Liverpool Biennial 2016 will unfold through the landscape of the city. It is organised as a story narrated in several episodes: fictional worlds sited in galleries, museums, pubs, unused spaces, stations, hotels, parking lots, shops and supermarkets. For the first time children will work together with artists and the Biennial team to develop ambitious exhibitions, projects and publications specifically for young audiences.
An episode is a peculiar passage of time. Unlike the chapters of a novel, episodes do not necessarily add up; they do not even have to line up. The novel’s chapters advance a story, they follow their characters through set-backs and triumphs that lead them to learn and grow and change. It is like this, above all, with the Bildungsroman, the ‘educational novel’, still such a common type. But aren’t episodes just chapters published separately, and regularly, like the feuilletons of the nineteenth-century European newspapers, or the soap operas of our own times? Not strictly, no. Episodes can be discontinuous, pretty much like parallel worlds.
Many animated sitcoms and series with a limited set of characters develop across episodes which don’t have a temporal continuity. Think about Family Guy or Star Trek. The arc of each episode may take the characters through different worlds, but they always return to the same state of affairs by the end. Each show’s essential situation is restored within 45 minutes. It is why we can watch episodes in any order. It is also what allows the characters (and us) to travel to wildly different times and places, to the distant past and to the far future. It is because the characters stay the same that the worlds can change.
Artists participating in Liverpool Biennial 2016 are invited to contribute to the design of a number of episodes, together and with the curatorial faculty, taking the following scenarios as starting points. Through conversation, Ancient Greece and its spacetime parameters might become Medieval Europe, and a virus might become software.
Casting Liverpool as a second version of Ancient Greece, architects such as John Foster and Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, working in the early 1800s, fashioned Liverpool’s neoclassical cityscape. This allowed the rising elite of merchants who benefitted from colonial trade and the industrial revolution to fashion themselves, and their civic commitment, as a reenactment of the legendary cradle of democracy. In the Walker Art Gallery there is a watercolour by Samuel Austin, made in 1826, that continues this fiction. Depicting Carthage in ancient times, Austin uses Liverpool’s neoclassical buildings as a backdrop to the action. This collapsing of space, time and stories mirrors the way that Ancient Greeks imagined and depicted their myths. Hand-drawn images on a Grecian vase fold into each other to show multiple times, spaces and characters on a single plane, expressing the way in which the Gods exist on earth and in the heavens, assuming multiple shapes and characters as circumstances required. Such fictions were instrumentally resurrected in Georgian and Victorian times to validate an economic and political set of circumstances.
Chinatown has existed in Liverpool since the late 1890s, and is the oldest established in Europe. Nowadays there are many Chinatowns across the world – sometimes there are several in a single city. Many have a traditional Chinese arch to mark their location. Liverpool’s arch was imported in pieces from Shanghai, and it is decorated in red and gold, with two hundred dragons. The architectural style has a universal quality – perhaps this arch, and others like it, is a portal to all the other Chinatowns, everywhere. The universality of these displaced and artificial versions of China points at the original immigrants’ necessity to produce a version of their country of origin, a fictional world to compensate the hostile environment of the host country. Chinese immigration was – like many migratory fluxes today – motivated by geographical labour demands and, in contrast to the Greek fiction used by Liverpool’s ruling class, this world was beneficial to sailors and workers from a different continent.
Artists are invited to consider children as the primary audience: sometimes making work with them, sometimes for them. Children imagine the space between fiction and reality differently, sometimes seeing it as the same thing. This will be an occasion to explore a fictional universe invented by children for artists, and realised by artists for children.
Monuments from the future
We have asked a group of artists to impersonate the role of futurologists. They are invited to imagine what Liverpool might look like in 20, 30 or 40 years – and to design a monument for that scenario. As a result of this process, a series of public art commissions will travel across time. Sculptures appear from the future, but are situated in the present. Each one marks an imagined future – an event, person or story that is yet to arrive.
Liverpool Biennial can be downloaded onto a computer, as software. This package, developed by many artists, inserts programs onto your computer, laptop or handheld device. Some are helpful, some are unhelpful, but all of them change things, bringing additional and unexpected content and behaviour to daily routines.
A flashback is a way of experiencing history as it punctures the present, unexpectedly.