Saturday, 29 September 2018

Something Beautiful Remains

With less than a month to go, here is the ‘long-awaited’ Spanner in the Workz highlights of the Liverpool Biennial 2018!

The Biennial 2018 celebrates its 10th programme of what is overall twenty years of arts across the city and region. It also personally marks my fifth Biennial from when I first visited Liverpool as an art student in 2008. It has become a tradition to visit and feel quite sentimental about loyally making the pilgrimage to the north every two years via a series of (increasingly unreliable) trains searching for what new contemporary national and international art in some of Liverpool’s most remarkable buildings, galleries and spaces has in store. There is also a case for the Liverpool bar that sells triple gins for £3, but perhaps the less said of that the better....!

(detail) Mae-ling Lokko's installation 'Hack the Root' 2018
In response to the collective theme, ‘Beautiful World Where Are You?’ artists and audiences are invited ‘to reflect on a world in turmoil’. It sounds serious and whilst I do not question that the world, politically, environmentally, socially and economically is in a tumultuous and uncertain period, I found much of what resonated with me in this year’s Biennial to be conscientiously uplifting and more hopeful or engagingly activist in the face of such challenges. Works such as Mae-ling Lokko’s ‘Hack the Root’, presented at RIBA North Architectural Centre deals with the turmoil of food-waste and unsustainability of materials for building by proposing a creative solution whereby agrowaste-fed mycelium (mushroom) have been cultivated into modular biomaterial building panels. Shown is a video that explains this process alongside the tiles themselves, a growing chamber and prototypes of structures which could be built from this material. I had no idea mushrooms could be used in this way and am excited that work artists are still using science to creatively problem solve and generate new ideas. 

(still) Madiha Aijaz 'These Silences Are All The Words' 2017-18
Equally heartening and possibly my favourite piece from this year’s Biennial is a film at the Open Eye Gallery titled ‘These Silences Are All The Words’ by Madiha Aijaz. Filmed in Karachi, Pakistan, the film documents librarians working in public libraries and their library users as they reflect on the shift of language from Urdu to English. The libraries in this film (and libraries in general) come to symbolise these sort-of barometers for changes in culture, language, need and understanding in our communities and societies; the poetic and literary history of Urdu versus the historical and political complexity of the English language (the legacy of the Raj). Aijaz explains that the books themselves in these libraries, written in Urdu speak of, ‘the struggle for freedom and the formation of Muslim identity in undivided India’ and yet in some ways things have not changed, the library itself is now in conflict with the language of the texts it holds and modernisation of the world and its users today. There is a need to preserve the past whilst making it accessible to those in the future. Though the film itself is not angry in its tone and at only approx. twelve minutes long acts more of a documentary of the reality of these libraries and for the viewer to come to their own conclusions. The shots of the libraries, the light hitting the dusty books are in themselves beautiful! As shelves of books, tomes and texts almost inherently are, surely? I am utterly bias, having worked in a library for the best part of nine months, but am curiously fascinated by the foreign yet-familiarity of the libraries in this film and humbled by the reverence with which they are spoken of, “When I enter the library, I leave my ego and shoes at the door.” It makes me speculate the idea of sacredness in today’s society, what is sacred? Is it important? Is religion sacred anymore, is it knowledge; perhaps a combination of both/neither? Is sacredness subjective and does that led to decline in the value that a shared sense of sacredness brings to uniting people. Where do public places, such as libraries still fit in being custodians of values, freedom of speech and community?

Francis Alys, 'Outskirts of Mosul' 2016 - part of 'Age Piece' 2018
One of the best venues for art has to be the Victoria Gallery & Museum where Francis Alӱs’ small but beautiful postcard paintings from 1980s to the present are exhibited under the title ‘Age Piece’. They have an immediate painterly quality but are compositionally highly cinematic, painted in plein air in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq whilst looking for new locations for his film projects. Apart from the John Moores Painting Prize, which is also on during the Biennial at the Walker Gallery, there is a famine of painting throughout the Biennial as a whole. These little works really shine as being amongst the most honest, intimate and captivating paintings throughout. The gallery itself is also an eclectically stunning location to house these paintings amongst dentistry tools, plastic botanical plant models, fossils and taxidermy all housed in a spectacularly tiled Victorian red brick building. Other Biennial highlights here include Taus Makhacheva’s fun, mesmerizing and death-defying film, ‘Tightrope’ which I first came across last year at the Venice Biennial; 

