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Art & Social Space
Context Sensitivity: The 2006 Liverpool Biennial and the rhetoric of place
by Donna Conwell
12/21/06


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Amalia Pica


Priscilla Monge


Mario Navarro


Tsui Kuang-Yu


Adriana Varej√£o

If we subscribe to a notion of place as an intersection of social, economic and political relations, rather than a bounded geographical location, where and how does artistic engagement with the context start?
Claire Doherty(1)

Where an exhibition is staged, particularly an international exhibition, is a key determinate regarding which artists are included as participants and the exhibitions likely range of viewers. The very name of a location can determine how an exhibition is posited historically and read critically. Exhibitions depend upon the rich and various connotative benefits associated with their chosen location, for sites are always signifiers of stability and history or, conversely, of the exotic, of the new, or even art itself.
Reesa Greenberg(2)

The right to the city, says Henri Lefebvre, "cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities." On the contrary, "it can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life." The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of access to what already exists: it is a right to change it.
David Harvey(3)

Given the fact that over fifty biennials/triennials have mushroomed around the globe in recent years - an average of one every two weeks - it seems safe to say that biennial/international mega-exhibition has now achieved unquestioned dominance as the accepted medium for convening, presenting, and disseminating contemporary art. The evident lack of critical discourse surrounding the efficacy of the large-scale international exhibition seems to support Paul O'Neill's suggestion that it has become the "new autonomous object of our times."(4)

With such a glut of international art exhibitions, organizers face the unenviable and increasingly competitive task of securing the attendance of an art world audience that is struggling to keep up with the rotating biennial circuit. In addition to the expediential growth of the biennial, increasingly we have seen the development of what Claire Doherty has identified as, "the rhetoric of place [which] has become the rallying cry for the curator of the scattered-site exhibition or biennial."(5) Engagement with context or place-specificity as a curatorial strategy is evident in a plethora of recent global exhibitions, including the Gwangju Biennial, Manifesta 5, the 9th Istanbul Biennial, 27th Bienal de Säo Paulo, IDENSITAT05, and the 2004 and 2006 Liverpool Biennials. An entirely new terminology has evolved to describe such context related artistic practices, ranging from site-orientated to context specific and research based. However, critical commentators have increasingly begun to question whether the large-scale international exhibition is the most appropriate environment to showcase context specific works and whether privileging engagement with place over studio based practices inevitably leads to the production of more interesting and challenging art works. As Paul O'Neill has inquired, "Is [the biennial/mega-exhibition] the place to show the kind of work that is context/site-specific or participant-specific when the emptied-out version of the artwork becomes just another part of the exhibition as autonomous space separated from the specific cultural, social, and political context of its location?" (6)

Since its inception in 1999, the Liverpool Biennial has developed into the UK's largest and most widely reviewed contemporary arts festival. The most recent edition of the international arts exhibition opened on September 16, 2006 and ran through November 26, 2006. Inspired by Liverpool's people, history and built environment, the critical core of the biennial, International 06, involved over 35 new commissions, 15 of which were sited in the public realm. Curators from four partner organizations (Tate Liverpool, FACT, Open Eye, and Bluecoat) collaborated with two consultant curators, Gerardo Mosquera from Cuba and Manray Hsu from Taiwan, to provide a platform for "context sensitive" (7)work that would focus on Liverpool's recent urban regeneration.

Taiwanese curator Manray Hsu suggested that the invited artists should bring a host of new signs into play across the surface of Liverpool that would disrupt the globalized "hypertexts" of the city and "confront both residents and visitors with new visual prompts and challenges." (8) Working with the traditional Chinese notion of chi, Hsu also sought to address blockages and imbalances within the city by employing his concept of archipuncture (acupuncture for the built environment). By locating artworks at key nodal points throughout the city he sought to enable the free flow of creative energy.

Havana-based curator Gerardo Mosquera focused on the disparities and contrasts between Liverpool's wealthy past as a major port of the British Empire, and its post-war economic decline and subsequent urban regeneration. Mosquera was particularly struck by the inscription engraved on the pedestal of the Columbus' statue at Sefton Park's Palm House which reads, "The Discoverer of the Americas was the Maker of Liverpool." The inscription suggests how Liverpool developed into the city it became as a result of the imperial enterprise of trade, piracy, slavery, trade and conquest, and the expansion of Europe into the colonies. In response to this, Mosquera sought to engender a reverse colonial journey by bringing artists from the Americas, Africa, and Asia to Liverpool who would bring their own perspectives to the city and its people, "creating humanly engaging art that [would] throw new light on contemporary Liverpool." (9) Mosquera's approach to International 06 builds on his highly influential critical interrogation of the centralized system of the art world and his argument that whereas we supposedly live in a world of global exchanges and communications "in fact connections only happen inside a radical and hegemonic pattern around the centers of power, where the peripheral countries (most of the world) remain disconnected from one another, or are only connected indirectly via - and under the control of - the centers." (10)

If International 06 sought to trace and mine Liverpool's rise, fall and recovery and also to inject new (peripheral?) perspectives and creative energy into the city, where can we locate it as a curatorial proposition within the prevailing discourses of place and public space? In what way did the large-scale international exhibition format frame the context-specific works of International 06? And did a contextually sensitive approach ensure the production of engaging and pertinent art works?

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