The Coventry Biennial describes itself as the UK’s ‘social biennial’. More than any other biennale, the Coventry questions how the festival engages with the local community, and what relationship there is with the international. Jamie Limond talked to curator Ryan Hughes for The Drouth.
As director of Coventry Biennial since its first iteration in 2017, artist-curator Ryan Hughes is aware of the uphill struggle involved in changing how these festivals are programmed and their successes measured. “There are quite deep problems with being a biennial,” he admits, “people feel a particular way about what biennials do and how they do it. Whilst we see the value in some of those structures, it’s important that where we don’t see the value we discard that baggage”.
Number one on Hughes’s junk list is ingrained privileging of the international over the local. He’s particularly disparaging of the many high-profile biennials which show hardly any artists from their local area. “That just disgusts me”, he states simply.
Visiting the various sites and venues, it’s clear that Coventry Biennial sees itself as something emerging from within the city, rather than a cultural intervention from without. There’s a “pretty much fifty-fifty” split between local and national/international artists, a logic that’s been applied to the Biennial as a whole, with museum shows and events balanced by a series of workshops and training programmes for Coventry’s official residents and homeless alike.
Walking around the city it seems fitting that the theme of the 2019 Biennial should be ‘The Twin’. Like a beautifully barmy set from Ken Russell’s The Devils, the medieval modernism of Sir Basil Spence’s cathedral neighbours the bombed-out ruins of the 14th century St. Michael’s. It was on this site of devastation that in 1944 a group of women reached out to the city of Stalingrad: sending aid to the Red Army and establishing Coventry-Stalingrad (now Volgograd) as the world’s first ‘twin city’.
“We saw that the 75th anniversary of that moment was potentially going to be quite a bland affair if left to the powers that be,” Hughes recalls, “that it wouldn’t reflect the diversity and energy that the twin city movement has ignited. It felt important that we mark that movement emerging from Coventry”.
Today Coventry is twinned with a total of 26 cities, including Dresden, Germany (twinned 1956), Jinan, China (1983) and Parkes, Australia (also 1956), while the twinning movement itself has spread worldwide. The 2019 Biennial was initially to be centred around artists from Coventry’s 26 twins, but “when it began to feel like we were doing the council’s job for them”, Hughes grins, “we saw it as a chance to intervene curatorially, and explore a much wider range of dualities: the double, the copy, the fake. Binaries, non-binaries…”
While the Biennial commemorates the city’s history, importantly it also ‘twins’ its past with the concerns of the present and beyond. “Coventry voted leave despite being a city which founded the idea of international friendship in the modern moment”, Hughes notes. “That felt like a rich environment to have an open and honest conversation.”
Across the festival there is a common theme of dialogue, discussion and dissent.
Australian artist Tully Arnot’s sculpture Birdsong (2019)- two ceramic bird whistles rigged up to plastic airbags- speaks of communication breakdown, tweeting happily and incessantly in a coldly anonymous consultation room of a former NHS rehab centre. Abandoned for two years and known now as The Row, the Biennial takes up three of its floors, while the space also houses sister project New Art West Midlands, showcasing the work of recent graduates alongside established artists. The current state of the NHS hovers like a spectre over the proceedings.
East Midlands-based artist Dylan Fox provides something of a counterpoint to the potential sanctification of the National Health Service, hanging the words ‘Nobody Passes’ in pink and blue neon beside a medical curtain in one of The Row’s examination rooms. The work is an ambivalent epigram, exploring the barriers thrown up for trans people by an inefficient or overstretched UK health system, as well as the societal pressure for trans men and women to ‘pass’. A call for tolerance and empathy, the work could perhaps be read as a self-defeating judgment: whether as individuals or institutions, we all ‘could do better’.
Over at the Herbert, the city’s main art gallery and museum, there’s a more conventional group-show, which nevertheless manages to include emerging local artists with internationally significant heavyweights. A Couple (of swings) (1993) by celebrated Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum reimagines the playground staple as something more treacherous. Two glass panes suspended from chains face each other- poised for mutual destruction, they highlight the fragility of international and interpersonal relations. Twenty-six years old, they perhaps take on a new relevance for a generation designated ‘snowflakes’.
These uneasy dialogues continue across the two central venues themselves. Designed to antagonize each other, the museological Herbert is twinned with the rehabilitated rehab-unit, punning on the notion of ‘institutionalization’. The works in The Row spill from room to kitchenette to hallway, part alien-invasion part office-party, while the Herbert marshals its visitors with conventional ‘don’t touch’ plaques and rails. Inevitably the show at The Row is the more distinctive of the two. There is audio-visual bleed throughout the building, leading at times to pronounced sensory confusion, the viewer met by a series of mirrors and doublings through doorways and partitions.
But the Herbert also hides a secret in its underbelly, a dark double to the bright open exhibition spaces above. Lurking like a Nigel Kneale nasty and bathed in UV blue, Birmingham artist and New Art West Midlands alumnus Grace A. Williams’s A Forgetting of Light– a gothic glow-in-the-dark print inspired by German philosopher Jakob Böhme’s writings on Lucifer- occupies the medieval ‘Undercroft’ beneath the museum building. Gleefully subversive and mirroring the Jekyll and Hyde city above ground, it seems to reflect on the nature of the world’s evils, tangible and intangible, enemies real or imagined; the comfort we find in pinning our anxieties on conspiracy theories, or the occult, or demonized ‘others’. Like so many of the gestures across the Biennial it’s a work about what we see and what we don’t.
Across the programme there is a theme of visibility and its twin, invisibility. The visibility of the homeless, the rootless, the marginalized, the different. The visibility of the ‘local’ and what that might mean when as a nation we have decided, apparently, to cast the ‘international’ aside, or to mistrust it generally. As Hughes frames it, the Biennial asks “What does it mean to ‘be together’ in 2019?”, a year defined by the silent and not so silent majority.
In the current climate, it would be easy for Hughes’s ‘disgust’ with the art world’s internationalist biases to be misconstrued as the kind of suspect parochialism with which many voices of the Leave campaign could be charged. Equally we might wonder what the inherent value of the ‘local’ might be, or how to measure the real worth of all those excessive twins. Partially the Biennial seems an attempt to counter the flimsiness which has set in since those early days of twinning, the original radicalism of the gesture diluted by decades of increasingly arbitrary pairings. While it does a good job of making something more tangible of these global relationships, the Biennial could possibly have been more radical in exploring how these partnerships might be rethought for today.
Perhaps the 2019 Biennial’s focus on the twin city phenomena could be seen as a bid to reclaim Coventry as a place welcome to all: the city which managed to birth the cross-racial, cross cultural Two-Tone movement in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, with ska and punk influenced bands like The Specials or The Selecter a radical socio-political-aesthetic form of resistance amid the racial and economic tensions of Thatcher’s Britain.
Many of the more local artists featured across the programme make work which effectively ‘humanizes’ the immigrant experience. Birmingham-based photographer Andrew Jackson’s From a small island series explores the gap between the stories his parents would tell him about Jamaica in the 1950s, and the present-day reality of Kingston (twinned with Coventry in 1962). The images are idiosyncratic, personal, at pains to avoid any simplistic coercion into convenient historical narratives of the ‘Windrush Generation’, etc. Jackson emphasizes immigration as something experienced individually by masses of humans, not by human masses.
Similarly, Jackson’s images juxtapose the ‘official’ and the unofficial (the grand figure of a local man in Kingston, perhaps hailing a cab, and the raised hand of a public monument), mirroring the dual-nature of the Biennial and its relationship with the city’s council and institutions as an upstart, artist-led initiative.
While the more conventional central shows at the Herbert and the Row are somewhat necessary flagship presentations, for Hughes and his team, the ethos of the festival had to be sown across the life of the city, not just its designated art spaces. “In so many cases biennials are attended by people who attend biennials,” Hughes reflects. “We really want them to leave like they’ve genuinely experienced the city. Dining at The Pod café or yoga at the Herbert are things that people who live here do, so programming those things as part of the Biennial is really important. We’re articulating our work as the ‘social biennial’, it’s not a commercial showcase”.
“Y’know, we’re not Venice, not Istanbul…we’re Coventry!”
While this kind of self-deprecation could come across as a very British case of ‘know thy place’, or a fatal lack of ambition, it’s more a question of what can be achieved, and achieved well, in real terms. Rather than putting Coventry on the international art map, the Biennial seems more focused on making a name for itself nationally first, with the impact of this on local artists and audiences a priority.
