on screen. Oh and she's quite clearly a Gallifreyan, but that's by the by, if quite apt for how I'm dealing with this year's Biennial.
-- The Doctor, "The Evil of the Daleks"
FACT's hosting two of the official episodes, Flashback and Software. In the entry hall is the third section of Yin-Ju Chen's Extrastellar Evaluations although in truth it's really just a reiteration of the sections also at Cains Brewery with the metal plates in formation on the ground and a projection of a nebula on the wall. The additional pieces are a triangular mirror leaning against one corner and geometric shape in white light projected across another. However intriguing this is, it simply doesn't make any sense if you haven't seen the sections at the Brewery despite the justification on the wall and more important doesn't add anything to it. As with the multi-threaded approach to the display at the Old Blind School in 2014, there's a danger in splitting these sections in reducing their power, making their message less cohesive. The otherworldliness of the installation at Cains isn't noticeable here.
Otherwise both of FACT's other displays are deeply impressive. Extracting the feel good busting in the middle from the duration, I probably spent about two hours working my way through both displays, the Krzysztof Wodiczko retrospective on the ground floor and Lucy Beech's film show in Gallery 2. As ever I'm bewildered how anyone can try and "do" the Biennial in a day or two and feel as though they've fully absorbed all the work on display. Many of the press reviews published after the opening weekend will be from journalists who may have only been able to see what they could in that opening weekend or even just in the press days and I can't see how they can fairly pass judgement on this many displays with this variety of artwork, especially with the increase in venues on last time. Granted it's not quite back at the peak, partly because City States is long gone, but neither of these artists appear in any of the major press reviews I could find.
Wodiczko's main interest is in utilising curious technology to magnify and project the voice of marginalised groups including the homeless, army veterans and immigrants. Homeless Vehicle is a specially designed cart created in collaboration people living in the streets, covering their most basic needs whilst simultaneously not obscuring their problems. Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection displays testimony from veterans and their families about their experiences surrounding war onto the statue of Lincoln in Union Square. The Tijuana Projection offers exploited factory workers with a way of expressing their problems by recording their face utilising a special headset (not unlike the motion capture wonder beloved by Andy Serkis as used on The Hobbit) which then projects the results across the spherical surface of El Central Cultural. In all of these cases, what we have is a video recording of each piece, captured in a similar way to performance art which means we often also have the reactions of passers-by to what's being shown. There are many tears.
Although the centre piece is clearly supposed to be Guests, an atmospheric 2009 commission origination from the Venice Biennial in which the visitors finds themselves in a darkened room looking out through frosted windows at immigrants carrying out menial jobs or leaning longingly at us through the impenetrable glass, the piece I spent most time with is Alien Staff from way back in 1992. Whilst staying in Paris, the artist became interested in the plight of non-EU migrants living in Europe and designed a pole with a monitor and speaker fixed to the top from which the recorded testimonial of the migrant carrying the pole could be played. Again, this is represented by a recording (from VHS camcorders!) of each participant wandering shopping centres and tourist attractions, staff in hand, their words filling the air and attracting the attention of passers-by, who stop, listen and ask questions, about the technology and about the person wielding it.
One of the staffs is also in the display in the gallery, but it wasn't until some way into the video that I even considered how much of a technical marvel this would have been in mid-nineties. Now it could be accomplished by placing a cheap smart phone at the top with the video copied on the memory or through a bespoke app. But in 1992 when the earliest of these recordings was made, although tiny LCD televisions were in existence, I can't quite understand how it was possible to project the recording into them. A small video-cd and player? A mini-disc? Some kind of projection technology or broadcasting in from somewhere nearby? Which is rather the trick, as I said, drawing people in who're curious about the technology and then engaging with them about the subject at hand. As well as the video testimonial, each staff also has clear spaces within the tube where the migrant has placed personal objects, photographs, mementos, often a watch.
The ensuing conversations, some featured at length are fascinating as they include exactly the same rhetoric and discussions which became the currency of the EU referendum campaign and if only the audio survived, albeit with a translation, most of these conversations aren't in English, you could assume that they'd been recorded in the past few months. One man voices his annoyance about how immigrants wear their own clothes rather than trying to blend in before admitting that yes, when he travels abroad he wears his own clothes too. On the other side, another bloke who stops during a visit to the Centre Pompidou offers a passionate defense of migrants and immigration, outlining the divisive language of those who blame the problems in education and health on outsiders rather than a lack of investment and how they're stereotyped even if locals commits the same misdeeds. We're still having these discussions two and half decades later.
In preparing her film, Pharmakon, Lucy Beech interviewed clinicians working in the field of delusional infestation, as well as visiting advocacy website and patients forums as she crafted a script about how support networks, as the Biennial booklet proposes, "can care for the individual whilst conversely intensifying symptoms." Without giving too much away, we watch as a security person who suffers from panic attacks finds herself attracted to the message and the help provided by a guru like figure working in one of the buildings she's guarding. Shot across Liverpool, most prominently in Concert Sq in the city centre and Sefton Park Palm House, it has a similar ambience to Yorgos Lanthimos's film The Lobster with its absurdities within a clinical atmosphere. We're never quite sure if we're watching an expression of some near future society in which a disease is real or some kind of mass hallucination.
What both artists and their work share is the appreciation that the best way to attract people is through their natural curiosity and that although our usual attitude to the unlike is to run away from it, throw some rocks or begin deportation proceedings, we're otherwise always intrigued by something we don't understand. Wodiczko could simply present his work in gallery spaces and to be fair in the end, as the FACT exhibitions shows, that's their ultimate demonstration, but if you confront people with these messages in the streets utilising, to some extent the language of advertising, but in such a way that they don't feel as though they're being sold to, you're more likely to get your message across. In the protagonist of Beech's film we see someone being sucked in through similar means but for purposes which at least on the surface seem exploitative and nefarious. Kind of makes you wonder what the end game might be with Pokemon Go.
A few suggestions if you are intending to visit. The Lucy Beech piece lasts about 21 minutes and is on a loop but it does have a clear narrative, so like her other pieces notably Cannibals which appeared at Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2014 in the Horseshoe Gallery at World Museum and shared similar themes related to self help and female group dynamics, it's important to watch from the beginning to fully grok the meaning. When I arrived it was about five minutes from the start but the invigilator was good enough to let me know after I waited outside, having presumably at least heard it a few times since opening, when the film was about to start again so I could enter then. Krzysztof Wodiczko's display lacks chairs even though a few of the pieces are quite lengthy. My option was to sit on the floor but that wasn't exactly ideal and led to some viewing of works at slightly odd angles. But like I said, in most cases this was more than worth it.
Right then old girl, what have you got for me next time? Oh hold on, the time space coordinates are drifting. This could get rocky ...
Saw Mi .. Blade Factory.