Essential Elements, St Bride’s Gallery, Liverpool

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Essential Elements, currently on display at St Bride’s Gallery, is part of the Independents Biennial – the long-standing fringe event to the Liverpool Biennial.

The space is exquisite; much like the recently reopened Old Blind School on Hardman Street which currently houses the group exhibition as part of the Biennial’s somewhat perplexingly titled A Needle Walks into a Haystack, St. Bride’s is an impressive church building, in a similar state of decay. Unlike The Old Blind School however, St Bride’s does not look forward to the promise of refurbishment after the exhibition closes in October, and it is a shame that more cannot be done to save this incredible community space. From Amnesty International to the Socialist Singers and the Red Cross, the building is home to over fifteen local groups who regularly meet there.

Speaking to the curator of the exhibition, artist Brian Hackney, I learn more about the duo running the gallery. Brian and Jan Hughes have recently returned from Berlin, where they transformed a disused warehouse into a thriving gallery space, hosting 17 group exhibitions over a two year period, showcasing the work of over 300 artists. Much like the exhibition here at St. Bride’s, the Turn-Berlin Gallery was fully independent, and Brian describes the Berlin art scene as organic and welcoming, and hopes to infuse some of that mentality into our local cultural offering.

The exhibition features the work of four very different artists, all working with the classical medium of paint on paper or canvas, each reinventing their materials to produce a diverse range of work.

Starting at the top of the building, opposite the impressive antique organ on the top tier of the church, is Decanting Desire by J Chuhan, a collection produced during her Time and Space residency at Metal in Liverpool. Chuhan’s work was selected for the show months in advance, allowing her to create a site-specific response to space and her large scale paintings on thin paper span the breadth of the walls upstairs.

Complimented beautifully by the purple and green stained glass windows, Chuhan uses rich purples, reds and golds to create her gestural, impressionistic paintings, using paint as an illustrator would a pencil to sketch with the brush; a stripped back visual depicting an incomplete human presence. There is a certain restless quality to her painting, as splatters of rogue paint escape across the borders of the page. Her images are recreated from vivid memories and daily observations – a brief meeting with a commuter on the train or a passer by in the street is realised in passionate bold colours, as she relocates these private moments of observation into the public gallery space.

Boxers by German artist Buffy Klama, is a series of images installed in the stairwell. The first few paintings are realised in angry dark blues and reds, and by the time the visitor has descended the first flight of stairs, the figures in these paintings have become monochrome. Klama insists on having little or no interpretation to accompany her work, and Brian reveals that the series is a response to the loss of her mother. Knowing the context of the work, the images no longer symbolise violence, but the battle of the self and the struggle to accept what has happened. In these black and white portrayals of loss and stasis, the solo figures appear hunched, hairless, skinny and passive – not what you would expect from athletes in boxing gloves.

Finally at the bottom of the staircase, the penultimate series of pastel pink boxers represent a vibrant transformation, as if life has returned to the artist as she accepts the loss. An eerie sense of motion washes over the final painting, as a bodiless arm punches the lonely figure – perhaps a lasting reminder of what has taken place.

Places Apart by Uzma Sultan, an MA graduate from the Slade School of Art is disappointing in comparison; small paintings of perfume bottles and the interior of the home are presented using repetitive patterns. These snapshots of life fail to capture the imagination in the same way Chuhan’s recreations of stolen glances manage, and are not representative of the usual scale and quality of this artist’s work.

The last series of work in the show is my favourite, by British artist Jane Walker, who manipulates perspective in her large-scale cityscapes. In Hidden Games, Walker’s paintings take inspiration from her penchant for climbing tall buildings, and recreating the view from on high. All but one of her works use white and grey lines on a black backdrop to create a bustling aerial view of cities across Europe, and her sprawling city spaces become vaster the higher she climbs: the detail of her work growing with every step she takes towards the top of a building. The use of white on black reverses our familiarity with the form, like road maps in the negative. Her lines are sparse, making the background or natural landscape as important as the shadowy man-made roads, and trying to make sense of the winding lines makes for pleasurable viewing.

A wonderful independent space with the possibility of attracting many more great artists’ work, Essential Elements at St. Bride’s can proudly assert its status as one of the best offerings of this year’s Independents.

