WHEN THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY Lancashire patron Henry Blundell found himself flummoxed by a newly acquired sculpture of a sleeping hermaphrodite, he simply indulged in a little sculptural reassignment surgery to produce the sleeping Venus he desired. For a collector of antiquities, he was, peculiarly, not precious about the past.
While Blundell’s tastes may smack of small-mindedness, Lancashire’s neighboring city of Liverpool—now home to his collection—prides itself on its own flexible appropriation of global history. In an age of rapidly spiking nationalism, the city is emphatically multicultural. Its strong Neoclassical affiliations coincide with the oldest Chinatown district in Europe, while Liverpool-based shipping companies helped facilitate the international flows of human traffic—voluntary and otherwise—that fuel the annual, Caribbean-accented carnival of cultural diversity, Brouhaha Festival. While always spirited, this year’s festivities burned all the brighter in the shadow of Brexit.
“Liverpool is a city built on migration,” Liverpool Biennial director Sally Tallant told the crowd at the press preview for the Ninth Liverpool Biennial, which opened on July 9, a day before Brouhaha. “We’re reliant on the opportunities to work with international artists from all over the world and the possibilities migration opens up. We need to find ways to make sure that ground is not lost, and the world doesn’t become a smaller place.”
This edition of the biennial was built around “episodes” rather than a central theme, but, in a nod to Liverpool’s proud blend of lineages, the branded green tote bags all posed the same question: WHERE ARE YOU FROM? This diversity of experience was also reflected in the exhibition’s “Curatorial Faculty,” eleven curators strong (not counting the cameo from Istanbul Biennial’s Özkan Cangüven, there to test-run a curatorial exchange program). Making the most of a pedestrian-friendly city (jaywalking is the preferred mode of transport), the biennial scattered across greater Liverpool, even commandeering mobile venues like custom-designed Arriva buses, a passing ferry, and an ice cream truck. The last had been reprogrammed by artists Elena Narbutaitė, Kevin Rice, and DES to replace its usual jingle with an eerie thrumming sound. After watching the truck cruise by several venues, I finally spotted it parked outside the Oratory and made my move. Introducing myself to the driver as an accredited member of the press, I asked him how people were responding to the sound and whether it had begun messing with his head. “Well, I wouldn’t say that, love…” he started, clearly nervous. Wrong truck.
Seizing on the potential of the episodic structure, each venue had its own narrative arcs, though often played out with a recurring cast of artists. One of the biennial’s most cohesive presentations was “Ancient Greece,” masterminded by artist Koenraad Dedobbeleer, who paired selections from Blundell’s collection of classical (if occasionally tweaked) sculptures with a series of fresh commissions by Jumana Manna, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Andreas Angelidakis, and Betty Woodman (who also contributed a knockout public fountain in front of the city’s Liver Building). At ABC Cinema, a choreographed viewing experience cloaked the entire space in darkness for the length of Fabien Girard and Raphaël Siboni’s all-female film 1922–The Uncomputable, the latest installment in the ongoing series “The Unmanned,” which tracks the inherent failures of technology from the vantage point of a future where the earth is already lost. (They set this at 7242, which, judging by current headlines, frankly seems generous.) Over at the Cains Brewery, works sprouted throughout Angelidakis’s Collider, a spiraling vortex-like structure in the center of the warehouse space. Another corner of the room was colonized by contraptions by brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. Their whimsical assemblages doubled as secret vessels for far more valuable works by other artists, which had been smuggled into the country sans papiers. How will they get them back to Dubai? The men traded glances. “I guess the same way?” Rahmanian ventured.
In those halcyon days just prior to Pokemon Go, visitors could be spotted dashing tablet-first through the former brewery, chasing after some virtual beast, courtesy of Ian Cheng’s Emissary Forks for You. The augmented-reality program prompted users to play master and servant with a digital hound named Shiba Emissary, who, as it turns out, catches you, the user, rather than the other way around. Cheng had a second installation in Chinatown, where his 2015 digital simulation Someone’s Thinking of You was broadcast from a flat-screen mounted along the CCTV monitors at the Hondo Chinese supermarket. Mr. Hondo was apparently something of a Godfather figure in Chinatown, Cheng confided. “He told me people don’t just come to him for groceries; they come when they have a problem that needs solving.” I tried to imagine how someone with a nebulous “problem” might find consolation in Cheng’s nebulously sinister gospel of entropy instead.