Botanical Plant models at the Victoria Gallery & Museum
If viewing art in unusual spaces and contexts is for you then the Biennial almost always delivers in showing art in a host of disused and/or period buildings (many of them over the years have since been developed, for better or worse). For 2018 St George’s Hall situated directly outside Liverpool Lime Street Station is a Grade 1 listed building dated back to 1854 and is used for concert halls and law courts; inside several films are shown within the underground spaces, prison cells and courtroom. The context for these films by Joyce Wieland, Inci Eviner, Aslan Gaisumov, Lamia Joreige, Brian Jungen & Dunane Linklater and Naeem Mohaiemen creates a heightened sense of awareness that is different to the more familiar context of the gallery and leads me to pay more attention than I perhaps normally would. It is not everyday you see a three-screened film in a courtroom or boat sailing across a prison cell wall....! Across the Biennial there are more films being shown than there are hours in the day, which is a bit disappointing if you are limited in time. The Playhouse Theatre in the heart of the city centre features yet more films, Reetu Sattar’s ‘Harano Sur’ (Lost Tune) documents a performance in Bangladesh in which people played one of seven sustained notes on the harmonium. It is worth hearing as much (if not more) as it is worth seeing.

St George's Hall Steps from the Courtroom down to the prison cells
Possibly the most talked about piece from this year’s Biennial is Banu Cennetoğlu’s list tracing the information of more than 34,000 refugees and migrants who have lost their lives within or on the borders of Europe since 1993; displayed in the Biennial on billboards along Great George Street. A work that has been vandalised, restored and eventually left in its now semi-vandalised appearance (as a statement of the political unease that this work generated). The list compiled by UNITED for Intercultural Action has been facilitated by Banu who translated the list and placed it in public spaces such as billboards and newspapers. It is a powerful, if depressing (made slightly even more depressing work for being sabotaged) graphic reminder of the scale of lives lost. Ironically for those who sought to destroy this work it has actually gained more poignancy in the traces of marks made by the glue that once held these posters the billboard than in the physical presence of the names themselves. The glue marks becoming a tally of the violent act in attempting to remove them, the resilience of human endurance and consequence that these names, these people cannot be forgotten; that actions and history have consequence.

Glue residue left from the 'destruction' of  Banu Cennetoglu's list of Refugee names
There is far more to see besides what I have mentioned here and these are my own personal highlights. I feel that out of all the apparent doom and gloom of cuts within art education, austerity, Brexit and Trump that the Biennial has continued to look outwards to what is happening within the arts globally, showing work at a time when it is all too easy to be pessimistic, that there is more that unites us than divides us. Art that calls for more action, more participation through questioning, thinking, speaking/listening, engaging, creating, building, planting and maybe even blogging! Nothing is not an option.

Liverpool Biennial 2018, can be seen at selected venues across the city until October 28th. For more information visit:

Sunday, 2 September 2018

I have often walked down this street before...

Ho illustrious passers-by and greetings from the windward side of town! A veritable map of discovery was last week found amongst the library shelves, who knows for how long it had been there? Never before has an A1 folded sheet of paper probably brought more unexpected joy to a normal working day in providing a treasure map of sorts offering an insight into the architectural history of Taunton, Somerset.
Printed in 1975, Taunton: A look around the centre is an illustrated and annotated map designed by Richard Guise with historical advice from Mick Aston and John Hunt produced for the European Architectural Heritage Year. It was amazing to see just what has changed in the last 43 years (this map was made prior to The Brewhouse Theatre being built, being one such example) and what has largely remained the same. Particularly when it comes to some of Guise’s opinions about the potential uses for space in the town, development of the river and ambition/opportunities present which he has annotated on this map. I wonder how many of them were his own opinions or those gathered from his experiences working with the Civic Society (which now doesn’t even exist!)? Some of them are a little cynical, which makes it even more interesting that it was printed at all when one thinks of similar ‘historical’ maps for the public that are almost lacking in personality for fear of unsettling things. For me, this is interesting as many of the ideas he presented over forty years ago echo the sort of comments collected during a public art consultation project I worked on with Taunton Deane Borough Council and Somerset Art Works in 2010 called, ‘Routes, river, rail’. 

