History 101.

Books  Mags L Halliday’s History 101 opens in a similar mode to Richard Curtis’s Vincent and the Doctor.  The Time Lord and his friends are taking a break, sight-seeing in Paris in 1937 when they find that a masterpiece painting, in this case Picasso’s Guernica seems altered, in this case seems less intense.  So they set off to investigate.  But the possibility that this is to be some kind of celebrity historical about surviving Pablo ala Midnight in Paris is quickly dashed when a scene with the painter fails to happen and the Doctor decides that they must instead experience the Spanish Civil War for the themselves to see why the painter’s work has "changed".

What follows is a quasi-historical in the style of a 60s lessons of John Lucarotti, thoroughly researched, in which the nuts and bolts of what’s caused the change take a somewhat back seat to educating the reader on the causes of the war, of Guernica, of the precarious and confusing geopolitical situation and their aftermath.  Not for nothing is the novel called History 101 and there is a reading and viewing list in the back which mentions Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, a film I saw at university in the 90s with a packed audience and whose intensity was indelible, especially Ian Hart’s passionate speeches.

Which isn’t to say Halliday’s prose is heavy handed, this is still very much an action adventure and suspense novel, especially in the passages when Fitz is sent to the front to see Guernica for himself.  The writing is particularly cinematic in the places where his story is intercut with the Doctor and Anji who’ve accidentally travelled five months earlier than their friend in time and have to wait in Barcelona to catch up with him.  There’s a moment when the Time Lord is excited about a brilliant deduction and the very next paragraph quickly establishes Fitz at one of his lowest ebbs and the reader can imagine exactly how that mood change would occur on screen.

What the travellers discover, in their various ways, is that the perception of reality has fractured so that different perspectives on the same happenings or locations can exist simultaneously.  Guernica was the result of enemy fire.  Guernica was the result of so-called friendly fire.  Guernica was an accident.  Guernica was experienced with varying degrees of intensity and with different civilian losses, all at the same time.  Time has taken on the elements of a cubist painting, as the cover indicates, with even people’s philosophical thought, strongly held political belief changing in an instant, sometimes with them not even being aware of it.

That leads to some fabulously poetic passages.  When Anji visits a room whose décor is simultaneously different, flickering between like one of those children’s toys with a bird and cage printed on either side of a card to be spun by strings or earlier when she’s chased through the streets and finds whatever’s chasing her and the attitude of her companion become wrapped up in the unfolding terror.  There’s also Fitz’s perception of Guernica in which he has to keep his eyes focused on the action so that he can report back to the Doctor, his loyalty to the “mission” overriding that part of him which knows there are certain images its impossible to forget.

History is, of course, all about perspective.  There are hundreds of biographies of Shakespeare and most of them are about offering a different insight into the same evidence.  A contemporary example would be how statistical expert Nate Silver, writing at the New York Times, put Obama’s chances of winning at 85% thanks to his state level numbers but the media persists in describing the US election as being too close to call or a toss-up.  As Nate says, by acknowledging his figures, "you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.”  History will no doubt portray Obama as the favourite all along, despite Denver.

Back in the Whoniverse, also investigating these changes is a being called the Absolute, who like the bald antagonists in tv’s Fringe, observe the various threads of time, of a person’s life but finds himself surrounded by incongruities, unable to see the source and perhaps increasing the disturbance.  Perhaps the Absolute exists as a comment on the Doctor’s thematic existence as a time space being, a disruptive element wherever he lands his TARDIS and however briefly.  When the two time travellers inevitably meet, there’s a kinship, but the Doctor’s also drawn to him because he has the potential to unblock the secrets trapped in his brain.

