LOBSCOUSING THE LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL
SHARON ALWARD AND CLIFF EYLAND CRASH A BIENNIAL
[First published in 1999 by Gallery One One One and then as "Cliff Eyland's Liverpool Notebook" in Toronto's C magazine, issue 65, Spring, 2000, 30-34. The version below differs from previous versions.]
I phoned the passport office at 2 am, and they were firm: I might get into England, but my expired passport might not get me back into Canada. At about 3:30 am, after turning the apartment upside down, I found it. Next day Sharon Alward and I flew from Winnipeg to England to visit English artist Alec Shepley's Edgehill University, near Liverpool, and to crash "TRACE," the international exhibition of the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art.
Liverpudlians are called "Scousers." The name, which derives from "lobscouse," a stew or hash, perfectly describes the contemporary international biennial, an art stew in which strange objects bob up into view out of a dense broth. Biennials have become fringe festivals. Most encourage off-site art installations and impromptu performances that can be absorbed into the festivities such that, at least from an organizer's perspective, many events and works are "free." Organizers take or shun responsibility for "unofficial" work as they please. "Trace" organizers were clearly conscious of the polyvalent, contingent nature of contemporary art, and of the individualism - even anti-nationalism - of contemporary artists; and of the fact that the success of future festivals depends on organisational flexibility. Anything goes, or at least anything can go. Trace had official sites, but unofficial work was encouraged.
This was not always so at the international biennial. La Biennale di Venezia set the pace in the 1890s for other festivals; it was structured like the contemporaneous Olympic Games so as to represent countries. But contemporary art can no longer be easily categorized according to the national origins of artists, and Venice as we know has semi-official off-site installations in addition to the national pavilions.
The Liverpool Biennial's main show "Trace" was curated by Australia's Anthony Bond and shown at the Liverpool Tate and The Exchange Flags, a big downtown building. The word "Tracey" designated everything else, including student shows and artist-run exhibitions. "Trace" included well-known international names: Adrian Piper, Alastair MacLennon, Jane & Louise Wilson, Stan Douglas, and Erwin Wurm."Tracey" artists easily outnumbered the more official participants. Near-by Manchester got into the act with its own set of shows.
Sharon Alward and I were, then, neither official nor unofficial artists at the Liverpool Biennial, but something in between. We had the official imprimatur of Gallery One One One at the University of Manitoba (where at the time I had a term position as acting director), we had funding from both The Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. And, damn it, we even had a letter from then Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy.
I make small art the size of library file cards. I distributed some blank wooden file card-sized blocks in Liverpool, some to strangers. I hid other blocks in art galleries, including the Tate, and in other public places, but the real point of our trip was to enact a Sharon Alward work on the streets of Liverpool. It was only after we had secured funding that we heard that the UK's first art biennial would coincide with what we had conceived and arranged over a year previous. Alward is a multi-media performance artist. She is also (and this is directly related to her work) an administrant and lay reader for St. Mary's Anglican church in the diocese of Rupertsland (Manitoba).
In previous works Alward has locked herself into a pillory for nine days, pulled herself around a wooden track filled with 80 litres of milk for ten days, and (at Ace Art Winnipeg during the summer of 1999) sat under a spigot with ketchup dripping on her head for a week as she rotated on a disk. Alward's 1990 "Totentanz," a notorious work, was dedicated to people who had died of AIDS. In it she wiped up 25 litres of blood and semen in a performance that took over seven hours.
Her public performances, she says, have often been described as a "model of perversion" by what she calls the "Moral Christian Right".The Liverpool "Christian Woman of Virtue" work required Alward to haul a car battery around as she walked city streets clad in a leather coat, a diaper, and a set of neon wings. Liverpudlians we encountered were good-humoured, seeing Alward as an angel or a "fairy." (To me she looked like a beautiful, exotic bug.) Our sense was that many knew there was an art festival going on, and were able to understand that we were artists and that we were making art. Too, my videotaping Alward was a signal to passers-by that our actions could be television or moviemaking.
The weather co-operated as we worked. Crashing the "Trace" biennial was quite pleasant and I encourage other artists to follow in Alward's "Christian Woman of Virtue" footsteps by checking the Net for the biennial closest to you and then crashing it.