In 2004, Art In Liverpool set out to do one thing and one thing only: to share the incredible visual culture the city of Liverpool had to show. It did pretty well for itself out of that, and still does. But it creates a challenge around what we do and who we are, not just as a publication, but as a city.
In 2018, we’re now a city region. It’s more important to the magazine and more important to the work we do than we could have imagined because it suddenly reflects the flaws of the arts back at us. Fine art, visual art, contemporary art; whatever title you give it, it has that stigma attached of being a privileged pursuit. The privilege doesn’t apply so much in this region these days, but what does is the pursuit. Why should we, as a region whose culture inspires so many creative realisations, have to get on a bus to see art in the city centre, 10 miles from our homes?
Well, yeh. It’s hard to justify, really. So we brought back the Independents Biennial, and in the busy months that followed our phones didn’t stop ringing, our inboxes overflowed and we found ourselves at the helm of a festival that works with every borough of the city region.
Writing this, with four weeks to go until the biggest Independents Biennial since 2008, and after four years away, every second of the work is worth it. Because we’ve been able to work with artists born in Liverpool who have come back from around the world, artists from around the world who have moved to Liverpool, and artists who have spent their lives in the region. Such a range of people have got on board, producing some of the most engaging, loving exhibitions and events we’ve seen brought together for a long time.
We’re the back-seat driver helping it along. The artists who are about to show a 3.5km arts trail in Rimrose Valley, or work with communities and empty space in L7, or take over St John’s Market for four months – they’re who you need to come and see. Because for the first time in a long time, St Helens, Knowsley, Sefton and Wirral are just as much at the heart of this as Liverpool.
As I write, I’m still being sent images from ever more passionate artists to accompany their exhibitions, with one from an artist working with Rimrose Valley Friends that cries out to save her sanctuary space. The country park, bordered by railway and canal, is under threat of being tarmacked, making it one of a few sanctuary spaces in the region to be rediscovered through the festival alongside Hilbre Island, Tunstall Street, Hoylake Parade and Fulwood Community Garden.
And while each of them will be filled with artists in one way or another, it’s probably Kiara Mohamed’s Humanscape project that will tell the truest tale of Liverpool, and the spaces it pulls together. A set of aerial photography documenting her sanctuary city – a city the artist migrated to after being disowned by her family for refusing to marry a stranger – it captures spaces we’re familiar with, but uses them to tell a story of safety, and of choice. Liverpool, while far from perfect, is a space that fosters freedom.
Working with local artists in the region’s most significant galleries puts the festival in a unique position, with projects like Kiara Mohamed’s getting to the heart of local issues, alongside some of the world’s most important artists, visiting the city for Liverpool Biennial. In 1999, the Liverpool Biennial hit the streets and, after a slight bump (perhaps the millennium didn’t count?), it came back three years later in 2002.
Now on its 10th edition, the Biennial’s fringe activity has found itself playing a more crucial role than ever before. Known as Tracey in 1999, Independents Liverpool Biennial between 2002 and 2014, and Biennial Fringe in 2016, it’s perhaps been a little less reliable than its sister. Now, Independents Biennial (minus Liverpool) is here, with its own agenda.
This year has seen major galleries sign up to work with early career artists, and some of the region’s most significant organisations have created opportunities for local artists to show alongside one of the world’s most significant arts festivals. In St Helens, Knowsley and Wirral, three artists have been commissioned to create new work for the festival, working with Heart Of Glass, the Williamson and Kirkby Gallery in the first commissions of their kind for the Independents.
Brigitte Jurack will be the first artist installed at Williamson Art Gallery’s new Green Gallery, with a project that tackles the indefinable nature of Oxton Road – one of Merseyside’s most culturally diverse spaces. Rather than dropping in and going away again, Brigitte has had a relationship with Oxton Road for years, as one of the co-founders of Alternator Studios, whose Translating The Street project in 2016 worked with shops and hairdressers on the street. Her latest sculptural work is a response to that kaleidoscope of independent local industry.
In Knowsley, local illustrator Cath Garvey takes a look at the flaws of the global comic industry by delivering workshops that can only work in Kirkby. Putting girls at the heart of her stories, and inviting everyone and anyone to produce their own comics, we’ll be producing a massive collection of new comics through the festival, which put the focus on local women.
Kate Hodgson is planning a series of public print workshops responding to the industrial past of St Helens, in the year the town turns 150, and I’ve just got home from a meeting with Yellow Door Artists, having learned all about their plans working with St Helens’ twin town of Stuttgart. And in Sefton, Threshold Festival – usually confined to the Baltic Triangle – have been commissioned to host a one-day only Threshold in Princess Diana Gardens. Performance, live art, workshops, music and a lot of energy will greet visitors to the Sefton Open, where artists from around the region are shown on the walls of the borough’s largest gallery and museum.
The energy coming out of the boroughs of Merseyside is unbelievable and this year’s Independents Biennial will be the start of a long journey in discovering what culture is to the Liverpool city region.
Alongside the commissions are artists from around the North West pushing their own boundaries, including five artists form LJMU and Liverpool Hope who will be taking on their biggest gallery yet as part of the new Independents Biennial Graduate Exhibition Award, in the former George Henry Lee building.
And in St John’s Market, the most human retail space in the city, we’ll be working with over 80 artists over four months, alongside active shops and cafés, to tell a unique story of art in the Liverpool city region in a space that will change each and every day, showing new work, new conversations and forgotten histories.
Independents Biennial 2018 set out to give the artists of the Liverpool city region a significant voice. From 14th July, it’s your chance to listen.
Head to artinliverpool.com/independentsbiennial2018 to find out more about this year’s fringe programme, which runs between 14th July and 28th October.