Interview: Sally Tallant on Liverpool Biennial 2018

Liverpool Biennial 2018: Beautiful World, where are you? Kitty Scott & Sally Tallant at Bluecoat

Sally Tallant on Liverpool Biennial 2018

Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Liverpool Biennial announced their 2018 title in February: Beautiful world, where are you?

(You can listen to the full talk at the end of this article)

The title, inspired by a Friedrich Schiller poem, and brought to life by a Schubert composition, hints at an element of path finding, and self-evaluation. With 2018 being the 10th edition of Liverpool Biennial, and marking 20 years of commissioning art in the city, it’s a perfect time to stop and reflect on what has been achieved by the festival.

It’s also a chance to stop and consider the geography of the festival, whether that means the physical interactions with other biennials, or the political geographies unravelling around us. However you choose to take the title, its not yet a fully fledged theme. As with every Biennial, it is a process that evolves as its parts are assembled.

Sally Tallant, Liverpool Biennial’s Director – having just opened Biennial’s second exhibition on a new UK touring programme, and waiting for a trip to Lahore Biennial to establish programme connections – talked to us about what the new title meant to her, where it came from and where it might be going.

This interview is hopefully the first of many with Biennial team members, and visiting artists for 2018. Three months into Trump, and one into article 50, its hard to tell where we’ll be in July 2018. But Liverpool Biennial has posed a question that needs to try and understand that, and much more:

Where did the title come from?

We have been thinking a lot about the conditions of the world and the political environment that we are living through; the reality of Brexit in the UK, Trump coming into power in the US, the rise of the Right in the world. As this is the tenth edition of the Biennial we wanted to find a way to speak to that political context without being didactic.

So for a long time we were just thinking and talking, and then Liverpool Biennial 2018 Co-curator Kitty Scott found herself reading a book on Schubert. We had been talking a lot about music, the Beatles, Liverpool, and the idea of songs and popular music and what that means to the city – somehow that was all in there. In 1788, German writer Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote the poem “Die Götter Griechenlandes” (The Gods of Greece). Then in November 1819, Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set the twelfth verse of the poem to music. Liverpool Biennial 2018 will take the first line of Schiller’s poem from 1788 as its starting point – Beautiful world – where are you?

The years between the composition of Schiller’s poem and Schubert’s song saw great upheaval and profound change, from the French Revolution to the fall of the Napoleonic Empire. It is an era that introduces a modern age of indifference and alienation. It was a very complicated time, and this line really jumped out to her (Kitty Scott), so she tested it on all of us, and we loved it straight away. We thought it was a fantastic starting point for thinking about exactly those issues, and how we find and make sense in the world, in these challenging times.

Is there a particular personal significance to the title, for you or anyone in the Biennial team, for that question of ‘Where are you?’

We all have our own answers to that question. You do, I do, we all do. It can, for some people, be a call to action: let’s make a beautiful world. And for some people it could be ‘Oh my god, what’s happened to the world?’ It could be the pathos of the moment that we are in, and the depression. Or it could literally be a question of how did this happen? How can we make sense of it?

I think each of us in the team would expect to have different responses. I like it because, personally, I like the hopefulness of it somehow. It has hope in it. Even though it’s saying ‘Where are you?’ It’s saying, ‘How do we do this? How can we do this in the world?’

I think it’s very poetic as a title, it’s gentle, but poignant and strong. I’m looking forward to seeing what artists do when we give them the opportunity to respond.

At the launch, the potential for musical cross-overs came up. Does that imply that this Biennial’s going to have that multi-disciplinary-visual-art-music cross-over in some way?

I think you can expect some noise… I think you can expect some music, yes. I have no idea what form it will take yet, but I’m sure it will be part of what we do, yes. Many of the artists we are talking with at the moment use performance and music in their practice as well as making all kinds of other things.

With the touring programme, and New North and South, it comes back to the title – Beautiful world, where are you?. How are they going to fit in with 2018?

The Strategic Touring Programme, which has just opened in Bury and Rochdale, is a programme of work that we produced for Liverpool Biennial 2016, and for us it’s really important to have the opportunity to reach broader wider audiences. It’s exciting to be able to work with those venues.

The New North and South programme is very much a part of 2018. I am going to Pakistan in April and will be doing studio visits there, together with the Lahore Biennial, and the Karachi Biennial and we will be selecting artists who we will commission to make work in Liverpool for Biennial 2018. The artists might make work that’s presented both in Pakistan and in Liverpool and we will also be commissioning artists from Bangladesh and India, so it’s quite exciting as well. We are focussing on new commissions and residencies in that programme.

At the launch of 2016, in Tate Liverpool there was Alison McGovern MP, Claire McColgan (Director Culture Liverool), and yourself. All with this lament on Brexit, and everything that had just happened, and it was just a little too late for Biennial to respond to. Is there an element on looking back at that for 2018, or is it more about finding a place in the future?

I have no idea where we are going to be politically in 2018 when we open. I am involved in quite a lot of campaigns and I am trying to make some sense of all of it. I would say, because it won’t be very clear until 2019, which is when we actually go (from the EU), I think we will inevitably have to have a position. We are working with lots of our European partners. I don’t see how we can avoid responding to it. I think the artists will inevitably respond to it. We always try to find ways to look to the future, but sometimes the future’s not looking so great.

Is there going to be anything retrospective on the 10th anniversary as part of the festival, or is that just something that happens to be there as a celebratory occasion?

It’s 20 years of commissioning art in Liverpool and it’s our 10th edition.

For the whole of 2017, beginning very soon, we are doing a big digital project where we’re asking people to remember their favourite art works and put their memories online and do that. I think that’ll be a really nice sort of continuity. But also, we’ve been looking back at all of the artists that have been in the Biennial before, to see if we can invite some people back.

The other thing that lurks out of the ‘Where are you?’ question, not just Brexit, but in devolution and all of those local politics, where does Biennial sit in Merseyside in 2017/18?

So far, we have found some really exciting sites, I think I was talking a little about them in the talk. What we’re going to do is go inside existing collections that people might not know about in Liverpool, and ask them to make a space for an artist. So what will happen is that visitiors will go there and not only see something contemporary, but you might also discover something that you might not have known about before.

There are quite a few of them, including the Victoria Gallery, which you know is a beautiful space, but we’ve never really partnered with them before.

We are going inside some of Liverpool’s hidden gems, and hopefully we’ll be introducing people to a city they don’t yet know. Even people who live here might discover new places.

Sometimes it takes someone else from outside, like Kitty. Artists always do that when they come in; they find their own way. Kitty has been asking lots of questions, and we have to find everything out.

We have been looking around and we have found lots of exciting spaces, obviously we will be in public spaces, but I don’t really know where we are going yet. It’s a little but too early to tell yet.

— Listen to Sally Tallant & Kitty Scott introducing Beautiful world – where are you? At Bluecoat, Feurary 28th 2017 here: