Review: Liverpool Biennial 2016 at ABC Cinema

Liverpool Biennial Launch, photo by Tony Knox
Liverpool Biennial Launch: ABC Cinema, photo by Tony Knox

Liverpool Biennial 2016, Various Episodes
ABC Cinema, 9th July-16th October 2016

Words by Julia Johnson, Messy Lines
Pictures by Tony Knox

It must be fun to be a location scout for the Biennial. Every two years I get to explore a city space in a new way, and this year the ABC Cinema on the corner of Lime Street is a highlight. How many times have I walked past this building and never given it a second thought? Getting to go inside feels like looking into another world, a world which has been lost to progress – if, of course, you consider being used as a poster board ‘progress’.

My whole experience in the building is somewhat eerie. When I arrive it’s almost entirely dark, save for the lights of the projections dotted around the space. These are some of Solomon Kambalu’s ‘Nyau Cinema’ creations and despite their familiar Liverpool locations, there is something unsettling about them. People cross back and forth across roads, a man takes a step he will never complete, children stare out from the screens with that sense that they may be laughing at you. As far as the only points of light go, they’re not comforting. Meanwhile, whilst negotiating my way towards the front I come across disorienting sculptural figures, my favourite of which is Oliver Laric’s Sleeping Shepherd Boy. Also on show at the Cains Brewery, it has a translucence in this light which makes it look particularly otherworldly, almost angelic in its form.

These are all side-shows, however, to the main event. After all, isn’t the reason you go to the cinema to watch a film? The headline feature is 1922 – The Uncomputable by Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni. In the Biennial guide it’s described as reflecting upon “Lewis Fry Richardson’s attempt to build a weather-forecast factory”. A quick Google search reveals that in 1922 the ability to predict weather was considered an impossible fantasy by most people. The fact that we now take it for granted is a testament to scientific optimism and the “march of progress”. What this film questions is if progress is a march, what has been trampled underfoot on the way?

A striking feature of 1922 – The Uncomputable is how the narration and the imagery completely contrast, and yet work together so beautifully. The male narrator is so confident and clear in his vision of a computerised utopian future that it would be easy to be lulled into his logic. But the women we see on the screen, the computers (in the original sense of people who compute), are not feeling any benefits from this vision. Their world is one of bleakness, despair and futile suffering.

Gender is a key part of this film, and seems to be used as a traditional divide between the rational and spiritual, between science and nature. If I took a message from the film, it’s that we ignore nature and the human spirit at our peril. As is becoming increasingly apparent in the real world, development without consideration of nature is leading us towards destruction. We know this, it can be predicted, and yet society carries on down this path. In this context, the narrator’s constant references to prediction and control being the answer sound like the words of obsession, rather than of reason.

At the end, the lights finally go up around the venue. For a short while, things are clearer and more visible than they have been since I arrived. And what is revealed? A space decaying thanks to what was meant to be “the future” of development. 1922 – The Uncomputable is part of the Biennial’s “Flashback” story. Its vision is not pleasant and feels, on reflection, uncomfortably close to reality. But it’s not yet one of the “Monuments from the Future” – it is a past/ future which we still, if we desire, may have a chance to change.