One Piece at a Time
Groupe d'Etudes Interdisciplinaires en Arts Britanniques
Call for proposals (June 20th)
Displays and Representations of the UK in International Exhibitions, 1851 to the present / Présentations et représentations du Royaume-Uni dans les expositions internationales, de 1851 à nos jours
Displays and Representations of the UK in International Exhibitions, 1851 to the present / Présentations et représentations du Royaume-Uni dans les expositions internationales, de 1851 à nos jours
Minto House, 20 Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1JZ. Friday 29 June 2012
open call for paper, deadline 27.02.2012
call for proposals
The Arts in Times of Crisis
call for papers
An interview with Bryan Biggs
Gregory McCartney in conversation with Gabriel Gee
Landscape as a locus for artistic transfers
(UK/USA/British Virgin Islands, 2009)
Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool
Institut National d‘Histoire de l‘Art, Paris, 26-27 June 2008.
Royal Academy of Arts, London, 15 September - 2 December 2007.
The exhibition Democratic Promenade was held at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool from the 30th of September to the 27th of November 2011. Gabriel Gee talks to the Bluecoat artistic director and curator of the exhibition, Bryan Biggs. The exhibition is paralleled by the publication of "Liverpool: City of Radicals", edited by B. Biggs and J. Belchem (distribution: Liverpool University Press).
All images @Jon Barraclough
Gabriel Gee: Perhaps just to get started one could ask you to say a few words about how the exhibition was set up in the first place and how it ties in with the Liverpool City of Radicals 2011. We might also want to discuss its relation to the eponymous publication you have just issued with John Belchem, as well as this summer’s re-enactment by the Walker Art Gallery of Roger Fry’s 1911 post-impressionist exhibition, and possibly with the overall current socio-political context the exhibition not merely reflects but aims to inform.
Bryan Biggs: Well it came about as a result of Liverpool City of Radicals, which happens this year, in 2011. The Bluecoat, together with Liverpool Arts and Regeneration Consortium (LARC), which is made of the eight major art venues in the city, designated this year as city of radicals. We wanted to develop some themes around the year to replace what the city council had been doing around capital of culture, where they had themed years leading up to 2008 like health and well being, and faith – not always inspired! Rather than wait for the city to do this, we decided to come up with our own theme. The Bluecoat led the way on this because we were conscious of the fact that in 2011 it would be a hundred years since the post-impressionists exhibited in Liverpool. It was a very significant event staged at the Bluecoat, the first time these artists had been shown together with UK artists, which didn’t happen in their first show in London a few months earlier. When Roger Fry did that show in London, it caused a sensation. But it didn’t really create a dialogue in the space. Obviously there was a lot of dialogue around the show, but in the gallery itself it was jut the continental artists exhibiting on their own. When it was here, they were actually exhibiting alongside British artists, most of whom were from the Sandon Studios Society in Liverpool. So that was something we thought was worth celebrating. And that was why the Walker did the show you just referred to. Also this summer, the Williamson Art Gallery [in Birkenhead] did a show on the artist Albert Lipczinski (who was a Sandon member and friend of Augustus John) which has just gone to Gdansk in Poland… So that was our starting point, 1911, a very significant year for the Bluecoat. Then we did a bit of research and looked at what else was happening in that year, and of course it was the year of the great transport strike, which was a national event, but in Liverpool it was particularly acute. It has been described as a near-to-revolution event. And it really was, the city was closed down. The ships were not moving, the trains were not moving. There was no transport at all. Winston Churchill sent a war ship to the Mersey, with its guns pointing to the city. There were troops in the street. It was a very serious event, an uprising by the working class, who got concessions as a result, union recognition and so on. The third event that year was the opening of the Liver Building at the Pier Head. This was a very controversial building in terms of design and construction. The design was considered very ugly. It showed the influence of North America, places like Chicago and New York. The architects didn’t like it, the public didn’t like it, but it very quickly became a symbol of the city once they put the two liver birds on the top. So you have this architectural ambition, political victory for the working classes, and this art exhibition, which has some significance. I am not saying it created a vital art scene in Liverpool. The Sandon was already an interesting group, and some of them bought into post-impressionism, but most of them carried on doing what they were doing and they continued as a cultural and social group rather than having a continuing engagement with modernism… Perhaps we can reflect on how this simultaneous impulse in culture and politics a hundred years ago, but actually I think there wasn’t a huge connection between the politics and the art, except for people like Lipczinski, who - though not a radical artist - had sympathies with the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Liverpool. He painted portraits of trade union leaders for instance.
G.G: It is something that is often discussed with regards to the impressionists as well as the post-impressionists, as both a valid point and an anachronism. They might have had sympathies with the political left, but most of them were from bourgeois upbringings.
B.B: Oh yes the artists were essentially middle class. Working class artists didn’t exist. There was no higher education for working people. So you are not going to find an artistic radicalism coming from that working class. But it was a radical time. And what was interesting about the Sandon Studios, who were essentially middle class, is that they were progressive, similar to the Bloomsbury group though without their breadth of ideas and with none of their influence. So moving on to our exhibition and why we did this. Liverpool City of Radicals provides our background, and I always wanted to do an exhibition in that year that would reflect the Bluecoat’s ongoing relationship with art and radicalism. So I came up with this idea of democratic promenade. The title is quite significant. It comes from a book by Walter Dixon Scott written in 1907 on the occasion of the city’s seven hundredth birthday. Dixon Scott who was probably a conservative rather than a radical, described the landing stage of the river at the Pier Head as a ‘democratic promenade’. He is talking in particular of Sundays when people are not working and everyone goes down there. It’s a parade of people from all walks of life. You have your rich merchants, the urban poor, dockers, sailors coming from all parts of the world, emigrants from Europe passing through Liverpool on their way to America. I just loved the expression ‘democratic promenade’ as a metaphor for the modern city - a place where ideas and people can come together freely… This provided a title to start with, and a century of ‘radicalism’ to contextualise the work. Then the difficult thing was to work out what with a precise focus for the exhibition. I did this very intuitively, I didn’t think too much about it. I put together works of art, historical works and new commissions, together with a museum of objects that reflect radical moments across the century, particularly in relation to Liverpool. It is not all about Liverpool, but there are a lot of Liverpool historical references. This year saw the opening of the Museum of Liverpool, whose approach to displays follows other big museum shows in the city, such as The Beat Goes On, which was about popular music. These are wonderful shows, but they tend to flatten out the stories. I wanted to go underneath the surface and create a sort of archive of a radical city, and mix that with contemporary art and see what happens. The works have been chosen on that basis. I selected artists who have been engaged with notions of democracy as well as protest, also artists who have been under the radar. A lot of the art happened in that period in which you are particularly interested, in the eighties and the early nineties, which got very little mainstream coverage at the time. So it’s really great to look back at that work and recontextualise it: to see if that work is still strong! I didn’t know until I got it all together whether it would work, and I think most of it holds up pretty well. But we also wanted to commission some new work. The David Jacques film is the newest piece, made especially for the show. It’s a very complex piece by an artist who has always done work that had a political dimension to it. But his new work is much more about problematising the notion of the radical. It’s not black and white.
G.G: The display also includes a series of striking intersections. There are historical intersections, with past artworks encountering contemporary propositions - and perhaps a subplot in this historical intersection might be the overlapping of the eighties with the current climate -, but also intersections of genres and mediums: painting stands alongside photography but also cartoons, political leaflets, posters, text and archive documentation.
B.B: It’s interesting that you picked up on that. That was conscious. I wanted to do a show that was very rich in terms of the visitor experience. It was deliberate that you would move back and forth in time. So you have David Jacques who is making a piece that references late 19th century trade union banners. The photograph of the 1911 strike includes a union banner, and there is a reference to trade union banners in David’s piece, which finishes with the Arab Spring. So it’s about now, and I like this movement in time, you come to see the show and perhaps have some preconception that it might contain some historical documentation, and then you turn the corner and there’s a brand new contemporary art piece, such as the installation with dolls by Oliver Walker. That piece is about the fact that we don’t have a written constitution in this country. He made a work out of that fact. He went to China and commissioned some law students to write a constitution for Britain - all this talk of democracy and exporting laws when we don’t even have a written constitution … He documented the process of going to China, commissioning a constitution as well as ordering a thousand dolls in a factory, while another factory produced a thousand microchips with the voice of a woman reading the constitution; then he imported all of it into this country. He is importing a cultural product, a political product, from a country that is ‘undemocratic’. It’s saying ‘you can buy anything you like from China’, it’s a piece about globalisation essentially, and the contradictions about the Western world’s relationship to the emerging super economies. It’s a powerful piece and very visual, - you can see it from outside the street through the huge gallery windows facing Liverpool’s new retail development, so there is this connection with the real world of consumer shopping too… And coming out of that room you are looking at documentation of a student sit-in in 1970. Back and forth in time: museums prefer to order history. Here we tried to disrupt history through the choice of artworks and contextualisation. It was a gamble, because I didn’t know how it was going to work! And when you are installing the show there are resonances that emerge that you hadn’t thought about. The Pier Head for instance is an important place that is referred to in the title (Democratic Promenade). The first piece you encounter is the speaker’s podium, traditionally a place of protest at the Pier Head but which is now gone. Brigitte Jurack has made an installation about that absence. And we put David Sinclair’s photographs of a school students’ strike that culminated in a rally at the Pier Head opposite her installation. St George’s Hall also keeps appearing: in the 1911 photograph of the transport strike, and opposite that videos by performance group Visual Stress, including a performance they made outside St George’s Hall. These places, which are fixed in our imagination, become much more contingent when you put them in this context.
G.G: The ‘democratic promenade’ can be read in a broad way, but there is also a strong urban and Liverpudlian feeling to it. A more specific question might also revolve around the issue of public space and contested space. For instance here in the city centre of Liverpool there has been a regeneration drive which can be seen as very positive as it brings activities and commerce to areas which had been abandoned and depopulated, but at the same time it brings the problem of the privatisation of public space. These questions also come through in the exhibits in echo to Dixon Scott starting point.
B.B: Certainly that’s important. One artist who makes work about that topic is John Davies. He is doing these photographs of before and after, looking at public green space that’s since become private space. The final video piece upstairs by Peter Walsh is a video of him in front of a series of demonstrations in London that happened this year. These are very vocal, very loud demonstrations, but the artist appears in the video actually talking about the means the media uses to record them. He’s talking about cameras, about the sound equipment, their technical aspects. He’s not talking at all about the context of the demonstration. He is emphasising how everything becomes part of the spectacle. You can protest as much as you like, but it’s those guys with the camera who have all the power. It’s great to put that video next to the older photographs of 1911 and 1921 when it was the force of mass protest that created change and had some agency. Walsh is not saying don’t protest, be let’s not kid ourselves thinking that by just going in the street we will change anything. It’s a slightly pessimistic view, but points out how traditional means of protest is now much more problematic… The notion of public space is not just about the physical space of the city. In the exhibition we have works by Dorothy, which is an artists’ collective. They wanted to create a new political party, through using entirely social networking. They created a twitter campaign called the Nineteen Hundred and Eleven Party, without a manifesto. The people who tweet become the members, and they can put on this site their own slogans, express their own concerns, what they want the party to be about. The posters on the gallery walls are just printed out and pasted on. It started just with the artists’ own slogans, three poster designs repeated, and then each week the artists come in and paste out the messages received that week through the internet. In a way they are creating a different form of democratic process, one which we can join through social networking as well as creating the mechanics of a party through production of large banners, posters and badges. It’s a party without a set agenda, and everybody can have a voice. I think that’s a different kind of space. It’s a public space that’s virtual, playing with ideas of communication and participation.
G.G: How do you envisage the exhibition in terms of raising historical and political mindedness? What might be the impact on the visitor?
B.B: It’s the question about being didactic I guess. A show like this could be seen as telling obvious truths, ‘preaching to the converted’. But I wanted to try and avoid that. That’s why I have selected works that are more ambiguous. What I have found interesting in the response to the exhibition is its capacity to remind. People come and look at a photograph and say “I remember that, I was there, I was fourteen, and I went on that march”. Or, “Oh I forgot about that”, or “I didn’t know that”. You are doing what a museum that is alive should do, which is to surprise you with things about the past. And I think it’s a thing Democratic Promenade does quite successfully. Very few people came in and just walked out, which is something you get a lot with very complex shows. But people have tended to end up spending a lot of time in there, so I think it’s striking a chord. Maybe it’s a Liverpool thing because the subject matter is very much the city. People are interested in their local history. It’s a very affirmative show. It celebrates a history of difference, stories you wouldn’t hear in the mainstream. We purposely avoided some topics, for instance there is nothing about Toxteth. We did consider it, but the material I had access to would have made it little more than straight documentary - and the museum had just done a show about Toxteth for the 30th anniversary this year… I also wanted to slightly confound people’s expectations. Because the show was linked to the City of Radicals year, a lot of the events in that year were organised by what you’d call the traditional left. It was celebrating 1911 as this foundational year for working class protest in the city. There have been quite a lot of interesting events, but many of them within a fairly conventional, black and white political position. What I wanted to do with our show, which is ostensibly about notions of democracy, protest and collective action, was to actually insert within it some anomalies, art created from a less obviously radical position, work expressing the individual rather than the collective. So I included Roderick Bisson, the radical painter who was a member of the Sandon Studios. He was particularly active in the 1930s and 1940s, when he was going to Paris, picking up on Surrealism, buying avant-garde art magazines, following what Picasso was doing. He would return to Liverpool fired up by the new art from the continent. Had he been in London I am sure he would have had a more recognition. So why is he in the exhibition? He is not necessarily political or radical, but he represents a lone modernist voice. I was interested that Liverpool could accommodate someone with that sensibility and understanding of progressive art, who was making his own variant of it, yet who has been almost completely overlooked… There is a big section on Adrian Henri. And Adrian is a linchpin in a way between the lone avant-garde voice, the painter in his studio, with someone who is much more collective and created this wonderful work. For me it was important on several levels. It was about intersections again. You have an intersection between popular culture and high art, poetry, music, performance, writing, all coming together through this one artist. He did work very collaboratively and collectively, but he also maintained a private studio practice. And he moved back and forth in time. He reinvents Alfred Jarry’s Père Ubu as a Liverpool character. I wanted to have these key figures in the exhibition whose connections spread far beyond Liverpool, yet remain largely excluded from art history discourses. Bisson is in obscurity – he has a few pictures in the Walker and the University of Liverpool collection, and is known in very small circles. Adrian we know principally as a poet. Yet he was the first to introduce happenings to the UK. This is evidenced by a letter from Allan Kaprow included in the exhibition. Henri did his first performances in 1962. He was copying what the Americans, particularly Allan Kaprow, were doing, but he made his own version of it: instead of jazz musicians he had pop musicians. He was mixing the Beatles with American avant-garde culture, with historical European avant-garde through Alfred Jarry.
G.G: An interesting stance at a time when the American avant-garde was saying ‘forget Europe’.
B.B: That makes Liverpool an interesting place at that point. It has this one eye on the new world, the ships going back and forth to New York, bringing back modernity, the latest in fashion and music and a pop ethos; and artists like Henri also looking romantically in the other direction, back to a lineage of European modernism. Democratic Promenade is I hope a very rich show in that sense, a very layered show - maybe too rich and too layered as people have commented that it’s too much to take in! A book I have co-edited (also called Liverpool City of Radicals) provides a sort of accompaniment to the exhibition. My chapter looks at three focuses across the century. Firstly, the very early period, 1911 itself, with that post-impressionist show and the group of artists that made it happen, the Sandon. They laid the foundation for the Bluecoat today and its hundred years history as an arts centre. Secondly, the mid-century point, which I have focussed around John Moores and his painting prize. Though not a radical – politically he was a conservative - Moores was visionary, believing that art should be for everybody, and that it shouldn’t be concentrated solely in London. And so he set up his own painting competition here, which became a highly important event in the UK art world. And thirdly, the latter part of the century, from 1988 when the Tate arrived. There was a whole explosion of art activities brought about through regeneration, funded principally by public money from Europe and national agencies. We witnessed the arrival of Tate Liverpool, the Biennial, the A Foundation; we redeveloped our building; Metal opened.. In Art in the City Revisted Sara Selwood examined this relationship that the city’s arts infrastructure has to regeneration funding, its dependency on the public purse, and how this made the visual arts in a fragile position. The sector is still intact, if battered. But the A Foundation is gone, and we are all feeling the pinch.