By Kenn Taylor
In September, the seventh Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest and most visited visual arts festival, takes place in a city and a global environment very different from its first edition in 1999. With former director Lewis Biggs moving on, the Biennial has just appointed a new Artistic Director and CEO, Sally Tallant, formerly Head of Programmes at London’s Serpentine Gallery.
Despite having arrived a few just months ago, at a festival which began its planning as far back as 2010, Tallant has already made her influence felt: “Many of the artists had already been selected, but nothing was confirmed when I arrived. I’ve mainly been focusing on shaping the curatorial coherence of the Biennial across our programme partners.”
This year’s Biennial theme, ‘hospitality’, which unites all of the disparate artists, works and exhibitions, was already in place when she took over. However Tallant has focused this down further to a title – ‘the unexpected guest.’ “The notion of a guest is interesting,” she says. “We’re guests in the city, the artists are our guests. The art itself is a guest. The notions of hospitality; how long does hospitality last? How long are you willing to offer that? It’s very interesting also with the way in which Liverpool is transforming itself into a tourism and leisure orientated economy.”
When the Biennial began, Liverpool was yet to undergo its vast redevelopment or win its European Capital of Culture title, a status aided in part by the Biennial itself. This is something which has placed both the festival and the city at the centre of debates around arts-led regeneration. Tallant sees this as the Liverpool Biennial’s key point of difference from all the other art festivals in the world: “Liverpool has an amazing history of arts-led regeneration, going back a very long way. I think it’s absolutely crucial to involve artists, writers and philosophers, poets in thinking about how a city reinvents and builds itself. In particular in Liverpool, a post-industrial city, where it’s possible to ask questions around the value of art and its role in urban contexts.”
The Biennial takes over virtually all of Liverpool’s cultural venues, along with numerous public realm interventions and temporary sites across the city. In the past, because of this vastness, the festival has been criticised for lacking coherence. This is something Tallant has been focusing on since her tenure began: “I’ve been working closely with my colleagues to ensure that when people come to Liverpool, they’ll experience something that feels very fluid, integrated and coherent. I’m thinking about the Biennial as a period of time. So it lasts ten weeks, but has eleven weekends. We’ve developed themes programmed with content for each weekend, so each one will be a mini festival in itself.”
Many of the artworks in this year’s festival will be kept under wraps till nearer the event, but one project Tallant can revel continues Liverpool Biennial‘s tradition of interventions into the public realm, literally bringing contemporary art out into the streets: “We’re working with an Israeli artist called Oded Hirsch, who is making a very large-scale intervention into Liverpool 1. It is a sculptural work that will appear to burst through the very fabric of the shopping district and it will be asking a question around ‘what are those places?’ and what is it that lies beneath. I think it will be a very uncanny interruption into the everyday.”
Despite the scale and scope of the Liverpool Biennial, the festival has still often lacked critical attention or recognition and this is also something Tallant wants to address. “If you look at the artists that we’ve had in the Biennial,” she says, “it’s incredible really. Some the most important contemporary artists of our time and there’s been a few hundred of them. What I think is we haven’t always done is communicated that. So I am building on the existing partnerships the Biennial has, but also bringing in stronger, I hope, ones that I have built up by working in London for the last 15 years.”
One of her key aims is to highlight Liverpool as the ‘UK’s Biennial’ and emphases its international role: “By positioning us as the UK’s Biennial, I think we’ll be able to work more productively in terms of collaboration with other partners in the UK, as well as thinking about strong research partnerships internationally. Building on the idea of research with other cities in the world facing similar issues to Liverpool in terms of post-industry and the necessity for rethinking around urbanism and reinvention.”
15th September – 25th November 2012
This piece appeared in f22 magazine in June 2012.