It’s crazy to think back to my first year at university because it seems so long ago! Yet, the summer of 2018 was only 2 years ago and I remember it clear as day because it was when I volunteered as a gallery invigilator for the 10th Liverpool Biennale. At the time, I was absolutely buzzing(as they say in scouseland) to fully immerse myself in the world of contemporary art. Titled ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You?’ – a line taken from Friedrich Schiller’s 1788 poem Die Götter Grichenlands (The Gods of Greece) – the theme encouraged artists participating to consider the current state of the world(1).
Back when the Biennale exhibited, the art world was shaking in its boots as Western politics began to gravitate more and more towards populism (something which has escalated since) with Trump’s trip to the UK and Brexit negotiations dominating British news feeds. Schiller’s words were a call to artists to consider how they could address these problems creatively and produce a constructive vision for a future in uncertain times. Across the Biennale, socially engaged pieces took on the spotlight but what form of creative dissent, participation or spectacle, is more effective as a medium for inspired change? As an audience, are we engaging passively if we don’t participate in creative authorship or are we just engaging as interpreters?
I want an art that is immediate that is embedded in the issues themselves. An art that directly
intervenes and attempts to transform the problem not illustrate it. I don’t want to represent
things but to change them.John Jordon(2)
The most obviously participatory piece that featured in this series of exhibitions was Mohamed Bourouissa’s much praised ‘Resilience Garden‘(2018)(3). I was so impressed by this piece, which for me, subverted my learnt A Level definition of ‘art’ by becoming deeply embedded, as phrased in the Jordon quote above, ‘…in the issues themselves'(2). Bourouissa worked with local people, gardeners, school pupils, teachers and artists to build a garden in Toxteth (one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool and even the UK). As resident Eleanor Lee described the dilapidation of the area: “What it said was that the people who live here are utterly dispensable,” says Lee. “That we don’t give a shit.”. However, this garden was an investment(4).
Bourouissa took inspiration from his homeland, Algeria, where a patient of the psychoanalyst and writer Frantz Fanon built a garden at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Blida. Bourouissa went onto research further into how the patient used this as a form of occupational therapy, reflecting his mental space in the way he landscaped the outdoor environment and organised the botany(5). Hence, the garden in the previously unused land on the grounds of Kingsley Community Primary School, stands as a testament of the existing ‘resilience’ of the area as well as a space to conceive it, bringing a sense of strength to the locals who all helped build it. The garden also presents the racial and cultural diversity of the working-class area through its exotic array of plants.
As is pointed out by Claire Bishop in her introduction to the ‘Documents of Contemporary Art: Participation’ edition, there are recurrent elements of participatory art which have ran through from the 1960s – one of the prevailing agendas is a framing of ‘an active subject, one who will be empowered by the experience of physical and symbolic participation’. This project enabled the participants to ‘determine their own social and political reality'(6). On this basis we can also look at the nature of collaborative authorship as although Bourouissa is recognised as the artist who organised the project – funded by Liverpool Biennale and supported by FACT – the collaborators with locals illustrates something rather more democratic and non-hierarchical perspective of creative production processes. Although this model of participation really does provoke a literal shift towards a more constructive and sustainable future for Toxteth, it could also be said that it’s documentation and later display as a film in FACT categorises it as a ‘spectacle’. Guy Debord, who co-founded the Situationist International, claimed that the ‘mass spectacle constitutes […] the epicentre of separation and non communication'(7); in other words, the spectacle – as a social relationship between people mediating an image – creates a void between subject and viewer, making it ineffective at stimulating any change. Not only could this be said of the film but also the very act of showing the garden to visitors. The viewer is abstracted from the process of production.
Frieze criticised the tone of the Biennale, saying that it wasn’t ‘direct enough’ and the title merely served as a ‘passively phrased’ gesture of ‘tone-deaf intellectual indulgence'(5). But, to me this piece couldn’t get more direct. There is nothing ‘wistful’ about building resilience in those who have suffered most in this city. In my opinion, we need to have more faith in the viewer. They’re not merely going to look at this as a quaint gesture but as an invitation to participate or even start a project like it. Here, Bourouissa is trusting in the spectators as what Rancière calls ‘active interpreters’ who are ‘all equally capable of inventing our own translations'(8).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
(1) 2018. Liverpool Biennale 2018. Liverpool Biennale. [viewed: 23/04/2020] Available from: https://www.biennial.com/archive/2018
(2) Jordon, J 2003. We are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-capitalism. London: Verso Books
(3) 2018. Exhibition view liverpool biennale. Kamel Mennour. [viewed: 23/04/2020] Available from: https://kamelmennour.com/artists/mohamed-bourouissa/exhibition-view-liverpool-biennale
(4) Chakrabortty, A 2018. How one community beat the system, and rebuilt their shattered streets. The Guardian. [online]. [viewed: 23/04/2020]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/14/community-liverpool-residents-granby
(5) Emery, T, 2018. 10th Liverpool Biennial: ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’. Frieze. [online]. [viewed: 23/04/2020]. Available from: https://frieze.com/article/10th-liverpool-biennial-beautiful-world-where-are-you
(6) Bishop, C 2006. Introduction. In: Bishop, C. Documents of Contemporary Art: Participation. London: Whitechapel, p. 10-18.
(7) Debord, G, 1967. Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, p. 17.
(8) Ranciere, J, 2004. The Emancipated Spectator. Unpublished conference paper. Frankfurt, Aug 2004. [online]. [viewed: 23/04/2020]. Available from: https://theater.klein.org/