Changing The World From Here?

It’s all well and good declaring you want to change the world from here, translating it into something tangible is the trick…

Sat writing this midway through December 2012 and with breathing space between us and the end of the Biennial, it’s worth considering that its director, Sally Tallant, has been in post more or less for a year. Anybody who saw her during the 10 week festival of arts and culture would attest to no lack of effort on her part.

From personally escorting what must have seemed like the world’s press and media around an array of venues spread across the city centre and beyond, to speaking at a multitude of events, and finding time to schmooze with Jay Raynor and co. for BBC’s the One Show. Did the effort pay off? Has it been an important Biennial, or merely a transitional one as we anticipate 2014 and a Tallant Biennial ‘proper’?

All big questions, and perhaps it’s still too early to realistically expect sufficient answers to any of them, but we’ll have a stab at it. We hoped to glean some of the answers to those questions in the Tallant-led Changing The World From Here conference, at Liverpool John Moores School of Art and Design, in which she addressed an open audience on the subject of the last 12 months and, tantalisingly, the future.

The auditorium was packed, not at all shabby for a Friday evening as winter encroaches. After all, this is a city increasingly engaged, and one eager for a glimpse at the future of Liverpool’s cultural landscape. In the event, it didn’t quite go to plan.

“This is a city increasingly engaged, and one eager for a glimpse at the future of Liverpool’s cultural landscape”

Things got off to a shaky start when none of the mics wanted to work. A clearly (and increasingly) irritated Tallant gritted her teeth and began. Perhaps that irritation meant her opening line – “I have been in Liverpool now for a year. During that time I have begun to understand some of the forces at play in this city” – came across slightly jaded, meaning that when she continued with “this is a hopeful, resilient, optimistic and resourceful city”, while clearly not the intention, it sounded something like a platitude.

Owing to the microphone situation not improving, and us being sat toward the back, it was often hard to hear and therefore fully comprehend some of what was being said. But, if we’re blunt, much of what we did hear seemed to fall into the category of ‘art speak’, with truisms about the economy, declining Governmental support for the arts and rotting post-industrial cities thrown in for good measure.

Due to our less than ideal vantage point and in the interests of wanting to reassess before committing to a poorly judged diatribe, we asked Tallant for a transcript from which she spoke on the night. Reading over it, there were some key offenders – “Making the time to integrate the ‘thinking’ to the ‘doing’ is absolutely critical” was one – which seemed to support our concerns. Voicing our dismay in the ultimate public arena that is twitter, we met with opposition from a handful of key sources; crucially, various members of independent gallery and studio space, The Royal Standard. Was it us, were we missing something? Or worse, simply being obtuse? For arguments sake, let’s say we were.

“The future of Liverpool includes art and culture at its core”

While speaking in broad and sometimes nebulous terms is rarely helpful, the evening was a starting point, and judged solely in that context, it could only be useful. To that end, Tallant asked a pair of key questions: How can art influence the local scene/context? And how is the public sphere to be reconstructed? She argued that “the future of Liverpool includes art and culture at its core and over the next decade a focus on urbanism and questions of how to think and remake the city will unfold.”

Clear signs of this can be seen with the Anfield Home Tour (spawning a rebirth for Mithchell’s Bakery), a Biennial project which took on a life of its own and continues apace post-festival. Even at this early stage it can be considered successful in terms of engaging the surrounding community where previous Biennials have come in for criticism; accused  roundly of failing in this department and adjudged to have acted tokenistically, with projects parachuted in for the duration only to be left to wrack and ruin shortly after.

There was more encouragement (if not quite as tangible as an operating bakery): displaying a clear understanding of the city, its past, its needs and significantly, its potential, Tallant provided insight into what might be expected in the development and rolling out of future Biennials. “Artists and curators will be invited to plan a series of Biennials that take place in different urban situations over the next 10 years; these will include the Parks, Docks, neighborhoods and streets of derelict housing as well as the Mersey itself.” She continued: “Curators will be brought together to develop projects over the next 10 years, and in the first instance they will be appointed to curate programmes, projects and Biennials from 2013- 2018.”

“For artists and curators, this statement will have been real fuel for the fire”

For artists and curators sat in the audience (the ones who could hear at least), this one statement will have been real fuel for the fire in their continued passion for working in Liverpool, thus giving the talent (no pun intended) we have in the city real encouragement that they have fresh opportunities to look forward to and more reason to stay. Appealing in one fell swoop to their desire to help implement change and (perhaps just as significantly) to their vanity, Tallant very intelligently sured up a number of relationships, whether they needed it or not.

While Biennial 2012 does seem to have been one in transition (not to say there haven’t been real highlights: John Akomfrah, Ming Wong and the aforementioned Mitchell’s Bakery), the evidence gleaned from 12 months of Sally Tallant is there for all to see. She has energy, passion and ideas to burn. Short-termism shouldn’t be a concern and she is canny enough to first of all recognise some of the right people already practicing here, and importantly, get them on board and press them into action for the good of their careers, their community at large and the Biennial in general.

It is in these things we can see cause for encouragement and – in spite of a shaky, unconvincing performance at the end of a long and probably arduous and eye-opening year – because of this, cautious optimism should be the order of the day, not only for the future of the Biennial, but perhaps the future of the city at large. God knows it’s something we all dearly want.

Posted on 14/12/2012 by thedoublenegative