But like I said, despite having all of these elements in the air, Halliday only mildly resorts to literary devices to tell her story with some interpolated diary entries from one of the characters the Doctor encounters which brings to mind The Turing Test and the repetition of some action written in different ways.  You could imagine an extreme version of that written in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel but with entries which still needed to be read in a linear fashion from cover to cover.  It’s to the good that this is instead just a thumping good page turner rather than the academic exercise which has so often kyboshed some fairly decent story ideas.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that sometimes it is difficult to keep up with so many characters with so many behavioural changes and now and then characters pop in, characters which didn’t seem to exist before, and I wasn’t sure if I’d simply missed their introduction or it was part of the novel’s trick in elucidating the perception changes to wrong foot the reader just as the Doctor and his friends might be.  There is also a certain element of the climax happening when required due to random inspiration rather than due to some natural causality.  But the surrounding incident is involving enough that it doesn’t matter too much.

Perhaps Halliday’s biggest achievement is the Doctor, who’s not been this “present” for a few novels.  Once landed the TARDIS locks him out, and he’s forced to confront an existence without this machine he still doesn’t fully understand or how to repair.  The interior has become an abstraction and there are some beautiful details about his frustration with trying to get the thing to work ultimately through brute force.  He’s also forced to confront his own existence as being clearly a being of great power and importance in the cosmos, but only at half power and unsure of what his place is, only shining brightly when he’s on the verge of a discovery.

Sabbath’s back too.  Is he behind whatever’s effected Guernica?  Is he also why so many of these stories are about time travel concepts?  Despite him being across the whole of Henrietta Street, he still remains a relatively shadowy figure, his purpose unknown.  As with the conclusion of Anachrophobia we’re left with questions, not least the contents of his conversation with the Doctor, who oddly feels very much like the junior partner.  Miles has criticised the later authors for turning his creation into more of a classic antagonist.  I think it’s simply that given the material they had, they’re going about the business of clarifying his characterisation.

Another quick project note: reading these novels in quick succession, its difficult to see them as anything other than one long group of stories.  Unlike the tv series, even the audios, they don't necessarily have "seasons" so it's often difficult to look at them from the perspective of ongoing narrative shape or comparing them.  Doctor Who Magazine once ran a history of the novels and artificially split them into seasons (does anyone have a copy of that handy?), and there are arguably some gear changes that work like season openers, but its interesting how those gear changes rarely become apparent without having actually read the things.

Kate Nash & Emmy The Great: Once More With Feeling.

Music  How did you spend your Halloween?  My night was spent in the company of overinflated rent erotic thriller Chloe (and trying to work out what happened to Atom Egoyan's career) (and Julianne Moore's for that matter).

Some humans were lucky enough to spend it in the company of Kate Nash, Emmy The Great and their band as they played their way through live versions of the Buffy musical, Once More With Feeling.

In other words, the scribes behind Caroline's a Victim and We Almost Had A Baby cover I'll Never Tell:

The rest of the videos are here.

Kate has a new EP out soon, but if she really wanted to mint it, she should release this as covers album, with I'll Be Mrs from s7's Selfless as a bonus track.

What will the next Star Wars films be about?

Film With everything else which is going on, entertainment news has become less and less interesting or important these past few days. Which isn’t to say I haven’t been paying attention and indeed I thought the most exciting news was that Bryan Singer is stepping in to direct the new X-Men film and that James Mangold's The Wolverine is to be a semi-sequel to the trilogy he started. If he could go in and attempt to turn The Last Stand into the film with his opening two promised I’d be even happier. But then …

Disney owns Lucasfilm. Disney owns Lucasfilm. Or as this has been more correctly described Disney owns Star Wars. Disney owns Star Wars. The more we say this, the weirder it sounds, and yet, to listening to George last night, it’s almost as though this was always the plan and certainly the number of ancillary crossovers across the years, especially the Star Tours ride appearing at Disneyland, that this was always going to be his retirement plan.

Which is fine. Everyone was pretty cautious when Disney bought Marvel Comics and then they surprised everyone by making film versions of secondary characters which were far better than what was being churned out by other studios for the A-listers (let’s be honest, only Spiderman 2 is really any good), even if they then royally fucked up the European home release of The Avengers. But the films are amazing and under Joss will continue to be.