Essential Elements continues at St. Bride’s Gallery until 25 October 2014. Find out more at: www.independentsbiennial.org/ or visit http://stbridesgallery.org/ . St Brides Gallery, St Brides Church, Percy Street, Liverpool L8 7LT.

This article was originally written for Corridor8

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Rutherford Chang: Why I Buy White Albums

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By now, I think half of Liverpool must have been to or at least heard about the infamous pop-up exhibition-cum-record store currently housed in the loading bay space next door to FACT on Wood Street. It’s a fascinating concept with a unique draw for Beatles fans and art obsessives alike: Rutherford Chang, an artist based in New York collects first-pressings of the Beatles’ White Album and since taking his collection on a road trip of America, has ventured overseas for the first time into Europe – his first stop? Liverpool of course.

As I walk into the space for what will be the third time (yes, just slightly in awe of this compulsive collector) I catch Rutherford gluing one of the records in his collection back together, “this isn’t the first time this has happened” he laughs as he puts it down to dry “we just played it though and it still works”. The space is set up like a traditional record shop, with one fundamental difference; there is only one album in stock. The red neon sign at the entrance reflects off the plastic fridge curtains; on one wall are 100 editions of the album displayed in a giant mosaic, with the remainder of the collection in large white boxes, organised numerically through which visitors are invited to rifle. Why, you may ask – well why not?

A version of The White Album plays on the speaker system; the broken record Rutherford was handling is one of the 100 displayed on the side wall – these copies are the first 100 that Rutherford listened to when he originally set up shop in a storefront called Recess in New York. Inviting customers to play a copy of their choice (at this point the artist’s collection spanned just 650 pressings), he recorded the first 100 selected and photographed the covers of each. These recordings were then combined and layered to form what is essentially Rutherford’s version of the original: a psychedelic, unique adaptation of the classic, defined by its imperfections. Each warped note or broken lyric is the product of a scratch or skip on one of those 100 records, meaning this version tells a story about the journey each of those records has been on. In addition to displaying his collection, Rutherford is also selling his ‘new’ White Album, and we are interrupted half way through our conversation by two visitors asking to buy a copy – Rutherford is also willing to trade his record for your originals.

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Rutherford’s collection now stands at 1026 and I ask him what the ultimate goal is. “Well, the serial numbers run up to about three million – I’d like them all”. Since he’s been in Liverpool, he’s collected 8 more copies, and met a lot of local people with stories to tell and a personal connection to the record. “People come into the store and bring their copies just to show me”. His intonation suggests this teasing isn’t as much fun for him as it is for the proud owners of those local original pressings and it is clear that this avid collector wants every one. The ambition began when Rutherford was in his teens and acquired his second copy of the album – “it was completely different to the first one I had, it had aged differently”, and from there, this love affair with collecting and categorising over one thousand copies has turned into an eight year project.

More than the music itself, Rutherford’s interest in this particular record seems to be about the plain sleeve, and the possibilities of such a blank canvas. Looking around the shop and pulling out random copies, you can’t help but notice the way in which each copy has been customised, personalised and made entirely unique by each loving owner; some have scrawled their name and address, others have doodled John, Paul, George and Ringo, whilst others have been decayed quite beautifully by coffee stains and sunlight – not one of them is pure white any more. Each has a story to tell, and as the proprietor of this unconventional shop, Rutherford is the living incarnation of those stories. Interacting with his visitors, potential customers and traders, Rutherford can tell you where he found almost every copy, although some of the stories he admits, are partly imagined.

This fascination with the simple cover designed by pop-art great Richard Hamilton has become the key ingredient in a giant collage I suggest, and Rutherford agrees he tends to use collage as a tool. Having attended the artist’s talk at FACT earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to learn about some of his other projects, which you canexplore here. Throughout his body of work, like Class of 2008 or Alphabetized Newspaper [sic], the artist meticulously uses newsprint as his medium. Be it logging the ‘hedcuts’ of the subjects of every news article in 2008, or carefully cutting out single letters from a newspaper’s front page to rearrange and alphabetise them, Rutherford utilises these media to produce a new piece of work. I find the idea of this process thrilling, and liken it to the layering of the 100 tracks; each is a long drawn out, careful process, preoccupied with pattern and language and how the layering and restructuring of the form can create an entirely new effect.

Throughout his previous works, there is an ongoing interest in news, and what Rutherford summarises as “newsworthiness”. I automatically associated this with the the WBWA project, as this too deals with a global success story: The Beatles. Rutherford described the album as a “cultural phenomenon” and explained how ironically, the first run of albums produced came in a ‘limited run’ of three million pressings – a gesture which surely speaks volumes about the impact of the Beatles on the global audience.

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Speaking about the creative process, Rutherford commented “I like to use simple forms of organisation to rearrange things, to see something more than what was in the original”. Working with pre-existing cultural materials allows the artist to alter our perception of what we think we know – just try listening to Back in the U.S.S.R. on his version of The White Album and see for yourself. In NBC Nightly News we are forced to reconsider the information we consume so mindlessly everyday. For this twenty minute clip, Rutherford and his pair of assistants spent two weeks editing a public news broadcast by isolating each spoken word and reordering them alphabetically – if this sounds like reading the dictionary, think again. By reordering the words and grouping the repetitions, the audience can quickly pick up on what the most commonly discussed issues are, and the effect this has on our perception of the speaker. The short film fluctuates between coherently telling the viewer the content of the show through broken language, and confusing the listener with the unfinished sentences which begin to form. At times funny, at others fascinating, Rutherford isn’t saying something that isn’t already inherent in the materials he uses; his work simply prompts us to take another look.

Thinking back to WBWA, I ask if this is Rutherford’s favourite album? He laughs, shakes his head “I don’t listen to it as music anymore” which isn’t really much of a surprise considering the amount of work which has gone into compiling this collection and creating the new record. The effect of this ever-growing collage is awesome, and I wonder, what do other people think about the project? “Well my mom thinks I’m crazy”. His interest in collecting, manipulating and displaying The White Album is not simply the past-time of a Beatles fan – its about the physicality of the record itself and our modern preoccupation with ownership. As Rutherford says, there is nothing practical about owning a record collection; rather, it has everything to do with the fetishisation of the object. In an age of MP3 and iTunes, we don’t need a physical collection of albums to listen to music anymore when we can have the digital manifestation tidied away neatly on our phones.

This touring exhibition is a nostalgia-sating, interactive experience and invites the visitor to step into a world where reason has little to do with the pleasure it exudes. So where to next? After a brief trip home, Rutherford will be taking his collection to Tokyo, where apparently many people are “obsessive collectors” – so I think Rutherford is going to fit right in.

This article was originally written for Art in Liverpool

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Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Grosvenor Park

Screen-Shot-2014-08-23-at-23.23.50-300x183The summer has sadly come to an end, and with it the bumper season of excellent theatre at Grosvenor Park.

Following the fantastic performance of The Comedy of Errors a couple of weeks ago, I decided to test the waters of tragedy, and booked a pair of tickets for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Used to enjoying light hearted comedies in this outdoor setting, I was anxious to find out whether this company could pull off a drama – I needn’t have worried.

Opening with the epic battle between Macbeth’s army and the allied forces of Norway and Ireland, the tone was set for the evening: brutal, bloodthirsty and brilliant! The guerrilla soldiers lugged it out and the death toll rose within minutes of the show’s beginning, all the while revealing the story’s setting during a time of great upheaval for the Scottish Kingdom. Chester Performs’ version of the play was set in an unnamed era, yet the costumes were reminiscent of WW1 uniform; a reference to this year’s centenary commemorations perhaps?

Having defeated the enemy, masked in thug-like balaclavas, Macbeth (Mark Healy) and his right hand man Banquo (Richard Pryal, doing a great job of such a serious role following his hilarious endeavours in The Comedy of Errors) are set upon by three “weird sisters”, who prophecise that Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, is soon to be “Thane of Cawdor,” and then “be King hereafter.” When Banquo asks of his own fortunes, the witches inform him that he will father a line of kings, though he himself will not be one. Fatal words indeed, as these predictions soon come to haunt and control Macbeth as he embarks on a killing spree to claim what he now sees as his destiny.

The three witches, played by Nichole and Danielle Bird, and Max Gallagher were presented with innovative flair. Having seen Macbeth on stage and in various film versions before, it was refreshing to see the portrayal of the witches not as cloaked old hags in a cliff-side, but as blood-soaked phantoms of the battlefield, appearing throughout the performance leering and grimacing at the other characters on stage, visible only to Macbeth.