Representative of the focus on local people and the non-biennial-goer (not to mention the more ramshackle side of the festival) is the ‘The Partisan Social Club’, set up by artists Mel Jordan and Andy Hewitt. Operating from a paper, drawing and text covered room in The Row throughout the festival, the Club have activated the space with a series of workshops and events, ranging from t-shirt printing to recording podcasts, all exploring notions of labour and production. The ‘Study Manual’ for these workshops, printed in a not-unfriendly shade of yellow, contains material from, ‘An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conductive to Human Happiness’ by William Thompson (1824). Thompson, an Irish philosopher born in Cork (one of Coventry’s twins since 1960), was a friend to Jeremey Bentham and Anna Wheeler, and, apparently, a proto feminist. He’s got a way with words for all his archaism, the concluding remarks of the Club’s pamphlet quoting his 1825 declaration, ‘Women of England! Women in whatever country ye breathe- wherever ye breathe, degraded- awake!’. It reads today as a general plea for critical disenchantment.
Catching the disabused warmth of the Coventry Biennial against the urban, economic chill, Jordan and Hewitt write in their manual that ‘the distribution of wealth is a hackneyed subject. But what subject important to human happiness is not hackneyed?’. It’s a statement reflective of the Biennial’s practical-minded optimism- one eye on a better, kinder future, one eye on the budget. Hughes and his team seem to dream as big as can just about be realized: I don’t think it’s purely zeitgeisty art evangelicalism which puts words like ‘comfort’ and ‘care’ upfront in the Biennial literature, rather a kind of urgent humanism.
Of course there’s still work to be done, and the Biennial team are the first to acknowledge it. Their evaluation material is admirably public and easy to find. On their website you can download a complete set of statistics from the 2017 iteration (with 2019 presumably soon to follow). The numbers reveal an audience 75.8% white British, despite Coventry’s large Asian and Black population. The average attendee as of 2017 is under 25, White-British, and has visited Coventry before. With Hughes confident they’ve doubled their number of visitors in 2019 it’ll be interesting to read the breakdowns.
While it’s relatively easy to ensure diversity of participating artists, there’s no simple solution to reaching more diverse audiences- particularly where contemporary art audiences are concerned. And while there’s been long-term strategy work going on behind the scenes, and a council generally supportive of culture, Hughes recalls that it was, “the ‘arts’ with an ‘s’ they were interested in. Dance, theatre and performance. Contemporary art not so much. They need some convincing on certain things”. Coventry was named UK City of Culture 2021 way back in 2017. The official website lists ‘large-scale spectacle, music, dance, theatre and poetry as well as more intimate, celebratory cultural and heritage experiences’ among the expected programme of events – art, in the form of the 2021 Biennial particularly, seems to have been left off the main agenda. A shame, as Hughes (the only full-time staff member) and the relatively small group of volunteers and part-timers have committed their labour to long term investment in the city’s cultural life.
Perhaps the most important ‘twin’ of the Biennial is its shadow: what happens in the 2 year interims. While many international art festivals can feel like the circus coming to town, the Coventry Biennial is uncommonly concerned with sustaining the energy it generates during those long dormant periods. “We make infrastructural changes to the spaces we use,” Hughes explains, “we’re hyper-aware of making work when we’re not making work. We renovated the Coventry Evening Times building in 2017 and thirty exhibitions followed. Just immediate change, an outpouring of creative excitement when there’s suddenly a place to make and show”.
As Coventry gears up for City of Culture, it’s this sustainability through grassroots social endeavor which will prove indispensable. “We’re not just trying to get people to come to exhibitions,” Hughes stresses, “we’re trying to take the activity to them. We worked for six months on educational and participatory programmes with the homeless, workshops with local artists, worked with residents to actually make work, so that they feel embedded in the Biennial”.
“I sat back at a potluck event”, Hughes marvels, “you had people from national funding bodies having lunch with a homeless man that came to all our events, prizewinning artists, and a guy who walked in with his camera…this is what we started the Biennial for. We need to harness that and build on it”.
Jamie Limond visited the Coventry Biennial as part of the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20′
‘The Twin’ is on until 26 January 2020 at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum