A biennial, in its very essence - spread across a complex network within a given city, involving diverse institutions, spaces and communities in the development of exhibitions, public artworks and performances - makes for a multifaceted, often fragmentary experience. The art viewing experience is intricately bound up with that of the city itself, beginning with how and where one chooses a point of entry - a train station, a car park, an airport – and the first exhibition or artwork you subsequently visit.
These pre-planned first steps, researched and plotted the night before, quickly find themselves interrupted by a series of chance encounters: a public sculpture on route to an exhibition venue, a text written down the side of a building unexpectedly imposing itself to be read, an unusually painted bus briefly stopping you in your tracks. The fragmentary nature of these experiences provide moments of productive engagement as well as, at times, somewhat confusing and uncertain encounters, episodic in character yet constantly beckoning the question of their relation: of the narratives, background stories and conceptual frameworks that serve to unite them. What is always already an inevitable attribute of a city-wide exhibition is actively embraced and enhanced by this year’s Liverpool Biennial. Using the thematic framework of the ‘episode’, the Biennial’s programme brings together a constellation of diverse narrative fragments, scenarios and scenes that populate the city in the form of works by forty-four different artists and their suggested curatorial frames of relation. This overarching, episodic theme quickly splits into six further subcategories – Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Monuments from the Future, Children’s Episode, Flashback and Software – that reconsider fragments of Liverpool’s diverse history or offer facets of an imagined future city.
Drawing upon the architectural heritage of the city, the first floor galleries of Tate Liverpool are host to the episode ‘Ancient Greece’. Referencing a 19th century vision for Liverpool’s cityscape to model itself on Ancient Greece, the elegant display merges the historical with the contemporary, providing the stage for an imagined other cityscape upon which contemporary and Grecian norms of aesthetics playfully intermingle. Grecian vases and inaccurately restored sculptural remains from the city’s Ince Blundell Collection sit alongside contemporary works by artists Betty Woodman, Samson Kambalu, Jumana Manna and Lawrence Abu Hamdan. A new film by Andreas Angelidakis explores the use of Greek vases as a medium to disseminate myth. Drawing parallels between the engraved vases and the internet, the film reflects on old and new media, of information sharing, knowledge exchange and the circulation of narrative and meaning.
Continuing both an architectural and technological thread, Dennis McNulty’s performance ‘Homo Gestalt: The Time Domain’ merges the history of Liverpool’s brutalist building The Sandcastle with narratives of city planning, bureaucracy, and collective decision making. Similar themes emerge in McNulty’s data driven installation and digital app at Bluecoat Gallery in the ‘Software’ episode, which draw on the concept of the multinode (a collective or biological decision making entity). Digital technologies and questions of virtual space, architecture and city-planning are further harnessed in the Biennial’s initiation of a collaborative artwork in Minecraft. The latter invites individuals across the globe to contribute to the world’s largest virtual exhibition and extends the biennial’s concern with the episode as a series of multiple and fragmentary encounters that exist across different spatial and temporal realms.
Throughout the different episodes a concern with technology is apparent in various artists works. For instance, in the episode ‘Flashback’, Fabien Giraud and Raphael Siboni’s film series ‘The Unmanned’ recounts a history of technology in reverse. References to technological advancement are also evident throughout Mark Leckey’s film ‘Dream English Kid’, which sees spinning vinyl transform into a child-like animation of futuristic broadcast machines.
Viewing the works and considering the relationship between the different thematic threads of technology, multiple narratives and their perpetual rewriting, I am prompted to recall the work of Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler. Their respective accounts of the essential role of writing-technologies – exteriorized, inscriptive forms of retention – in the experience of temporality, here chimes with a great number of works that engage with the shifting nature of archival inscription. From explorations of storytelling as a particular form of knowledge transmission, to considerations of the continuities and differences of various forms of analogue and digital technologies of inscription, from epic recitations to alphabetic writing, the printed word to computer software programming. The biennial’s framework of differently titled episodes, which at first read as a somewhat disconnected series, perhaps come to be more closely interlinked when considered from the point of view of the interweaving relations of time, history, futurity and technology (in the broadest sense) that runs as a concern throughout.
Returning to the individual works themselves, bridging both the conceptual and physical act of storytelling, Audrey Cottin’s ‘Flour Tables’ employ the psychoanalytic methods of Carl Jung by inviting exhibition visitors to tell a story with flour and dough to reveal the latent narratives of the wider cityscape. Every weekend a graphic artist records the resulting stories that are subsequently published online. The previously hidden stories are rendered more and more manifest, momentarily and precariously marked by physical traces through flour before coming to reside more permanently in a digital realm.
The pervading theme of computer software brings with it a discussion of access. Questions of open access and the freedom of information translate into a problematization of restricted physical movement in the work of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. From their current exile in Dubai, the trio have smuggled objects, props, films and artworks from their personal collection into Liverpool by sea. Spread over the episodes of Ancient Greece, Chinatown and Flashback and appearing in a number of different locations and venues, the collection of objects and works becomes increasingly familiar and at times dizzyingly repetitive. Subsequently, my movement through the different episodes is less one of linear progression but one of loops, returns and experiences of belated resonance that the repeated works provide. Work by Betty Woodman and Sahej Rahal further re-appear and return in different locations under different episode themes.
Temporal and narrative loops continue to unfold in ‘Children’s Episode’. Children interpret and understand the world differently to adults. For them, the future is the next five minutes just as it is the next 5 years, and a temporal compression readily occurs. ‘Children’s Episode’ actively engages with imagined futures as well as drawing on the city’s past. Koki Tanaka’s work revisits the scene of a 1985 protest which saw 10 000 school children walk out of their classrooms in protest of the conservative governments Youth Training Scheme. Design studio Hato have worked with school children to develop ‘Hello Future Me’, an Arriva bus painted with coded messages to the future citizens of Liverpool.
Returning to the repeated movement of oscillation between past histories and imagined futures, Mariana Castillo Deball’s work ‘To-day 9th of July 2016’, fittingly spanning the episodes of Flashback and Monuments from the Future, employs a calendar date as a kind of time-lapse recording device. Deball has produced a newspaper containing a collection of found stories published on the 9th of July across different years, decades and centuries. The newspaper invites the reader to further consider the potential future stories from this date . In a similar merging of gathered pasts and possible futures, Arseny Zhilyaev has transformed a terraced house in Granby into a futuristic museological display that pays homage to 17th Century astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks. The Flashback episode also contains new film works by Yin-Ju Chen which bring together evidence of the mythic race of Lemurians on earth interweaving historical moments from the 1950s with an evolving interpretation of the Lemurian race.
In short, the Biennial uses the episodic as a means to explore multiple histories, narratives and identities of Liverpool from past, present and future perspectives. Sliding between, compressing and weaving together diverse temporal and spatial realms, the programme presents a number of works that playfully reconsider and reframe fragmentary accounts of historical and contemporary portrayals of the city in order to provide threads of an alternative perspective. It successfully eschews the linear unfolding of history to shape new, playful and imaginative narrative encounters.