Independents Biennial 2021, in hindsight

Independents Biennial 2021, in hindsight

I’ve never enjoyed a project more than this year’s Independents Biennial. I’ve also never hated one more.

Looking back it seems ridiculous that we produced a digital festival, a year into a pandemic, when everyone was sick of digital festivals, when we could have just done that same thing in July 2020. The obvious block on that was that we lost our funding for the July edition as it was moved to the Emergency Response Fund, so it’s a critique of something that couldn’t be fixed. But it does seem daft. Obviously when we postponed we thought we’d be doing that to a time when we could have done physical exhibitions, but that didn’t pan out.

But knowing that couldn’t be changed; knowing how it was in 2018 when we worked with 500+ artists in 70+ venues; there has never been a project I’ve worked on where I’ve had the chance to get to know artists as well as this.

Planning via Zoom, rather than coffee shops and offices, in the middle of an emotionally charged pandemic, meant more honest exchanged, more inward criticism, and far more honesty. The work produced was comfortable for the artists, and within their goals, rather than ours. Their ideas thrived at the expense of scale and physical product, which meant their ideas could be translated better for audiences, which meant their commission was channelled into development rather than production.

Internally, this year’s programme was a dream come true. Externally, there were ups and downs.

I don’t believe in social media as a replacement for gallery space. It serves different purposes and reaches limited audiences. Yes, you can reach people on Facebook, but the engagement while high, is fleeting. You can reach thousands on Instagram, but again, the engagement is fleeting – slightly more so than Facebook, with limited true engagement, and a hefty trail of links to properly experience artists’ work. Twitter is bizarre. In theory you can reach more people, but the white noise, and tendency for feeds to be filled with more content for sifting than reading, means reach figures are pretty hollow. Then you find print – which worked well for us this year, reaching far more people than expected, and clearing shelves of newspapers incredibly quickly. Utterly effective, but not without challenges.

But then the magic of Independents Biennial happens. We know audiences need it flanking Liverpool Biennial. It gives true context, and provides unfiltered regional voices. And that sort of wipes away the understood flaws of all the platforms and breaks through. Somehow, on day one of the festival people just turned up to the website and spent hours working through the twisting narrative of the programme.

I still don’t really know how that narrative fared, because, as is the nature of distant online audiences, you don’t get to speak to people as they experience the projects. We launched with an unfinished programme, with the promise of sharing progress as projects were developed. That meant a lot of updates (I think it was about 150 posts, featuring 700ish new works).

Looking back, the thing that settles my mind, knowing that it wouldn’t have happened in 2020 was the Artist Hosts – Matt Retallick, Jo Mary Watson, Harriet Burns and Elizabeth Challinor – who following a rambling interview and introduction process were tasked with ‘creating something you wouldn’t otherwise have created if you hadn’t undertaken this project’. Obviously, that is a loose proposal. Each of them took it in their own direction, and created work, some of which remained entirely private and even I did not, and will not, see.

If it weren’t for the pandemic, the bit of budget that created those roles would have been for paid invigilators. Obviously that’s better than volunteer invigilators, but both can be valuable in themselves, and useful routes in to work, but the creation of Artist Hosts meant putting artists at the centre of the narrative, and with Harriet Burns in particular, at the centre of the critique.

Punches weren’t pulled.

The forced shift in festival output meant that the process was more inclusive, more shared, and more collaborative than Independents Biennial has ever been. When we return in 2023 almost every production method that formed Independents Biennial 2021 will be used, including:

  • Artist Hosts
  • Panic
  • Honest conversation (not related to work)
  • Honest conversation (related to work)
  • Ongoing & public evaluation
  • Residency / production based commissioning
  • Giving artists control of deadlines / ambitions
  • Shared stresses / shared successes

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith (Director, Independents Biennial)