Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Liverpool John Moore's University Copperas Hill Building (8)

Art The old sorting office on Copperas Hill has always had slightly mythical qualities, at least for me. When it was still a sorting office, every post box in Liverpool would give details of when its final collection would be and then underneath information that a final collection of the day would take place at 7:15 at Copperas Hill. I’d look at that and wonder if there was ever a circumstance in which, having missed the 5:50pm deadline on a given post box someone would have to rush to Copperas Hill before the final deadline. A few months before closure I did make a point of visiting, just to see what the building was like and popped a Lovefilm dvd over at reception at about seven o’clock. Sure enough it was in Peterborough, where the dvd rental company is based the next day, travelling, I also romantically imagined, on the night train.

The sorting office closed two years ago this month and since has been bought by John Moores University to provide replacement accommodation for the departments at the IM Marsh Campus in Aigburth, which they’re selling off. In the meantime it’s been borrowed by Liverpool Biennial to house another of The Uninvited Guest pieces, Bloomberg New Contemporaries (previously housed at the AFoundation in the Baltic Triangle which is now the Camp and Furnace) and City States, the festival within a festival in which a group of cities have invited some of their best artists to create thirteen small exhibition inspired by the Biennial’s main hospitality theme. It’s also worth visiting to see the interior of this mythic building which still has most of its post office fixtures and evidence of being a place were people lived and worked.

Let me offer a “quick” survival guide for visiting LJMU Copperas Hill:

- Give yourself at least half and if possible a whole day, you will need to the time if you want to give everything the attention it deserves. This is a massive building with lots to see.

- Visit The Univited Guest piece first, then Bloomberg then City States. With the best will in the world, seeing Bloomberg last could be a bit anti-climactic.

- Wrap up warm. Somehow, at least when I visited on Friday, the temperature seemed lower inside the building than out. The end of my nose was cold.

- Don’t drink too many liquids before you go. The building lacks running water so although there are lots of old toilets and signs pointing to the old toilets, the only lavatory is a port-a-cabin in a yard out back which is miles away by stairs and lift from City States on the floor above.

- Pace yourself. Take breaks. If there’s video art take the opportunity to sit down.

- But don’t go to Costa Coffee at Lime Street Station and have a chai latte though as I did. It’s rancid and not patch on the golden cup of joy that FACT’s cafe sells.

- Visit the City States cities in alphabetical order as they’re all listed in the booklet. Because it’s all on one floor it lacks the rabbit warren element of the old CIC setting. By visiting the cities in alphabetical order, I found myself criss-crossing the floor catching tantalising glimpses of exhibits yet to be visited with feeling of traversing the world like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or Michael Palin, depending on your taste. This also has the benefit of beginning in Birmingham then going international and ending in Wellington, which has a potential going away present. You’ll see.

- You’ll also need the map that they’re giving out at reception.

- Explore. One of the benefits of the building is that there are loads of offices and rooms around the edge which have been utilised as mini-viewing areas for the video art. But some of them aren’t obvious even with the map. Usually in City States if there’s a black curtain, something’s hidden inside. That’s especially true of Gdansk.

- Pay attention to the red sandwich boards. Each of the different countries in City States is signposted by a sandwich board in the Biennial livery. On one side the given city is named and on the other there’s an explanation which is sometimes more detailed than the booklet. It’s always worth stopping to have a read before plunging into the given exhibition.

- Don’t read below the upcoming stars if you’re going to visit. As is so often the case it’s good to have surprises, especially in one case because the object is so inexplicable.

- That’s it.

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The most explicit unexpected guest, Jorge Macchi’s contribution, Refraction, is about perception. The first perception is that the room we’re standing is filled with steel girders, leaning against the walls, towering above us despite having a bend in the middle. As we walk around them, we know that there’s something a bit off, but we can’t quite put our finger on quiet what. The artist is playing a mental game with us, the artistic equivalent of that moment when you meet a friend or something more and notice that there’s a difference about them but you’re too embarrassed to ask what. Is it the hair? Have they had their ears pierced? Put on weight? Or as is the case here, is it the way they’re leaning? Does it have something to do with the way the wall’s painted?

