Independents Biennial, a diary

George Henry Lee's, 2018. c. Tony Knox

Independents Biennial, a diary

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

I’ll start where I mean to end; something happened this year that clarified a new responsibility for Art in Liverpool.

In February, we confirmed that we were going to coordinate this year’s Independents Biennial. A revival of a festival that holds incredibly dear memories to a huge number of artists in the city, and divides others.

Access to opportunities through the Independents Biennial is probably the most divisive issue, to audiences and artists, but for 2018 we decided to start a journey that will hopefully change that. We’ve not achieved it yet.

2018 was the most diverse roster of artists in the festival’s history, with more LGBT+ artists, more BAME artists, and more artists with disabilities than past editions. It was a step towards reflecting the residents of Merseyside through the artists that represent them, their identities and the conversations being had by communities and groups that represent them.

2020 will be more diverse, and hopefully an accurate reflection of the region. 2018 wasn’t, but the discussions we had as a result were fiercely revealing.

The potential to open up a revived art market in Liverpool was also contentious. Artists who felt sales were critical to being able to continue a practice, and artists who felt that selling work limited their output. Balancing the two wasn’t a plan we had, but the results of 2018 will hopefully lead us to one for next time.

But by far the biggest issue historically with the Independents is how it lives up to its name, while providing opportunities to artists who deserve to exhibit in the biggest and best connected galleries. This year, events were hosted by studios, independent galleries (who ran their own programme within the festival), public space with the support of councillors and councils – who allowed artists to develop new work without restriction, and Liverpool’s most established galleries.

Tate Liverpool hosted three major exhibitions as part of the festival, Bluecoat hosted the festival’s Graduate award winners for an in-conversation event with Fauziya Johnson, Amber Akaunu and Sally Slingsby, and Walker Art Gallery hosted a huge new partnership with the Big Draw, who launched their international festival of drawing in Liverpool. The launch featured workshops and interactive art from three Independents Biennial artists.

Clarifying the roles of councils and internationally renowned institutions is going to be key moving forwards, and hopefully continued relationships with local partners (Liverpool Biennial, Heart of Glass, Kirkby Gallery, The Atkinson, Metal and Williamson Art Gallery & Museum) will help that.

The partners supported the commissioned production of new work, revivals of old work, and development of completely unique workshop practices.

The commissions were probably the most significant development in 2018, enabling artists with connections to St Helens, Sefton, Wirral and Knowsley to create new work that focussed on the identity of the space they inhabited.

Brigitte Jurack’s Oxton Rock became the first installation in Birkenhead’s Williamson Art Gallery, taking to the incredibly local Oxton Road for its inspiration. Cath Garvey’s workshops at Kirkby Gallery engaged local children in an effort to reform their opinions of comic book heroes – instead focussing on female lead characters. The results of that workshop will stay with its participants for a lifetime.

Kate Hodgson’s workshops in St Helens ran right through the festival, with local groups responding to St Helens’ one-of-a-kind local history through a range of female voices in print. While in Southport, the Sefton commission saw Threshold Festival take a Baltic Triangle focussed event to a space where art forms share space, but rarely share time.

Their mini-Threshold took place over one day and invited people who would ordinarily miss out on their festival to get involved.

Opening up the Independents Biennial to the entire region created a situation we hadn’t anticipated though; audiences were seeing things related to their own community, and missing the work of others.

Perhaps it’s a question of transportation, and physical access that links the boroughs of Merseyside, or of rethinking the sorts of commissions – or even embracing the localised festivals that happened within the Independents this year.

The gallery that bucked that trend was the Williamson; which hosted the second largest amount of exhibitions in the entire festival. The gallery held the installation by Brigitte Jurack from the very start to the very end of the festival, it also hosted Tom Wood’s Cammell Laird documentary photographs, Cian Quayle’s images of transition, following in the footsteps of Malcolm Lowry, Textile21’s On the Edge of…

And then there was the central pop-up that hosted dozens of exhibitions over just thirteen weeks.

George Henry Lee’s presented the power of local artists to make a difference. It’s transformed city centre space, created a sanctuary for those who needed it, fostered new art lovers, created debate on a daily basis, and gave opportunities to put together major exhibitions to artists at the beginning of their careers, as well as those at an established point in theirs.

So with all that in mind, what exactly is the Independents Biennial? That’s probably about as clear as asking somebody what Merseyside is. A blurred geography. A passionate community. An identity that works best when it works with its allies.

As Art in Liverpool continues that work, towards a more diverse, supportive, beneficial festival, the absolute focus has to be on making sure that the work presented is amongst the best contemporary visual art in the world.