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Liverpool Biennial 2012 review by Michael Birchall

Liverpool is now hosting its seventh biennial, which is more expansive than previous years and includes exhibitions, projects and tours on the periphery of the city. It is in these spaces that the most challenging work can be found. The main exhibition venue for ‘The Unexpected Guest’ uses the former headquarters of the Cunard shipping company, an imposing early 20th-century structure adjacent to the Liver building. The two rooms were once used as arrival and departure lounges for first class customers, and this history is very closely connected with the curatorial premise: hospitality. Curator Lorenzo Fuzi sees this exhibition as a signifier for the end of the ‘hospitality era.’ I am not entirely sure if I would agree with this, since Liverpool as well as other cities are economically dependent on consumption. The end of the ‘hospitality era’ would surely mean no more biennials’

The grandeur of the Cunard building overwhelms the works on view, which focus on the changing role of migration, travel and cultural influences in the global context. Superflex’s ‘Liverpool to Let’ features facsimiles of real estate signage that are hand painted. They appear as flags, perhaps the sort of flags that may have adorned the waiting room showcasing the range of destinations the Cunard shipping company once offered. I am unsure whether this is intended to be critical of the current housing market slump or an appraisal; I had expected Superflex to develop something more socially engaged. Ahmet Ogut’s video ‘Let it be known to all persons here gathered’ portrays a town crier on horseback heading from rural Lancashire to Liverpool. It functions as a homage to Liverpool’s former industrial trading roots.

Aside from the main biennial site other venues such as Tate Liverpool, Bluecoat and FACT have curated exhibitions under the overarching theme. ‘City States’ appears again as it did last year, and includes a selection of 13 cities, including Birmingham, Copenhagen, Gdansk, Hong Kong and Wellington. This appears in yet another post-industrial building, the former Post Office, although this is not mentioned in any press material. The venue feels like a world fair - except what is most striking is the ephemera and equipment left from the Post Office; much in the same way Manifesta 9 was held in the former Waterschei mine in Genk, Belgium. While Liverpool perhaps has an identity problem grappling with its own shift from a centre of production to a service provider, so does the biennial. How long can the Liverpool Biennial occupy former industrial buildings and reclaim them as exhibition venues’ It is the very buildings themselves that can tell the story of their demise and globalism, not only the artworks on view.

‘The Anfield Home Tour’ offers a unique perspective to the regular biennial-going visitor, and focuses on the negative regeneration culture initiated by the Labour government. This area, home to the football club, is fractured; its community has been removed and the future looks uncertain. The tour alludes to the Beatles tours that take place across the city. A friendly local guide called Carl delivers it, with several additions from local residents who tell their personal stories of the demolition and eviction programmes. The tour concludes at ‘2Up2Down/Homebaked’ - a project by Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk. This community-owned building will soon become a functioning bakery and community centre: it is hoped it will once again reunite the fractured community. While I am hesitant as to whether or not the project will sustain itself in the future, and how much van Heeswijk will remain on board, this dissolved as I engaged with the volunteers who are benefiting from having a place of their own supported by the Biennial (and other sponsors). It should be the biennial’s duty to support projects outside the city and to maintain a long term investment into the people who are involved in them.

On the periphery of the city and the main biennial venues, The Royal Standards’s project, ‘Service Provider’ sees the artist-run space being outsourced to other artist collectives in the form of week-long residencies. These collectives include other artist-run spaces, and their aim is to offer a critique of our service based economy. Artists are increasingly shifting their practices to post-studio work by initiating situations, as they are unable to produce the expensive objects desired by the commercial art market. It is ironic that this project operates in the context of the biennial, as the Royal Standard itself has been outsourced by the biennial to provide this service. As an artist-run space it receives little state funding in comparison with the Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool and FACT - and is run by volunteer directors.

The Royal Standard have devised one of the most interesting aspects to this biennial as it questions the very biennial model it is part of - particularly the ideas of hospitality and service that are increasingly prominent in the post-Fordist period. It is this structure that has transformed Liverpool into a service provider and destroyed almost all traces of its industrial path. I can only hope the next biennial outsources further projects to rely less on established models of representation.

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