Named Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan of Scotland (Peter F Gardiner), Macbeth returns to his wife, elated and full of ambition, lusting after the crown. Lady Macbeth, played by Hannah Barrie, who absolutely stole the show with her portrayal of Macbeth’s tortured, guilt-ridden accomplice, plots with her husband to murder the king upon hearing he is to visit their home, finally forcing her husband to commit the act she now so deeply desires.

The next morning, Macduff, (Thomas Richardson) discovers Duncan’s body and Macbeth is named king. Following the flight of Duncan’s heirs to England and Ireland, the new king is not content in his position for long, and remembering the witches’ prophecy, now consumed with fear of losing the crown, orders his friend Banquo to be killed next.

Known as one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, the story then follows Macbeth and his Lady as they are consumed by guilt, and completely undone. Plagued by the ghosts of the men and women he’s killed to take the throne, Macbeth is driven mad by his deeds. In a scene where the new king invites his men to join him for a celebratory feast, Banquo’s ghost appears at the head of the table, flanked by the ghoulish witches, terrifying Macbeth. This scene was staged wonderfully, with a zombie-like Banquo crawling clumsily towards his murderer across a gigantic trestle table, arms raised and threatening towards the cowering monarch, as chairs and goblets were thrust across the floor.

Another example of an ingenious use of props occurred as a sink and a old fashioned tin bath were put to mesmerising effect. In earlier scenes, these were used as washing stations for the bloody soldiers and tired travellers, and following the emotionally charged feast, both taps were turned on full blast, threatening to drown out the conversation on stage. The dual jets competed with the actor’s voices, building suspense as Macbeth awaited news of an oncoming army, until a blood curling scream filled the air. The taps both stopped running instantly, as Lady Macbeth was pronounced dead: the water of life finally running out.

Now without wife or friend, Macbeth laments his transgressions as he prepares for the final battle against Duncan’s true heir. Ahead of the final fight, appearing from the platform at the back of the stage, Macbeth is lit from the front to create a huge black shadow baring down upon the battlefield ahead. The use of lighting was simple yet inspired, and the very timing of the performance, which was cloaked into blackness as the sun set over the closing scenes was ethereal. In this darkened setting, the actors swarmed the stage, running from every entrance into the fifth act with huge wooden crosses which they hurled into the earth to signify the graves of every fallen man in the ultimate battle for the throne. This decision really brought the battle to life, as the crucifixes meant the scale of casualties multiplied before the audience’s very eyes, making the final killing of Macbeth more poignant, as he fell amidst broken wooden props whilst the rightful heir took to the throne.

Another incredible adaptation, realised by the talented cast and crew. Unfortunately it seems, theatre this good is just a fleeting summer treat, so until next year, lets hope that Liverpool’s autumnal offering can exceed the expectations set by this expert summer programme.

Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre will be back in summer 2015. Look out for updates at www.grosvenorparkopenairtheatre.co.uk

This post was originally written for www.artinliverpool.com

Posted in chester, drama, grosvenor park, macbeth, open air theatre, play, Reviews, shakespeare, the comedy of errors, Theatre, tragedy | Leave a comment

Coming Soon: Leisure, Discipline and Punishment

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Continuing the ongoing programme of film happening here at FACT as part of Liverpool Biennial 2014, we will be hosting an evening of new moving image works entitled Leisure, Discipline and Punishment.

This collection of films, by international artists Sonia Boyce, Petra Bauer, Keren Cytter, Agnieszka Polska, and Marinella Senatore present ideas in response to the social regulations that govern our lives, and the ways in which we attempt to break or navigate these rules. These themes relate to the wider concepts currently being explored inA Needle Walks into a Haystack, the 2014 Biennial exhibition at venues around the city.

The evening will begin with a Q&A session with video artist Sonia Boyce who will be in conversation with Liverpool Biennial’s Public Programme Curator Vanessa Boni. The premiere of Boyce’s Move (2013) will follow, a new film exploring two episodes in the recent history of the Swedish city of Göteborg: the underground nightclub scene in the Haga district during the 1980s and the developments of the anti-globalization protest in the summer of 2001. In the film, Boyce sets out to examine the role that the architecture of the City plays, and how it can stimulate or block collective public action.

Throughout the evening, Petra Bauer and Marius Dybwad Brandrud ‘s Choreography for the Giants (2013) will be screened in the FACT foyer, and can be viewed before or after the main event. In this new work, Bauer looks at the procession known as the Mechelen Ommegang, a world heritage event which only takes place every twenty-five years. The last time was in 1988, and since then society has undergone many changes, and so in the film, Bauer documents the way in which the organisers have attempted the difficult task of representing societal change in the context of this public parade.

Keren Cytter’s film The Coat is currently on display as part of the Tate Collection on the second floor of the gallery and uses a dramatic soundtrack, split-screen treatments and psychedelic morphing effects to frame a dramatic, murderous love triangle. For Leisure, Discipline and Punishment, FACT will be showing Cytter’s 2013 filmCorrections, which tells the story of a man ridden with guilt for ruining his parent’s life. During the film, he compares his life to that of a cockroach, and while trying to remember what happened in the past, discovers the real reason for his guilt.

Next up, Agnieszka Polska creates a fictitious after-life for artists, in which artists of different generations meet after death in Future Days (2013). The characters appearing in her film include key figures from the twentieth-century art world and a number of forgotten Polish artists and theoreticians – an opportunity for the clued-up art fanatics in the audience to spot their heroes!

Last but not least, Marinella Senatore’s nomadic school, The School of Narrative Dance, is based on open dialogue with communities around the world. The lessons are centred around storytelling, and encompass stage techniques, poetry and oral history. The eponymous film tells the story of the school through dance, drama and movement, utilizing a unique method of storytelling in this context.

If you like what you see, then make sure to visit The Old Blind School too, where artists Peter Wächtler and Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet are also presenting film works as part of this collaborative commission.

Leisure, Discipline and Punishment takes place on Wednesday 3 September, at 6.30pm in The Box at FACT. Free tickets are available now from the Box Office, by phone on 0871 902 5737 and online

This post was originally written for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology)

Image credit: Agnieszka Polska Future Days, HD 29 min., 2013 (still). Courtesy of the artist.

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Film Round Up: Liverpool Biennial 2014

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Peter Wächtler, Untitled, 2013 video, 14’ 14” on view at The Old Blind School 

In contemporary art exhibitions, film installation and video art play as big a role as any other medium, which is echoed in the exciting array of video work being shown for A Needle Walks into a Haystack. To celebrate these artists, we take a look at a selection of the films in this year’s Biennial Exhibition, and uncover where you can see more film around the city this summer.

#1: Jef Cornelis 

Belgian television director Jef Cornelis made over 200 films during his career, which spanned over 30 years and captured many of the changes and innovations taking place in the art world during that time. For Liverpool Biennial 2014, a special exhibition featuring a selection of these films takes place in St. Andrews Gardens, a 1930s art deco-inspired Grade II Listed building once known as the ‘Bullring’ which started life as council housing and has been refurbished more recently for student accommodation. In this domestic setting, the exhibition is first of its kind in the UK and includes a huge variety of films, from interviews with Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol to coverage of art festivals such as Documenta

Cornelis explored how art, architecture and culture are represented and talked about – all the while asking questions about the medium of television itself. Often broadcast during prime slots in the evening, the content and style of his television programmes interrupted the comfortable routine of home viewing. In a selection curated by Koen Brams, these works have been newly translated into English, making this a must-see retrospective of his work. 

Read more about Cornelis’ work in the  Tate Papers.

#2: Sharon Lockhart

At FACT, Sharon Lockhart presents Podwórka, a film made in 2009 which explores how a group of children in the Polish city of Lodz use the dilapidated courtyards (podwórka) where they live as an imaginative play-space. Across six courtyards, we see parking lots, storage units, and metal armatures become jungle gyms, sandboxes, and football fields demonstrating the resourcefulness of childhood. On Friday 17 October, FACT will host the world premiere of Lockhart’s newest film, for which she returned to Poland to work with a young girl named Milena whom she met whilst filming Podwórka. Milena also appears in a series of photographs taken by the artist on display in the foyer at FACT.

Sharon Lockhart, Podwórka, 2009. © Sharon Lockhart, 2008 Courtesy the artist, neugerriemschneider, Berlin, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

To accompany the exhibition, Lockhart has also curated a film programme showing fortnightly on Wednesday evenings at FACT. The films explore themes of childhood and have so far included Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, shot over a 12 year period with the same cast, and Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda, the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director.

#3: Peter Wächtler

“A shakily-drawn cartoon rat enters a room and gets into a sad-looking bed, sleeps and when morning comes, rises and leaves.” Writing for The Double Negative, Richard Whitby refers to one of Peter Wächtler‘s untitled films as his favourite piece of work in the whole Biennial Exhibition. A series of three shorts, each narrated in the artists accented melancholy monologue finds a dark humour and platform for the exploration of contemporary social issues in some of the most unexpected of places. See all three works and a selection of watercolours and sculptures by the artist at The Old Blind School.

#4: Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet

As part of the group exhibition at  The Old Blind School, artists Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet present The Waterway (2014), Treatise on Baths (2013) and A Recess and a Reconstruction(2011). Weaving together themes inspired by science-fiction and historical fact, the duo build narratives exploring our present and possible dystopian future. In one film, Hervé & Mailletcombine marine archaeology, Thalassotherapy (the medical use of seawater as a form of therapy), forgotten civilisations, immortality and post-humanity in a nightmarish vision of a world inhabited by amphibious beings.

Still from The Waterway, 2014. HD video. Photo Credit: red shoes│SOME SHOES /I. I. I. I. courtesy Marcelle Alix Gallery with support from Pole image Haute-Normandie, Région Pays de Loire, La Passerelle.

#5: Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists

Tuesday 16 September, 6.30pm
£6 / £5 conc

A special film screening of Leslie Buchbinder’s film Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists with a Q&A afterwards takes place at FACT. Featuring work from Christina Ramberg, part of the group exhibition at The Old Blind School, Hairy Who… is a lavishly-illustrated romp through Chicago Imagist art: the Second City scene that challenged Pop Art’s status quo in the 1960s, then faded from view. Forty years later, its funk and grit inspires artists from Jeff Koons to Chris Ware, making the Imagists the most famous artists you never knew.

Karl Wirsum at the Hyde Park Art Center, 1967. Photo by: William Arsenault. Courtesy of Pentimenti Productions.

#6: Leisure, Discpline and Punishment with Q&A

Wednesday 3 September, 6.30pm
Free, booking required

Presented at FACT, this special commission for Liverpool Biennial 2014 invites you to an evening of new moving image works by Sonia Boyce, Petra Bauer, Keren Cytter, Agnieszka Polska, and Marinella Senatore, that respond broadly to the regulations and social orders that govern our lives – and in turn, the way that we attempt to break or navigate these rules. A Q&A session with artist Sonia Boyce precedes the screening of the films. 

This is a selection of some of the films being shown throughout the festival, and there is yet more to discover. At Tate Liverpool, within Claude Parent’s La colline de l’art you will find Trisha Brown’s Water Motor, whilst upstairs in the display of works from the Tate Collection is Keren Cytter’s The Coat. Meanwhile, at The Old Blind School, there are further film works by Chris Evans (Company, second floor) and Uri Aran (The Donut Gang, first floor), as well as a ‘floating cinema’ on the top floor, where you will find Judith Hopf and Henrik Olesen’s Türen/Doors. In addition to this, discover Michael Nyman’s film installation Aztecs in Liverpool at the Walker Art Gallery, or venture into venues such as The Royal Standard and 24 Kitchen Street for an experience of what else the city has to offer in terms of film this summer.

This post was originally written for Liverpool Biennial

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The Role of the Artist: Using the Arts for Social Change

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“Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Bertolt Brecht

In mid-July, I attended a talk hosted by DadaFest with special guests Roger Hill (Broadcaster, Performer & Artist) and Ruth Gould (Artistic Director of DaDaFest). The topic of conversation? When is art for more than just art’s sake? The arts have the power to alter both the personal and political, challenging people’s views and impacting the structures of society. So should art always communicate a political message? Or is it okay to sit back and enjoy creativity, regardless of intent?

Roger Hill opened the evening’s discussion with a bold statement; “If the person who affects change is the Mayor of Liverpool, then you’ve got to go and do whatever it is in his office”. So, to change the system through your work, be it visual or performance-based,  it is important to engage people who have political power. But will those powerful individuals listen, and are they open-minded enough to understand that message? Roger stated that he believes the role of the artist is to “precipitate openness”, to deconstruct society and to enforce change. I similarly believe that political and social messages can convey great meaning and reach a great audience through art, and so placing this mantle on the shoulders of the artist is in some ways just. This sharing of information is a huge part of social change, and if artists can precipitate this by conveying meaning through their talent, then why not share that information with the person at the top?

Countering this argument, Ruth Gould pointed out that politicians are not around forever, so you need to convince the people, not them. I found this to be a reasoned response, grounded in a clever logic: even if you got that ticket into 10 Downing Street, said your piece and convinced Cameron of your ideas, he’s still not the only one you need to get on side. Whatever legislation he comes up with next would need to be accepted by his peers, and more importantly, the public. Just because the government says something is so, it doesn’t make the people like it or want live with it, and there are countless examples of laws and actions in recent history that we have risen up against. Ruth believes influencing the views of even just one person at a time means empowerment for the arts and for disabled people, which is something DaDafest is working hard to achieve. And besides, the next election is always just around the corner.

But does art even need to do any of the above to be called art? The medium itself is not always about audience – art can be part of self-renewal, a private practice to better oneself, to come to terms with an emotional experience or simply to produce something to be proud of. Roger suggested that creating art can also be a rehearsal for the society you want to be a part of, where the artist has control of the future and is able to shape it, making it perfect and beautiful.

It is also true that art can be complicit in social orthodoxy, and used as a commodity by the powers that be. Art is forever tied up in a relationship with the economy and the recession filters the kind of art we see; take for example Arts Council funding. In order for an individual, collective or organisation to gain funding, they must first submit a proposal to a powerful body which then decides whose project is worthy of their money. These gatekeepers therefore play a crucial part in choosing what art is produced, and perhaps more sinisterly, what is prevented from reaching that grander scale of public influence. With a lot of public art in effect being paid for by the government, could it be that art is sometimes part of a political cover-up rather than as the solution to social change?

The next idea to be discussed was what artists must do in order for their art to enact change; should an artwork shock its audience, and what is the perceived point in this? As Roger pointed out, there is no larger effect if what we get from art is exactly what we expect; disruption must occur, and the audience must be encouraged to think about things differently if they are to learn or understand a new idea or concept, or even just be left with a lasting impression or memory of what they have seen.

 

Norma Jeane

Norma Jeane

A way for this to happen is for the artist or performer to change the relationship between artist and audience; take for instance one of the artists taking part in this year’s Liverpool Biennial, Norma Jeane. Norma Jeane is an artist “without a fixed body, gender, or biography”*. The artist was born in LA on the night that Marilyn Monroe died, and by taking over her birth name and using this persona to contain a wide range of different personalities, her ideas translate into participatory works of contemporary art where the audience is as much responsible for the outcome as the artist. This is a trend with potential across all artistic mediums, and by inviting the viewer to be part of the work, the audience feels responsible for the result – a phenomenon that could translate into better education and social change.

Next, we pondered why it seems that only small independent organisations face the expectation to be actively in support of change and social justice, and why the expectation is not always the same of larger institutions who have the resources and backing to actually contend with serious issues. This relates back to the ideas discussed around revenue streams, and how those with the power (the boards funding bigger arts organisations) can actually prevent politics from entering into the gallery (or performance) space. Ruth explained at times being faced with the ultimatum: are you a political organisation for social justice, or an arts organisation? For her, and for the people of Liverpool and beyond, DaDafest has thankfully managed to transcend this boundary and define itself as both; facilitating great art as well as fighting for equality.

For DaDaFest, fighting for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts, is part of a much wider issue of equality. As Ruth pointed out, “disability is a human issue, not just something for disabled people to think about”, reminding everyone present that we are all simply “temporarily abled”. Only 17% of people classed as disabled were actually born with their disabilities, whilst the majority acquire their disability during their working lives, through age, injury or otherwise.

47% of disabled people are currently in work compared to 77% of non disabled people, which is a shocking statistic given the advances society should have made on matters such as these by 2014. As well as the distinct lack of opportunities, disabled people are often treated differently on a day to day basis, because there is a lack of knowledge around disability. As such, it is the media who must become more reflective of the disabled population if those with disabilities are to be accepted on a social level. Currently, 18% of the UK population are disabled (efds.co.uk) but this translates to only 3.8% of BBC employees.

We live in a “mediated society”,  and the rare false-positive images of disabled people in the media misrepresent the truth, causing us to ignore the very real problems people are having to deal with. Proper education is the key to encouraging  society to be more accepting of those with disabilities, and DaDaFest are amongst those who believe that this positive re-education can be made possible through art. DaDaFest make it possible for disabled artists to be seen as artists, not defined by their physical capacity but by their artistic talent, and respected as such.

So what is the purpose of art? Roger Hill summed it up: “If art doesn’t celebrate or criticise, then there is no point”, and surely these are the only prompts an artist would need when sitting in front of a blank piece of paper to suddenly find themselves inspired. The idea of art either having to celebrate goodness or to highlight society’s wrongs encompasses all that an artist could hope to create in order to produce a positive, constructive outcome from its audience. I can’t think of a better reason to write an article or compose a review other than to celebrate or criticise. If art doesn’t comment on life in some way, then it can be of little interest or relevance to its audience.

Let us hope then, that DaDaFest and artists across the country can continue to produce art that is for more than just art’s sake, and inspire social change through their work and practice.

This event ran in conjunction with an exhibition about positive images of adults with learning difficulties in the media, entitled Working Lives: Here and There.

* http://ow.ly/AE4NA

This post was originally written for Art in Liverpool

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We Hope This Isn’t Goodbye: Liverpool Academy of Arts

George Harrison by Deirdre Foy, oil on Dutch metal.

George Harrison by Deirdre Foy, oil on Dutch metal.

As many of you have probably already heard, Liverpool Academy of Arts, a venue which has earned its place on the Liverpool art scene through 25 years hard work and devotion to local artists, is set to be closed down. For a brand new gallery for the city? No. For much-needed artist studios and performance spaces? No. The reason? For yet more student accommodation.

Sculptor Arthur Dooley dreamt of creating a ‘gallery of the people’ and opened Liverpool Academy of Arts at 36 Seel Street back in 1988 with its premiere exhibition of work by artist Mick Lawson. By 1989, recently retired theatrical costumier June Lornie had been persuaded to manage the gallery full time – an enterprise she has maintained tirelessly ever since. Meanwhile, Arthur continued to produce his own work, remaining President of the gallery until 1994 when he passed. In 2007 the gallery moved next door to a bigger space, installed a stage for performances and became a registered charity – a busy year for June and all involved! “We were offered the building next door to have just one exhibition but ended up staying!” June remembers. Run by volunteers, the gallery has since seen many more exhibitions, concerts and even operas.

Marie McGowan has been volunteering at the gallery for eight years and told me that “June has given so many artists their first opportunity to show their work. We’ve seen how they have progressed as they have gained confidence and gone on to build an artistic profile.” Marie has been exhibiting at the gallery herself since 2004 when her art class collaborated for a show, and after that formed art group Collidoscope, who have exhibited regularly ever since.

Cherie Grist, mixed media on wood.

It is important to note that LAA is an independent, non-funded organisation and registered Charity, with a great respect for like-minded ventures. “We love Independents in this city, whether it’s coffee shops, bookshops, bars, bakeries or restaurants, so surely there is a place for an independent art gallery?” Marie asks. This gallery, thanks to June’s organisation and dedication, Dave Lornie’s behind-the-scenes input, and the hard work of a team of passionate, unpaid volunteers has produced over two decades of opportunities and memories for the artists of Merseyside, and it is crushing to think of all this being stripped away for the sake of commercial redevelopment.

The current exhibition Finale! is the last to be held at Liverpool Academy of Arts, and is crammed with works produced by artists from all over Liverpool and beyond. From music-inspired portraits to abstract art and costumes, this eclectic exhibition reflects a talented arts community who will surely miss this space when it is gone.

So how can you help? June is now seeking new premises for the gallery, and welcomes any suggestions. “I feel so sad to have to leave what has been my life for so many years and I have met so many people who have become close friends. 36 Seel Street has been a meeting place, and in my opinion there will never be any place like it again.”

Marie added “A recent comment on our Facebook page said it all, ‘A gift from June to all of Liverpool, I’m so very grateful.’ And so am I, for all the support and encouragement June has given me over the years.”

Liverpool Academy of Arts would like to thank all of the people who have made the gallery a success for the past 25 years; from the many loyal volunteers, to landlord and patron Allan Johnstone who let the building to Arthur and then June. On a personal note, June adds “I would like to wish Sue in the cafe John Cooper, English Rice Productions and the rest of the people who work at number 36 all the luck in the future.”

Finale will be on display at Liverpool Academy of Arts, 32 Seel Street until 28 August. The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday 12-4pm.

This post was written for Art in Liverpool

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