A bit tired and lacking in concentration I decide to skip to the end and look at the information board outside the room which says that Macchi is interested in optics and perception, which is fine but doesn’t provide many answers. Thankfully the booklet is a bit more helpful. It explains that the artist has created “an environment that plays with the occurrence of being suddenly submerged in a pool of water”. Glancing again the girders and I notice that they’re all bent at exactly the same point, a point which matches the line on the wall. When I was wandering around inside the room, I was effectively drowning in an imaginary sea in what could be the remains of some terrible marine disaster, which probably does say a lot about my particular perception of the world.

I expect I’m a bit troubled that the information board and the booklet having different information, the latter offering a more specific explanation. Shouldn’t they be the same? Re-entering the room, I immediately stand next to the wall to see where I would be in relation to the surface of this imaginary water tank. My eyes are just above the line, which means with a bit of floating I could well survive, which is reassuring. With this extra piece of information, the work gains extra depth as I remember Kate Winslet and Leo fighting along corridors or divers in wetsuits in a dozen nature documentaries. I wonder if a visiting group filling the space would have the same reaction, unable to move about in quite the same way.  Perhaps this is an installation best enjoyed alone.

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Perhaps the most thematically intriguing piece in Bloomberg New Contemporaries is George Eksts’s Circumspects, which helpfully for those of you outside Liverpool can be viewed on the artist’s own website here. As you can see, if features a giant circular cage with spinning compartments, each containing a horse moving forwards at night. There’s no word of explanation about the piece on that website, or Bloomberg’s which offers a short CV and all this interview the artist gave to Used magazine adds is that he’s interested in progress, completion, time and the temporary. "I like things that are unfinished or beyond complete. The structure of my work is of more importance to me than the content, for example the endlessness of the videos and the relationships established between one and the next” he says and that he’s a “terrible storyteller”.

Here’s what I think the piece is about. In choosing to shoot this real world utility in this way I  think that he's offering homage to the dawn of cinema in the digital media of the modern age. Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge was famous for a few things. He was acquitted of shooting his wife’s lover on the grounds of “justifiable homicide”. He was one of the few people who photographed the Tlingit people in Alaska. He’s probably best known for his motion photographs in which he set up a line of cameras, twenty-four in a row for twenty four frames and recorded the movement of humans and mammals, for the first time proving I think, that a horse has all four of its legs off the ground when galloping. The wikipedia page has examples of these efforts turned into animated gifs.

But he also developed the Zoopraxiscope, potentially the first projected moving image, in which a glass disc was spun in quickly to give the illusion of movement. For this he took his inspiration from the Zoetrope, the large cardboard cylinders spun on a drum with a mirror in the middle which have much the same effect for just a few people, created originally in feudal China. What I think, either inadvertently or on purpose, is that Eksts has produced a video of a life sized, realistic, anti-illusion version of a Zoetrope or the kind, which might have Muybridges photographs in the middle. The horses aren’t galloping, merely exercising, I suppose, but the effect is really similar, asking us to concentrate on their movement. The repetitive nature of the image only adds to that impression. Perhaps.

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City States is so huge, and covers so many artists, that choosing a single object would be unfair and so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. In the next paragraph but four. Before we reach it, I did want to add a quick word for the Birmingham and Hong Kong sections. The former includes a display of memorabilia for the grindcore band Napalm Death much of it lent by founding members Nicholas Bullen and Miles “Rat” Ratledge, whose music, judging by the accompanying concert video I can barely understand but does remind me of an argument I had with friend at school about whether the heavy metal genre really exists.  I can still remember my young voice arguing the point and him saying “there’s no such thing as heavy metal, it’s grindcore…”

Nearby, brummy film collective, the Flat-Pack festival have produced a compilation of promotional videos for the town including a paean to the modernist joys of the old Bull Ring Shopping Centre, the kind of nightmare of glass and consumerism that George Tati had fun with in his film Playtime and There is a Better Lifestyle, a 1989 attempt at attracting yuppies to the city which spends much of its duration stressing how close it is to other places including an airport out and whose key message, and this is a direct quote, “it’s not really as hideous as you might think”. Half a dozen B-Ark survivors line up to praise the cultural elements of the city, stressing the nearness of the countryside and watersport venues and how it’s possible to visit Stratford to see shows “six months before they’re at the West End.” This strident piece of cultural history is also available on Vimeo.

