Liverpool Biennial 2016: The oddly exciting politics

Dave Sinclair. Youth Training Scheme Protest, Liverpool, 25 April 1985 © Dave Sinclair
Dave Sinclair. Youth Training Scheme Protest, Liverpool, 25 April 1985 © Dave Sinclair

Liverpool Biennial has always been part of something bigger than itself, and wider than art but not until this year did I realise how many parallels there were between modern politics and art at this level. It’s fine, and if anything it got me even more interested than I already was, but the general anti-Thatcher-anti-tory mood was unsurprisingly hard to avoid in a room full of artists and writers. But then came the talks from the politicians.

“And so ends the party political broadcast” laughed a nearby writer at the close of the opening conference. Funny, yes. Relevant, probably. But I can’t help but analyse the political impact of Liverpool Biennial 2016. I’ve been doing it quietly for months now, and I’ve come no closer to the answer. I’m hardly a political editor, so don’t hold me to any of this, but it’s difficult not to take an interest right now, especially when the arts I’m so interested in, become so glued to their own politics

Alison McGovern MP Wirral South, and Claire McColgan, Head of Culture for Liverpool City Council, both had similar agendas when they introduced the festival, but the result was a clear reflection of a more international political agenda. Add with, Biennial Director, Sally Tallant’s views alongside them it became the creative industry pro-EU rally that the referendum was missing.

Claire McColgan’s recollections of culture’s impact on Liverpool were perhaps a little stale, but with a serious truth to them: “Fifteen years ago, when we bid for European Capital of Culture, this city’s confidence was so low that it thought we could just get shortlisted […] and look where we are now.” There’s a great deal of truth in her statement.

I grew up in a city with a culture you could find if you looked, surrounded by family and friends who wanted to engage with it. Since 2008, there has been an unmissable cultural presence in Liverpool. Whether that was a direct impact of the European Capital of Culture, or of the more local dedication of the founders of this very website that provided a new way for the public to engage in their own city.

Alison McGovern’s thoughts were on a similar plane, but perhaps with more realistic visions of the future, and a very critical appreciation of what led to this year’s festival. Unsubtle Corbyn bashing aside, she was at least more willingly engaged in local culture than other local MPs I’ve stumbled across lately. “Never again would we allow our city to be maligned like it was when I was young – then came the Liverpool Biennial,” and while all did not fix itself, I got the profound feeling that she actually cared about the industry that has recently become a much more significant thing on her own side of the water – with a Biennial delivering not one, but two artists from Birkenhead, and a festival fringe spilling into Birkenhead’s galleries too.

These are not unfounded views they hold, and they come from deep inside their personal histories. That’s their claim, but I believe it. These are women with a right to comment, and who have earned that right through their support of the Biennial endeavour. True supporters of a powerful and individual Liverpool regardless of the journey it requires.

But politicians aside, lets looks to the curators, who had all the power to make the bitter calls; and bitter they were. I miss the EU, I seriously do, and I so does a timid majority of Liverpool, so I was pleased to see the bitter taste of leaving still pressing forward through a Biennial wide installation of litter collected from around the EU. The simple sentiment: Britain’s got its own rubbish, but isn’t Europe’s just a bit more interesting?

Yes, is the straightforward answer. Yes. No matter what the EU’s failings, the fundamental reason I dread my future without it is that I don’t believe that future can be as interesting any more. What I hope the Biennial can achieve with its unsubtle plea for continued friendship is to remind European partners and backers of UK creative industries that the arts are about the bigger picture, rather than the politics and the finance; that regardless of international relations, the creative industries on this odd little island is still very much interested in importing ideas. Or as Alison McGovern closed, “A story that is global, European, and unique”.

Report, Patrick Kirk-Smith