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

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Carlos Garaicoa

Jun Yang

Shilpa Gupta

Teresa Margolles

Priscilla Monge

As Reesa Greenberg has noted, exhibitions that claim to be "international" often include their location in the title so as to co-opt the cultural status attached to the meanings and myths of a particular city or region. Liverpool as an open archive contains a multitude of images, artefacts, and traditions that trace its history as an imperial power and its subsequent economic decline and recent urban regeneration. The conception of the city as a repository of source material that can be mined, appropriated, and represented is reflected in a number of works commissioned for International 06. Matej Andraz Vogrincicí­s installation at St Lukeí­s Church, Untitled, for example, paid homage to Liverpoolí­s maritime history by filling the empty bombed out church with a number of overturned boats. Carlos Garaicoaí­s photographic series, Overlapping, are ghostly visual records of the past seeping into and invading the present. Excavating beneath the surface to show what has been inevitably lost, Garaicoa worked from archival images to reconstruct buildings that no longer exist, or were only ever imagined, by tracing their outlines in thread on the surface of his photographs. Works such as these, however, reflect a very traditional approach to the conceptualization of site. Spatial artifacts are presented as embodying and framing the city.

This rather static and fixed conception of place has been increasingly undermined by the more recent theorizations of the past two decades that suggest that rather than being a fixed geographical location, site is constituted through and produced by social, economic, cultural, and political processes. In her groundbreaking work, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Miwon Kwon traces the genealogy of site-specific art practices since the 1960s, identifying a recent paradigm shift whereby artistsí­ are seen to advance an altogether different notion of a site as "predominantly an intertextually coordinated, multiply located, discursive field of operation"(11)rather than something grounded and fixed.

If we conceive of site as something that is shifting and fragmentary, and is produced through socio-economic processes, what might we consider to be engaging and challenging context-specific work? Perhaps one point of departure might be works that destabilize our notions of site as a fixed geographical location and delocalize us as viewers, exploring the slippage between shifting, fragmentary, and half disclosed narratives of place. We can see evidence of works that more closely approximate this approach in International 06.

The description of Jun Yangí­s video installation, A Better Tomorrow, points to the artistsí­ interest in the large number of derelict and boarded-up houses in Liverpool, testament to the dramatic decline in the cityí­s population over the last fifty years, and the recent Housing Market Renewal Initiative which seeks to rebuild and refurbish thousands of houses in the city. However, what is perhaps most engaging about A Better Tomorrow is the intersection of divergent narratives of place. Yang juxtaposes images of Liverpool, and its attendant process of urban regeneration, with the story of his parentí­s migration to Vienna. His circuitous narrative doubles back on itself in a seemingly endless loop, as he recounts the continually deferred promise of new beginnings, reinvention, and progress. Rather than feeling embedded in a clearly articulated space that we can understand as "Liverpool," one is left feeling adrift and place-less, acutely aware of the multiple interfaces/points of overlap that exist between dissimilar spaces, histories, and experiences. This is also the case with Shilpa Guptaí­s interactive video project, Untitled, at FACT. Stepping into her projected picture book, the viewer becomes part of an interactive story. Familiar elements appear as the narrative unfolds: birds, sea, houses, windows, children, but one cannot locate oneself in a specific locale; one is entirely out of place and un-situated. The sense of disembeddness in these works is interesting because it seems to more adequately reflect the reality of the itinerant artist who is constantly moving from one context to another, as well as our own experience of place in our increasingly mobile and globalized world.

Seeking to circumvent the criticism that place-specific work produced by artists parachuting in and out of diverse contexts on their peripatetic route around the biennial circuit can only ever be superficial at best, the commissioned works for International 06 were based on extended artists residencies, research, and fieldwork. But can we really argue that a more in-depth research-based approach inevitably leads to more engaging and pertinent art works and should therefore inevitably be considered the favored model for context-specific work?

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