Liverpool Biennial: gin tea, agency, sorting and shipping

I am drinking cold ginger and thyme tea from a teacup in a forest on a Friday night. Anticipation hangs in the air as our small group swells in number. Our hosts are present but absent. We must all possess masochistic tendencies, as we knew this evening was going to be inhospitable, but… here we are. Like any gathering of strangers there is some small talk. It is a bit like that first day of university, or like when the Big Brother contestants enter the house for the first time and are plied with booze. Is there gin in this tea, by the way?

This evening was the first of two Inhospitable Supper Clubs at Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) in association with Leaf. The advertising blurb described it as “a three-course meal and a dining experience exploring themes of social constructs”; it is part of the Unexpected Guest strand of Liverpool Biennial and is an attempt to disrupt the ‘host’ concept. If you have a ticket to the second one, the following might contain spoilers (the event is now sold out). The forest is actually an art installation called The Inhospitable Landscape, which has very successfully transformed the space so that it feels like an inverted cabin in the woods; the perfect setting for a horror film. There is bark underfoot and rustling in the leaves and the floor boards above are creaking.

The chat around the table is pleasant and the food is delicious. The Big Brother reference wasn’t totally flippant as the event is being streamed live on the internet, which (perhaps due to the wine served with every course) we soon forget about. Suggestion, however, is a powerful force. As the meal goes on we start to wonder just why it has been so pleasant. The rustling starts to feel a bit unsettling. What are those footsteps? Is there something under the table?! All of a sudden one of the other guests is standing on her chair and there is much shrieking. As the shrieking subsides there is a bit of finger pointing – was it you? Did you see the table cloth move just then? But before anything horrible happens, the evening was over. Was the event a bit miss-sold or was the word ‘inhospitable’ enough to give what would have otherwise been a very nice evening a bit of an edge?

This wasn’t the only piece of performative art that took place during the last two weeks. The Royal Standard – another artist-led organisation who were made an official partner of Liverpool Biennial 2012 – opened the second of their five-part Service Provider programme this week. Fran Disley, one of the TRS Directors, says that “the intention of Service Provider was to interrogate what we [TRS] do by inviting other similar organisations to deliver projects in our exhibition space that offer an interesting response to this notion.” This week saw the opening of ‘The Agency’ conceived and delivered (performed?) by Generator Projects from Dundee.

“Hello! Welcome to the Agency. Would you like to browse our products? Please take a number, one of my colleagues will be with you now.” A woman in her 20s or 30s, fuchsia lipstick, quiff, pencil skirt, greeted my friend and I as we arrived at lunchtime on the opening day. She gestured towards her colleague in identical costume, sitting behind a desk. Before we had time to think about the way that the space was used, or the way this subverted the ‘exhibition’ experience we expected, we were thrown straight into the role of customers and compelled to play along. Agency staff signed us up to the ‘artcrawl’ tour on Long Night before we even realised that we were both working that night and wouldn’t be able to go. Since our visit, judging from twitter, the Agency has mostly been engaged in a string of raucous office parties. I am sad to miss the artcrawl as I am sure that it will be a hoot and I urge anyone who hasn’t already to swing by and sign up.


The exhibitions I saw this week were also both linked to the idea of transforming or ‘repurposing’ buildings. The first was the Cunard Building, where the Liverpool Biennial team have curated their flagship Unexpected Guest show. This iconic building housed the waiting areas for passengers of the White Star Line until the 1960s and it is a powerful backdrop to the exhibition. The artists and the ideas here are very international (which is fitting in this location) but, on occasion, attempts to bring the conversation back to Liverpool are heavy-handed. Where it is done in a subtler way it works better. Project Curator Rosie Cooper tells us that when she bought a school group to see Ponte by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, they thought it was Liverpool and tried to look for their homes, when in fact the artwork was made in Johannesburg, South Africa. The piece slideshows though views from the windows of a tower block going up the floors, unintentionally demonstrating that cities the world over share the legacy of failed ‘utopian intentions’.

Lastly, and perhaps most geekily exciting in terms of access to a space was my visit this week to the Copperas Hill building. The former Royal Mail sorting office, now the property of Liverpool John Moores University, is the location for the Bloomburg New Contemporaries and City States strands of Liverpool Biennial 2012, as well as housing a new commission by Jorge Macchi, which is part of the Unexpected Guest. The New Contemporaries was the usual rag bag of recent graduate work, some of which was elegant and confident (I especially liked the work of Jackson Sprague who made sculptures and wall-based work that seemed to flow effortlessly from the same spring of inspiration) while some clung to a tiresome YBA vocabulary (see the ceramic squirrel).

As we ascended the building to see City States, we became quite involved with the story of the closure of the building and the re-housing of the sorting office to Warrington. The notice-boards, clocking in machines and machinery of sorting have all been left untouched like ancient monuments (even though the building was in use until 2010). We assumed that this will change when the university re-purposes the building again into class rooms, studios or whatever it has in mind. I recommend you visit to see it in use as an art gallery in case you never have another chance to see inside. The City States exhibition itself contained some individually fascinating works but the overall narrative was hard to engage with. My favourite piece was the deadpan but fantastically ambitious installation Black Pillow by Audrius Bučas and Valdas Ozarinskas.

This year repurposing and transforming buildings seems to have taken precedence over artworks in the public realm. This is sad because in previous Biennials pieces of art that interrupted the fabric of our everyday lives were a staple. They helped to give the city a buzz and also to engage people without having to step over the threshold of an art gallery – something that is still a fearful or reluctant experience for many. Perhaps there are cost limitations to public realm work and maybe they are not seen as the most cutting-edge or critically challenging (the Abba house from Liverpool Biennial 2004 in particular was a mysterious entity). The memorable experiences this year are definitely things like the events programme of the artist-led spaces and the opportunity to see some of Liverpool’s hidden architectural gems. It takes a bit more time and effort to see the exhibitions and go to events but sometimes, sadly, the art isn’t the highlight of the show.

 First published on the Liverpool Daily Post Arts Blog October 15 2012

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