The aim of ‘Routes, river, rail’ was broadly speaking to come up with creative ways of consulting different groups of people in the community and put forward ideas and proposals for how the routes between the train station, river and public spaces such as Firepool, Goodlands Gardens and Tangier within the town could be connected. It was to look at things such as lighting, surfaces, pathways, land-markers, signage, bridges and how different groups have different needs or aspirations of these spaces. Artistic practice was a way of collecting those ideas and proposing ones that could be made reality, it included things from gorilla gardening, painting bridges and creating literally easier to navigate pathways through urban areas (this led to the removal of a part of fencing where Goodlands Gardens meets the bridge on North Street). The ‘could be made’ and ‘proposed’ being the two difficult parts of that sentence. I do not like to dwell too much on past projects, but this one probably had the most significant impact on my understanding of art outside of the academic world, I had graduated a few months before, and into the politics and reality of what art means to people outside that protective art bubble I was so used to. It was when I first discovered blogging and it was a big eye-opener, not all for the better or for worse but made me aware of the attitudes and values that different groups had towards art; some resistant, some open, some hesitant, some confused. I think I was confused too, that suddenly art wasn’t about me, ‘the artist’ and something I was actively making/doing but could be something that we as groups were doing, through walks, talking, making maps, postcards and listening. It put me in touch with some amazing people, Transition Town (who still do a lot of Green activities that included Gorilla gardening), Stefan Jennings (who was commissioned to build the Willow Cathedral in Longrun Meadows) and furthered my links with The Brewhouse Theatre and working with people like Tim Hill on projects such as ‘Sounding out Somerset’ during the Olympics in 2012. 
And though this is all long over the affects of it remain and I am still interested because I still read and see and am party to the impact of developments and changes happening within the town I live in. Finding this map is like finding a missing piece of the puzzle and could have only helped what we were trying to do then and undoubtedly what other groups of people are still trying to do now. It seems to take a lot of repetition before any progress can be made or in order to be listened to. A list of statements from this 1975 map that still hold relevance as follows,
“It’s sad that we so often turn our backs onto rivers in towns.”
“Important skyline”
“Views out over the town to the Quantocks.”
“Two important trees form an effective end to the view down middle street.”
“Blank expanse of wall…ideal for a mural.”
“Why does the highest point in the old town strangely lack drama or a significant building?”
“If we’ve got to have Gasometers why not paint them in good strong colours and designs …they won’t go away because we paint them sky blue.”
“Goodland Gardens -an attempt to attract people back to the neglected river.”
I wish we had had this map in 2010! The politics of this aside the discovery of this map still presents an inspiring example of creative map-making as a way of understanding and learning about place. Maps put facts into context and present snippets of information without overloading people. I learnt several new things such as;
St Johns Church on Park Street was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.
In Victorian times there used to be a workhouse somewhere behind the hospital on East Street.
Musgrove, Galmington, Trull Road and Sherford were sites for the ‘Well-to-do villas built on the windward side of town away from factory smells and fall-out.
In Medieval Taunton the Bishop’s Vivarium later to became Vivary Park.
Taunton was one of the first towns to have street lighting in 1886

I am interested in ways people process information and ways we learn a sense of place, why (for example) this map was more appealing and interesting to me than reading a book on the history of Taunton or visiting the museum? How many other people think the same? This is a very visual way of communicating information and offers locations or vantage points where people might go to see these things first-hand. There were little bits of personal history within this map in particular that appealed to me, from the fact it was printed by Barnicotts of Taunton (where two members of my family worked) to its statement of Crown Walk as being a ‘Potential for events, kiosks, exhibitions -at present a bit sad, wide and empty’ which was before the in-shops were built and my family had a fruit business based there (ironically, I feel it is in danger of becoming a ‘bit sad’ again) and the reference to Taunton having the largest Industry for shirts and Collars in 1896 being the collar factory, where Fine Art students at Somerset College (where I studied) had an art exhibition in 2012. I appreciate this will be irrelevant to most people but I mention because it highlights a more universal truth about how places have resonance, you unfold a map out of a place people know and recognise and automatically they are looking for connections, things they recognise, where they live, where their grandparents lived, where they went to school. It is an opener to a host of other conversations. 

In 1975 the purpose of this map was made as a way of presenting current thoughts of the time, ideas for the future as well as illustrating the evolution of the town throughout history.  Forty-three years later and it is still a presentation of the history of the town but has also become a form of social-history in itself. It is not just a map of architectural history, it is a map of the thoughts and values of the people (the civic society) who made it at the time. Attitudes will have changed, things listed on this map as ‘Taunton’s Top 10’ may no longer be the same. The history is still there but to someone like me in their early thirties or younger this map is now also history in itself. I like the idea that one-day maybe an updated map could be made, an unvetted one that did not have to conform to a council-led directive, but one that reflects the current values, opinions, stories and aspirations of people living in Taunton today.
Maybe? It is something to think on. If anyone has any thoughts on this or knows more about this map then please do get in touch via my contact page. I would be interested in hearing from you.