When Sally Tallant took on directorship of Liverpool Biennial in January 2012, she was just eight months away from lifting the curtain on the seventh edition of the UK’s only international festival for contemporary visual arts and culture. As anyone who has ever had to take on someone else’s half-finished job will know, it’s a peculiarly vexing sensation to find oneself faced with ink half dry on contracts you never signed but have to see through. This time round Tallant has had two full years to shape the eighth edition and she’s doing things her own way.
“The good thing about Biennials is that you can, and you should, reinvent the format every time you do one – because the world changes so much in two years”, Tallant tells Northern Soul. “Last time I was able to shape it a bit, but mainly I was meeting everyone, observing and finding out how it was done. This time it’s different.”
Tallant puts Lewis Biggs’ departure down to the ‘ten year itch’. There’s no question that her predecessor had a wildly successful decade and perhaps wanted to exit on a high, though public funding cuts may also have had something to do with it. When Biggs took the job in 2000 the first thing he did was scrap the notion of a star curator, then increased the volume of public realm art – making the Biennial felt throughout the city streets – and set a high target for the number of new commissions. These two directives shaped the festival into what it is today; a civically engaged and de-centralised platform for new work that has been responsible for changing the perception of Liverpool and has had a strong impact on economic regeneration of the city.
There are more than 200 biennials worldwide and they vary in scale enormously though, as Tallant explains, they fall broadly into three types. Some – Venice being the oldest and most established – are founded on the principle of national representation and operate like a world art expo. Others – like Havana or Sao Paulo – aim to decentralise the art market and ask the world to consider artists from under-represented regions. Then there are those – like Liverpool, Lyon and Berlin – that develop, if not spontaneously then at least organically, out of a local art scene, bringing together the existing cultural capital that the city has to offer and adding an international dimension. Aside from their episodic nature, the thing that all Biennials have in common is that they’re linked to a particular location, and therefore play an important role in connecting a local scene to a global context.
It’s for this reason that the Biennial has become hugely important to Liverpool. It was a key element of the bid that won the city the title of 2008 European Capital of Culture, so all eyes are on Tallant to see what’s on the cards this year.
In a few days, the full programme will be announced so she can’t reveal any details. She does acknowledge that, like her predecessor, she’s started by clearing away the deadwood and that consequently this will be the first year without a theme. Since the festival’s inception in 1999, themes have been comfortably broad – Hospitality (2012), Touched (2010) – but served the purpose of uniting all the diverse venues and strands of activity under one umbrella. This sort of top-down arbitration, however, runs contrary to Tallant’s aim of diversification.
“I want each organisation to do the very best show they can do,” she explains, “so that visitors to the Biennial get to see what is really happening in the city. And I don’t think a theme really assists that. We have our own idea that’s prompting the exhibition at Fact Bluecoat, Tate, a new space we’re opening and in the public realm. But there are other, fringe events that we will flag up as part of the programme and they don’t have to be along a theme. It’s better this way.”
Tallant talks keenly about Liverpool as a dynamic and exciting city, batting away any suggestions that the art scene has taken a dive in recent years with the closure of the A Foundation and the departure of gallerist Ceri Hand. She’s enthusiastic about The Royal Standard gallery and current hotspot Camp and Furnace where she hosts fortnightly free artist’s talks throughout the year. “It feels more dynamic here than it did four years ago. Cities change so rapidly, they evolve, and so they should. Things should reinvent themselves.”
Formerly head of programmes at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Tallant spearheaded the gallery’s Edgware Road Project which aimed to link artists with communities living and working in the neighbourhood. “I was always interested in how, working from a base, I could engage with the city,” she says. “I feel like with the Biennial now, instead of a gallery I have the whole city as a site of experimentation and production that can go out into the world.”
That global perspective has led to the appointment of this year’s curatorial corespondents – Mai Abu ElDahab, an Egyptian specialist in design and architecture, and Anthony Huberman, an education expert from MOMA in San Francisco – but it’s the strong social motivation behind Tallant’s desire to engage that is probably the best clue as to how she plans to put her stamp on the festival.
“The issues that drive my work curatorially are about asking questions around the value of art and what it does in the world, whose culture we’re prepared to engage with and how it is represented. For me, a cultural organisation is inherently a political organisation because you are talking about how we articulate value and who it is we’re prepared to value socially and politically.
“Issues of class and gender are crucially important in my work. Those questions are live, and they’re live in my office every day. It’s not like we say ‘right, let’s sit down and add some women artists’. We talk about feminism and we talk about politics and all kinds of issues around class.
“The only reason for me to have this job is that I can have a voice in changing who is represented and that’s a huge responsibility but a great privilege and I will make those choices.”
Anticipating her own ten year itch, Tallant announced a decade of activity last year and plans to pass the baton in 2023.
“In that time I want to create a new model of a biennial that is a site of cultural production that operates in a city and from a city but isn’t restricted to being about that city. I want to really see if its possible to create a durational model that allows artists to maybe take ten years to make a work or to do something quite quickly, and where I can create a community of research that looks at the value of art and that takes on the huge advantage we have in being apart from the art market and not being dominated by it. I want to really start to something important and make incredible projects with artists.”
What her successor inherits in eight years’ time will become clearer in the next few days, but all the signs are pointing to a model that places social and political engagement front and centre and gives the UK a biennial worth talking about.
For more information follow this link: http://www.biennial.com/