Which is why their announcement of three new Star Wars films has to be good news, hasn’t it? Hasn’t it? Well … there’s been a mass of talk online as you might expect, the global echo chamber trying to divine what it can from the press release and the interview clips with Lucas that seem mainly to exist to demonstrate this whole thing hasn’t been an elaborate hoax. What will be in these films? Who will be in these films?

Let’s ruminate.

Given that they’re calling them Episodes VII, VIII and IX, we know they’re not going to be a reboot, a remake or yet more prequels set in the old, old republic which is a shame because that would have been my first choice. Start from the beginning, dramatise the origins of the Jedi and the Sith, create a story that’s well away from the story of the Skywalkers which was pretty much completed, for better or worse in I to VI which work pretty well as a closed narrative.

But they’re opening up the narrative again, which means looking at creating whole new story to add to the back end. Fans of the Expanded Universe know this isn’t such a stupid idea as they’ve watched the characters from the films enter middle age and have kids and more kids, teen Jedis and that sort of thing (I’m busking) (I haven’t read any of it) (but judging by the Wookiepedia it seems busy) (as is Leland Chee the keeper of the Holocron database thingy).

The Expanded Universe does what any good ancillary franchise material should do which is turn a finite amount of onscreen narrative into something which can be extended, repeated and yes, expanded. So the Star Wars continue beyond return of the Jedi for chronological decades, adding some characters, subtracting others, and proves that it is possible to expand that closed narrative onwards, that there are plot threads worth picking up. From the Timothy Zhan novels on.

But think of the fans of the Expanded Universe at this moment. On the one hand they’re really excited about having some new films. New Star Wars films! But on the other they’ll be glancing at the several hundred novels, comics and whatnot on their shelves and wondering what exactly will still be canonical by the time the new films come out, because its unlikely that whoever’s writing them will give two hoots about some obscure bit of minutia from a paragraph in a novel publish five years before.

And I hope it doesn’t.  I hope Leland Chee finds himself with a massive editing job.  Done properly these will be the nuclear option on the Expanded Universe, tipping most of it  downwards into Z-canonicity or whatever the lettering system is in the Holocron these days. Why should us casuals have to deal with a narrative that’s desperately trying not to step on the toes of a bunch of other narratives and decisions taken years before. The film should be an excellent bit of space opera first.

Which is harsh of course. I could be wrong. Lucas has apparently already written the treatments for these films and had them knocking around for a few decades, though that contradicts what he said to Total Film in 2008 when specifically asked about the Expanded Universe:
"I've left pretty explicit instructions for there not to be any more features. There will definitely be no Episodes VII-IX. That's because there isn't any story. I mean, I never thought of anything. And now there have been novels about the events after Episode VI, which isn't at all what I would have done with it. The Star Wars story is really the tragedy of Darth Vader. That is the story. Once Vader dies, he doesn't come back to life, the Emperor doesn't get cloned and Luke doesn't get married..."
I wish that was true, I wish they were starting from scratch, but it’s possible that as that universe has expanded he’s kept an eye on whether any of it contradicts his wild, unmentionable fantasies of what would be there too much. Though as Karen Traviss discovered to her cost, he’s not averse to deciding that something on screen supersedes the page.

Unfortunately, because of how the Star Wars franchise has developed, Lucas’s successors don’t have either of the other famous options available to them in the fight not to piss off the hard core fans still further, even the ones who forgave George for The Phantom Menace. They can’t simply start again in an alternative reality (Star Trek) or just produce some more and wilfully contradict where necessary because it has never been that interested continuity to begin with (Doctor Who).

If these are sequels, here’s what I hope they’re about. Set them a couple of hundred years after the previous series with the Skywalkers, Han and everyone having passed into legend as have the Jedi, the Sith and everything else. A young woman on some dead moon is eking out an existence in a janitorial position when she’s visited by a ghost. We know it’s elderly Luke. He warns of a terrible disaster which is about to befall the galaxy and she’s the only hope. What does she do? What does she do?

Yes, it’s ropey and derivative but so were the Star Wars films from a certain point of view. It’s a fresh start, it reintroduces the Star Wars concepts within a different paradigm which then has the potential to be as huge as the original films, but importantly it doesn’t attempt to simply extend the Skywalker story past what’s already been resolved, it’s not simply putting the band back together to fight the Empire again.

Unless, and this is the other option, if you really do have to make it a direct sequel, it turns out the second Death Star was a decoy. The Empire’s not gone anywhere and while the rebels were celebrating their victory, there really was an Ewok apocalypse and Endor was turned into a crisp with everyone on it via a second (or third) operational battle station. The next three films are set in the devastating aftermath, with yet another band of rebels hopelessly fighting against the real Emperor and Vader and not the clones we previously saw destroyed, mentored by Ghost Luke.

In other words, oh, I don’t know.  But pity whichever screenwriters and directors are handed this poisoned chalice. I think Spielberg’ll end up directing the first one and the screenplay will be written by someone like Tom Stoppard or the Nolan brothers. Though at this rate it’ll be Andrew Stanton, Tim Story or Brett Ratner with a screenplay by Steve Kloves. When the real answer is, of course, the writers and directors of The Clone Wars tv series and/or Robot Chicken.

Eyewitness: Experiencing Hamlet completely fresh.

This comment from The Guardian is self-explanatory:

This is why, even with classical theatre, I'm trying to stay completely spoiler free.  Not too long ago I attended the theatre and ten minutes before the play was due to start, the audience member behind me began reading a full synopsis of the play she'd pulled from the web.  I sat with my fingers in my ears.

In the end I left the performance at the interval.  It was an awful production and I decided that I'd save the ending for a version I was enjoying.

Not Zooey.

Journalism The Mail Online mistook me for Zooey Deschanel and all I got was this lousy photo:
"When I saw the article, a friend was searching for photos of Zooey Deschanel and that was the first article that popped up this past weekend - I was immediately horrified. Those photos were godawful! Not only did I not look like Zooey Deschanel, I didn’t look like me. Secondly, how had they found me? Did someone see me driving down Buena Vista Avenue and follow my car? Wouldn’t my car - a beat up old VW Jetta with a USC sticker - alert them to my non-celebrity status? Where had the photographer hidden? That’s one nice camera, it’s right up in my face, but the street was empty. Also, no offense to Burbank, but where I was looking was on the cheaper side, and unless Zooey Deschanel was involved in some ponzi scheme, the girl did not need to live there. How had no one noticed the photographer’s mistake?"
So that's Zooey, Katy Perry, this lady and Anna Friel when she's appearing in Pushing Daisies. At this rate the New Girl parody of the Robert Palmer video will be a go project.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Static Gallery (30)

Art  This is it.  The end.  Or at least the end of the venues listed in the official Liverpool Biennial booklet.  Thirty venues in numerical order.  There are more on the website and the Independents, so I don’t expect this is really the end of the Biennial for me, but for the purposes of this particular project the Static Gallery signals the end.  I feel like Michael Palin at the end of his Around The World In Eighty Days documentary, where he wants to tell everyone about the things he’s seen.  Luckily for him he’s had a film crew with him.  Luckily for me I have this blog.  I hope it’s been fun.  For you I mean reading about it.  It’s obviously been fun for me.  Obviously.

The Static Gallery is a gallery/office space on Roscoe Lane between St Luke’s Church and Liverpool Cathedral up the road from Chinatown (which is a nice bookend to seeing the other Chinatown near the beginning of the project).  To complicate matters, I did visit the space the night before for Social Media Café which arguably means I failed to do the venues in numerical order but since I didn’t actually see the artwork that night, I’m putting it in the same bracket as Lime Street Station of not having "officially seen", so just as Palin, Phileas Fogg and Willie Fogg managed to reach their destinations on time thanks to the international date line and repeating a day, I've grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat.

*     *     *     *     *

In Just Another Unexpected Guest, artists Adriana Galuppo and Sascha Mikloweit have intersected the gallery space diagonally with a giant solar mirror film wall with a ring of barbed wire across the top in such a way that it's impossible to walk all of the way around it internally.  To walk from one side to the other, the visitor must leave the gallery through one entrance and pass through the other, through the café and down some stairs.  One of the gallery managers noted that’s also true of anyone who happens to have hired the office space on the wrong side of the “wall” and wants refreshment or to go to the toilet.

There’s a questioning verse in the accompanying literature which asks us to question if we know which side of the wall we’re meant to be standing on.  The evocation is of course of great walls in history notably Berlin, though because the reflective surface also distorts our image we could just as well be seeing ourselves in some alternative dimension shimmering due to the transduction barrier.  Move around and the breeze makes the wall quiver and shift about.  This is artwork in which there’s not much to see but tasks us with considering the thematic implications.  I imagine that it changes somewhat when a larger group is in the space.

Of course, because of the way my brain’s wired, beyond the expected allusions, I was reminded of the divide in Big Brother 3, back when it was still a somewhat social experiment and not simply about watching people failing to have sex.  The unexpected twist in that series was a set of prison bars struck across the house creating a class system in which one group of housemates had to live on basic rations while the lucky few were allowed luxury products.  Straight away resentment brewed, with desperation for vices reaching epic emotional proportions as some housemates found themselves perpetually “stuck” in the less privileged partition.

But that’s the problem with walls.  They’re purposefully divisive.  They might provide protection, but if you’re not careful, as is the case with gated communities, they can also divorce a person from the wider population and an understanding thereof.  But this iron curtain is of course perfectly impregnable.  A little too much force and you could fall right through.  Not that we would because this is an artwork and etiquette dictates that we don’t destroy the artwork.  So instead we stand before it and try to imagine what’s on the other side.  Which luckily for me did mean a toilet, a result of once again drinking too much coffee.

The Crooked World.

Books  Or Who Framed Fitz Fortune?  It’s a strange coincidence that on the day Disney bought Star Wars, I’ve been reading about another well loved sci-fi franchise meeting veil homages to characters from what seems like every animation house but Disney.  But here we are, Steve Lyons’s The Crooked World, Doctor Who meets the Warner Bros owned properties including Hanna Barbara.  Meep meep!  Suffering Succotash!  What’s Up Doc?  Hayaaalp!  I would have gotten away with it too … that sort of thing.

Of all these Eighth Doctor novels this is one of the outliers in terms of plausibility.  The TARDIS lands in an animated world and the crew quickly meet Porky Pig (not), the Road Runner, Penelope Pitstop and the Scooby Gang, all called something else for copyright reasons.  Quickly it becomes apparent that the cartoon laws of physics in this world mean death isn’t necessarily permanent.  Except when it does and it become apparent that just by visiting, the Doctor and pals are at first subtly then with increasing pronouncement, they’re bring death and once absent philosophical thought.  Free will.

In other words, the other ingredient is Pleasantville, Don Roos’s late nineties meditation on the loss of innocence in which two modern teenagers bring colour and profound changes to the world of a 1950s US sitcom.  Lyons brings roughly the same trajectory here: violence, a breakdown in the rule of law and sexual awakening and like the characters in that film, the Doctor sees it as his duty to steer these once innocent creatures through to finding their own independent thought, that their disruption is a benefit rather than a curse.

