‘Touched’? Before seeing this year’s Liverpool Biennial I was suspicious of its vague and seemingly pedestrian concept, which gestures limply towards affect in art (and unwittingly highlights the impossibility of coming up with a robust and marketable theme for any biennial involving 31 venues and several hundred artists). In attempting to justify its curatorial framing, long-time Biennial director Lewis Biggs argued that the international team of curators – headed by Lorenzo Fusi – wanted to find the unifying characteristic of an art that could communicate directly and have a broad, cross-cultural appeal. The answer: ‘Emotional experience is common to all humanity. Art that evokes emotion in one individual, despite all the cultural specifics that determine that person’s reactions, will reach out to many other individuals with varied cultural backgrounds.’ But surely all art aims at some kind of affect? Hasn’t it failed if it augurs no response? And doesn’t doing away with cultural specificities and differences sound dangerously close to a kind of universalizing, neo-colonial, western ‘end of ideologies’ humanism? Perhaps, but Biggs goes on to provide justification nevertheless: the concept emerged amidst the global financial crisis of 2008 which provoked a simultaneous questioning of art’s value – art traded for financial value is not always socially valuable, after all. So Biggs and Fusi have introduced their own provocative value judgement: ‘Art without emotional force is without intellectual power.’ What happens if art is without intellectual power? Must it really lack emotional force? And what on earth is ‘emotional force’ anyway?
This year’s Biennial – the city’s sixth, and perhaps most ambitious to date – stretches across seven major sites. Exhibitions are installed in the more conventional gallery settings – such as Tate Liverpool, the Walker Art Gallery, A Foundation, the Contemporary Urban Centre, FACT, the Bluecoat and Open Eye Gallery – as well as public spaces across the city, including The Black-E community centre, The Oratory and Lime Street station. Of the latter, most notable is the vast space of a former hardware store on Renshaw Street that, along with a host of other empty commercial spaces, has been taken over by The Art Organisation and the New York-based group No Longer Empty. These sections, particularly Renshaw Street’s themed show, ‘Re:Thinking Trade’, offer an intriguing rebuttal of the new shopping and leisure world which emerged in 2008 as part of Liverpool’s rebranding as a ‘capital of culture’. Offering alternative forms of exchange in the face of corporate globalization, it includes the work of Minerva Cuevas, whose ongoing Del Montte project (2003–) occupies the empty window displays with a colourful, sharp commentary on contemporary South African politics intersecting with Liverpool’s historical slave trade. However, given that the city’s corporate rebranding was itself in part due to the Biennial, all this proposes a perplexing and unresolved statement on the art and politics of gentrification. The huge hardware store space is kept interesting by weekly reinventions of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, first by Tania Bruguera and then by other Cuban artists from Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Art of Behaviour) in Havana, the alternative art school that she founded in 2003.
Selecting only ‘genuinely affecting’ art works is clearly a tall order with an exhibition of this scale. Bringing together a brilliant, provocative project by Czech artist Eva Kotátková – which meditates on childhood, old age and oral histories – alongside some silly recent neon-splattered paintings by Otto Muehl, the Tate show doesn’t quite live up to its billing as a ‘sculptural happening’. The product of extensive research, Daniel Bozhkov’s site-specific installation at the Bluecoat splices together recent explorations with memories of his first visit to Liverpool, more than 25 years ago, as a sailor from Communist Bulgaria (Music Not Good For Pigeons, 2010). A replica of Liverpool Football Club’s dressing rooms is encased in a multi-doored metal cage with screens showing a viral YouTube video of a sneezing panda bear and a history of Militant tendency (a group which, founded in Merseyside, waged war against Margaret Thatcher’s crippling privatization and poll tax in the ’80s).
With his warning that if we lose our capacity to be moved by images, we lose our humanity, it is easy to see why Alfredo Jaar has become the poster boy for ‘Touched’. His video installation We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know (2010) – which documents the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide (and western indifference to it) in 1994 – is certainly affecting, but far less powerful than his Marx Lounge (2010) at Renshaw Street. A plush, red-carpeted reading room with neat stacks of Marxist literature, the work can be read as both a critical take on the art world’s current consumption of pop-Marxism, as well as a simple gesture towards the accessibility of Marx’s intellectual legacy – literally putting it on the table. (Let’s hope not only middle-class art tourists get to enjoy it.) Downstairs, three psychotic films by Ryan Trecartin take ‘affect’ in a different direction, moving between genres and genders in a staccato, theatrical re-enactment and regurgitation of consumerism, celebrity and youth culture (Trill-olgy Comp, 2009). I hated the work. Then liked it. Left it. And got drawn back to it.
Not surprisingly, there are also flabby, less convincing works that play too superficially to a flakey sentimentality: Laura Belém’s sound installation in The Oratory, The Temple of a Thousand Bells (2010), fails to provoke anything more than a shrug; Sachiko Abe’s paper-cutting performance, Cut Papers (2010), at A Foundation is somehow affected, its seductive aesthetics obscuring the obsessive madness of the act. However, other works artfully courted sentimentality with a critical irony and complexity, such as Cristina Lucas’ Touch and Go (2010). The work is installed in the derelict (and inappropriately named) Europleasure building: the factory’s smashed-in windows spell out ‘Touch and Go’, while inside is the video documentation of the windows being stoned by unionist members angered by their, and Liverpool’s, uncertain future.
Is it possible to defend, or even be won over by the Biennial’s reclamation of emotionality? I can only think that it might be worthy, once pitched against the so-called compassionate conservativism currently on the rise, which reduces the role of government in the care of the underprivileged, displacing responsibility to private companies, charities and religious institutions. Perhaps then, there is something of real discernable value to be retrieved from ‘Touched’ and its attempts to locate a political and social dimension for affectivity.