Thence to Hong Kong, whose exhibition All Are Guests explores “the intricate subject-object” dichotomy between the individual and the city. Its key work is “So …Soap” which documents the work of the SLOW women’s collective who produce handmade soap which allows them to look after their families whilst enjoying flexible working hours. The other artistic voice, CoLAB, are responsible for the soap's brand name, packaging designs and marketing, part of which constitutes the presence at City States, a promotional video showing a specially designed cart, a wash basin and water reclamation system, being taken around the city offering the wider public an opportunity to sample to soap and wash their hands, which is soundtracked by a surprisingly catchy bit of dance music.

Like the George Eksts piece this appeals because it reminds me of the pioneering spirit that accompanying some of the earliest commercial innovations. Just the other day I was reading about “Pluto Lamps”, gas lamps which sprang up around London at the turn of the century before last that as well as providing light included a vending machine capable of dispensing “a gallon of hot water, or a halfpennies worth of Beef tea essence, Cocoa, Milk, Sugar, Tea or Coffee” [via]. Deep in the recesses of my brain I seem to remember that around the same time, carts similar to the SLOW’s promotional model (which is also in the exhibition space) were actually dragged around cities so that passers-by could pay a nominal amount to wash their hands in a forerunner to public conveniences.

But the one object I want to focus on, um, where to begin?  How about:  Every now and then at an exhibition you’ll greet something so bizarre, so unruly that you just have to stand and gape. Well, congratulations to Vilnius whose “exhibition” contains a single inexplicable object, produced jointly by artists Audrius Bucas & Valdas Ozarinskas. It’s a Black Pillow. It’s a giant inflatable Black Pillow which is the same size as the Copenhagan. Torshaven, Rekjavik, Nuuk and Incheon exhibition spaces altogether, consuming, I’d estimate, one sixth of the area dedicated to City States, stretching from floor to ceiling. Standing within the vicinity of most of its edged its impossible to see much else in the field of vision and loomed larged as I passed by on my way to the various cities listed above which are entirely hidden if you look for them from the other side of the room.

Apparently there have been visitors to City States who unaccountably missed it. Perhaps its an example of what Douglas Adams described in one of his novels as an SEP, or “somebody else’s problem”, something which so far out of human experience that our minds block it out automatically. Actually its more like what’s generally known in science fiction circles as a BDO or a Big Dumb Object, a huge alien mass which wanders into orbit threatening humanity or otherwise offering benevolence until we target our nuclear warheads at it. Perhaps its also like the thirty-five foot long twinkie Egon Spendler metaphorically utilises to capture the enormous increase in telekinetic energy in New York which heralds the climax of Ghostbuster. It’s big. Really, really big.

But it isn’t dumb. Far from it. The first version of was produced in 2010 for an exhibition in Vilnius itself. The idea was originally to “appeal exclusively to the limits of the viewer’s phenomenological experiences” or blow our tiny minds. But it’s monolithic, black shading and massive dimensions led the locals to quickly see it as a metaphor for the prevailing mood in the country as their economic crisis hit. As the sandwich board text says, “Black Pillow took a symbolic shape and dimension accumulating all the possible personal and collective failures of our lives” or a massive empathic sponge. Except inflatable and made of vinyl or whatever the substance is. To stand before this object is to look into your own soul, which to take the metaphor to its limit, is probably empty.

Werner Herzog believes the “common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” I wonder if he’d modify that belief if he saw this. Strolling around the edges of the pillow I notice dirty foot prints across its surface which presumably happened when the artists were installing the piece. They’re distracting but they also oddly serve to remind me that the thing is man made. Every now and then I try to fall into it, perhaps bounce off it, but the form is too immense. It can’t be pushed either. Or climbed. I tend to hate art which expects us to offer our own interpretation, usually because it means the artist doesn’t have their own. But this Black Pillow is somehow beyond interpretation. It just exists, this benign, thoughtless shape.

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