Resolution (or lack thereof) underlined the biennial commissions at FACT. Lucy Beech’s quiet stunner of a film, Pharmakon, tracks the dubious treatments of a woman suffering from a mysterious malady, under the care of a steely-serene vlogger, who “manages pain into product.” “Let’s be alone together,” this would-be healer purrs, hooking her disciples on her personally branded water. The sense of isolation resonated in the accompanying survey of works by Krzysztof Wodiczko, including headgear that simulates the symptoms of PTSD, and heartbreaking testimonials on the emotional toll of war.
Liverpool has been developing in leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years, but the city still bears the scars of recent traumas. This is particularly evident in the area of Liverpool 8—also known as Toxteth—home to the Turner Prize–winning architectural collective Assemble’s Granby Workshop. In the 1980s, the neighborhood had been the site of widely covered riots, as residents took a stand against the systemic racism in Merseyside police’s treatment of young black men, an abundantly abused “stop-and-frisk” policy being the final straw. Thatcher’s disastrous attempts to “revitalize” the area included the compulsory buyouts—“It’s a British thing,” artist Alisa Baremboym shrugged—of entire blocks. Brave holdouts may have eventually prevented these plans from going forward, but Thatcher bit back with a policy of “managed decline.” Now stunning Victorian houses sit vacant, their windows shuttered with steel screens. “It’s like, you can see in, but you can’t live there,” Baremboym observed. Intrigued, she obtained one of these screens to veil the sculpture she created for an empty lot a few blocks down from the Granby Workshop. If you pressed your nose to the screen, you could make out a softly shimmering biomorphic form inside.
Political action took another shape at Open Eye Gallery, where artist Koki Tanaka restaged the city’s historic 1985 protest, when upward of thirty thousand students took to the streets to protest the exploitative Youth Training Scheme. (Imagine mandatory internships…) Tanaka interviewed protest veterans together with the new generation of their children, many of whom joined in the reenactment. “There were at least ten thousand in the city center,” I was told by photographer Dave Sinclair, who chronicled the event in his book Liverpool in the 1980s, and whose negatives Tanaka had included in his display. “I was a Liverpool fan at the time, and the stadium holds ten thousand, so I know what I’m talking about.”
Throughout the opening weekend, temporary communities formed around performances by Dennis McNulty and Michael Portnoy, as well as a secret project involving colored pencils and a nondisclosure agreement. Originally plotted as a kind of progressive theater at Rotterdam’s Witte de With, Portnoy’s Relational Stalinism: The Musical reveled in an elasticity both physical and semantic, his performers spinning mesmerizing half-truths out of seemingly incomprehensible combinations of words, gestures, slogans, synchronized blinking, and Skype calls to Citibank. The speed-of-light scripts were sprinkled with satirical digs at overly ambitious press releases while openly checking the art world’s reluctance to embrace theater the way it has choreography. “If your disgust for being in a theater becomes too unbearable, in the blackouts you can imagine you are walking from one cool gray room to the next in a contemporary arts institution,” Portnoy teased the audience. Those who appeared too engaged in their own thoughts were singled out of their seats and treated to private performances (presumably corrective in nature).
Friday night found me synthesizing it all over a dinner Edouard Malingue Gallery hosted for the charming Indonesian collective Tromarama, who had settled their solo show directly in the apartment of a good-natured Liverpudlian. Videos peeked out from kitchen counters or shoe cupboards, while a lenticular print projected the pixelated image of a couch through the living-room window, creating the impression that viewers were looking out at the world from inside the television. For lack of space in the flat, cocktails were held at the Carpathia, the rooftop bar in the building owned by the White Star Line—the proprietors of the Titanic, but also one of the main engines (literally) of emigration in the late nineteenth century, when they introduced the affordable “passenger class.” Named after the steamship that rescued Titanic’s survivors, the Carpathia features comparable decor to the doomed ship, but its drawing rooms are now filled with bachelorette parties balancing strawberry daiquiris on toothpick heels.
It was from the balconies of this building that the flustered White Star administrators once read off the names of the drowned. Fitting then, that—two or three drinks in—we used it to discuss the crash of other titans, as America, Britain, and Europe all continued to compete for the title of biggest shit show. “I went from an area that was majority Remain to an area where more than 70 percent of the population voted Leave,” sighed Lewis Biggs, former director of the Liverpool Biennial, now of the Folkestone Triennale. “Creating a public for politics is the same as creating a public for art. Liverpool has one, but Folkestone needs one.” Blame it on my cynicism (maybe I should have ordered a strawberry daiquiri for myself), but something about his optimism reminded me of the line about managing pain into product. Do we know another way to heal these days?