As in some of his previous works, notably The Witch Hunters, Lyons has great fun reimagining existing properties within the rules of the Whoniverse.  His Tom is a triumph.  Given his original name, Jasper, we watch a wordless cat experience a profound existential crisis that ultimately leads to horrific consequences.  Similarly, his Penelope Pitstop, or in this case Angel Falls, doubts the pieces of her lifestyle.  Why does she race each day?  What does her life consist of trying to avoid the Hooded Claw / Masked Weasel?

The pickle they wrestle with is why their lives consist of repetitious action, why do they never progress?  Lyons amusingly blows that back on the regulars.  Time and again we’ve seen the Doctor arrive in some time or place and cause disruption through his mere existence and here he is again doing same.  Fitz isn’t complete unless he’s fallen for and bedded some local and before long Angel Falls’s name become dripping with irony.  Anji once again spends most the adventure alone with some new friends getting to the heart of what’s ultimately happening.

If there’s a problem with the book, it’s that once you’ve made the Pleasantville connection, there’s no real further twist that turns the story on its head.  There are some great incidents, the bloody aftermath of a riot with a welcome death, a courtroom scene and the pitch perfect (affectionate) parody of the Scooby gang, but I expect your tolerance for much of the novel depends on your tolerance for visiting morally ambiguous versions of best loved funny animals from your childhood.  I’m not sure I was entirely engaged.

Plus I’m not convinced that even the Eighth Doctor would engage with the world in this way.  I’m sure he’d more likely have Anji's motivation here of wanting to know how this world exists and do so up front, rather than acting like a Star Trek Captain who’s inadvertantly broken the prime directive and is trying to make the most of it by teaching the planet’s inhabitants.  Like The City of the Dead or Grimm Reality, the Doctor takes a very lackadaisical approach to the rational Whoniverse, essentially saying, well there’s a multiverse of possibilities out there.  No Land of Fiction, this.

But as always I applaud Lyons for trying to do something new and even attempting to produce a rational reading adaptation of Chuck Jones’s action sequences.  As kids of a certain age will know, this isn’t the first attempt at novelising Loony Tunes, Tom & Jerry or Scooby-Doo but it is a rare occasion that an author attempts to bring psychological depth to the characters.  But throughout I couldn’t help wishing I was simply just watching these old cartoons.  For all their repetitive action they could be extremely funny.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Wolstenholme Projects (29)

Art  Wolstenholme Creative Space is a not-for-profit contemporary gallery, venue and artist studios and has always been one of the highlights of festivals past.  It’s in the odd position of being listed in both the official Biennial booklet and the Independents.  Is it an official venue?  For the purposes of the this project I’ve assumed it is because it’s on the map key but there isn’t anything more about it in the official booklet and they haven’t been given one of the red a-boards, having created their own with a large computer printed (29) on both sides.  Oh and it’s described as Wolstenholme Projects, which is I think what it was called years ago, but not now.  Other than that, I was convinced I should be visiting.  So I did.

*     *     *     *     *

Step into the main entrance, past the leaflets, say hello to the volunteer on duty, walk behind the black curtain and then let your sense of reality fall away.  That’s the experience of visiting the WCS’s Inhospitable Landscapes exhibition because behind the curtain is a forest.  The bottom floor of the building has been turned into a forest.  Trees and branches fill the space, the ground is covered in leaves and woodchip and the smell, the smell is just as a forest smells not long after a storm, damp but fragrant.  Initially when I stepped in, I had to step out again because of everything I’d expected to find behind that curtain it wasn’t that.

This must be what it’s like to step through the wardrobe into Narnia or indeed out of the TARDIS when the randomiser’s on full but the scanner’s on the fritz.  It’s probably worth nothing that I was experiencing this after the discombobulating of unexpectedly meeting an old friend outside the building (a friend who I coincidentally worked with at the Biennial in 2006).  Step about a bit and notice towards the back there is a kitchen dining table or to the left into a more typical gallery space and we find a large video screen (which sticking to Doctor Who analogies is like stepping from the wood into the control room in Flesh and Stone).

As the literature describes, the piece is “visually focusing on the physical landscape with a large-scale installation that literally brings 'the outside, inside', Inhospitable Landscape toys with concepts of social and cultural landscapes; the uncomfortable and inhospitable aspects of humanity.”  Not only is the space unexpected, but we’re the unexpected guest within it.  Unless it’s for the The Inhospitable Supper Club, a joint venture with the Leaf Café in which a limited number of participants can pay £20 for a three course meal within the space which unless its in the room at the side, must be a picnic on the floor.  That's quite something.

Dotted throughout the forest are portable televisions presenting unusual images like parts of the body and mysterious landscapes.  Arguably these disrupt the illusion somewhat, but again they’re a reminder that we’re in a constructed space and we have simply wandered into a recreation of what might happen if the forests were to reclaim the cities ala I Am Legend or A Sound of Thunder.  Zombies or mutant dinosaurs are unlikely to step out from shadows though a couple of people did randomly appear from seemingly nowhere and gave me a fright.  It turned out they’d been upstairs.  “We’re not ghosts.”  They said.  I wasn’t so sure.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
East Float, Wirral Waters (28)

Art  Over the flap in the booklet and into the key, or as is the case here, up to the quay.  Not knowing how to photograph the place where a freestanding public art piece is without actually showing the freestanding art piece, I decided to offer this shot of my feet in the spot indicated on the booklet map, or as near as possible.  I could have photographed a different part of the Mersey I suppose.

Or indeed, the spot where the work is supposed to be.  Anthony McCall’s Column is “a vertical, spinning, ascending column of cloud rising into the sky from the surface” of the water, in my imagination like the smoke which descends from the heavens in biblical epics when God is taking direct action.  There’s a photograph of the artist in the Biennial booklet crouching next to a smaller simulation.

I couldn’t see it.  I thought initially that I was simply standing in the wrong place, that perhaps part of its make up is a trick of the light, that you have to be looking in a particular direction as indicated by the eyeball diagram on the booklet map to see the work at its best advantage if at all.  The accompanying description does say that is “disappears and reappears, in response to weather and light conditions.”

Other visitors also seemed to.  I saw a few people carrying the booklet walking about the waterfront looking backwards and forwards.  I overheard a family in the shadow of the Museum of Liverpool wondering if they shouldn’t stroll further up, just in case.  This is probably the longest most of us have spent looking across the Mersey towards the Wirral, a landscape we’ve probably become quite complacent about.

I rang the Biennial office to ask.  We weren’t missing anything, at time of visiting (last Tuesday), McCall’s piece, beset by delays and malfunctions, wasn’t working yet.  As the volunteer I spoke to explained, the column is supposed to shoot a mile in the air and so should be entirely visible from most points along the waterfront, which means when it is working it should be an amazing sight.

I wondered if the Biennial could possibly put a sign up on the railings explaining the situation because of all the people aimless wondering around looking for it and the volunteer said she’d pass on the message, which is good.  I also asked if we could be advised through social media when it is working.  Perhaps they will.  I expect she was happy to get rid of me in the end.  Sorry, again.  Again, sorry.

*     *     *     *     *

Watch this space.

Updated 16/04/2013:

Today the BBC reported that after fifteen months of attempting to make this work, the project has been abandoned.  There's actually much more in the article than was available from the Biennial leaflet, for example that it was originally due to be working from December 2011 and run through the whole of 2012 and not just the period of the Biennial, also that:
"The Civil Aviation Authority was worried that it would interfere with aircraft and the Port Health Authority had concerns that it could cause Legionella.

"Even after those fears were allayed, the steam-generating mechanism did not work properly and the column still did not appear.

"Such vertical steam spirals occur occasionally in nature, when they are known as waterspouts, but nobody has managed to recreate one on this scale by man-made means."
It's worth noting that the Liverpool Biennial isn't mentioned at all in the BBC article, which talks about the piece as the production of the cultural Olympiad instead.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Liverpool John Moores University Art & Design Academy (27)

Art The Liverpool John Moores University Art and Design Academy is being utilised on the closing weekend for a conference, “Changing the World from Here” in which interested parties, curators, artists, thinkers and writers will investigate the future of the Biennial as well as a “series of focused gatherings that will explore possibilities for a post-industrial ecology, rethinking the relationship between art, urbanism and value for the 21st Century” (booklet text).

“Hello.” I said as I approach the reception. The glazed entrance hall was filled with students waiting for a lecture and I had to be shout to be heard. “Do you have any Biennial related exhibitions on right now?”
“No.” He said. He told me about Copperas Hill and how he’d heard there was almost going to be something there but there wasn’t in the end. He asked me if I’d been to Copperas Hill.
“Yes.” I said, and told him about the project, about visiting the venues in numerical order and how this was a pretty big moment because I’d reached the last of the venues on the flap covering page two of the booklet.
“Tick!” He said, making a ticking gesture.
“Tick!” I said, repeating the gesture.
“There is an exhibition.” He said pointing.  I turned around.

*     *     *     *     *

Although it’s not a Biennial exhibition, Saving The Century, a display from The Victorian Society has a number of tangential connections. The Victorian Society was formed in February 1958 to fight for Britain’s architectural heritage, which was being demolished at a grand scale to make way for the modernist onslaught. As the exhibition explains, before 1958, we lost what should now be some of our most iconic buildings from the Imperial Institute in South Kensington by TE Colcutt which was cleared to make way for an extension to Imperial College of Science (which probably could have successfully simply moved in) to Dawpool, the residence of Thomas Ismay, owner of the White Star Line and passenger on the Titanic.

On a grander scale, figures like Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and Sir John Betjeman  who’d long campaign for the preservation of the country’s heritage gathered together fight against the onslaught of town planning in a similar way to the Biennial projects in Anfield and Everton. They experienced some early failures. The Euston Arch, the original entrance to Euston Station was lost in the 60s as was the Coal Exchange in the City of London. On both occasions the society offered viable alternatives and re-utilisations of the spaces which have become commonplace now, but were defeated by town planners and in the case of the Arch by the MacMillan government who could have intervened by chose not to.

But slowly, the Society’s reputation developed and although the exhibition and accompanying brochure are filled with photographs of gorgeous buildings now lost, look carefully and we find successes closer to home, either due to the signalling of “concern” or direct action. In 1966 a redevelopment of the Liverpool Waterfront almost led to the demolition of the Albert Dock and it wasn’t until 1983 that the Merseyside Development Corporation began the restoration that led to habitation by Tate Liverpool. In 1983, when the law courts moved out of St George’s Hall, it became functionally redundant, after lobbying from the Victorian Society it was put on the World Monument Fund’s watch list which ultimately led to its restoration.

The exhibition’s brochure actually contains the contents of the displays so if you don’t have the time to spend in the space, the exhibition closes at end of October, you can read it instead in the comfort of your home. It’s a black and white celebration of a force of will working to preserve the country’s heritage and also a tribute to Victorian engineering. Many of the buildings which replaced some of that period’s architecture have already been replaced themselves, either because of safety concerns or because tastes have changed again. Luckily, there’s a 20th Century Society to fight for that period in our history too, a period which also had its fair share of architectural achievements. The Kingsway Tunnel Vents are their building of the month.

Obviously, just as various periods of art history are reflected in our art galleries, there’s room for just the same variety in our cities. The film Blade Runner might hint towards a dystopian future, but architecturally it’s fascinating and as with the various human cultures living on top of one another, buildings from a range of historical periods can be seen from the windows of Deckard’s hover car as he flies across the city. One of the most impressive images I’ve seen this Biennial is how the “Three Graces” on the waterfront are reflected in the dark, marble surface of the Mann Island project which shows that new, cutting edge buildings can still be aware of and complement the historic buildings which surround them.